For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Monday, 26 May 2014

Then Comes The Light

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), was a physician and poet, and avowed imitator of George Herbert; opinions differ on who was the greater poet and indeed the deeper. Vaughan added this piece, Vain Wits and Eyes, to the dedication in his 1655 edition of Silex Scintillans, a work that marked his conversion to a "serious and devout life", as William Law would have it, following sickness and the expectation of his own death. The "fire" of the poem is Vaughan's inspiration; the "tears" are the reader's answer.

The reference in the poem must surely be St. John the Divine's message to the lukewarm Laodiceans in the Apocalypse 3:14-22. "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see."

VAIN wits and eyes
Leave, and be wise :
Abuse not, shun not holy fire,
But with true tears wash off your mire.
Tears and these flames will soon grow kind,
And mix an eye-salve for the blind.
Tears cleanse and supple without fail,
And fire will purge your callous veil,
Then comes the light! which when you spy,
And see your nakedness thereby,
Praise Him, Who dealt His gifts so free
In tears to you, in fire to me.

Something I like in Vaughan here is his self-assurance that his poetic inspiration is holy and powerful. The piece would not survive if one wasn't sure that he means what he is saying; but nor would it survive if one had any doubt about his God-given purpose - to put his finger on one's sins, and say: Repent. If I had to judge, I would say that in Vaughan the poet meets the prophet more closely than in Herbert. Herbert feels more like a gentle Sage, winning one along the straight and narrow; Vaughan points, and frightens.

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