Biography of Henry Vaughan

Henry Vaughan
Born17 April 1621
Newton St Bridget, Brecknockshire, Wales
Died23 April 1695(1695-04-23) (aged 73–74)
Scethrog House, Llansantffraed, Brecknockshire, Wales
Period17th century
Notable worksSilex Scintillans
SpouseCatherine Vaughan, Elizabeth Vaughan
RelativesThomas Vaughan

Henry Vaughan (17 April 1621 – 23 April 1695) was a Welsh metaphysical poet, author, translator and physician, who wrote in English. He is chiefly known for the religious poetry contained in Silex Scintillans, published in 1650, with a second part published in 1655. In 1646 his Poems, with the Tenth Satyre of Juvenal Englished was published, followed by a second volume in 1647. Meanwhile, he had been "converted" by reading the religious poet George Herbert and gave up "idle verse". The prose Mount of Olives: or, Solitary Devotions (1652) show the depth of his religious convictions and the authenticity of his poetic genius. Two more volumes of secular verse were published, ostensibly without his sanction; but it is his religious verse that has become acclaimed. He also translated short moral and religious works and two medical works in prose. At some time in the 1650s he began to practise medicine and continued to do so throughout his life.

Early life

Henry Vaughan was born at Newton by Usk in the parish of Llansantffraed (St. Bridget's), Brecknockshire, the eldest known child of Thomas Vaughan (c. 1586 – 1658) of Tretower, and Denise Jenkin (c. 1593) only daughter and heir of David and Gwenllian Morgan of Llansantffraed. Vaughan had a twin brother called Thomas Vaughan, a philosopher and alchemist.

Vaughan could claim kinship with two powerful Welsh families, one Catholic and one Protestant. His paternal grandfather, William, was the owner of Tretower Court. His paternal grandmother, Frances, was the natural daughter of Thomas Somerset, who spent some 24 years in the Tower of London for his adherence to Catholicism.:pp. 6–7 and 243–44 As she survived into Vaughan's boyhood, there may have been some direct Catholic influence upon his early nurturing. Vaughan shared ancestry with the Herbert family through the daughter of the famous warrior of Agincourt Dafydd ap Llywelyn, the "Davy Gam, esquire" of Shakespeare's Henry V. He is not known to have claimed kinship with George Herbert, but may have been aware of the connection.


Thomas Vaughan later remarked that "English is a Language the Author was not born to." Both boys were sent to school under Matthew Herbert, rector of Llangattock, to whom both wrote tributes. Since their interest was so clearly shared, the two brothers' intimate acquaintance with hermeticism may have dated from those years. Matthew Herbert may have reinforced a devotion to church and monarchy that the boys would have learned at home. Like several others among Vaughan's clerical acquaintances, he later proved uncompromising during the interregnum. He was imprisoned, his property was seized, and he narrowly avoided banishment.

The buttery books of Jesus College, Oxford show Thomas Vaughan being admitted in May 1638, and it has long been assumed that Henry went up at the same time, although Wood states, "He made his first entry into Jesus College in Michaelmas term 1638, aged 17 years. There is no clear record to establish Henry's residence or matriculation, but the assumption of his association with Oxford, supported by his inclusion in Athenae Oxoniensis, is reasonable enough." Recent research in the Jesus College archives, however, suggests that Henry did not enter Jesus College before 1641, unless he did so in 1639 without matriculating or paying an admission fee, and left before the record in the surviving buttery books resumes in December of that year. It has been suggested that Henry went to Oxford later, after Thomas, on the basis of a comparison of the poems each wrote for the 1651 edition of the Comedies, Tragi-Comedies, with Other Poems of William Cartwright, who had died in 1643. Thomas had clearly attended Cartwright's lectures, which were a great draw at the time: "When He did read, how did we flock to hear!" Henry, however, apparently had not, since he begins his poem "Upon the poems and plays of the ever-memorable Mr William Cartwright" with the words, "I did but see thee." This and the 1647 poem "Upon Mr Fletcher's plays" are both celebrations of Royalist volumes that implied "a reaffirmation of Cavalier ideals and a gesture of defiance against the society which had repudiated them."

As the Civil War developed, he was recalled home from London, initially to serve as a secretary to Sir Marmaduke Lloyd, a chief justice on the Brecknockshire circuit and staunch royalist. Vaughan is thought to have served briefly in the Royalist army and, upon his return, began to practise medicine.

By 1646, he had married Catherine Wise, with whom he reared a son, Thomas, and three daughters, Lucy, Frances, and Catherine. His courtship with his first wife is reflected in "Upon the Priory Grove", in his first volume of poetry, Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished (1646). After his first wife's death, he married her sister, Elizabeth, probably in 1655.

Secular works

Vaughan took his literary inspiration from his native environment and chose the descriptive name "Silurist", derived from his homage to the Silures, a Celtic tribe of pre-Roman south Wales that strongly resisted the Romans. This name is a reflection of the deep love Vaughan felt for the Welsh mountains of his home in what is now part of the Brecon Beacons National Park and the River Usk valley, where he spent most of his early life and professional life.

By 1647 Henry Vaughan, with his wife and children, had chosen life in the country. This is the setting in which Vaughan wrote Olor Iscanus (The Swan of Usk). However, the collection was not published until 1651, over three years after it was written. This lag is believed to reflect a crisis in Vaughan's life. During those years, his grandfather William Vaughan died and he was evicted from his living in Llansantffraed. Vaughan later decried the publication, having "long ago condemned these poems to obscurity."

Olor Iscanus is filled with odd words and similes that beg for attention despite its dark and morbid cognitive appeal. The work is founded on crises felt in Vaughan's homeland, Brecknockshire. During the Civil War there was never a major battle fought on the ground of Brecknockshire, but the effects of the war were deeply felt by Vaughan and his community. The Puritan Parliament visited misfortune, ejecting many of their foes, the Anglicans and Royalists. This meant that Vaughan also lost his home at that time.:p40

There is a distinct difference between the atmosphere Vaughan attempts to convey in this work and in his most famous work, Silex Scintillans. Olor Iscanus is a direct representation of a specific period in Vaughan's life, which emphasises other secular writers and provides allusions to debt and happy living. A fervent topic of Vaughan throughout these poems is the Civil War and reveals Vaughan's somewhat paradoxical thinking that in the end does not indicate whether he participated or not. Vaughan states his complete satisfaction at being clean of "innocent blood", but also provides what seem to be eyewitness accounts of battles and his own "soldiery". Although Vaughan is thought to have been a royalist, these poems express contempt for all current authority and a lack of zeal for the royalist cause.: s9, p. 21 His poems generally reflect a sense of severe decline, which may mean that Vaughan lamented the effects of the war on the monarchy and society. His short poem "The Timber", ostensibly about a dead tree, concludes

.mw-parser-output .templatequote{overflow:hidden;margin:1em 0;padding:0 40px}.mw-parser-output .templatequote .templatequotecite{line-height:1.5em;text-align:left;padding-left:1.6em;margin-top:0}thy strange resentment after death
Means only those who broke – in life – thy peace.

Olor Iscanus includes translations from the Latin of Ovid, Boethius, and the Polish poet Casimir Sarbiewski.

Conversion and sacred poetry

It was not until the writing of Silex Scintillans that Vaughan received significant acclaim. The period shortly preceding the publication of the first volume of this work (1650) marked an important period of his life. Certain indications in the first volume and explicit statements in the preface to the second volume (1655) suggest that Vaughan suffered a prolonged sickness that inflicted much pain. Vaughan interprets this experience to be an encounter with death that alerted him to a "misspent youth". Vaughan believed he had been spared to make amends and start a new course not only in his life but in the literature he would produce. He described his previous work as foul and a contribution to "corrupt literature". Perhaps the most notable mark of Vaughan's conversion is how much it is credited to George Herbert. Vaughan claims he is the least of Herbert's many "pious converts". It was during this period of Vaughan's life, around 1650, that he adopted the saying "moriendo, revixi" – "by dying, I gain new life".:p132

The first volume of Silex Scintillans was followed by The Mount of Olives, or Solitary Devotions (1652), a prose book of devotions. It provides prayers for different stages of the day, for prayer in church, and for other purposes. It is written as a "companion volume" to the Book of Common Prayer, to which it alludes frequently, though it had been outlawed under the Commonwealth. The work was also influenced by Lancelot Andrewes's Preces Privatae (1615) and John Cosin's Collection of Private Devotions (1627). Flores Solitudinis (1654) contains translations from the Latin of two works by the Spanish Jesuit Juan Eusebio Nieremberg, one by a 5th-century Bishop of Lyon, Eucherius, and by Paulinus of Nola, of whom Vaughan wrote a prose life.

Vaughan practised medicine, perhaps as early as the 1640s, and attached to the second volume of Silex Scintillans (1655) a translation of Henry Nollius's Hermetical Physick. He went on to produce a translation of Nollius's The Chymists Key in 1657.

Poetic influences

Vaughan was greatly indebted to George Herbert, who provided a model for Vaughan's newly founded spiritual life and literary career, in which he displayed "spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling":p2 derived from Herbert.

Archbishop Trench took the view, "As a divine Vaughan may be inferior [to Herbert], but as a poet he is certainly superior.":p2 Critics praise Vaughan's use of literary elements. Vaughan's use of monosyllables and long-drawn alliterations, and his ability to compel the reader place him as "more than the equal of George Herbert". Yet others say the two are not even comparable, because Herbert is in fact the Master. While these commentators admit that Henry Vaughan's use of words can be superior to Herbert's, they believe his poetry is, in fact, worse. Herbert's profundity as well as consistency are said to be the key to his superiority.:p4

Certainly Vaughan would have never written the way he did without Herbert's direction. The explicit spiritual influence here:p2 is undeniable, and is all but proclaimed in the preface to Silex Scintillans. The prose of Vaughan exemplifies this as well. For instance, The Temple, by Herbert, is often seen as the inspiration and model on which Vaughan created his work. Silex Scintillans is most often classed with this collection of Herbert's. Silex Scintillans borrows the same themes, experience, and beliefs as The Temple. Herbert's influence is evident both in the shape and spirituality of Vaughan's poetry. For example, the opening to Vaughan's poem 'Unprofitableness':

How rich, O Lord! How fresh thy visits are!

is reminiscent of Herbert's 'The Flower':

How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean

Are thy returns! ev'n as the flowers in spring

Another work of Vaughan's that clearly parallels George Herbert is Mount of Olives, e. g., the passage, "Let sensual natures judge as they please, but for my part, I shall hold it no paradoxe to affirme, there are no pleasures in the world. Some coloured griefes of blushing woes there are, which look as clear as if they were true complexions; but it is very sad and tyred truth, that they are but painted." This echoes Herbert's Rose::p2

In this world of sugar's lies,

And to use a larger measure

Than my strict yet welcome size.

First, there is no pleasure here:

Coloure'd griefs indeed there are,

Blushing woes that look as clear,

As if they could beauty spare.

Critics have complained that Vaughan is enslaved to Herbert's works, using similar "little tricks" such as abrupt introductions and whimsical titles as a framework for his work, and "failing to learn" from Herbert. Vaughan carried an inability to know his limits and focused more on the intensity of the poem, meanwhile losing the attention of his audience.:pp5-6

However, Alexander Grosart denies that Henry Vaughan was solely an imitator of Herbert.:p3 There are moments in when the reader can identify Vaughan's true self, rather than an imitation of Herbert. In such passages Vaughan is seen to demonstrate naturalness, immediacy and ability to relate the concrete through poetry.:p63 In some instances, Vaughan derives observations from Herbert's language that are distinctly his own. It is as if Vaughan takes proprietorship of some of Herbert's work, yet makes it completely unique to himself.:p66 Vaughan takes another step away from Herbert in his manner of presenting his poetry. Herbert in The Temple, which is most often the source of comparison between the two writers, lays down explicit instructions on its reading. This contrasts with the attitude of Vaughan, who saw the experience of reading as the best guide to his meanings and promoted no special reading method.:p140

In these times he shows himself different from any other poet. Much of his distinction derives from an apparent lack of sympathy with the world around him. His aloof appeal to his surroundings detaches him and encourages his love of nature and mysticism, which in turn influenced other later poets, Wordsworth among others. Vaughan's mind thinks in terms of a physical and spiritual world and the obscure relation between the two.:p132 Vaughan's mind often moved to original, unfamiliar and remote places, and this is reflected in his poetry. He was loyal to the themes of the Anglican Church and religious festivals, but found his true voice in the more mystical themes of eternity, communion with the dead, nature, and childhood. He was a "poet of revelation" who uses the Bible, Nature and his own experience to illustrate his vision of eternity. This gives Vaughan's poetry a particularly modern sound.

Alliteration, conspicuous in Welsh poetry, is more extensively used by Vaughan than by most of his contemporaries writing English verse, noticeably in the opening to "The Water-fall".

Vaughan drew on personal loss in two well-known poems: "The World" and "They Are All Gone into the World of Light". Another poem, "The Retreat", combines the theme of loss with the corruption of childhood, which is yet another consistent theme of Vaughan's. Vaughan's new-found personal voice and persona are seen as a result of the death of a younger brother.

This is an example of an especially beautiful fragment of one of his poems entitled 'The World':

I saw Eternity the other night,

Like a great ring of pure and endless light,

All calm, as it was bright,

And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years

Driv'n by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov'd; in which the world

And all her train were hurl'd.

Death and legacy

As with many great writers and poets,[citation needed] Henry Vaughan was acclaimed less in his lifetime than after his death, which came on 23 April 1695, aged 74. He is buried in the churchyard of St Bride's, Llansantffraed, Powys, where he had spent most of his life.

Vaughan is recognised as an "example of a poet who can write both graceful and effective prose" and influenced the work of poets such as Wordsworth, Tennyson and Siegfried Sassoon. The American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick also named Vaughan as a key influence.

Musical settings

Several poems by Vaughan from Silex Scintillans have been set to music, including:

  • "The Evening-Watch" was used in "The Evening-Watch: Dialogue between Body and Soul" by Gustav Holst (1924).
  • The Eucharistic poem "Welcome, sweet and sacred feast" was set by Gerald Finzi as the anthem Welcome, sweet and sacred feast, from Three anthems, Op. 27 (1953).
  • Peace was set as the first of Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell (1916–18), "My soul, there is a country".
  • Several poems were set by Daniel Jones (composer) in his cantata The Country Beyond the Stars.


  • Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished (1646)
  • Olor Iscanus (1647)
  • Silex Scintillans (1650 and 1655)
  • Mount of Olives, or Solitary Devotions (1652)
  • Flores Solitudinis (1654)
  • Hermetical Physics (1655), translated from the Latin of Henry Nollius
  • The Chymists Key (1657), translated from the Latin of Henry Nollius
  • Several translations from the Latin contributed to Thomas Powell's Humane Industry (1661)
  • Thalia Rediviva (1678), a joint collection of poetry with his brother Thomas Vaughan, after Thomas's death

Write your comment about Henry Vaughan

Poem of the day

Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey Poem
 by Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey

They that eat the uncrushed grape
Walk with steady heels:
Lo, now, how they stare and gape
Where the poet reels!
He has drunk the sheer divine
Concentration of the vine.


Read complete poem

Popular Poets