Henry Vaughan – disciple of George Herbert


(by Henry Vaughan)


My soul, there is a country

   Far beyond the stars,

Where stands a winged sentry

   All skilful in the wars:

There, above noise and danger,

   Sweet Peace sits crown’d with smiles,

And One born in a manger

   Commands the beauteous files.

He is thy gracious Friend,

   And—O my soul, awake!—

Did in pure love descend

   To die here for thy sake.

If thou canst get but thither,

   There grows the flower of Peace,

The Rose that cannot wither,

   Thy fortress, and thy ease.

Leave then thy foolish ranges;

   For none can thee secure

But One who never changes—

   Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

When Herbert’s poems were printed after his death they immediately became very popular and influenced a whole generation of poets. Perhaps the best of these was Henry Vaughan who lived in the Brecon area.

Vaughan was a young man during the Civil War when he fought on the royalist side. It was a very distressing time for him and it seemed to initiate some kind of personal crisis. Herbert’s poems helped him get through these difficulties and develop a robust spirituality. He wrote a number of poems on similar themes to Herbert, bringing his particular sensibility and experiences to them, as well as many others expressing his own intense faith.

Herbert, for all his deep feeling, has something detached, ironic and controlled about his writing. Vaughan, on the other hand, is more mystical, loquacious and impassioned (this poem is very short by his standards!). Herbert often draws on homely metaphors and the ordered life of a Jacobean household, but Vaughan speaks more of the natural world and heavenly realities. Perhaps there is something more Celtic and Welsh about Vaughan’s writing or perhaps the roots of his style are to be found in the trauma of war and a subsequent need for transcendence.

Certainly the influence of the Civil War can be noticed in this poem about peace, where Vaughan finds relief from warfare and the zealous Puritanism of the Commonwealth in a transcendent vision of heavenly peace.

Poetry seemed to be the way Henry Vaughan came to terms with the trauma of the Civil War, after publishing his collection of spiritual verse Silex Scintillans and a sequel volume he became a doctor and seems to more or less have stopped writing poetry. While Vaughan is well recognized in Breconshire he is much less well-known elsewhere, although still a recognized master of spiritual verse. This poem, for instance, is best known in a setting by Hubert Parry the composer of the tune to Jerusalem.

  • How do I find peace in the midst of life’s traumas and difficulties?
  • Do I find the transcendent vision of Henry Vaughan helpful?
  • Or is the sighing and groaning of George Herbert more relevant for me?
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