The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

20. Lines and phrases of marvellous felicity

Two curious Welsh brothers for today : because they don't make 'em like they did in the 17th century.

VAUGHAN, HENRY (1621-1693), called "the Silurist," poet and mystic, was born into an ancient Welsh family settled at Skethiog-on-Usk, in the parish of Llansaintfraed, Brecknockshire, in 1621. From 1632 to 1638 he and his twin brother Thomas were privately educated by the rector of Llangattock, and then they proceeded to Jesus College, Oxford. At what time Henry left the university is not known ; but it was evidently after he had studied for some time in London and had been introduced into the society of men of letters that he printed his first volume, Poems, with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished (1646). Of this publication he was afterwards, very needlessly, ashamed. Vaughan presently became a physician and returned to his native country, first for a while practising in the town of Brecon, and then settling down for the remainder of his life in Skethiog. From this place he sent forth his collection of sacred poems, Silex Scintillans, in 1650, of which a second part appeared in 1655, and the secular poems of his Olor Iscanus, prepared for the press in 1647, and published without his consent by his brother Thomas in 1651. A mystical treatise in prose, The Mount of Olives, followed in 1652, and then two prose translations, Flores Solitudinis, 1654, and Hermetical Physick, 1655. The world took little notice of these performances. In 1678 an Oxford friend collected the miscellaneous verses of Vaughan's middle life in a volume entitled Thalia Rediviva. Henry Vaughan died at Skethiog on 23d April 1693, and lies buried in the churchyard of Llansaintfraed.

As a poet Vaughan comes latest in the so-caled "metaphysical" school of the 17th century. He is the most remote of the disciples of Donne, and follows him mainly as he saw him reflected in George Herbert. He analyses his experiences, amatory and sacred, with excessive ingenuity, striking out, every now and then, through his extreme intensity of feeling and his close though limited observation of nature, lines and phrases of marvellous felicity. He is of imagination all compact, and is happiest when he abandons himself most completely to his vision. His verse is apt to seem crabbed and untunable in comparison with that of Crashaw, and even of Herbert at his best. The Retreat, with its Wordsworthian intimations, The World, mainly because of the magnificence of its opening lines, and, Beyond the Veil are by far the most popular of Vaughan's poems and represent him at his best. His passion for the Usk, and his desire to immortalize that pastoral river, are pathetically prominent in his writings. His metrical ear was not fine, and he affected, almost more than Herbert himself, tortured and tuneless forms of self-invented stanza.

VAUGHAN, THOMAS (1621-1665), "the Rosicrucian," was the twin brother of Henry VAUGHAN (see above). When Thomas left Oxford he went into the church and became rector of his native parish Llansaintfraed until his ejectment, when he settled at Oxford as an alchemist. He died at Albury on 27th February 1665, poisoned by the fumes of a cauldron. Under the pseudonym of Eugenius Philalethes, Thomas Vaughan produced eleven volumes defending and describing the tenets of Rosicrucians. The titles of these - among which are The Man-Mouse, 1650 ; The Second Wash, 1651 ; The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity of the Rosy Cross, 1652 ; Aula Lucis, 1652 ; and Euphrates, 1653 - are not more extraordinary than their style. Henry More the Platonist engaged in controversy with Thomas Vaughan, deep calling unto deep in pamphlets.

You may judge the marvellous felicity of "The World" for yourself, courtesy of . It begins

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.

FOOTNOTE: Eagle-eyed pedants will have noticed that I have given Thomas Vaughan's date of death as 1665, rather than the 1666 which all other sources in Interwebshire show. Please be assured that I have transcribed diligently, and 1665 is the date given in the 9th Edition. It seems likely that Britannica was, in this unfortunate instance, in error, but the tantalising possibility remains that EB9 got it right, and that later citings have been perpetuating someone else's error. If any Accordingianists happen to be in the vicinity of Albury any time, could you possibly check the parish records (or gravestone if there is one) and clarify this troublesome matter? A substantial reward is on offer (subject to availability: the alternative being an insubstantial reward).

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