Henry Vaughan is a member of that small band of 17th-century poets known as the metaphysicals, whose poetry combines wit, reason, and powerful emotion. In fact, Vaughan wrote in conscious imitation of George Herbert, and in the preface to his most famous collection of poems, Silex Scintillans (1650; enlarged edition 1655), he acknowledged both a poetic and a spiritual indebtedness to the author of The Temple. It is surprising therefore that those poems which show the most spiritual imagination are those in which the influence of his mentor is least apparent. Vaughan's work and that of his metaphysical cohort represent well the instillation of that which is spiritual and religious into art-art which itself serves to inspire and trigger the spiritual lives of its viewers and readers.
Henry Vaughan and his twin Thomas were born in Llansantffraed in the Welsh county of Breconshire, in 1621. He spent 2 years at Jesus College, Oxford, and 2 years at the Inns of Court in London before returning home at the start of the Civil War to work as secretary to the Chief Justice of the Brecon Circuit. By the age of 25, he was married and had published his first volume of secular verse. As a Royalist, however, he was subject to serious persecution and this, combined with illness and family misfortunes, led to a personal crisis and conversion experience. His best religious verse was written during this period. He wrote little after the age of 35, but began to practice as a doctor and kept up this occupation for the remainder of his long life. After the death of his first wife, he married her younger sister, and had four children from each marriage. He lived the last 50 years of his life in Breconshire, his later life being marked by a series of lawsuits, and was buried in Llansantffraed churchyard in 1695.
Vaughan's spiritual worldview was undoubtedly influenced by his twin brother, Thomas, himself a minor poet. The latter took Holy Orders after his time at Oxford, and held the living of Llansantffraed until he was evicted from it in 1650 as a Royalist. Thereafter, until his death in 1666 he devoted himself to science, medicine, and mystic philosophy, and became one of the most famous British alchemists of the 17th century.
Under Herbert's influence, Vaughan links spiritual understanding to simple beauty and commonplace affairs (as in "Peace"), and like him he describes the spiritual upheavals that he experiences on his journey through life ("Regeneration"). But he draws far more on the sights and sounds of nature than Herbert, as in contrasting human restlessness with the acceptance of the divine will by animals, birds, and flowers in "Man," and glorying ecstatically in nature's beauty in "The Morning Watch." Vaughan's faith also has more of a mystical dimension, and recurring themes in his poetry include the spiritual symbolism of light, love, life, and humans' relationship with the eternal and the unseen. The famous opening lines of "The World" convey something of this mystical symbolism: I saw eternity the other night Like a great ring of pure and endless light. In "The Retreate," Vaughan not only recalls the purity and the innocence of childhood, but seems to imply that childhood is a time when the soul is closer to God and nature-a thought that clearly foreshadows Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality."