Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > The Sacred Poets > His debt to Herbert, spiritual and literary
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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.

§ 12. His debt to Herbert, spiritual and literary.

The nature of Vaughan’s obligations to Herbert has been the subject of much controversy. The first and greatest debt is that Herbert directed Vaughan’s genius into the channel where only it achieved notable and lasting success. Vaughan found himself in Silex Scintillans; even the few successes outside that volume, like The Eagle and the Epitaph on the lady Elizabeth, were written after his conversion. What readers have cared to remember are not his poems to Amoret and Etesia, or the occasional verse to friends and literary idols, with its jaunty tone and petulant impatience of “the time’s ridiculous misery,” but the remote, timeless, mysterious poems of Silex Scintillans. It is credit enough to the older poet to have given his disciple “spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling.” But the influence of Herbert, for better and for worse, is literary as well as spiritual. Recent editors of Vaughan, by their extensive collections of parallel passages, have placed it beyond dispute that the younger writer, in his new-born enthusiasm for “holy Herbert,” modelled himself on the author of The Temple. Many of his poems are little more than resettings of Herbert’s thought and very words; even the best poems, where Vaughan is most original, have verbal reminiscences, which show how he soaked himself in Herbert’s poems. Sometimes, familiar words have received a subtle transmutation; sometimes, they have only enslaved Vaughan to his disadvantage. The little tricks of Herbert’s style—the abrupt openings, the questions and ejaculations, the homely words and conceits, the whimsical titles—are employed by Vaughan as his very framework. In the matter of form, Vaughan failed to learn what Herbert had to teach. He knows less well than Herbert when to stop, and, after beginning with lines of such intensity as Herbert could never have written, he is apt to lose his way and forfeit the interest of his readers   24
  The real contributions of Vaughan to literature are, naturally, those poems where he is most himself and calls no man master. His mind and temper are essentially distinct from Herbert’s. After the change in his life, he becomes detached in mind from the ordinary interests and ideas of his times, with which he was in any case out of sympathy, and, as with a true mystic, his thoughts move in a rarer, remoter air. He may dutifully follow Herbert in celebrating the festivals of the church; but such concrete themes do not suit him like the more mysterious and abstract themes of eternity, communion with the dead, nature and childhood. The death of a younger brother occasioned a sequence of poems in which the note of personal loss, poignant though it is, is not more prominent than a wistful brooding over man’s relations with the unseen and the eternal. This theme receives yet finer treatment in two of his best-known poems, The World, and They are all gone into the world of light. The Retreat combines this theme with another, the innocence of childhood, which recurs in Corruption and Childhood. In The Retreat, which has the added interest of being the germ of Wordsworth’s ode, 10  Intimations of Immortality, Vaughan achieves a simplicity of expression which is rare with him. Some of his most perfect work occurs where both thought and expression are simple, as in Peace, the Burial of an Infant, or Christ’s Nativity. More often his gift of expression is not sustained and the magic of the opening lines, e. g.
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
soon deserts him. His workmanship becomes defective, his rhythms halting and his expression crabbed.

Note 10. Trench elicited the interesting fact that Wordsworth owned a copy of Silex Scintillans, at that time a rare book. Household Book of English Poetry, 2nd ed. [ back ]

  His conversion His links with Wordsworth  

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