Henry Vaughan and his Poetry

Incised in stone above the west door of the little Gothic church at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, is the following inscription:

In the yeare 1653

When all things Sacred were throughout ye nation

Either demolisht or profaned

Sir Robert Shirley, Barronet,

Founded this church;

Whose singular praise it is,

To have done the best things in ye worst times,


Hoped them in the most callamitous

The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.

We are told that Sir Robert Shirley, a Royalist, had refused to assist Cromwell.  He was sent to the Tower and died there, aged twenty-seven.  These were strife-torn times.  The Civil War had ended in victory for the Parliamentarian cause in 1646 and the Monarchy did not return until 1660.  It was during those same strife-torn times that Henry Vaughan ‘The Silurist’ wrote his most memorable poetry and it might be said of him, also, that he ‘done the best things in the worst times’.  Vaughan, a Welshman, was born in Breconshire at Newton-upon-Usk in 1621 and died in 1695, not far from his birthplace. The Civil War was to have a very important influence on both the man and his poetry.

Today, Vaughan is chiefly remembered as one of the so-called ‘metaphysical poets’ of the 17th C. The other important members of the group are Donne, Crashaw, Cowley, Herbert, Marvell, and Traherne.  The term ‘metaphysical’ seems to have been invented by John Dryden but was made famous by Dr Johnson who first used it to describe a type of poetry employing unusual and paradoxical images, relying on intellectual wit and upon learned imagery and subtle argument. For Johnson, it was meant as a pejorative term:

Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found. [Lives of the Poets: Cowley]

Such a judgement from an 18th C critic is hardly surprising.  In an age that placed all of its hope on human reason and Baconian science, the highly imaginative poetry of the preceding century was largely dismissed as a ‘conceit’[1].  Indeed, even in Henry Vaughan’s own times, allegorical habits of mind were being replaced by more realistic ones (Bacon published his Novum Organum the year before Henry Vaughan was born) and, in this sense, Vaughan’s poetry looks back towards the Middle Ages rather than to his own times.  Fortunately both literary tastes and philosophical opinions were to change again in later times.  In the early 20th.C, both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were to discover deep affinities with the ’metaphysicals’ and today, their poetry is well represented in most anthologies of English verse.  In was in his essay on the metaphysical poets [1921] that Eliot made his now famous suggestion of a ‘dissociation of sensibility’ that marked the end of what we might call the metaphysical style.  The basis of this style, Eliot thought, was the poet’s ability to constantly amalgamate disparate experiences to form new wholes.  The metaphysical poet ‘possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.  It is with Milton and Dryden – those giants of the 17th Century – Eliot suggests, that we see this ‘dissociation of sensibility’ come to the fore and to manifest itself in the work of later poets such as Collins, Gray, Goldsmith and the great Dr Johnson himself. The language of these poets may have become more refined, but (so Eliot thought) the feeling had become more crude.

As so it was that, after more than two centuries of virtual obscurity, the poetry of Henry Vaughan came to be valued again.  Between 1679 and 1847, there was no new edition of Vaughan although one of his poems had been anthologized as early as 1803. But, if influential modern critics like Eliot and Pound had some hand in restoring the fortunes of the ‘metaphysicals’, so much more so did the Zeitgeist – by the time Eliot died (1965) the bankruptcy of positivism was clearly in evidence. Given that Edmund Blunden had written on Vaughan in 1927 and Siegfried Sassoon had visited Vaughan’s grave and penned a sonnet on that visit in 1928, we might regard these poets as early prophets who, in the wake of the Great War, perhaps foresaw a re-emergence of interest in the imaginative and allegorical as a sort of counter reaction to the Slough of Despond which had developed out of the hell of Flanders.  One might see the emergence of a wider and more general interest in Blake’s poetry in the same light, although W.B.Yeats and Edwin Ellis first edited Blake’s work in 1891-3.

Insofar as the poet himself is concerned, as distinct from the poetry, we owe the resurrection of Henry Vaughan in large part to two grand ladies of literary leanings, the Misses Louise Guiney and Gwenllian Morgan. Miss Morgan was a ‘local’, so to speak, and lived most of her long life in Breconshire, dying there in 1939 in her 88th year.  The daughter of a local pastor, she was a keen historian and intensely interested in Vaughan. She was also the first woman in Wales to serve the office of mayor.  Miss Guiney, by contrast, was an American Catholic, with no close connection to Wales.  She was, nonetheless, an ardent Anglophile, with a particular love for the Royalist poets and a sympathy for the Royalist cause.[2] Morgan and Guiney gathered together what scant information we have today concerning the life of Henry Vaughan. Unfortunately, both these ladies died before they were able to publish their biography of Vaughan.  That task was taken up by F.E. Hutchinson, an Anglican Divine and onetime chaplain of Kings College, who published his account (heavily reliant on Morgan & Guiney’s researches) in 1947.[3]  One other biography has appeared since then, that of Stevie Davies in 1995.[4]  Her account, though, introduces no new material and is largely concerned with a personal appreciation of the poet.

It is perhaps something of a blessing that we know relatively little about Vaughan the man for this has largely spared us those usual, weighty volumes where the minutiae of daily life is drawn into interminable discussion regarding ‘influences’ on poetic production.  We have no images of him, no descriptions of his personality and only a fairly sketchy record of his time on this earth.  Even so, I note that Stevie Davies has a whole chapter (‘The Crucible of Twinship’) where an elaborate superstructure of critical analysis and comment rests on the scant knowledge we have of the relationship between Henry Vaughan and his twin brother, Thomas.

Of Vaughan’s early life we know virtually nothing save that he and his twin brother were taught at a nearby school by one Matthew Herbert, an Anglican clergyman.  Later, Henry Vaughan may have attended Oxford University although the records establish only that his twin brother did.  Whatever the case, he certainly went to London and seems to have studied law for a period.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, he returned home and there, for a short time, was secretary to Sir Marmaduke Lloyd, chief justice of the sessions.  We know that Vaughan was married to Catherine Wise by 1646 and that the couple had four children.  Catherine appears to have died very young, almost certainly within a decade of the marriage. Vaughan married again, probably around 1655. His second wife, Elizabeth, was his former wife’s sister and she too, bore him four children.

The question whether Henry Vaughan bore arms in the Civil War has been much discussed.  Hutchinson is of the view that Henry did take up arms for the Royalists but Vaughan’s first modern editor, H.F. Lyte (1847) took an opposite view.  Whatever the truth of the matter, there can be no doubt that the defeat of the Royalists, together with the death of his younger brother, William (in 1648), had a profound effect on Vaughan. This is evidenced by the sudden change in both the nature and the quality of the poetry he wrote.

As to his profession in later adult life, there are indications that he may have been a doctor but little evidence of any training in this field.  In a letter to John Aubrey in 1673, Vaughan talks about his brother, Thomas, and then says: ‘My profession also is physic which I have practised now for many years with good success …’. Earlier (1640s), Vaughan was probably employed as a secretary to Judge Lloyd (and soon after, Hutchinson surmises, as a soldier).

With this brief biography serving as a sort of introduction, we turn now to the poetry.  His first volume of poetry, Poems with the Tenth Satire of Juvenal Englished, was published in 1646.  A second volume, entitled Olor Iscanus (Swan of the Usk) appears to have been completed by 1647, but was not published until 1651. It is in this second volume that Vaughan gives himself the title of ‘Silurist’ – a reference to the ancient tribe, the Silures, which inhabited the south-east of Wales and which was mentioned by Tacitus as having caused the invading Romans a good deal of trouble. I assume that the Silures also gave us the geological term ‘Silurian’.

Of the bulk of these early poems, perhaps the less said the better.  They are largely very conventional, secular poems, often imitating earlier poets such as Habington or Randolph.  I think it fair to say that if Vaughan’s reputation rested on these alone, he would be largely forgotten today.  The first volume includes a number of love poems, almost all of which are addressed to Amoret, a sort of generic title for the female subject.  Here, Vaughan follows earlier poets such as Lovelace, Browne, Lodge and Waller.  Nonetheless, some of the poetry is memorable.  Here, for instance, is a little vignette of the London of Vaughan’s student days:

Should we go now a wandering, we should meet

With catchpoles, whores, & carts in every street:

Now when each narrow lane, each nook & cave,

Sign-posts, & shop-doors, pimp for every knave,

When riotous sinful plush, and tell-tale spurs

Walk Fleet street, & the Strand, when the soft stirs

Of bawdy, ruffled silks, turn night to day;

And the loud whip, and coach scolds all the way;

When lusts of all sorts, and each itchy blood

From the Tower-wharf to Cymbeline, and Lud,

Hunts for a mate, and the tired footman reels

‘Twixt chair-men, torches, & the hackney wheels...

A Rhapsody (lines 35-46)

Here is a picture of the seamier side of London, with that sort of eye for all the sordid detail which we might expect of Hogarth or Dickens.  The phrases ‘riotous sinful plush’ and bawdy, ruffled silks’ are particularly well contrived.

The second volume of Vaughan’s poetry is somewhat more adventuresome and treats a wide range of themes.  It includes translations of Ovid, Ausonius, Boethius and Casimir.  Looking at the index in Alan Rudrum’s splendidly annotated edition of Vaughan’s poems[5], one cannot help but notice how the lengthy titles, often overweighed with effusive praise of their respective human subjects, contrast with the short, pithy titles of the later religious poetry (and, indeed, many of the religious poems are untitled).  Thus we find, for instance:

To the Truly Noble, and Most Excellently Accomplished, the Lord Kildare Digby


An Elegy on the Death of Mr R.W. Slain in the Late Unfortunate Differences at Rowton Heath, near Chester, 1645

One has the impression that the poem has, in each case, occasioned less literary effort than the title!  For my own part, when I read these titles I cannot help but compare them to the equally ponderous titles so beloved of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for their paintings.  My second example from Vaughan, for instance, bears comparison with Holman Hunt:

Rienzi Vowing to Obtain Justice for the Death of his Young Brother, Slain in a Skirmish between the Colonna and Orsini Factions.

But, perhaps in Olor Iscanus, we should particularly note Vaughan’s choice in translating Ovid, Ausonius, Boethius and Casimir.  If, as some commentators suspect, Vaughan translated his selections in the order given here, then we see a gradual progression towards more serious philosophical and religious themes.  Casimir (Mathias Casimir Sarbiewski) was a Polish Jesuit whose poetry often addressed religious themes.   We might also expect that, in his reading of Ausonius, Vaughan would have learned of Paulinus of Nola at this time.  Later (1654), Vaughan was to publish a rather free translation of the Life of Paulinus (from Rosweyde).

As I foreshadowed earlier in this essay, the events associated with the Civil War, combined with the death of his younger brother were to have a profound effect on Vaughan and his poetry.  Other commentators have also suggested that Vaughan himself may have endured some serious illness at about this time and that such illness brought the fact of human mortality sharply into focus.  As Dr. Johnson once said, ‘the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight wonderfully concentrates the mind’!   Irrespective of which of these influences assumed the most importance in the mind of the poet, what we see in the poems of his 1650 edition, titled  Silex Scintillans, is a virtual transformation.   Even if Vaughan’s earlier acquaintance with the work of Casimir (and, perhaps, other and earlier Christian writers) is taken into account, there is nothing to prepare the reader for what F.E. Hutchinson calls the ‘heightened feeling and majestic utterance’ that we get in so many of the poems of Silex scintillans.

From the lovesick, young gallant who pens his rather conventional, foppish, and formulaic verses to Amoret, we come to this:

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

Driven by the spheres

Like a vast shadow mov’d, In which the world

And all her train were hurl’d.

(The World)

Hutchinson is in no two minds about what has happened to the poet.  He refers to it as a conversion.  This, I think, is a little too dramatic.  There can be no question regarding the sudden new direction in Vaughan’s poetry, but he was always a believing Christian.  He was not converted to Christianity, but simply lifted to a higher plane of spiritual understanding.  This is very obvious when one considers the subject matter of his religious poetry.  Alan Rudrum’s notes to the Silex Scintillans poems run to well over 100 pages of tight text. The vast majority of the references are biblical ones, some quite obscure, and we can only conclude that Vaughan had a prodigious knowledge of the bible.  Such knowledge does not come abruptly with conversion but is the fruit of years and years of reading.   The raw materials were surely latent in Vaughan and, as he himself says in his introduction to the first Silex Scintillans volume, what ignited his poetic imagination was the divine flash of the Spirit on a reluctant and hardened heart:

You have attempted many times, I admit, to capture me without injury, and your voice, haunting me, has endeavored without words to make me heedful.  A more divine breath has entreated me with its gentle action and admonished me in vain with its holy murmur.  I was flint – deaf and silent ……..   You draw nearer and break that mass which is my rocky heart, and that which was formerly stone is now made flesh.  See how it is torn, its fragments at last setting your heavens alight ……… [6]

These fiery sparks from the heart constitute the best of Vaughan’s poetry.  In poem after poem of the Silex Scintillans collections (1650 and 1655), we have that direct evidence of a man who:

…. felt through all this fleshly dress

Bright shoots of everlastingness.

(The Retreat)

A few short extracts may serve to give something of the flavour for those who are not familiar with Vaughan’s poetry:

When first I saw true beauty, and thy joys

Active as light, and calm without all noise

Shined on my soul, I felt through all my powers

Such a rich air of sweets, as evening showers

Fanned by a gentle gale convey and breathe

On some parched bank, crowned with a flowery wreath;

Odours, and myrrh, and balm in one rich flood

(Mount of Olives, II)


They are all gone into the world of light!

And I alone sit ling’ring here;

Their very memory is fair and bright,

And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It 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.

(‘They are all gone into the world of light!’)


My soul, there is a country

Far beyond the stars,

Where stands a winged sentry

All skillful in the wars,

There, above noise, and danger

Sweet peace sits crowned with smiles,

And one born in a manger

Commands the beauteous files


The themes treated by Vaughan in these poems have been the subject of much scholarly questioning over the last eighty years or so.  To what extent was Vaughan influenced by the Hermetic Philosophy?  To what extent was he influenced by Platonism?  Was Vaughan a true mystic and, if so, did he follow the via negativa or the via positiva?  Was Vaughan a true ‘nature poet’ in the sense of being a precursor to the English Romantic poets?   Here, I cannot attempt to deal in any detail with all of these ‘problems’ which the critics see in Vaughan’s religious poetry.  However, a few general comments might help to resolve some of these supposed difficulties or, at least, put them into some sort of perspective.

In the first place, it is absolutely clear that Henry Vaughan is a Christian traditionalist in his religious outlook.  This is not to suppose that he does not bring in ideas from the Platonists and Neoplatonists, or from Hermeticism, but rather, that he assimilates such ideas within a thoroughly traditional, Christian framework.  If Vaughan’s Christianity appears a little ‘unorthodox’, it is perhaps because he is a man out of his time – his religion often tends to look back toward what he saw as more primitive but purer expressions of Christianity.  We need to remember that the Civil War cast Vaughan adrift from his traditional church environment and he was forced to find his own expression of Christianity.  In so doing, he borrowed freely from many traditions, both within pre-Civil War Anglicanism and further afield.  The religious poetry of George Herbert, for instance, was to exert an enormous influence upon Vaughan and he freely acknowledges his debt to Herbert in some of his poems.

With regard to Platonic influences, many possible correlates present themselves in the poetry.  The first is the theme of childhood.   In what is probably Vaughan’s most famous poem, The Retreat, he begins:

Happy those early days! when I

Shined in my Angel-infancy.

Here is the clear notion, not only of childhood innocence, but also of childhood understanding and acceptance of the spiritual realm. This theme appears in many of Vaughan’s poems.  It is tempting to suppose that Vaughan alludes to the Platonic notion of anamnesis and pre-existence and, indeed, that may have been an influence upon him.  We ought to remember, though, that Vaughan was a man who knew his bible backwards and it is more likely that he had in mind that injunction in Matthew 18.3:   ‘Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (KJV).

Another clear debt to Platonism comes from Vaughan’s notion of a cosmos of spheres or rings with ordered motion and we tend to immediately associate this with Plato.  One peculiarity of Vaughan in this respect is his association of ordered motion with silence.  Time after time we get that notion of the profound beauty of silence.  When he saw eternity (The World, I) it was:

All calm, as it was bright

Of the stars (The Constellation), he says:

Fair, ordered lights (whose motion without noise

Resembles those true joys …

And, perhaps his most beautiful depiction of the Platonic Beauty (Mount of Olives II):

When first I saw true beauty, and thy joys

Active as light, and calm without all noise

There are, of course, other echoes of Platonism or Neo-Platonism in Vaughan’s poetry but, very often, they have come down to him from that earlier Christian tradition drawing upon the Augustinian world-picture.  The idea of this world as an imperfect image of the real world leads naturally to the concept of contemptus mundi, implicit in Augustine and so evident in much of Vaughan’s work.  Indeed, Vaughan’s translation of the De Contemptu Mundi of St. Eucherius of Lyon (5th C) is, as far as this writer is aware, the only English translation of the work.  But it would be wrong to suppose that Vaughan or, for that matter, Augustine, regarded matter as evil or deprecated the created order.  Quite the reverse in  Vaughan’s case.  He saw all plants and animals as responding to the Divine and even lifeless stones paid a sort of tribute to their Maker (‘By some hid sense their Maker gave’).

Vaughan’s association with the Hermetic philosophy is based upon certain direct evidence in the poems themselves as well as the fact that his twin brother, Thomas,  delved into alchemy and was well acquainted with the writings attributed to ‘Thrice-Great Hermes’.  In his published work, Thomas also quotes from Paracelsus, Robert Fludd and Cornelius Agrippa.  Nonetheless, Thomas saw himself as ‘neither Papist nor Sectary but a true, resolute Protestant in the best sense of the Church of England’.  Despite these assertions by Thomas, his writings on alchemy do suggest a more erratic and headstrong approach to the subject matter than his brother, Henry who, as Hutchinson says:

passed the Hermetic ideas and terms so integrally into the common language of Christian tradition that they do not disconcert the reader; they are not resented as the technical terms of an unfamiliar way of expressing his conviction of the ‘commerce’ between heaven and earth.

Other authors, though, believe that Hermetic influences are much more important in Henry Vaughan’s work than that assumed by a simple borrowing of Hermetic terms to illustrate or ‘flesh out’ an otherwise conventional, Christian understanding.  Miss Elizabeth Holmes devoted a whole book to the subject and it has been discussed by many other commentators.[7]  And yet, Vaughan’s supposed Hermeticism is very difficult to pin down. It appears as only scattered references throughout the corpus of his work and, in the end, one tends to agree with Ross Garner who says (of Vaughan’s supposed Hermeticism):

Vaughan does not make out of God a scientific principle, an adjunct of matter by which it may be governed.  He takes explanations of the physical universe of which he is aware and uses them parabolically to adumbrate Christian doctrine.[8]

And so, while we may come across references to Hermetic terms such as signatures, rays, beams, sympathies, magnets, and so on, these are terms which Vaughan assimilates effortlessly into his Christianity..

For all that, the words that crop up most frequently in Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans poems are biblical words – shoots, buds, dew, doves, stones, roses, light, to mention but a few of his favourite themes.  There can be little doubt that Vaughan’s main source is the bible and that other influences are secondary by comparison. But the word white, so often used by Vaughan as an epithet for that he holds in high regard (e.g. ‘white, celestial thought’ in The Retreat)), is probably not of biblical origin and deserves special mention.  Hutchinson points out that the Welsh counterpart, gwyn signifies not only white but fair, happy, holy, blessed.  ‘There is’, he says ‘no more frequent epithet in Welsh poetry’.  As an example, he goes on to point out that the Welsh word for Paradise is gwynfyd – literally ‘white world’.

The question of Vaughan’s mysticism is also problematical.  Very often, you will see Vaughan (and Traherne for that matter) described in anthologies of English poetry as ‘a Seventeenth century mystic’  It’s not that easy, for there are mystics and mystics.  If we are talking of a person who has achieved a full unity with the Divine – a man, as it were, living wholly in another world – then Vaughan was not a mystic.  For one thing, there are practical considerations which are not lost on Stevie Davies in her account of Vaughan’s life.  She wonders (and so do I) how someone with eight children by two marriages manages to get enough ‘quiet time’ to meditate at all!  Most of Vaughan’s important religious poetry was written before he was thirty-five years old and between his twenty-fifth and thirty-fifth year, four children were born into the Vaughan household. The house would have been a fairly lively place, certainly no eremite’s cell.  Moreover, either as a secretary or a doctor, we assume that Vaughan had to earn a crust.  Mind you, J.S. Bach was in the same boat, but I note that no less a critic than H.C. Robbins-Landon has described him as being ‘in many respects a genuine mystic’.[9]

More likely, I think, is Ross Garner’s appraisal.  In discussing one of Vaughan’s better known ‘mystical’ poems, The Night, he supposes that what characterises Vaughan’s religious experience is that of a longing for mystical union, not its achievement. And yet, when we read his great religious poems, is it not the case that we, ourselves, feel as if Vaughan has achieved some sort of mystical union.  That this should be so is the mark of great poetry.  Now, it is interesting to note that T.S. Eliot supposes Vaughan to be a ‘minor religious poet’ precisely because his poetry is the product of  ‘a special religious awareness, which may exist without the general awareness which we expect of the major poet’.[10]  In other words, Vaughan’s poetry is simply ‘devotional poetry’ –like say, Helen Steiner Rice. But this is surely not true!  Some of his religious poetry is of this type no doubt and Hutchison refers to certain of it as ‘plodding couplets of conventional piety’.  But most is far more universal in its appeal.  Vaughan, of all people, is a generalist, not a specialist. He lived at a time when the particular symbols and practices associated with his form of Anglicanism were shattered by the Civil War. As Kathleen Raine reminds us: ‘Iconoclastic Protestantism largely destroyed, in England, the images which always had been, and must normally be, the natural language of spiritual knowledge’.[11]  For this reason, if for no other, he was inclined to draw his inspiration from wider sources and, most especially, from the natural world around him. But Vaughan’s nature was not Wordsworth’s nature.  It was at the same time a reflection of the Divine and a veil, obscuring the Divine. Vaughan, I think, would have agreed with William Blake – ‘Mr Wordsworth must know that what he Writes Valuable is not to be found in Nature’.

It is true that there are many enigmas in Vaughan’s poetry, but I suspect these are of our making, not his. Vaughan can appear to hold the things of this earth in contempt, yet regard them as hierophantic.  At some times, his poetry hints at an immanent spirituality, at others, a transcendent spirituality. His poetry can appear very simple yet, upon closer study, it reflects all of the complexities inherent in the Christian tradition.  But it is the mark of a truly imaginative spirit that such contraries can be held together without conflict.  Vaughan’s best poetry transcends such concerns and draws upon a world of the imagination which is outside time and outside history.  No one has put it better than Raine:

Those who look to a timeless world are least likely to fall into archaisms of style, for the world of imagination is outside history altogether.  Pope, Dryden and Auden are dated in a way that Dante, Milton, Coleridge, and Yeats, even when these embody in their imaginative world themes from history, can never be.[12]

I think I would be tempted to add to these two lists given by Raine.  To the first list of Pope, Dryden and Auden, I would add Eliot.  To the second list, I would add Vaughan.  The Waste Land may well reflect a modern, fragmented mind at the end of its tether and it may well be the best poem of the last hundred years (as some think it is).  But it can only have meaning in an age as terrible as ours.  Vaughan’s best poems, on the other hand, are outside the context of history and they supply an intellectual nourishment of real substance, not the sort of literary Bovril so lauded by many modern critics. They are, in all truth ‘bright shoots of everlastingness’.



(This essay first appeared in Connor Court Quarterly, No. 7, 2013)


[1] The word did not yet bear its current meaning (though it was on its way to doing so).  It still bore its older meaning of ‘concept’. Used pejoratively, it meant a poetry of clever ideas.

[2] Such intensity of feeling some 250 years later may seem a little odd, but is by no means unique.  I am indebted to John Julius Norwich for the following pieces which appeared consecutively in the In Memoriam column of The Times in London On 3rd Sept., 1969

OLIVER CROMWELL, 25th April, 1599 – 3rd September 1658.  Lord Protector, 1653-1658.  Statesman, General and Ruler.

‘Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered’.  Psalm 68, verse i.

In honoured remembrance.

CROMWELL. – To the eternal condemnation of Oliver, Seditionist, Traitor, Regicide, Racialist, proto-Fascist and blasphemous Bigot.  God save England from his like. – Hugo Ball.



[3] Henry Vaughan: A Life and Interpretation. Oxford Univ. Press. London. 1947.  260pp

[4] Henry Vaughan.  Seren (Poetry Wales Press), Border Lines Series. Bridgend, Wales, 1995.  213pp.

[5] Henry Vaughan.  The Complete Poems.   Penguin Books, London.  1983 Revised Edition. 718pp.  All extracts of poems quoted in this essay come from Rudrum’s Edition.

[6] Here I use part of the translation by Alan Rudrum of Vaughan’s Latin original.

[7] Henry Vaughan and the Hermetic Philosophy.  Oxford, 1932.

[8] Henry Vaughan: Experience and the Tradition.  Univ. Chicago Press, 1959.

[9] Handel and his World.  Flamingo (Harper Collins), London 1992 pg. 285

[10] ‘Religion and Literature’ in:  T.S. Eliot. Selected Essays.  Faber & Faber. 1972 (3rd edit).

[11] Defending Ancient Springs.  Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.  Pg.118

[12] Defending Ancient Springs.  Oxford Univ. Press, 1985.  Pg 122

The Nature of Nature

In his Studies in Words (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1967), C.S. Lewis devotes a whole chapter to the word nature.  The various ways in which we use that word today, he suggests, can be traced back to the Latin natura, the English kind (gecynde, cynde, kynde, etc), and the Greek phusis. Of the three roots, it is the Greek phusis which gives the most trouble, and it is a particular development of that word which is the subject of this essay.

Lewis reminds us of Aristotle’s famous definition of phusis as ‘whatever each thing is like  when its process of coming to be is complete’ (Physics, Book II) and then goes on to make the point that, long before Aristotle, the word phusis had taken on another and quite different meaning.  The Presocratic Greek philosophers, he tells us, had the idea of taking all of the subject matter of human knowledge (gods, people, plants, animals, minerals) and assigning it to a class or category which they called phusis. In short, phusis was the ‘whole shebang’. And so, phusis moves from being a word like ‘sort’ or ‘quality’ or ‘character’, to a word describing all of the objects of human thought.  This is why the written works of the Presocratics often bore the title Peri Phuseos – ‘about nature’ or ‘about the things that are’.  In case you think that this latter term takes the cake in terms of all-encompassing titles, then you have forgotten Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness!  I would be interested to hear from anyone who can suggest a more ‘global’ title for a work.

Jonathon Barnes, a modern commentator on the Presocratics (Early Greek Philosophy, Penguin Books, London, 1987), has a slightly different take to Lewis. He supposes that the Greek word kosmos, as used by Heraclitus, is a description of everything – the whole world.  He leaves us uncertain, however, as to whether kosmos included the gods.  Whatever the case, Barnes finds it extraordinary that these early Greeks should have felt the need for a word to describe the totality of things. But why should it be any more extraordinary for them than it is for us today?  Barnes, I fear, suffers from what Owen Barfield has called ‘logomorphism’ –our tendency to suppose that we can deduce just what the ancients might have thought (or not thought) by projecting our own ideas back in time but imagining them in a ‘primitive’ mind.  In any case, the word kosmos was more often used to describe an orderly arrangement of things or an ‘adornment’.

Irrespective of whether we consider either phusis or kosmos, nature as ‘everything’ is not a very helpful word.  As Lewis points out, nature in this sense has no opposite – ‘when we say that any particular thing is part of nature, we know no more about it than before.’  ‘Everything’, as Lewis says, ‘is a subject on which there is not much to be said.’  Indeed, there is a certain sense in which strict monism creates huge problems for us.  If, for instance, we conceive of the Parmenidean ‘One’ as the only Reality then, logically, we must suppose that the human self is not different from this Reality. But, we cannot talk about ‘the One’ without identifying it as an object of thought over and against oneself as subject.  In other words, merely by positing all human activity (including thinking) as part of an all-encompassing Reality, Parmenides must step outside this Reality in some way in order to say anything about it at all. You cannot describe a total system from the inside.

The Demotion of Nature

In any case, as Lewis points out, nature as a sort of absolute collectivity was soon demoted in the history of Western thought.  Rather obviously, Plato’s famous Theory of Forms saw the objects of the sensible world as mere copies or shadows of the archetypal Forms – there were now two orders of reality.  Opinions may differ as to how Plato conceived of the Forms in relation to the sensible objects of this world but, without doubt, the objects perceived by the human senses were less real than the archetypal Forms.  Now there was phusis, and there was the world of the Forms.  There followed, of course, the Christian conception of nature as a creation of God.  Here, much as in Plato’s Timaeus, the sensible world was an artifact – the creation of an Artist.  Indeed, even throughout the Middle Ages, this idea of a nature created by God retained some of the earlier Platonic ideas. It was generally accepted that the realm beyond the moon contained the unvarying heavens and these were an expression of the divine order.  By contrast, the sublunar realm was the domain of chance, mutability and death. Nature had now been demoted even further.  It was not the kosmos, but only part of it – that part subject to corruption, decay, and death.

But those same medieval commentators who regarded nature as the realm of decay could also think of nature as some great and benevolent force.  In The Romance of the Rose, the fight of ‘Dame Nature’ against corruption and death is beautifully portrayed.  We find nature as ‘the vicaire of the almighty Lorde’ in Chaucer’s Parlement of Foulys (line 379).   We find similar sentiments in Piers Ploughman (Book XI, B text) where the author marvels at Nature and at the lessons she teaches.  Nature, in this sense, remains with us today as a very powerful idea.  Lewis calls the idea ‘Great Mother Nature’.  If I were asked to demonstrate its clearest modern expression, I think I would elect those Disney wildlife films so popular about two or three decades ago.  You can even catch a whiff of it in Sir David Attenborough’s whispered commentaries in spite of his scientific determinism.  Of course, we should not suppose that ‘Mother Nature’ was a medieval creation.  One can trace the idea back as far as Homer where, in Book IV of the Odyssey, we have that account of Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, transforming himself into all of the manifestations of the natural world.  He is a sort of ‘Father Nature’.

While it may be true that ‘Mother Nature’ continues to be an important idea, modern empirical science seems to drain it of any real meaning.  For the empiricist, there is nothing beyond the material cosmos as a vast collection of ‘matter’ and ‘forces’ obeying the laws of physics, chemistry, and evolution.  ‘Mother Nature’ is merely a sentimental depiction, albeit socially useful, for that vast entity called ‘the web of life’.  Moreover, when it is all boiled down, humans are merely one ‘node’ in that vast web of life.


Is Nature a Unity or a Plurality?

And so, the critical question is whether ‘nature’ considered as a whole is greater than the sum of all the parts that make it up.  In metaphysical terms, is the One merely another name for the collection of the Many?  It is precisely here, I think, that the empiricists run into trouble and that particular trouble has been greatly accentuated in recent decades by the rise of what I will call ‘environmental consciousness’. In modern environmental thought, there is that very strong sense of humanity (especially Western humanity) running contrary to nature. There is also an associated idea, albeit somewhat vague, of nature possessing its own élan vital, a la Bergson and, thereby, establishing the basis for qualities like intrinsic value. Many environmentalists also regard the earth as a single, vast organism – the Gaia of James Lovelock, for instance. But, if nature (of which we are a part) is merely a vast collection of materials obeying blind laws (physical, chemical, evolutionary) through a causal chain, then where does the question of value or of right and wrong arise?  These are merely subjective, human tags. Why should nature, in this sense, have a value like beauty, for instance? One man’s waterfall is simply another man’s hydro-electric opportunity. Of course, there are other problems for the empiricist. If we suppose that humans are merely rather intelligent, trousered or skirted apes, then we must at least question what it is in us that allows such an estimation.  How do we explain the ability of reflection in biological terms?

 Is Human Nature ‘Natural’?

Again, if we want to suppose that the human species, like any other species, is totally the product of a natural, evolutionary process, in what sense can the actions of modern humanity be seen as ‘destructive’ or ‘unnatural’?  One might argue that, in multiplying their numbers, building their cities and devouring an ever-increasing amount of the earth’s natural resources, humans are simply acting out some genetically or environmentally determined role under a process of natural selection. Ecological harmony, after all, is the harmony of balanced warfare, since the blind process of natural selection knows nothing of charity and moral virtue.  The cuckoo survives by destroying the embryos of its avian relatives and replacing them with its own so that it holds its neighbours in no higher regard than slavish wet nurses. For humans, there is no room for genuine freedom because this hints at some sort of transcendental Reality. Real freedom would imply that, at least in some respects, humans were not ‘part of nature’. The argument can be put in fairly simple terms: if humans are wholly ‘within nature’, then everything that they do is ‘natural’. Philosophers often put this sort of argument as ‘no ought from an is’. That is to say, from a set of statements about how things are in nature, we cannot deduce how things ought to be vis a vis human behaviour.

Of course, it would be silly to suppose that these objections to the empiricists’ view of nature cannot be challenged.  The usual objection raised here is that humans have ceased to be under control of natural selection and are, instead, governed by a process of social or cultural selection. But we must then ask how a species can ‘escape’ as it were, from the processes of natural selection. There is a whole new discipline called ‘environmental philosophy’, where these questions are subjected to minute scrutiny and where arguments for ‘intrinsic value’ in nature (to take but one example) are prosecuted with great vigor.  The nature-culture debate is also a hot issue and the empiricists are not without some defense against similarly awkward questions. A case in point is the recent book Human Natures by Paul Ehrlich (Island Press, USA. 2000). In a book marshaling over 1700 footnotes and 2500 references, Ehrlich attempts to show how the totality of human natures (he is opposed to the idea of a single ‘human nature’) can be explained in evolutionary terms. Despite this prodigious show of scholarship, his case is hardly convincing.  As he himself says in a masterly understatement, ‘the details of the process of cultural evolution are not well understood’. The implication is that science will one day provide the needed answers, but it is difficult to see how any new information can obtain an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

The Modern Notions of Nature

Let’s get back to nature!  I have tried to give a very brief account of one particular elaboration of this word – nature as representing the entire material world.  But it is not as simple as that.  In our everyday conversation we often use the word natural as the opposite of artificialNature then becomes all of those things that occur ‘of their own accord’.  We are now getting much closer to the modern ‘environmental’ view of what constitutes nature.  Nature is that which has not been interfered with.  But every part of nature interferes with every other part in a great causal chain, so this clearly is not what the environmentalists mean.  On closer examination, nature is all of that which has not been altered by human activity so as to become a sort of artifice. The natural is the opposite of the cultural. Indeed, this sort of meaning can also be traced back to early Greece – to the distinction between phusis and techne.  But, as Lewis points out, ‘if ants had a language, they would, no doubt, call their anthill an artifact and describe the brick wall in its neighbourhood as a natural object.’

We now begin to see that nature is, in fact, a wholly human creation.  We may not have physically created the matter of the universe but we have certainly created nature.  In the same way, we have created concepts like ecosystem and wilderness area. This is why such commonplace terms as ‘natural ecosystem’ or ‘ecologically sustainable development’ (this last, a term beloved of government bureaucrats and uttered as a sort of mantra) are so problematic.  No two people will have exactly the same idea of what constitutes a ‘natural ecosystem’ or ‘pristine wilderness’. These are not mathematical truths or ‘objects’ with an unambiguous empirical reality (inasmuch as the latter is allowed in these post-Kantian times).  Rather, they are something akin to Universals, whose existence relies on our tacit agreement.

The English writer Peter Coates (Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times, Polity Press, UK, 1998) gives us a very good example of the sort of problem we are up against:

The suburban lawn may seem an unlikely choice but it illustrates nicely the clumsiness of the received categories of nature and culture. We might conclude that, while grass seed and blades of grass are part of nature, they enter the realm of artifice through their collective identity as a lawn. Yet the seeds themselves are completely domesticated, bred for shade tolerance, for instance. Does the lawn become more natural, however, if dandelions, daisies and moss – the spontaneous products of ‘nature’ – establish themselves?

Coates goes on to point out that many of the so-called ‘natural environments’ in the UK are very largely the product of human activity over thousands of years.  Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of any reasonably accessible part of Europe as being in a wholly natural state if we wish to define nature in the way I have suggested above.  In his essay Inside the Whale, George Orwell referred to ‘the ancient bone-heap of Europe where every grain of soil has passed through innumerable human bodies.’

Nature in the New World

When you come to think about it, the undoubted dominance of American writers in the broad area of nature conservation (I am thinking of people like John Muir and Aldo Leopold) is hardly surprising.  Only in the ‘New World’ could the effects of European civilization upon a certain perception of nature (nature as wilderness) be clearly observed in the course of a few generations.  The changes were both obvious and rapid.  By contrast, in Europe, the landscape had been changing under human influence for thousands of years so that some benchmark or starting point of ‘pristine nature’ was not available.  It is true that the word ecology comes from Germany, not America, but the originator, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was not really thinking of ‘pristine’ nature.  Rather, his emphasis was on an anti-mechanistic and holistic approach to biology.  It was the approach, not the subject matter, which concerned him in the main.

And this, I think, also explains why we in Australia tend to accept the American model so readily.  Like the Americans, we are in a position to observe rapid changes in our ‘natural environment’ over a relatively short time.  When I was at school, the frontispiece of the Victorian Readers Eighth Book included a reproduction of McCubbin’s Pioneers as a fit subject of admiration –here were people who had made Australia liveable for us. Further on in the book one could find similar sentiments in poems and stories. George Essex Evans’ The Nation Builders praised the sturdy timber cutter of the east coast ‘where the axe is ringing in the heart of the ranges grim’. Nowadays, a large proportion of the population regards the cutting down of native forests as a necessary evil at best and an act of vandalism at worst. We now equate all human-implemented change in this category of nature as a fall from harmony.

But the climate has changed even further in some quarters.  If one has some concept of a pristine nature – a modern ‘wilderness area’, let us say – then there are other interesting situations which arise.  Take the question of wildfires, for instance.  If a lightning strike causes a wildfire in some ‘wilderness area’, should we as humans endeavor to put it out?  The situation is similar regarding the notion of ‘maintenance of biodiversity’ (another very hazy term beloved of bureaucrats).  At the present time we have a certain suite of ‘indigenous’ species of plants and animals.  Every effort is being made to prevent further extinctions and yet, as the evolutionary biologists tell us, extinctions are a normal process in nature.   Of course, we can argue that recent human activity has greatly hastened the process of extinction of species.  Nonetheless, it remains true that if we were able to completely prevent further extinctions we would, and in so doing, we would be acting against ‘evolutionary forces’.  In short, our actions would be unnatural.  Had we been about in the days of the dinosaurs and taken every effort to prevent their extinction, the particular degree of biodiversity that we now have may very well have been less.  Who knows?

Nature, Purity, and Health

There are many other curious features of the modern view of nature.  One is the view that prehistoric human societies (and, indeed, many historical hunter-gatherer societies in the ‘New World’) were ‘part of nature’, whereas modern and premodern human societies are not.  In other words, the whole history of Western civilization is seen in terms of a sort of ecological declension.  One other very strange notion of nature can be seen in any supermarket aisle.  This is the identification of natural with pure, or health giving.  Hence product titles such as ‘Pure and Natural’, ‘Nature’s Own’, ‘Nature’s Bounty’, etc.  What exactly does natural mean here?  It cannot mean ‘unprocessed’ (in the sense of not being interfered with by humans) because there it is in a plastic bag, or tin, or cardboard box.  Neither can it mean ‘healthy’ in any general sense because many ‘natural’ products are deadly poisonous.  Botulinum toxin is natural.  So is fluoroacetic acid – a deadly poison occurring in many native plants.  When, in Auguries of Innocence, Blake wrote ‘The Strongest Poison ever known/Came from Caesar’s Laurel Crown’, he was giving us a double truth.

Closely allied to this are particular usages of the words organic and environment.  A neighbour down the road – one of the last farmers in this district – sells organic milk!  Indeed, it is only because he has organic milk that he is still able to operate his business as a small family farm.  He has a marketing edge over the big operators.   Our local supermarket has ‘chemical-free’ chickens and our greengrocer has lines of organic vegetables.  Here, organic and natural are almost interchangeable words.  And yet, of course, the vast majority of human-manufactured chemicals are organic chemicals. For the biochemist, of course, the idea of ‘chemical-free’ chickens is a bit hard to take – the more hard-line biochemists would probably suppose that a chemical-free chicken was an entity entirely lacking in substance – a mere potentiality!.

Likewise, the word environment really means ‘surrounding; surrounding objects, region, or conditions, especially circumstances of life of persons or society’ (OED).  But that is not how the word is generally used today.  In our district, most of the waste disposal people class their trade as ‘environmental services’.  As far as I am aware, only one brave soul sticks to ‘desludging of septic tanks’.  I am particularly impressed with the professionalism of this operator.  He calls his business ‘Smithy’s Takeaways’ and, just above the main outlet valve on his huge tanker truck are the words ‘Another load of politicians’ promises’.  ‘Smithy’ himself is a very likeable and intelligent character who loves his job and takes the septic tank business very seriously indeed.  He obviously takes a keen and discerning interest in politics too!

Environment now means ‘clean and green’.  A healthy ‘environment’, is generally one devoid of any sort of by-product resulting from human activity –right the way from human excretory products to carbon dioxide emissions from industry. In other words, environment is gradually being transformed so as to have a meaning almost synonymous with natural (in the modern sense of that word).  Hence, the term human environment is almost an oxymoron.

The Demonisation of Human Activity in Nature

We might argue that this whole business of our use of nature, natural, etc. is harmless enough and that common sense usually prevails.  But I think there is a danger, and I see that danger increasing as time passes.  It is the danger that young people, continually bombarded with these ideas, will come to see every human production as being in some way a ‘denaturing’ process.  It is, of course true that the idea of human as intruder in nature is not a recent invention.  In his Intimations Ode, Wordsworth laments his loss of innocence in nature:

But yet I know, where’er I go,

That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

We ought to note, however, that Wordsworth was no denigrator of humanity.  He could find ample recompense for his sense of the loss of ‘natural man’ in the power of human imagination, so beautifully expressed in the Tintern Abbey poem.

Perhaps closer to this modern sense of the ‘unnatural human’ is Albert Camus’s idea of the absurdity of human life and a feeling of alienation from nature.  Thus, for instance, in The Myth of Sisyphus he says:

At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise.

Or again,

We turn our backs on nature; we are ashamed of beauty.  Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them and the blood that trickles from them is the colour of printer’s ink.

But Camus wrote this before the advent of the ‘age of ecology’. A new brand of hopelessness has since entered the scene.  And so, in the end we come to a sort of contemptus hominis – hatred for all that is human- made or human altered, especially if the humans happen to belong to Western civilisation.  A typical example comes from Ian McHarg (Design in Nature. Natural History Press, N.Y.1969)

Such is our inheritance.  A ragbag of ancient views, most of them breeding fear and hostility, based on ignorance, certain to destroy, incapable of creation.  Show me the prototypical anthropocentric, anthropomorphizing man and you will see the destroyer, atomic demolition expert, clear feller of forests, careless miner, he who fouls the air and the water, destroys whole species of wildlife: the gratified driver of bulldozers, the uglifier.

Commenting on similar but more extreme examples from the writings of animal liberationists, Bernard Levin, a well-known English columnist, has this to say:

This is, I think, a phenomenon very much of our time.  St. Francis loved the beasts and preached to the birds; indeed, he spoke kindly of a flea.  But his love of animals stemmed from his love of mankind, and it would never have occurred to him that the one precluded the other; in his father’s house there were many mansions.  Now, we hear on all hands that man is the enemy, that the planet cannot stand much more of him, that only animals are noble and pure.  I think it is worse than that; I think there is a hatred of life itself somewhere down in the cellarage, an unbearable rage at the very fact that there is a universe and that we are in it, for good or ill, along with the animals.

There is something in what Levin says.  We need to realise, as Peter Coates says, that nature is, in a sense, never itself but always ours.  If we downgrade the human then, automatically, we downgrade nature as well.

In all of the above, of course, I do not deny that the environmentalists have real concerns.  We are causing real damage in nature. No one could deny, for instance, the reality of the salinity problem in Australia.  My point is that we cannot hope to find a solution to our problems by relying totally on scientific advances or, alternatively, by reverting to some sort of hunter-gatherer livestyle.  A large part of our problem is deeply connected with our perception of what it means to be human. In a contribution to Quarterly Essay (Issue 10, 2003), Barney Foran, a well-known and respected environmental scientist in Australia, urged us to ‘start valuing people as solutions rather than relying on technological wizardry’.  He spoke also of needing to substitute ‘the rush and excitement of a real life for the rush brought on by buying and owning things.’

It is something of a savage irony that at a time when we can boast of having ‘conquered’ so much of ‘nature’ in the Baconian sense, we now feel so isolated from that which we purport to understand so well.  In successfully demythologising nature and our own past we have, in that very process, lost all sense of meaning and purpose for human life.  In becoming fully ‘part of nature’ as intelligent apes in the evolutionary schema, we now perceive the whole human enterprise as being no more than a destructive perturbation on the idiot face of a blind nature. We are no more than a brief irruption – like a mouse plague – on a tiny planet in a tiny corner of an immense universe.  As C.S. Lewis pointed out long ago (in The Abolition of Man), we have not conquered nature; she has conquered us.