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The Unfolding Vision
By Jonathan F. S. Post
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Vaughan In and Out of "the Shade of His Owne Bayes": Poems 1646
Piping on their reeds, the shepherds go,
Nor fear an ambush, nor suspect a foe.
— Homer Iliad (trans. Pope) 18. 525-26
"It is not enough for an ingenuous gentleman to behold these [ancient statues] with a vulgar eye, but he must be able to distinguish them and tell who and what they be," writes Henry Peacham. Much the same could be said of the "gentleman" poets of the 1630s and '40s who moved among the statuesque figures of the Caroline court. It was important to be "in the know" — to praise the right women with the right phrase, to "tell who and what they be" in a manner that was at once distinct and poised yet not so "original" as to endanger the surface elegance of the tribute. When Lady Ventia Digby, wife to "that noble and absolutely complete gentleman, Sir Kenelm Digby," died, established authors as well as would-be wits quickly penned a book's worth of elegies. When natural, easy Suckling chose to outsmart his court rival, Thomas Carew, in "Upon my Lady Carlile's walking in Hampton-Court garden," he did so by glancing at this fabled beauty with an eye that certainly insinuated he was the more knowing of the two men.
Amatory opportunism had returned to the court, a court whose literary influence was felt by many, including the young Henry Vaughan. Under James I, Jonson had shrugged aside his predecessors' Petrarchisms and began a volume of verse by boldly announcing "Why I Write not of Love"; and for whatever reasons — the notorious boorishness of the king, the sense of a genre being exhausted — poets generally followed Ben in pursuing more "masculine" and classical forms of verse such as the epigram, epistle, ode, or satire. But with the arrival from France of Charles's Catholic bride, Henrietta Maria, "Cupid's Call," as Shirley later phrased it, came back in vogue. "The Court affords little News at present," writes James Howell in a letter of 1634 that surely deserves to be called familiar,
but that there is a Love call'd Platonick Love, which much sways there of late; it is a Love abstracted from all corporeal gross Impressions and sensual Appetite, but consists in Contemplations and Ideas of the Mind, not in any carnal Fruition. This Love sets the Wits of the Town on work; and they say there will be a Mask shortly of it, whereof Her Majesty and her Maids of Honour will be part.
Howell was documenting what later scholars have come to regard as the "précieuse fashions authorized by the queen," a system of etiquette popular in the French salons of the earlier seventeenth century that attempted to effect both "the purification of the language and of the relations between the sexes." Particularly suited to the highly stylized form of the masque (Davenant's Temple of Love is the one alluded to by Howell), the cult of platonic love quickly found its way into the drama and poetry of the period. Besides inspiring Davenant's play entitled The Platonic Lovers (1636), the cult's influence is also present in some of the more celebrated drama of the period, such as Cartwright's The Royal Slave (1636) and Suckling's Aglaura (1636-37), both of which played at a private theater as well as the court and reflect an extremely idealized and artificial view of the passions.
Poetry underwent a similar refinement in its expressions of love. Randolph's "An Elegy," written probably in the final years of the author's life (1634-35) and sometimes supplied with the adjective "Platonick" by his later editors, revises and elevates a genre that had always been identified with the erotic, while Lord Herbert of Cherbury's "An Ode upon a Question moved" unties "that subtile knot" Donne had made between body and soul in "The Extasie" in order to celebrate the enduring permanence of spiritual union. It was left to the Jesuitical William Habington to string these sentiments into a sequence of lyrics, in sonnet fashion, which praised the virtues of a chaste love. His Castara, into its third edition by 1640 (the other two appeared in 1634 and 1635), was the work of someone who readily confessed to having "never felt a wanton heate," and the poetry reflects this pristine ardor in its theme (the couple marries), its imagery (filled with celibate overtones), and its diction (appropriately effete and sweet). In these lyrics love is carefully "abstracted from all corporeal gross Impressions and sensual Appetite"; the torment of passions — especially those arising from the conflicting values of honor and desire — that motivated Petrarchists a half-century earlier to woo in such fervent numbers had been effectively tamed. To a large degree, so was the poet's muse. Although Habington offered his lyrics as a corrective to the current fashions of verse clothed in "French garbe," his were not so free from the "effeminacy" that he accused others of possessing; instead of achieving his purpose of refining the licentious behavior of court wits, his poetry only further fostered a rarified atmosphere that helped to create a cynical Suckling or a carnal Carew. As the cast of characters to Aglaura indicates, for every "platonique," there was an "antiplatonique."
The préciosité of love in the Stuart court was perfectly in tune with its insular political attitudes. In Stephen Orgel's memorable phrase, Charles was more interested in the "illusion of power" than in actual military conquests; his heroics were all staged, his victories imaginary. When Carew responded to Aurelian Townshend's request for an elegy on the death of the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus, his often-quoted answer betrays both a world on which actual political events had little bearing and a mode of poetry unwilling or unable to respond to the larger historical moment:
Alas! how may
My Lyrique feet, that of the smooth soft way
Of Love, and Beautie, onely know the tread,
In dancing paces celebrate the dead
Victorious King, or his Majesticke Hearse
Prophane with th'humble touch of their low verse. (11. 5-10)
It was hardly the time for a heroic poem, let alone an epic in the manner of a Virgil, Lucan, or Tasso (1. 11). Carew saw poets best serving the age by using "the benefit / Of peace and plenty" (11. 46-47) to celebrate "our good King" (1. 48) in pastoral revels like Walter Montague's "SHEPHERDS PARADISE" (1.54), a direct offspring of Henrietta Maria's interest in platonic love: "These harmelesse pastimes let my Townsend sing" (1. 89). Historians have rightly shuddered over the narrow and avowedly "escapist" vision expressed in Carew's poem and in others like it of the period: a court in which one of its leading poets could urge others to discover their artistic models in Montague's tedious and prolix "salon" pastoral had certainly lost its sense of perspective.
Henry Vaughan "Gent.," as the author identified himself on the title page to his first volume of verse, Poems (1646), never held a position at court and perhaps was never there in attendance, but he was certainly not immune from its influence. The young author wrote of "Les Amours," commended "Monsieur Gombauld" for his L'Endymion, and was current with some of the fashionable theater of the day; he might even have been in the audience at Oxford that included the king and queen for a celebrated performance of Cartwright's Royal Slave. Moreover, the simple title of Poems, along with the allusion to his present station in life, was strongly reminiscent of Carew's Poems (1640, 2nd ed., 1642) in which the author is described as "One of the Gentleman of the / Privie-chamber, and Sewer in / Ordinary to his Majesty." But it is Vaughan's preface "To all Ingenious Lovers of Poesie" that best establishes, via Habington, his allegiance to some of the précieuse fashions of the day; chastity reigns supreme:
You have here a Flame, bright only in its owne Innocence, thatkindles nothing but a generous Thought; which though it may warme the Bloud, the fire at highest is but Platonick, and the Commotion, within these limits, excludes Danger, (p. 2)
Along with including the author among the "Platonicks," the preface, in which one "Gent." addresses other "gentlemen," is a study in courtly nonchalance. Affectation is mimicked, a touch of decadence savored: "If any shall question that Courage that durst send me abroad so late, and revell it thus in the Dregs of an Age, they have my silence: only, Languescente seculo, liceat aegrotari" (when the age is languishing, one is permitted to be sick). Even the poet's translation of Juvenal's Tenth Satire is reported to have been undertaken not in a spirit of moral fervor but in order "to feather some slower Houres," while the quip from Persius planted on the title page — "Tam nil, nulla tibi vendo / llliade" (I will not sell [my book] for all your Iliads) — seems to make the possibility of heroic action as out of place in this volume as it was in Carew's poem to Townshend. Preciosity is doubly underlined by an author who, in prizing a book so slight in its original edition that the lines had to be double-spaced, would not part with his "achievement" for all the great books in literature.
The verse itself readily reveals its affinity with the effete fashions of the day. When Shirley, man about London and friend to Habington, writes in "Love for Enjoying" of the poet's art as being parallel to the "lapidary's" (1. 18), with the two contributing "here and there a star" (1.19) that affords "flame" and "lustre" to a lady, he describes exactly the poet's casual attitude toward his muse which, almost two centuries later, led Hazlitt to describe Caroline verse as a poetry of "fancy" rather than of "imagination" — the latter a term of praise he reserved for the Elizabethans. Regardless of whether we agree with Hazlitt's neat discriminations, or even the language in which they are expressed, court poetry in Charles's day was basically fanciful and decorative. Argumentation was limited, rhetorical strength rare. Although poets frequently borrowed their matter from Donne, they never attempted to overwhelm a woman by imitating his masculine, persuasive force; and though they might reveal a Jonsonian concern with a lady's appearance, they rarely showed his penetrating moral vision. The "lapidary's art" was not meant to be "original" — to create ex nihilo — but to cut, polish, and refine what had already been made available to him by the tradition. Rather than dazzling his audience, he settled for one or two flashes. In its most positive light, these methods have been seen as analogous to mannerism in painting, with its supreme attention to "restyling"; viewed negatively, they betrayed a sign of the failure of love to inspire anything new. But in either instance the mode was what gentlemen of the court practiced and the mode in which Vaughan began his career as a poet, even if he was not of the court.
The derivative nature of Poems is suggested immediately by the name of the woman wooed and eventually won in the course of the thirteen poems that make up the lyric half of the collection. Amoret, one of Spenser's heroines in The Faerie Queene, was to be later pursued by William Browne and still later by Edmund Waller in 1645, the year before Poems was published. If not quite a household word, she was certainly familiar fare to "all Ingenious Lovers of Poesie," and this was the audience the Welsh author was attempting to reach. A diminutive Amoretti, a collection with an already diminished scope (the title means "little loves"), Vaughan's sequence, like Spenser's, concludes with a similar intention of betrothal between poet and mistress, a minor variation on the courtly love scheme recently reintroduced by Habington, who celebrates his marriage at the beginning of the second part of Castara. And like both of these earlier collections, Vaughan's possesses little formal inventiveness. Most of his poems are in couplets, either pentameter or octosyllabics; a few make tentative experiments with stanzas of varying line lengths, and several more use conventional song forms. Instead of striking out in new directions, Vaughan works studiously within the existing traditions as he shows his familiarity with the popular modes of wooing — both Renaissance and Cavalier — to which he adds a touch of the classics. The poet writes on the recognized Petrarchan themes of absence ("To Amoret gone from him") and of night ("To Amoret, Walking in a Starry Evening"); he descends briefly into an underworld littered with Cupid's victims ("To my Ingenuous Friend, R. W."); and he signals an awareness of his contemporaries in works such as "Amyntas goe, thou art undone" (after Randolph), "To Amoret. The Sigh" (Carew), and "To his Friend Being in Love" (Suckling). Although hardly an ambitious collection of lyrics, it nonetheless covers a number of amatory possibilities without being repetitious: all thirteen poems are written in decidedly different moods. Less interested in perfecting a single stance — as both Suckling and Lovelace were — the young author explored a variety of poses; and though anyone familiar with Vaughan's later works can find his signature in these, the poetry is hardly so individual that it could not have come from the hand of any number of gentleman writers. On this score, it seems significant that the lyric sometimes thought to be the best of the amatory poems — "A Song to Amoret" — is also the quintessence of that noble and slightly self-indulgent mode which, through the efforts of a Lovelace or a Marquis of Montrose, has come to be identified as the special trademark of the "Cavalier" poem. For all of its grace, Vaughan's poem has the anonymity of an anthology piece:
Fortune and beauty thou mightst finde,
And greater men then I:
But my true resolved minde,
They never shall come nigh.
For I not for an houre did love,
Or for a day desire,
But with my soule had from above,
This endles holy fire. (p. 9, 11. 17-24)
The Cavalier poet's attitude toward his "lapidary" art also influenced both how he intepreted the amatory tradition and the diction he chose in order to express his love. "To Amoret, of the difference 'twixt him, and other Lovers, and what true Love is" belongs to a subgenre of love poetry extremely popular in the seventeenth century which includes such chestnuts as Donne's "A Valediction: forbidding mourning" and Marveil's "The Definition of Love"; both evoke Samuel Johnson's famous description of a "metaphysical" poem as one in which "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together [while] nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions." Vaughan's poem is clearly "late" Donne. The echo in lines 15-28 of the fourth and fifth stanzas of "A Valediction" is sufficiently pronounced to have attracted the notice of most readers, an effect the young poet surely intended. But what is striking about the poem is not just that Vaughan fails to reproduce his predecessor's conceits — the witty connections that keep spirit and flesh bound together as part of a single vision — but how, in unwinding these conceits, the younger author refines and rarifies the imagery of the phenomenal world. He makes the imagery precious rather than precise. Donne's opening simile ("As virtuous men passe mildly away") possesses a certain, immediate delicacy quickly interrupted by the drama of people attempting to determine the exact moment when the soul departs ("The breath goes now, and some say, no"). Vaughan's, on the other hand, lingers over the notion of evaporation, of a slightly occult and decadent setting of the sun: "the Evenings cooler wings / Fanne the afflicted ayre"; the "faint Sunne" does not complete a revolution but "leav[es] undone, / What he begunne" — something that rarely happens in Donne's poetry. The natural world, in fact, is in the process of disappearing from sight, and lover and reader are placed in the same, basically nondramatic, position of witnessing a sublunary life already false to the eye:
They shoot their tinsill beames, and vanities,
Thredding with those false fires their way;
But as you stay
And see them stray,
You loose the flaming track, and subt'ly they
And cheate your Eyes. (p. 12,11. 8-14)
Excerpted from Henry Vaughan by Jonathan F. S. Post. Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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