01 March 2012

Poems for Lent (6): ‘The Retreat,’ by Henry Vaughan

The Retreat ... the harbour at Skerries during the Ash Wednesday retreat last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I began this year’s Lenten season with a retreat in Skerries on Ash Wednesday, and so for my Poem for Lent this morning I have chosen ‘The Retreat’ by the Welsh metaphysical poet and physician Henry Vaughan (1621-1695.

Henry Vaughan was born in Llansanffraid, near Brecon, on 17 April 1621, and lived there for most of his life. He studied at Jesus College, Oxford, but never took a degree, and then moved to London where he studied law for two years.

Around 1650, Vaughan underwent a spiritual awakening or conversion that he credited to the poetry of “the blessed man, Mr George Herbert.”

The priest-poet George Herbert provided a model for Vaughan’s newly founded spiritual life and literary career, in which he displayed "spiritual quickening and the gift of gracious feeling.

Vaughan was married twice and was the father of eight children. He died on April 23, 1695, aged 74. He is buried in the churchyard of Saint Bridget’s, Llansantffraed, Powys.

Henry Vaughan was acclaimed less during his lifetime than after his death. In today’s poem, ‘The Retreat,’ he is bemoaning his sins and wishing that he could go back to a purer state, one where his soul was free from sin:

Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound.

He talks about a child-like time when his soul was pure and sinless, and contrasts that pure state with his present spiritual state in which he has a different kind of sin for every sense in his body.

He closes by saying that he hopes that there will not be much more of a delay before he can return to this sinless state of being – an appropriate focus for our disciplines and prayers during this period of Lent.

The Retreat by Henry Vaughan

Happy those early days! when I
Shin’d in my angel-infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appoint’d for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy ought
But a white, celestial thought,
When yet I had not walk’d above
A mile, or two, from my first love,
And looking back (at that short space,)
Could see a glimpse of his bright face;
When on some gild’d cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispence
A sev’ral sin to ev’ry sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.

O how I long to travel back
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain,
Where first I left my glorious train,
From whence th’enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees;
But (ah!) my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move,
And when this dust falls to the urn
In that state I came return.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

1 comment:

Titus said...

This is gorgeous!