Keeping the Ancient Way: the Life and Work of Henry Vaughan

New to our English Association Monographs series, Keeping the Ancient Way is a detailed study of the historical contexts and literary achievements of seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan. In this blog post, author Robert Wilcher reflects on his study of Vaughan throughout his academic career.

The publication of my book on Henry Vaughan, Keeping the Ancient Way, has happily coincided with the year that marks the four hundredth anniversary of his birth. Vaughan was one of those poets whose intellectual conceits and witty arguments fell out of favour during the eighteenth century. Indeed, by the time he died in 1695, his name had slipped almost entirely from public consciousness. Over the course of the nineteenth century, by means of a careful selection of poems that appealed to the Victorian taste for devotional verse, ‘nature poetry’, and visions of childhood innocence, he slowly regained a readership; and a scholarly Clarendon Press edition of his complete works in 1914 prepared the way for more serious critical attention. By the time my own engagement with Vaughan began in the late 1960s, he was being examined from a variety of perspectives: the extent of his contact with the Hermetic philosophy espoused by his twin brother, Thomas; his personal and poetic debt to George Herbert’s The Temple; his relation to the tradition of Christian mysticism; his use of Counter-Reformation meditational practices; and the significance of his exceptionally intimate knowledge of the Bible.

The chapter I devoted to Vaughan in my Ph.D. thesis had concentrated on the many ways in which he processed details from the natural world in his poetry. Soon afterwards, however, I became aware that there was a whole dimension of Vaughan’s work that had been ignored by earlier critics or condemned as a distraction from the otherworldliness of his spiritual focus on God and the wonders of Creation. The years in which he was active as a poet – between 1640 and 1655 – were those in which Britain was turned upside down by the civil war between King and Parliament: the Church of England was dismantled and its Prayer Book outlawed; Charles I was tried and executed; and the puritan Commonwealth and Protectorate imposed a particularly rigorous regime on the part of South Wales in which Vaughan spent most of his life. In two articles, published in 1974 and 1983, I began to uncover the subversive political elements in his pastoral elegy, ‘Daphnis’, and the two parts of Silex Scintillans, the collection of religious lyrics published in 1650 and 1655. 

Although Vaughan continued to figure prominently in my lectures and seminars, it was not until the 1990s that I next ventured into print about his work. Having been invited to read a paper at a conference on George Herbert, I decided to unpick the intricate and intense connections between some of the poems in Silex Scintillans and The Temple. The result was published in 1995, the very year in which the first colloquium organized by the Usk Valley Vaughan Association was held near Brecon. I attended the second colloquium and prepared a paper on ‘Henry Vaughan and the Church’ for the third, which was published in Scintilla, the Association’s annual volume. From then on, I was a regular contributor to the colloquium and Scintilla.

A few years after retiring in 2007, I began to assemble all my publications on Vaughan into the kind of collection that draws a line under an academic career. It soon became apparent that the option of merely reprinting them in chronological or some other order would not do. The essays fell into two groups: one focussing on contexts (biographical, religious, political) and the other on verbal artistry (literary allusions, nature imagery) – and there were more of the former than the latter. Now, I like symmetry! This meant that I would have to add further material on features of Vaughan’s poetic craft to balance the more contextual pieces. In particular, I saw that the book would need chapters on Herbert, the Scriptures, and such technical matters as rhyme, rhythm, and verse form. It was going to be a bigger task than I had anticipated. I ended up with a plan for a set of chapters on Biographical and Historical Contexts and another set on Literary Practices, arranged in two progressive and complementary sequences. This project was well under way, when I was asked to join the editorial team working on a new complete works of Henry Vaughan for Oxford University Press. Consequently, my book was parked for five or six years until the edition had been published in 2018. When I resumed work on it, I could draw upon that editorial experience, which provided me with a wealth of new annotation concerning Vaughan’s allusions to Herbert and the Bible. The editorial task of compiling an account of the historical development of Vaughan scholarship and criticism also informed my decision to introduce many of the chapters with a summary of the changing critical responses to, for example, the political dimension of Vaughan’s work and his habit of absorbing images and phrases from other texts.

In its final form, Keeping the Ancient Way contains much new material and few of the original essays have survived unchanged. It has an introduction, chapters on Henry Vaughan and Breconshire, Henry Vaughan and Thomas Vaughan, the Civil Wars, the Interregnum, and the Church; and in the second part, Henry Vaughan and the Art of Allusion, Henry Vaughan and George Herbert, the Scriptures, the Book of Nature (where a few fragments from my doctoral thesis found a final resting place), and the Practice of Poetry, rounded off by a brief epilogue. The title is derived from a phrase in one of Vaughan’s most overtly political poems – ‘Then keep the antient way’ – which declared his allegiance to the monarchy and the church that had been swept away by the Long Parliament and the New Model Army.

For more information on Keeping the Ancient Way, visit our website.

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