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  His defective powers of self-criticism His conversion  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

II. The Sacred Poets.

§ 10. Henry Vaughan’s secular poetry.


Before the end of the next year (1647), Vaughan, apparently, had settled down to the life of the country, and wrote from “Newton by Usk” a dedication to Olor Iscanus. The book, however, did not appear till 1651, and, even then, only under another’s auspices, the author having “long ago condemned these poems to obscurity.” The reason for this postponement is the crisis in Vaughan’s life, which will be more fitly described in connection with the issue of Silex. The poem which gave its name to Olor Iscanus sings the praise of the Usk. It has reminiscences of Browne’s Pastorals. Denham’s Cooper’s Hill had already appeared, but its most famous lines on the Thames were not inserted till after Vaughan’s lines were written. The most remarkable, if, also, the strangest, poem in the collection is the Donne-like Charnel House. Its forcible epithets—“shoreless thoughts, vast tenter’d hope”—and its array of odd words and similes compel attention in spite of its morbid cast of thought. There are not any love poems, but many memorials of friendship, which had ever a large place in Vaughan’s thoughts. The bulk of the work clearly belongs to the period before Silex was written, and reflects the atmosphere of the 1646 volume, with its allusions to debts and gay living, and its complimentary verses upon secular writers, D’Avenant, John Fletcher, “the ever-memorable Mr. William Cartwright” and “the matchless Orinda.” The poems about his friends who took part in the civil war suggest, but do not clearly settle, the question whether the poet himself took any active part. There are passages where he takes satisfaction in the thought that his hands are clean of “innocent blood.” On the other hand, he alludes to a time “when this juggling fate of soldiery first seiz’d me,” and also seems to write as an eyewitness of the battle of Rowton heath. 9  There are more signs of his hatred of existing authority than of any active enthusiasm for the royal cause, except that the poem to Thomas Powell, his “loyal fellow-prisoner,” and a prayer in adversity, in The Mount of Olives, seem to imply that, then or later, he suffered in property and person. The poem that affords the greatest chronological difficulty is called “To his retired friend, an Invitation to Brecknock.” The words, “since Charles, his reign,” seem to demand a date after the king’s execution, but it is difficult to reconcile its flippant, reckless tone with the consistently serious temper of Silex, which was published in 1650. Perhaps the poet counted Charles’s reign as over with the crushing defeat of 1645, and so the poem may be contemporary with others of its kind and not with the poems of Silex. One of the few poems which are certainly late, the epitaph on the little lady Elizabeth, who died of grief at Carisbrooke in September, 1650, is a worthy companion of Vaughan’s best work.   22

Note 9. The tempting solution, that he was present as a surgeon, must be set aside, because his medical studies were probably not begun till later. [ back ]

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  His defective powers of self-criticism His conversion  
 
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