Table of contents
|Peter W. Thomas||The Language of Light: Henry Vaughan and the Puritans||9|
|Ruth Bidgood||Christ of the Trades||30|
|David Hart||Approaching again||31|
|Kim Taplin||Found in a Rucksack: Found on a Beach in Orkney||38|
|Michael Srigley||Ritual Entries: Some Approaches to Henry Vaughan’s ‘Silex Scintillans’||43|
|Seamus Heaney||The Little Canticles of Asturias||60|
|Hilary Llewellyn-Williams||I Ching Poems||64|
|Anne Cluysenaar||‘as a wind or an echo rebounds’||76|
|Richard Birt||‘Sweet infancy!’ The Affinities between the Vaughans and Thomas Traherne||80|
|Les Murray||The Lich and the Blood||91|
|Janet Dube||Samhain to lmbolc||93|
|Roland Mathias||The Making of a Royalist||107|
|Peter Gruffydd||Getting By||121|
|Fiona Owen||That last week||129|
|Graham Hartill & Fu-Sheng Wu||To Cao Biao, The Prince of Baima||131|
|Jean Earle||The Ritual Meals||135|
|Belinda Humfrey||Vaughan and Vegetables||137|
|John Barnie||That’s How I See It Anyway||150|
|On the Usk||151|
|Marianne Jones||The Morning of our Eternal Good-bye||153|
|Nigel Jenkins||Poem for Andie||158|
|John Jones||Predator One. The Syrup Tin||159|
|Predator Two. Verbalising Silence||160|
|Glyn Pursglove||‘Number Makes a Schism’: Number and Unity in Vaughan||163|
|Bruce James||The Lip Curved Out and Down||182|
( Drawings by Susan Milne appear on the cover and on pages 42, 79, 106, 136 and 162. The editors wish to thank the Brecknock Museum for permission to reproduce ‘Catsback’ on p. 79. )
The Language of Light: Henry Vaughan and the Puritans
BY PETER W. THOMAS
I: A DAZZLING DARKNESS
How could Jonathan Post, confronted with lines like
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light
All calm, as it was bright
dub Henry Vaughan “a poet of darkness”? (1) The poet’s pages are awash with
light – from the stone in ‘Regeneration’ , in Silex Scintillans I, that “quick as
light/Danced through the flood”, (R, p. 149) to the opening of the last poem in
0 the new world’s new, quickening Sun!
Ever the same and never done!
The seers of whose sacred light
Shall all be dressed in shining white.
(‘L’Envoy’, R, p. 311)
And see what shinings lie between! ‘Resurrection and Immortality’, looking
forward to “that mighty, and eternal light”, pictures the “spruce bride, … I …
clothed with shining light/All pure, and bright …” (R, pp.1 52-3). ‘Man’s Fall
[l] Henry Vaughan: the Unfolding Vision, Princeton University Press, 1982, p. 199. The lines are
from ‘The World (I)’ in Henry Vaughan. The Complete Poems, ed. Alan Rudrum, Penguin Classics,
1956 (1976), p. 227. Further Vaughan verse quotations are from this edition, referenced R in the text.
and Recovery’ recalls “A train of lights, which in those sun-shine days/Were
my sure guides …” (R, p. 164).’ The Retreat’ (R, pp. 172-3) recollects “those
early days! when I shined in my Angel-infancy”. And so the images (as with “a
white celestial thought” and “Bright shoots of everlastingness” from that same
poem) proliferate and cluster. “The stars shine in their watches”, prompting
an eager prayer in ‘Midnight’:
Come then, my god!
Shine on this blood,
. . . . . . . .
0 what bright quickness,
And celestial flows
Will follow after
On that water
When thy spirit blows!
(R, p. 175)
“God’s saints are shining lights” in ‘Joy of my Life’: “They are that City’s
shining spires/We travel to” (R, p. 177). Pious souls, like stars, “are above,/And
shine” (‘The Morning Watch’, R, p. 179). “And when I cannot see, yet do you
shine/And beat about your endless line” (‘The Constellation’, R, p. 230).
Sometimes, however, the shining is not, like these, a past or a future prospect.
There are moments, as in ‘Cheerfulness’, when memory and expectation meet
in a present impulse of illumination: “I shine, and move/Like those above” (R,
p. 184). Or as in ‘Mount of Olives(Il)’ (R, pp. 238-9) when recapitulation –
When first I saw true beauty, and thy joys
Active as light, and calm without all noise
Shined on my soul …
becomes renewal: “I shine and shelter underneath thy wing”. And that shining
is both a spiritual and poetic state – or so ‘Christ’s Nativity’ suggests:
I would I were some bird, or star,
Fluttering in woods, or lifted far
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then either star, or bird, should be
Shining, or singing still to thee.
So things terrestrial and celestial (“bird, or star … star, or bird”) are drawn
together in the poet’s imagination to express the intense longing that he, like
that creation, might shining sing, and singing shine. For to shine thus is to reflect
that light which (as the poem’s opening image, “The Sun doth shake/ Light from
his locks” expresses it) God sheds. So to shine and sing is to be, quintessentially,
a Christian poet. Maybe, however, another nuance lurks in that word “shine”,
beyond the root meanings of shedding and reflecting radiance: Vaughan, far
from turning his back self-effacingly on literary ambition, may have hoped,
now more than ever, to be conspicuous. And however obliquely, the closing
prayer (‘Begging(!)’, R, p.2 48) of Silex Scintillans I in 1650- “Let no night put
out this Sun” – perhaps articulates not only a universal Christian faith and,
more specifically, Vaughan’s defiant Anglicanism, but also the hope that his
volume might in every sense shine.
As though to enforce that image, we are greeted in 1655 in the first four or
five poems of Silex Scintillans II with a great burst of light. No less revealing,
however, is the Silex ‘Dedication’ (R, pp. 145-6). For its composition straddles
two dates: in 1650 only the first stanza appeared, to which two more were
added for the 1655 publication. These additions were obviously written in the
knowledge (looking back) of what he had accomplished in Silex Scintillans I.
The poet is relieved – “Dear Lord, ’tis finished!” – and grateful:
From thee it shined, …
Nor, can I say, this is mine
For, dearest Jesus, ’tis all thine.
And whereas stanza one offers the book as “thy death’s fruits”, and is altogether
apprehensive, dark, broken, stormy, it gives way in t wo and three to a shining.
The tone becomes intimate, affectionate, confident, ebullient almost. No longer
a fearful tenant paying his rent, Vaughan is a writer – “he/That copied it” –
and a poet who has put behind him “every published vanity”. This is both a
gesture of self-effacement and a claim to attention, bestowing moral/spiritual
value on the poems that follow. A cynical observer might call it “backing into
the limelight”. But the reformed poet, while asserting his book’s worth, insists
that its virtues are reflections – “dearest Jesus, ’tis all thine”. So, however
genuinely humble and contrite he is, Henry Vaughan can present Silex
Scintillans as a “candle shining on some heads” – a beacon of light in a dark
world. It is that confidence, that sense of being a “sharer in [Christ’s] victory”
that launches the poet in Silex II into ‘Ascension Day’ (R, pp.2 43-4):
I soar and rise
Up to the skies,
Leaving the world their day,
And in my £light,
For the true light
Go seeking all the way.
“Seeking”, of course, was much in vogue among separatists when Vaughan
wrote that; but while engaging with an impulse natural to Christians in the
wilderness (of whom in the 1650’s he was emphatically one}, he pointedly
locates “the true light” in the festivals (and doctrines) of the uprooted Anglican
Church. This tradition, not some wholly spontaneous, inward motion of the
spirit, informs his proclamation “The day star smiles, and light . . ./Now
shines in all the chambers of the east”. This, not some unverifiable rapture,
authorises his claim on this day to “walk the fields of Bethany which shine”. It
underwrites his ‘Ascension Hymn’ (R, pp. 245-6) which follows:
Man of old
Within the line
Of Eden could
Like the sun shine
All naked, innocent and bright,
And intimate with Heaven, as light;
Then comes he!
Whose mighty light
Made his clothes be
Like Heaven, all bright.
This amounts, however, to something more than mere routine rehearsal: for
the ‘Hymn’ closes on one of the most miraculous images of transformation in
all Vaughan. Seven words capture the instant when substance becomes essence.
We see the “clay ascend more quick than light.” It is a moment of remarkable
intuition and – witness the play on “quick” – of inspired verbal dexterity that
instantaneously charge the language. Suddenly, (in that fleeting fusion which is
like one of those unpredictable, inexplicable, mysterious metamorphoses that
alchemists – amazed – observed) we know that in our universe natural and
The elegiac ‘They are all gone into the world of light!’ (R, pp. 246-7) immediately
following, is not bereft of light but shaded by a sense of distance from
the full effulgence: “I see them walking in an air of glory/Whose light doth
trample on my days”. Illumination, now muted,
… glows and glitters in my cloudy breast
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is dressed,
After the sun’s remove.
Now it is death that seems “beauteous . . ./Shining nowhere, but in the dark”.
Those, like Vaughan, left behind, can only “into glory peep”; while beyond the
tomb the once captive soul can “shine through all the sphere.” ‘White Sunday’
(R, pp. 247-9) similarly reminds the reader in the natural world that if with us
night follows day, the light of Whitsun “shines to eternity”. The poet will never
To leave those skies,
That glass of souls and spirits, where well dressed
They shine in white (like stars) and rest.
(‘The Proffer’, R, p. 250)
And even in the natural world, Vaughan typically insists in ‘Cock Crowing’,
(R, pp. 251-2), God’s creatures manifest the tendency towards the light:
Their little grain expelling night
So shines and sings, as if it knew
The path unto the house of light.
“But brush.me”, he prays, “with thy light, that I / May shine unto a perfect day,
/And warm me at thy glorious Eye!” Or jump to ‘Quickness’ (R, pp. 307-8)
Life is a fixed, discerning light,
A knowing joy;
No chance, or fit: but ever bright,
‘Tis such a blissful thing, that still
And shine and smile …
There seems no end to this string of images.
Some “toilsome” counting, however (after the “toilsome mole” in ‘Quickness’),
yields a more precise and interesting result. Setting aside, for the moment, the
word “light” itself and associated words like “bright”, “beames”, “gleam”,
“glimmer”, “glitter”, and “sparkle”, the word “shine” occurs in one form or
another (“shined”, “shining” and so forth) some 27 times in Silex l’s 97 pages,
and 40 times in Silex ll’s 70 pages. Or, to put it another way, it figures 27 times
in 3074 lines and 40 times in 2173 lines, respectively. Statistics are not everything,
and reading poetry is not (unless you are far-gone in numerology) an essentially
mathematical experience. But that distribution is striking – not least because
it seems to run counter to Stevie Davies’ observation that Silex II is more sombre
than Silex 1.2 In broad terms, moreover, the figures sit quite comfortably with
E.C.Pettet’s conclusion that Vaughan’s is a “light-obsessed imagination”.’
What price, then, Jonathan Post’s contrary definition of Vaughan as a “poet
of darkness”? The seeming discrepancy demands resolution.
Let me summon that opening image once more:
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light
All calm, as it was bright
(‘The World (I)’, R, p. 227)
This time we may remark not just that the light belongs, by right of rhyme, to
the night, but also that it does not endure in what follows. In the twinkling of
an eye we descend headlong, “hurled”, into Time. It is the sphere of doting
lovers and darksome statesmen; a place of perjurers, of blood and tears; the
lair of the fearful miser on his heap of rust; a den of thieves and frantic greed,
of destructive self-indulgence by rich and poor alike. The descent is distressing
and, when not overlooked, has been held against the poet. No rapt visionary
above it all, no luminous seer, no echt-Celtic mystic should talk like this. If for
a moment we seemed to hear a poet singing – to borrow Ben Jonson’s phrase
– high and aloof, we are rapidly disillusioned.
Nor does the voice exactly chime with Canon Allchin’s reflection on
Vaughan’s “choice of a life of retirement in the country”;’ or with Stevie
 Henry Vaughan, Bridgend, 1995, p. 159; cf. Post, op. cit., p. 199, likewise observing that in
Silex II Vaughan “becomes a p oet of the invading darkness”.
 Of Paradise and Light. A Study of Vaughan’s “‘Silex Scintillans”, Cambridge, 1960, p. 157.
 ‘As if Existence Itself were Heavenliness’, Scintilla 2, Cardiff, 1998, p. 40.
Davies’ reminder that in ‘To the River !sea’ in Olor lscanus Vaughan “praises
a backwater and hopes to keep it so”. Coming home from the wars (in defeat
and withdrawal from the world of Oxford and London ambitions, duly
banished, like all Cavaliers, from the city, and forced back, like it or not, into
the provinces) he rejoiced (R, p. 72) in “The land redeemed from all disorders”.
That mood could not last long. He soon found, as Stevie Davies goes on, that
the river flowed “into even deeper areas of churning uncertainry”.5 And it was
precisely his painful honesty in confronting that turmoil (within and without)
that made Henry Vaughan a true poet.
Yet Vaughan’s biographer, F. E. Hutchinson,’ rather felt that he should have
kept his hands clean and his eyes heavenwards. Those descents, sudden shifts
and oscillations his poetry is full of – that broken style he regarded as a sign
of its truthfulness – seemed to Hutchinson a blemish. As for his disconcerting
anger, the kind of outburst we face in stanza four of ‘The World (I)’,
0 fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots, and caves, and hate the day
Because it shows the way,
(R, p. 248)
he should have known better, kept himself more in hand. The truth, however,
is that in Vaughan, as in Milton, a sharp, indignant, critical-satiric edge is
always at the ready. And it is a strength, not a distraction, for it guards his
poetry against evaporating into self-deceiving raptures. It constitutes a centre
of resistance to the kind of unmediated, self-indulgent, often affected rhapsodic
effusions all too prevalent in mid-century. “I envy not”, he wrote in The Mount
of Olives, “their frequent Extasies, and raptures to the third Heaven. I only
wish them real”.7 ‘The World’ does not fail, fall off, lose pitch, direction and
control. Rather it rings uncomfortably true – and not just to the way the poet
felt, but also to the way the world was, and is for us “in the flesh”, as he put it.
The difficulty for the poet lay, as Vaughan observed, in producing a voice tuned
to the catastrophe, collisions, discords, disjunctions and disharmonies of the
times. This has been the problem, writ large, of twentieth century poetry; and
It brings Vaughan closer to us. We ought to be able to understand and value
 Op. cit., p. 74.
 Henry Vaughan: A Life and Interpretation, Oxford, 1971 (1947).
 The Woms of Henry Vaughan, ed. L. C. Martin, 2nd. ed., Oxford, 1957 (1914), p. 140. Further
Vaughan prose quotations are from this edition, referenced M in the text.
those honest “failures” when his feelings of anger, frustration, doubt and
despair, of alienation and isolation intervene to change the course and outcome
of a poem. At the same time we need to listen with him for those other
redeeming intimations, interjections from nature and Scripture. So in ‘The
World (I)’ in the midst of denouncing (he uses the word “discuss”!) the
“madness” of those who “prefer dark night/Before true light” he hears a whispering
This ring the bride-groom did for none provide
But for his bride.
That puts the complaining poet (with his righteous anger and contempt) in
his place, even as it circles back to the poem’s opening. So the “endless light”
is not abandoned, blotted out. Indeed, the poem insists that “some, who all this
while did weep and sing/And sing, and weep, soared up into the Ring”; but
equally it concludes (against the grain of much excited millenarianism of the
time) that there can be no basking in that glory here and now, in “this dead and
dark abode”. The message is uncompromising: you may glimpse “Eternity”, but
you cannot, in the world, be in it; and you certainly cannot enter into it save
through the good offices of His Church.
Casting an eye back over all those shinings, we see time and again this kind
of undercutting, qualification, or careful placing. Here the shining belongs
explicitly to the resurrected body. There it is feeble or intermittent, and con·
trasted with “that mighty, and eternal light/Where no rude shade, or night!
Shall dare approach us”. (‘Resurrection and Immortality’, R, p. 153). Or there
again it is no more than “Weak beams, and fires flashed to my sight/Like a
young east, or moon-shine night”; and then “That little light I had was gone”
(‘Vanity of Spirit’, R, p. 172). You begin to see what Jonathan Post means.
Silex is not a volume flooded with light, but what it calls itself – a book of
scintillations! It is, by definition, at ‘Midnight'(R, pp. 174-5) that the scintil·
lacing “stars shine in their watches”. Vaughan wishes that his soul might shine
in this dark world with like ardour:
W hat emanations,
And bright stirs are there?
But on the ground where he stands all remains “slow motions”; and he can
only hope God may “Shine on this blood.” He can rehearse a shining from the
past – from his own “Angel-infancy” (‘The Retreat’, R, pp. 172-3) or from the
primitive Church and its Saints, or from before the Fall. Or he can envisage (as
in ‘Ascension-Hymn’, R, pp. 245-6) that shining to come (never to be dimmed)
when Christ comes once more – maybe very soon – this time in glory. In
‘L’Envoy’ (R, pp. 311-3), anticipating the end, (his own death and the finale of
the latter days) Vaughan anticipates the moment when Christ will
Thy own bright self over each head,
Till all becomes thy cloudless glass,
Transparent as the purest day
And without blemish or decay.
He may have flirted with the Behmenist idea (in the second stanza of ‘Ascension
Hymn’) that “some” might “Walk to the sky” before death: the notion fell into
place in that piece. But that arcanum is the exception that proves the rule; and
he swiftly returns to the fact that fallen man in the flesh can only be resurrected
by Christ’s “all subduing might” at the Second Coming. Meanwhile (‘L’Envoy’,
R, p. 312) the faithful must “gladly sit/Till all be ready … ”
It could be any day now! By then of course (late 1654) the “tempo of
history”, as Post puts it, had stepped up. “A clear recognition” was abroad “of
worldly time as winding down with startling speed”.8 In Silex II Judgement
Day was no longer, as in Silex I, to be contemplated from afar. The uprooting
of Church and State from 1649 onwards, and the political and religious
wilderness of the early 1650’s looked increasingly like that prophesied desolation
before renovation that ardent millenarianism preached. So, to some, the
darker the better! In Silex II the rising expectation and the deepening dark are
palpable. In the “last and lewdest age” (‘White Sunday’, R, p. 248) Henry
Vaughan, “always a poet:·of darkness”, becomes “a poet of invading darkness” .9
That seems a strange thing to say of the second phase of Silex which,
statistically, shines more than ever bright. But the way the sequence actually
unfolds on the page confirms the description. After the opening blaze of
‘Ascension Day’ and ‘Ascension Hymn’, followed by ‘They are all gone’ and
“W hite Sunday”, ‘The Proffer’ (R, pp. 249-50) – with its “black parasites”, its
“poisonous, subtle fowls!/The flies of hell”, its defiant “I’ll not stuff my story/
With your Commonwealth and glory”, and the parting advice “Spit out their
phlegm” – sharply lowers the tone. ‘Cock Crowing’ (R, pp. 251-2) once more
 Op. cit., p. 198.
 Ibid., p. 199.
conjures up the light – this time shining through the natural world as the poet
greets the dawn. Vaughan believed that the night “suppled” (‘Mount of Olives’,
M, p. 143) the hardness we contract through the day: for him it was the
“deepest and smoothest current of time”, and precious for the chance it gives
us to observe and meditate the stars – those “beautiful luminaries of the night”
(Ibid., p. 187), and so discern the whole ebb and flow of the cosmos. And the
times when dark and light meet (at dusk and at dawn) were for him moments
of marvellous mystery. But the dawn was his favourite time. It was when he
habitually walked up the slope above Newton Farm to catch the new day, and
would not have been surprised, one fine and everlasting morning, to see Christ
blazing up over the horizon:
Thou’lt find me dressed and on my way,
Watching the break of thy great day.
That, of course, comes from ‘The Dawning’ (R, p. 211) in Silex I. In Silex II (the
later part of which was written when the poet thought he would die before the
Second Coming anyhow) there is less getting up with the sun, and more
imagery of evening than before. So after ‘Cock Crowing’ the shining rapidly
becomes more intermittent, clouded, fleeting.
‘T he Palm Tree’, ‘The Garland’, ‘Love-Sick’, ‘Trinity Sunday’, and ‘Psalm 104’
(R, pp. 253-60) variously bring us down to earth, insisting on terrestrial nature.
Not that the natural world is to be despised: in ‘The Bird’ (R, pp. 260-1) “hills
and valleys into singing break”, and there is brightness. But the very next poem,
‘Timber’ (R, pp. 261-3) abruptly presents a dead tree, where birds once lived,
leafless now; and desolation is all around,
…… all senseless, cold and dark;
Where not so much as dreams of light may shine,
Nor any thought of greenness, leaf or bark.
(R, p. 262)
Our way now lies “through deserts and wild woods”; only death offers “a clear
spring”. To be detained on earth, “dead unto the world”, is hateful – nothing
but tears and grief. And though ‘Palm Sunday’ (R, pp. 266-7) momentarily lifts
the mood – “Angels shine and sing/In a bright ring” – it is overtaken by ‘Jesus
Weeping (I)’, a bleak, almost bitter reflection on the state of the nation in an
“unkind”, ungrateful time. So the sequence progressively enters a darker mode
and world. Yet as it does so a paradox begins to coalesce in images of “A grid
that shall outshine all joys” and “A grief so brightl’Twill make the land of
darkness light”. (‘Jesus Weeping (I)’, R, p. 270). When ‘The Rainbow’ (R, pp.
275-6) shines “darkness looks white and fair”; and it becomes both a bright
pledge of peace and a dark reminder of Judgement Day. It is in ‘The Night’
(R, pp. 289-90), however, that Vaughan finally resolves the conundrum posed by
his experience of a world where daytime darkens and dark mysteries illuminate.
In Nicodemus he found the figure he needed:
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long expected healing wings could see,
And what can never more be done,
Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!
As for himself, the poet is full of “loud, evil days”,
. .. living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
To every mire,
And by this world’s ill-guiding light,
Err more than I can do by night.
Far better seek that “Dear night! this world’s defeat;/. . ./God’s silent, searching
In another of those astonishing moments of fusion and transformation,
where natural and supernatural meet, the dilemma is dissolved: “There is in
God (some say)/A deep but dazzling darkness.” The instant of eye-opening
metamorphosis (rooted in Biblical revelation) touches alchemical perceptions
too. A New Light of Alchemie, June 26, 1656, talks (translating a 1604
original) of “that light and fire which is the throne of God’s Mystery”
concealed “in nocturnal darknesse”. Thomas Vaughan, in Au/a Lucis, 1651,
retails a trismegistian experiment in which first a “gladsome Light” appears,
only for a “horrible sad Darknesse” to move “downe-wards from the Eye of
the Light” precipitating a final blackness.10 One hardly needs to labour
alchemists’ preoccupation with an ”Aethereal substance that retaines Light”,
or with the mystery of the relationship of light to darkness (both being
properties of the Creator) and of how one is brought out of the dther. Indeed,
 The Works of Thomas Vaughan, ed. Alan Rudrum with Jennifer Drake-Brockman, Oxford,
1984, p. 469
there are times when the operator, distilling primal substances, seems to be
trying to replicate in the laboratory the process of creation described in
Genesis. Henry Vaughan, even if not involved in experimentation, was steeped
in the language of these alchemical preoccupations and processes.
Not that alchemists had a monopoly of this engagement with the processes
of light and dark – witness Laurence Clarkson’s pamphlet of October 4, 1650,
A Single Eye, all Light, no Darkness, or Light and Darkness One. Clarkson, as
the title reveals, insists that light and dark are not essentially unconnected
opposites. So, observing (as many another did) the “dark mists … spread over
all opinions in the Kingdom”, he interprets them prophetically as a sign that
the time is at hand when God “will make darkness Light”. But for him (and he
was, of course, anything but run-of-the-mill) the “Power of Light “and the
“Power of Darkness” both, though the latter is not God, emanate from God.
Vaughan would certainly not have swallowed Clarkson’s conclusion that all
things we call “dark” (like adultery, swearing, drunkenness) are really “light” if
enacted in purity. But the rapturist’s argument that darkness is “nothing but
light from God”, that Light and Dark “have but one womb, one birth” and are
“both Twins, both brethren” – that would surely have struck a chord with
Henry and Thomas! We have reached the point where there is no separating
Light from Dark. Post and Pettet are both right.
II: ‘SILEX SCINTILLANS’ AND THE WAR OF WORDS
Henry Vaughan, who both sought the light and longed for “chat night! where I
in him/Might live invisible and dim” (‘The Night, R, p. 290), was not afraid to
look the darkness of the times in the face. “The Night” makes no more division
between the poet and contemporary corruption than “The World” did. He
presents himself as thoroughly implicated in the chaos of the present –
inescapably involved. Vaughan was too unself-indulgent, too rigorous to
imagine he could live in an “O Altitudo”. Maybe “The Night” is, as Post
suggests, the nearest Vaughan comes to a rapture,” but it is not quite that.
However much its imagery owes to alchemical arcana or occult conceptions,
the poem stubbornly, and significantly, refuses to endorse Jacob Boehme’s
belief 12 that “the sun will shine on the children at Midnight”. There was only
 Op. cit., pp. 201 & 207.
 The Three Principles of the Divine Essence, 1648, cited in R, p. 627, note to 11.7-12 of ‘The
one Nicodemus as far as Henry was concerned. As for rising above his times
or withdrawing into quietism, Silex Il’s Preface asserts the opposite. Indeed,
its attack on corrupt literature might have been designed to steal Puritan
thunder. Vaughan was determined, palpably, to answer the Angel’s call (in
“Corruption”, R, p. 197): “Arise! Thrust in thy sickle”. Simply scanning the
Thomason Tracts Collection of Civil War pamphlets, tracts, treatises, newsbooks
etc.13 gives us some sense of the clatter of contemporary confusion to
be engaged with. For however much Vaughan’s poetry took shape and served
as personal therapy or private meditation, Silex was designed, like the forms
of prayer proferred in The Mount of Olives, to be “as useful now in the public
as it hath been to me in private” (R, p. 142). It was essentially an activist
Silex as a whole constitutes a sustained, deliberate, even calculated engagement
with current concerns and contentions. The obsession with light and dark
that fills its pages is anything but peculiar to Vaughan. Even that memorable,
quasi-mystical metaphor fusing darkness and light, at one level meets current
sectarian discourse head-on. A random string of Thomason titles from 1650-2
makes the point:
March 23, 1650, A Holy Lamp of Light: Discovering the Fallacious
allegorising of Scriptures; April 1, A Voyage out of the Thick Darkness;
May 22, Light OT Darknesse; June 26, A New Light of Alchemie;
October 4, A Single Eye all Light, no Darkness; OT Light and Darkness
one; October 29, Light Vanquishing DaTknesse; November 20, The Light
and Dark Sides of God; February 18, 1651, The Light Appearing More
and More; March 1, Divine Beames of Glorious Light; March 11, Lux
Veritatis; May 2, Lux Veritatis; January 14, 1652 Aula Lucis.
A far richer crop is to be gleaned from 1654/5 (of which more anon), but this
handful serves its turn. Sometimes, as in A Holy Lamp of Light, the text does
not rehearse or explore the imagery of the tide which is there simply to catch
the eye. Sometimes, however, there is more within. Here is Isaac Penington (in
Light or Darknesse, May 22, 1650) bewailing “so much deadness, so much
darkness, such a veil over the heart, and over the Scriptures” in this “darkeclipsed-
Moon-light … Now there is a gasping after more Light, more discoveries
of God”. Now, he writes, “after so much expectation of Light and
Glory, of Settlement and Establishment in the things of God, such thick
Darkness, …such dreadful shatterings. have so apparently overtaken us, and
 G. K. Fortescue, Catalogue of the Thomason Tracts, 1640-1662, 2 vols., 1908.
are so likely dayly more to overtake us … our very Foundation is shaken …
everything is darkness, death, emptines, vanity, a lye”. And “the Light of Man,
while it seems to shine with clearness and perspicacity about it, doth but darken
it … The Light of man is but darkness before God, and the casting abroad of
this light is but scattering darkness about God, which although it cannot darken
God in himself, yet it may, and doth, darken him to those to whom it seems to
reveal him, though they perceive it not, but think they have attained some light
of God by it . . . I see what a dark blind buzzard I was in the midst of my
confidence, concerning mine own clear eye-sight .. . 0 GOD, what a state are
Here is the nub of the matter – men (and women) actively, even desperately
seeking light in a time of unprecedented confusion in a world turned upside
down. But how to know who had the light, or what it was, or where it was to
be found? Alexander Griffiths in his 1654 attack on Vavasor Powell raises these
very issues. 14 Some thought Powell possessed a “double light of Doctrine and
Works which hath shined amongst us”; but to Griffiths he was a creature of
the power of darkness. Time and again texts grapple with the difficulty of
deciding whether one is dealing with an Angel of Light or of Darkness when,
as one puts it, “the darkness and the light are both alike, and where the Night
shineth as the day”.’ 5
It was all very well for Penington to argue “This is light indeed, that can
make darkness shine in its own brightness”. The words are magical: they weave
their spell. But they are essentially unsubstantiated. The difficulty of knowing
whether one is truly illumined or benighted, that is to say deceived or selfdeceived
remains. Penington’s solution – which eventually led him to turn
Quaker – was to search for something “I would faine finde within”. That,
however, simply begs questions that Vaughan, like a dog with a bone, would
not let go. He brought not only an intense self-scrutiny but also an intent
observation of natural phenomena and scriptural perspectives to focus on the
conundrum. Anyhow, one begins to see what Silex Scintillans was disputing.
The Puritans had outfought the orthodox, hi-jacked their authority and the
vocabulary of spiritual and moral power. Vaughan’s poetry is designed, not
least, to challenge possession of that idiom. Far from lying low, keeping his
counsel (as many Cavaliers did) the defiant Silurist stood his ground, fought
back. Defeated, bereaved, broken, he too spoke, as many of the godly did,
from the heart of a wilderness experience. (16)
 Strena Vavasoriensis, repr. Cardiff, Cymdeithas Lien Cymru Ill, 1915.
 Pennington, Loe. cit.
 “. .. the waste and howling Wildernesse” is his phrase in The Mount of Olives in M, p. 138.
There was certainly no shortage of light-mongers in Wales – zealous, like
Walter Cradock , to prosecute a “reall reformation”. He conjured up (Divine
Drops, December 21, 1649) a scene of disputatious, divisive times, full of confusion,
backsliding, and “hardness of heart” against the “saints”. Even among
those who so styled themselves there was, he asserted, much “tuchiness” and
Contradiction.T he very word “saint” was, of course, not least among the treasures
hi-jacked; and Vaughan’s reaction was typically tart: “Who saint themselves,
they are no saints” was the trenchant closure of his celebration of St.
Mary Magdalen. All too evidently, contemporaries claiming sanctity were, “if
we compare the shining and fervent piety of those Saints [of the primitive
Church], with the painted and illuding appeareance of it in these our times”
(M, p. 181), mere deluded tricksters.17 And to call onself “saint” in Wales of all
places! Here the very place-names witnessed to the ancient reverence for
sainthood and, of course, to the openness to the supernatural in Celtic culture.
It may have been shrewd of Puritans to style themselves the “Welsh Saints” as
Cradock did addressing Cromwell in 1652.’1 But for Vaughan those churchclosers
had made a mockery of the term. They had dislodged the true Saints,
and broken the living link with that ancient apostolic Christianity uniquely
embodied in the Welsh Church. That breaking shook Vaughan to his roots.
He was, of course, in no position (even had he so wanted) to overlook the
damage done. Living a few miles from Brecon he was in the thick of it – a man
under siege. Denunciation was not, however, the sum of his response: redefinition
and reclamation were central to his strategy. So in ‘L’Envoy’ at the
very end of Silex II he not only rehearses his ‘Anglican’ idiom, but also steals
Puritan clothes. Just as, throughout, he assimilates and reapplies beloved
Herbert’s words, images, and techniques, so here he borrows boldly from his
… then give thy saints
That faithful zeal, which neither faints
Nor wildly burns, but meekly still
Dares own the truth, and show the ill.
(R, p. 312)
 Vaughan’s acclamation of the Anglican Royalist divine and poet William Cartwright as a
“great Saint” in the posthumous 1651 edition of the latter’s works was similarly pqinted.
 Geoffrey F. Nuttall, The Welsh Saints, 1640-1660, 1957, p. 2.
“Own”, while signifying profession and confession, is also just the word for
this act of repossession. Perhaps, as some suggest, the poet recognised (while
abhorring their iconocla sm and vandalism) that there was something in Puritan
zeal and spirituality (at its best} that could not be ignored. Certainly, as the 1655
Preface to Silex discloses, he did not overlook or dismiss the challenge of its
claims and reforming efforts. On the contrary, he sharply distances himself
from corrupt literature of various kinds – and in language that would have
done any earnest Puritan credit. Interestingly, he does not attack the godly
enemy, but “idle books”, “vicious verse”, “lascivious fictions” and publications
stuffed with “gross and studied filthiness.” He even has a bad word for translations
of foreign romances then in vogue. The poet recants his own worldly
verses; he calls his new poems “hymns”, talking of “true holyness” and “true
practick piety”. The Dedication to Christ and the prayer for the deliverance of
“all penitent and reformed Spirits” sound calculated (which is not to say they
are insincere) to attract readers hungry for reform, seeking the light. All in all,
Vaughan’s tone is combative, polemical: he writes as though competing for
converts. Of course, the poetry that follows is a richer, more varied discourse;
bur it certainly does not eschew polemic. Plainly, the collection was designed
not just to comfort the defeated faithful, but also to dispute the high moral
ground in resonantly current and potent language.
If lines like “Who saint themselves, they are no saints” were calculated to
rattle some cages, the 1655 Dedication to “To Jesus Christ .. . , and the Sacred
Virgin Mary” was even more provocative. A red rag to bulls like Vavasor Powell!
He had complained in 1654 that “Superstition and Poper y is already Crept in
among us – as is sensibly discovered by three parishes in Brecknockshire”;”
and a Breconshire minister likewise lamented the daily relapsing of “many dry
and thirsty souls .. . into Popery, and that in no small numbers” .]J) Walker’s
reckoning (in The History of the Sufferings of the Clergy, 1714) that after the
ejection of the established clergy under the notorious Act for the Propagation
of the Gospel in 1649 “many hundreds [in Wales] were converted to Popery”21
may not be far from the mark. People preferred, he dryly observed, “to go to
Ro me than to Bedlam” – and this “particularly in Breconshire”.
The hated Propagation Act, fronted by Vavasour Powell, the “Metropolitan
of the Itinerants” ,22 may have missed its aim of real reformation; but it seems
 Thomas Richards, Religious Developments in Wales (1654-1662), 1923, p. 295; hereafter
referenced R.D. in the text.
 Gwenllian Morgan, St. Andrews Magazine, March, 1903, quoted in Michael R. Lewis,
From Darkness to Light. The Catholics of Breconshire 1531-1851, Abertillery, 1992, p. 30.
 Quoted in Michael R. Lewis, loc. cit.
 So-called on the title-page of Strena Vavasoriensis, ed. cit.
to have left a trail of empty churches, silent pulpits, and resentful parishes
behind it. Over seven hundred were left without regular clergy; and in 1652
South Wales was driven to petitioning for “a supply of ministers” .23 And the
Act was nowhere prosecuted so vigorously, ruthlessly even, as in Wales – that
darkest corner of the land. Here Powell (that “base and violent man” according
to one opponent, who allegedly threatened one parish that the War horses
should wade up to the reins of their bridles in the blood of the said Parishioners
who had “dared oppose the Saints”) commanded the field.2
• Certainly he was
immensely energetic and confrontational, ranging over Brecknock, Radnor,
and Montgomery, riding sometimes 100 miles a week, preaching two or three
times a day, so that there were rarely two days a week ye ar round when he was
not in the pulpit somewhere – at “Fairs, Markets, or any great concourse of
People” (H.P., pp. 146-7). Lesser lights aided and abetted – like Walter Cradock
from Cardiff who roamed as far North as Presteign; or Richard Powell,
turncoat vicar of Llangattock and Crickhowell, and one of the Approvers for
the Propagation Act, who made Brecon his base for sallies into Herefordshire
(R.C., pp. 21, 385; H.P., p. 146). Some fifty godly members of the gathered
Churches at Llanvaches in Monmouthshire and Mynyddyslwyn in Breconshire
went out preaching, “mostly among the Welsh”, in the highlands of Monmouth
and Brecon (R.D., pp. 196, 203). One of them, Edmund Ros ser, was known
locally as (H.P., p. 150; R.D., p. 197) the “preacher in the Mountains”.
Was there no escaping these reformers? We are told that “not a single
Itinerant Minister” found his way to Llansantfraed (H.P., p. 157); but these
“runners”, as they were sarcastically dubbed in Brecon and Radnor, can never
have been far away. And one of them based in Breconshire, Jenkin John Howell
(alias Captain Jenkin Jones) had at his command 120 horses, with men, arms
and ammunition to match25 They were an unignorable presence. Their shortcomings,
however, in the eyes of men and women accustomed to an orthodox,
educated clergy were legion. As often as not they were “unlettered”; and even
William Erbery,26 “one of the supreme Itinerants of the Age”, was critical of
their ignorance; they will end up, he prophesied, running out of Church and
Country! (H.P., p. 156) Naturally, Cradock and Powell defended their agents
stoutly; but in the end Cromwell himself had had enough of their busybodying
intolerance . The 1654 appointment of “Triers” for England and Wales
effectively closed the Itinerant system down. (H.P., pp. 157-8) So ended the
first wave of Government sponsored root-and-branch reform in Wales.
 Thomas Richards, A History of the Puritan Movement in Wales, 1920, p. 157; hereafter
referenced H.P. in the text.
 Strena Vavasorienses, ed. cit., p. 20.
 Ibid., p. 12.
 Christine Trevett, “William Erbery and his Daughter Dorcas : Dissenter and Resurrected
Radical”, The journal of Welsh Religious History, vol.4 (1996), 23-50, provides an account of
Erbcry’s activities and influence in South Wales that helps our understanding of Vaughan’s position
vis-a-vis the Itinerants and the Quakers who followed in their footsteps.
Then the Quakers came! Or rather, they began to appear in Wales a year or so
before the Itinerants were sidelined. The first two missionaries from George
Fox’s new movement travelled to Wrexham in October 1653 – not on the back
of an Act of Parliament but through the combination of Morgan Llwyd’s
interested enquiries about them in 1652 and Fox’s indefatigable evangelising
(R.D., pp. 243-4). There was no love lost between Propagators and Quakers
who agreed that Wales was a “dark corner of the land” (R.D., p. 253) but
roundly denounced the pride, envy and covetousness, and claims to sanctity of
the commissars. Vavasour Powell’s supporters in return boasted (in 1654 when
the first flying column of the Quaker crusade was approaching South Wales)
that he had “carried the flag” away from these “Daemoniacks”(R.D., p. 241).
Two years later, in July, a general meeting of the Baptists of Brecon, where
Quakerism had a growing following, denounced the new “Infection”(R.D., p.
262). It was, they fulminated in a telling phrase (R.D., p. 250) nothing but
“Sa than transferring himself into an Angell of Light”.
If Quakers were too much for the Baptists, they must have been anathema
to Henry Vaughan. Theirs was, to put it mildly, a provocative agenda: denying
original sin; asserting inherent righteousness and the indwelling spirit of light
making men perfectly holy; rejecting baptism and any kind of outward or
formal observances; ridiculing God’s sacred ordinances; showing open disrespect
towards ministers and refusing to salute anybody; rejecting both humane
learning and the literal interpretation of the Bible; and, not least, insisting on
the light that “was before Scripture was given forth”27
, even that (as one put it
in 1656) the “Scriptures are dead”.28 Little wonder the godly felt as threatened
– “besieged” was the word one of the Brecon Baptists used – as Vaughan did.
Indeed, they too distrusted Quaker raptures as (R.D., p. 264) mere “wandering
Fox for his part ridiculed separatist sectarianism as an enervating revival of
 George Fox, quoted in Christian Faith and Practice in the experience of the Society of
Friends, 1972 (1960), extract 163.
 Alexander Parker, A Testimony of God. July 14, 1656.
the long-dead disputes of the primitive church. Quakerism’s freedom from
doctrinal wrangling, the clarity and simplicity of its message, and its powerful
gospel of the indwelling light were understandably attractive amidst a dark
and disputatious decade. No wonder it won converts in Wales from among
Baptists, Seekers, Independents, and men and women of Arminian and of
Calvinist persuasion. Tellingly William Erbery’s daughter Dorcas – her father
had made Cardiff fertile ground for Quakerism – went over to the Friends.
Indeed, she went so far as to accompany James Nayler on his notorious entry
as Christ into Bristol. (R.D., p. 264) Even Morgan Llwyd seems to have oscillated
between Bible-centred Puritanism and Quakerism. (R.D., pp. 244-5)
Vaughan was no oscillator. He would surely have relished Cavalier Donald
Lupton’s sarcasm (May 24 1655, The Quaking Mountebank) against Quakers’
“Murmurings, Trances . . . and Manifestations of Gods Spirit coming into
them …” They wander about, he complains, crying “that all men want Light”;
but “while they speak the Light they love the Dark, and their hauling in the
Light, of the Light, is enough to extinguish it”. What Vaughan had written in
1652 against extasies and raptures applied a fortiori to the latest visionaries.
By 1655 there was emphatically no ignoring these Quakers: between July
and December some 45 pamphlets appeared, for and against the Children of
Light as the newcomers called themselves. The list ranges from Joseph
Harrison’s A_Glimpse of Divine Light, June 2, through Fox’s A Warning to
the World that are Groping in the Dark, September 30, to A Warning from the
Lord of December 29. It was a right royal battle of the preachers: a fight for
followers, for salvation by tract and pamphlet raged. And nothing was more
fiercely debated than the nature, location, and significance of the light so much
talked of. In text after text “light” is a key word. There are sixteen “lights” and
three “enlightens” in the first two-thirds of a page of Fox’s Truths Testimony
of March 3, 1655. Every sixth word on the first page of The Innocent Delivered,
a defence of the Bristol Quakers published on April 9, 1655, is “light” or
“enlighteneth”. The word “light” threads its way through the fifty-nine pages
of Robert Farnworth’s The Brazen Serpent, April 7, 1655. Typically he asserts
that “God is light, and in him is no darknesse at all”. Vaughan, as we have seen,
thought otherwise. Anyhow, Fox’s title of September 30, 1655, sums up the
scene: A Warning to the World That are groping in the dark after Sects,
Opinions, and Notions, which are all with the Light Condemned; And by the
Children of Light Declared Against.
Setting Silex Scintillans II in this context, into which it was launched in
1655, is to see its procedures and patterns in (it has to be said) a new light. That
opening blaze of light in Silex II, for example, could be construed as pointedly
placed to attract seekers after the light towards the true Church, now in the
wilderness, by celebrating events in the Christian Calendar that Quakers (and
many among their immediate forerunners) had no time for. When that blaze
fades out, to return intermittently in flashes amidst the dark, demonstrating
insistently that we cannot live permanently in the light in this world and that
the light is not inherent, the implied rebuttal of Quaker claims is palpable.
Commentators who once saw (as some still do) Vaughan’s “descents” from
moments of so-called mystical perception as failures of inspiration mistake the
man and his poetic strategies. Of course, like any poet he had his off moments;
but essentially the “unevenesses” in the collection – those sudden shifts of level
and pitch, that coming and going of the “visionary gleam” – are calculated.
Like the 1650 Silex frontispiece, which designedly catches up key figurations
of current spiritual polemic, the body of the book is many-faceted, rough·
hewn, now catching the light, now sunk in shadow. The more closely one looks,
the more one sees in the overall shifting, unfolding pattern of the volume that
capacity so patent in the detailed manipulation of metre, rhyme and syntax –
One hesitates to say of any true poet (in whose writing intuition plays a part,
and a power inherent in the language itself – its sound, weight and rhythm –
makes itself felt) that everything is done by design. And there are certainly
moments like that in Vaughan, of something special, when some complete
felicity of phrase seems on the instant to be given. Nevertheless, he is also (as
he must be if the language is to speak through him) calculatedly argumentative,
a tough, combative controversialist, a sophisticated polemicist, an accomplished
rhetorician, and a consummate craftsman with designs on his readers. Take
the closing run of poems in Silex II, from ‘The Waterfall’ through ‘Quickness’,
‘The Wreath’, ‘The Quer y’, ‘The Book’ , ‘To the Holy Bible’ co ‘L’Envoy’, the
title that closes the volume with a significantly literary flourish. As we read we
are progressively and firmly brought down to earth, to the natural material
things that constitute us, to what “life is.” There is no more eloquent riposte
to all those rhapsodises deceiving themselves that man might somehow live in
this world outside the body – like the ardent Quaker converts who habitually
referred in the past tense to their own birth-names as something given in their
former existence “in the flesh”.
Against that ‘The Book’ (R, pp. 309-10) insists, on unbroken process: step·
by-step it traces the making of a book from once-living matter (both vegetable
and animal) now dead, but known to God from the first and destined (“trees,
beasts and men”) to be restored by Him and made “all new again”. So ‘To the
Holy Bible’ (R, pp. 310-11) – “O book! life’s guide’ – literally embodies the
answer to those who (like the Quakers) thought the Scriptures more or less
redundant. Vaughan had an altogether more practical sense of the value and
use of texts, his own included. And so the final ‘Envoy'(R, pp. 311-13) with its
opening acclamation of light and its closing image of a captivity that is “sad”
but has been turned, that is to say transformed, made new, sums up the whole
meaning and purpose of Silex Scintillans. As readers (recalling the ‘Dedication’
at the outset) we may recognise also how God turned it – by giving the poet
the gift here given back. Not the least part of that gift was Vaughan’s extraordinary
assimilative power, whereby he was able (deliberately) to absorb and
transform not just the Herbertian idiom, but also the challenging, competing
discourse of those Puritans of many kinds whose “captive” ,2!) just along the
road from Brecon, under siege but undefeated he was.
All this is not to suggest-that Vaughan deployed for merely polemical reasons
those figures I have focussed on. They were, after all, part of his birthright as
a child of the Church, its Prayer Book and Scriptures. He was also deeply
absorbed scientifically as well as spiritually and doctrinally, by the phenomenon
of light. His intuition of wholeness (of the necessary conjunction of dark with
light, for example) came first from nature not something beyond it. But using
the language of light in poetry written and published in the late 1640’s and
1650’s was to engage, perforce, in the urgent, on-going dispute over its possession
and meaning. His poetry was, in effect, an answer to the dilemma of a
once united Christian kingdom, no longer kingdom, or united or (it seemed to
him) truly Christian. More particularly it was a heartfelt response to the sad
condition of that darkest of dark corners, his own land, Wales. These concerns
and troubles were not a distraction from some loftier flight, but the necessary
spur to Vaughan’s imagination and intellect. Adversity, as he said, made him a
true poet with something to say for himself and his people, not just a clever
ventriloquist. Without the need to react to disaster, loss and disintegration, to
put himself together again, to fight back, and to work to sustain a defeated
Church in the wilderness he would not, could not have written as he did. The
Civil War, which left so much destruction and damage, pain and loss in its
wake, was also paradoxically and powerfully creative. Henry Vaughan, like
that other poet in the wilderness John Milton, reveals some of the workings of
a process whereby that transformation of defeat into a kind of victory, a
remaking after all, came about.
 The very word was on Erbery’s lips (he talked of being in a “captive state”) in 1652; see note