Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel-infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked 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 gilded 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 dispense
A sev'ral sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
Oh, 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 the 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.
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics (William Sloane Second Edition, 1950); originally published in Silex Scintillans, Part I (1650).
"Sev'ral" (line 18) means "individual," "different," or "separate and distinct." Robert Herrick uses the word in this sense in his lovely two-line poem "Dreams": "Here we are all, by day; by night we're hurl'd/By dreams, each one, into a sev'ral world." "Stay" (line 27) means "delay" in this context.
"Bright shoots of everlastingness" is wonderful, and is not likely to be forgotten once encountered. "A white, celestial thought" is lovely. But I am also fond of: "Some men a forward motion love,/But I by backward steps would move." Wise counsel, I think.
Not surprisingly, "The Retreat" puts many in mind of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." For a time (particularly in the 19th century), it was believed that Wordsworth had been directly influenced by "The Retreat," as well as by other poems by Vaughan with a similar theme. However, this conclusion is questionable. Still, even though there may not be a direct influence at work, the similarity of feeling and thought in the two poets is at times remarkable. (For an interesting discussion of this topic, please see Helen McMaster, "Vaughan and Wordsworth," The Review of English Studies, Volume 11, Number 43 (1935), pages 313-325.)
Roland Pitchforth (1895-1982), "Bainbridge" (1928)
After reading "The Retreat," the following poem by Thomas Traherne, another 17th century poet, came to mind. It has appeared here before, but it is always worth a revisit.
These little limbs,
These eyes and hands which here I find,
This panting heart wherewith my life begins,
Where have ye been? Behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my new-made tongue?
When silent I
So many thousand thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
How could I, smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears, perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.
I that so long
Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear or tongue
To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Such eyes and objects, on the ground to meet.
New burnished joys
Which finest gold and pearl excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs of boys,
In which a soul doth dwell:
Their organizëd joints and azure veins
More wealth include than the dead world contains.
From dust I rise,
And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes
A gift from God I take:
The earth, the seas, the light, the lofty skies,
The sun and stars are mine; if these I prize.
A stranger here
Strange things doth meet, strange glory see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
Strange all and new to me:
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.
Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), in H. I. Bell (editor), Traherne's Poems of Felicity (University of Oxford Press 1910).
In contrast with Vaughan's backward-glancing soul, Traherne's blithe soul is content -- nay, delighted -- to be abroad in the World. But then, Traherne is writing from the perspective of childhood, in the absence of experience. Traherne's use of "strange" (as well as of "stranger" and "strangest") in the final stanza is lovely. I am reminded of Vaughan's quotation, in one of his prose works (a translation of Johannes Nierembergius), of an unnamed "divine": "Excellent is that advice of the divine: To live a stranger unto life." Henry Vaughan, Flores Solitudinis (1654).
Reading "The Salutation" and "The Retreat," I am compelled to report, dear readers, that the 17th century is a nobler, more gracious and graceful, and altogether more civilized place than the world we inhabit today. Yes, I know: those moderns who believe in the gods of Progress, Science, and political and social utopianism will howl in disagreement. They will say: "For centuries, humanity has been ridding itself of its ignorant and superstitious ways. We in the modern world have arrived at the apex of human progress and enlightenment." Well, no.
Roland Pitchforth, "Hebden, Yorkshire"
At this point, with the soul's wayfaring under consideration, I can hear two of my beloved poets of the fin de siècle calling to me. Hence, please bear with me as we spend a brief idyll (a wistful and melancholic idyll, I concede) in the 1890s.
The Soul's Progress
It enters life it knows not whence; there lies
A mist behind it and a mist before.
It stands between a closed and open door.
It follows hope, yet feeds on memories.
The years are with it, and the years are wise;
It learns the mournful lesson of their lore.
It hears strange voices from an unknown shore,
Voices that will not answer to its cries.
Blindly it treads dim ways that wind and twist;
It sows for knowledge, and it gathers pain;
Stakes all on love, and loses utterly.
Then, going down into the darker mist,
Naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,
It staggers out into eternity.
Arthur Symons, Days and Nights (Macmillan 1889).
Yes, the poets of the Nineties had a different view of things than Vaughan, Traherne, and the other poets of the 17th century. Although melancholy is not absent from 17th century poetry, the fin de siècle poets made an art of evoking and cataloguing it. As I have stated here on more than one occasion, I am not ashamed to say that I am quite willing to surrender myself to them.
Vitae summa brevis spem nos
vetat incohare longam
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Ernest Dowson, Verses (Leonard Smithers 1896). The title of the poem is taken from Book I, Ode 1, of Horace's Odes. It may be translated as: "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope." Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (Birmingham University Press 2003), page 225.
The correspondences between the two poems are wonderful. Ah, the fate of the soul! In Symons's view, "there lies/A mist behind it and a mist before," and, in time, "naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,/It staggers out into eternity." ("Into the darker mist," mind you.) Dowson takes (perhaps) a marginally more hopeful view of the soul's journey: "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."
But, for all of the differences between Symons and Vaughan, Dowson and Traherne, we mustn't forget this: for each of them the soul is real, and we owe it our attention.
Roland Pitchforth, "Burnsall" (1925)
In our time, the word "soul" is viewed in much the same way as the word "evil": both words make most moderns nervous. Not me. This is one of the reasons why the 17th century seems congenial to me, as does the fin de siècle world of Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson. Vaughan, Traherne, Symons, and Dowson can speak of the soul without doubt and without irony. Why should it be otherwise?
There was a time when a person could as a matter of course address his or her own soul. This was not necessarily a product of religious fervor, nor was it a sign of madness. It was simply the way of the world.
For instance, the Emperor Hadrian (76-138) did so in what is purported to be his death-bed poem, which begins with the phrase animula vagula blandula. John Donne, another poet of the 17th century, translated the opening two lines of Hadrian's poem as follows:
My little wandering sportful soul,
Guest and companion of my body.
John Donne, in E. K. Chambers (editor), The Poems of John Donne (Lawrence and Bullen 1896).
Henry Vaughan translated the entire poem:
My soul, my pleasant soul and witty,
The guest and consort of my body,
Into what place now all alone
Naked and sad wilt thou be gone?
No mirth, no wit, as heretofore,
Nor jests wilt thou afford me more.
Henry Vaughan, The Mount of Olives: Or, Solitary Devotions (1652).
We live in an age of technological miracles. But a great deal of what it means to be human has gone missing.
Roland Pitchforth, "Cottage, Bainbridge" (1928)