Henry Vaughan was a Welsh metaphysical poet, born in Brecknockshire in 1621. He wrote The Retreat in 1650 when he was just 29 years old, a poem part of the Silex Scintillans, his most famous collection. Retreat here has a dual meaning. One is to hide, to get away from one’s life. The other is a pleasant place where one might go to stay, such as a religious retreat at Ampleforth. Both a return to the past, and a longing to escape to an easier time are desired by Vaughan, which you will find below:
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 several sin to every 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.
Such power in 32 lines. What does this poem say to me?
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to consider my present ‘grown up’ problems with angel infancy and a blameless outlook. What would my younger self have made of my present self? Perhaps a futile exercise, but our present lives are quite riddled with difficulties. It can be easy to wish to shirk responsibilities and be in peace. Vaughan highlights in the first six lines the ease with which he reached a state of mental peace and laments, impliedly, that now he must make a great effort to reach white (pure) celestial thought.
Lines 7-14 speak of the forlorn memories of one’s first love; their childhood home. Looking back on these with adult eyes, as it were, helps the reader see how precious these moments were. It also helps us see the value Donne places on purity of mind and thought, unsullied by what we learn as we go through life. Indeed these were so precious that the reader sees God in them.
Again lines 15-20 continue on this theme, lamenting the loss of childhood innocence of thought, and not yet knowing how to over indulge the senses. In a way, Vaughan is saying that a state of purity is required for us to attain the everlasting. The following six lines develop this vague longing into an expressed desire – the writer tells us that he would rather live in the past than in the present, a shocking revelation to me.
The final six lines show us that the speaker realises that he is living in the past, and that this is unhealthy but he still chooses to do so. He writes expressly that some men prefer to move forward but he would rather go back, and this longing to go back transforms itself into a longing to skip the present and go furthest into the future – this is to say, to die and rise again and follow Christ into heaven.
This is undoubtedly a beautiful poem. I am a man who loves forward motion, so I cannot entirely relate to the longing for childhood in this poem. Nor can I relate to the longing to return to purity of thought and the awed wonder of initial discoveries. This belief that our current mode of thought is somehow inferior to that of our childhood selves is nonsensical to me. The idea that one should long for the past, or past purity of mind, to such an extent that they wish to die and return there, even in heaven, is horrifying. Surely one should acknowledge their childhood, note its passing, and focus on living in the present. They might also focus on planning for the future. Notwithstanding my philosophical objections with the subject matter, I recognise, especially given the unpleasant nature of the present what with its virus and storms, that some may find solace in this poem. Reading The Retreat, one may be comforted realising they are not alone in their wish to return to a simpler time.