Monday, 12 September 2011

THE RETREAT. by Henry Vaughan A Study Guide

HAPPY those early days, when I
Shin'd in my angel-infancy !
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy ought
But a white, celestial thought ;
When yet I had not walk'd 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 flow'r,
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 sev'ral sin to ev'ry 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' enlighten'd 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.


Happy-blessed ; full of rapturous joy.  Those early days — referring to the days of the poet’s childhood. The poet was quite happy when he was a child. Shin’d—shone; was bright with. My — the poet’s. Angel-infancy — divine childhood. Childhood is redolent of angelic innocence and pu­rity. In his childhood, the poet was as pure and innocent as an angel. “This place — this earth. Before I…..... place — in his childhood the poet thought the earth to be a reality. Now as he has attained maturity of age and expe­rience, he has realised that the earth is an unreal, unsubstantial place, a dream or a vision.  Appointed — fixed, allotted.  My second race — his second existence.  According to the Platonic doctrine of Reminiscences, the soul of man has a prenatal existence in heaven which is its proper or original home.  Fancy — think.  Aught—anything on earth.   Taught — instructed. A white celestiahthought — in his childhood, the poet did not think anything but of God. God is the embodiment of bright light in heaven. The word ‘white’ refers to the symbol of purity.   In his childhood, the poet’s mind was filled with purity, he thought that all objects of nature were invested with a divine radiance. I had....... a mile, or two— the poet did not make a long journey, and the’ result was that he could see the shin­ing, resplendent face of God.
My first love — heaven is the first love of the soul. Looking back — recollecting. At the short space — at the short distance from heaven. Could see ........... face — could see the shining face of God. Here “first love” and “bright face” both signify God.   It is important to note that Vaughan’s mysticism rings here. Gilded — golden colour ; bright. Gilded cloud — the cloud is tinged with the bright golden light of the rising sun. On......... flower — on any beautiful phenomenon of nature. Vaughan thinks of na­ture as a source of revelation. He interprets nature from religious point of view as God’s work. Gazing — looking at something with fixed attention. My gazing soul — the poet’s soul that is filled with deep thought.  Dwell an hour — meditate for some time on its divine beauty as the manifesta­tion of God.  My gazing ........... an hour —the poet’s eager, intent soul would contemplate for an hour. Those weaker glories— the reflection of God’s effulgence in the objects of nature. The light on the objects is efful­gence in the objects of nature. The light on the objects is but a weaker form of the divine resplendence. The idea is Platonic here.  Spy — espy ; see ; find. Shadows — reflected and dimmed glories.  Eternity — eternal God. Shadows of eternity — dimmed reflections of God. What the poet wants to say is that when he was a child, he had the flashes of eternity. In his innocence and purity he recollected the divine types of heavenly life. Would — injure or hurt conscience or feeling.   Before I.......... sound — before he had learnt the language of the sinful men who speak about pro­fane and immoral things of the world without any prick of conscience. In his childhood he had not yet polluted his mind or mouth with foul thoughts and foul language which might hurt the sensibilities of his conscience. Black art — ft commonly refers to magic which is a forbidden art. Here it means knowledge of evil.  Dispense — distribute or allot. Several — separate, distinct. A several........ sense — a separate or distinct sin to each of the fine senses. Dispense .. sense — Men commit sins not through one par­ticular organ but through all organs. The poet did not allow senses to be perverted. Felt-perceived. This fleshly dress — the gross body which is a kind of covering or screen for the soul. This is the garment of flesh with which the soul is clothed. Shoots — glimpses. Everlastingness — eter­nity. Bright shoots of everlastingness — it is a very compact and effective metaphysical ‘conceit’. It is the glory that shoots from the face of the Eternal (God) and penetrates through the barriers of the body into the in­ner soul of man like flashes. It is the senses and sins of man that dim his vision of God but the divine light penetrates into the soul through the gross body.

O how I long ........... I came return. (L : 21-32)
THEME : Vaughan expresses his nostalgic .thought to go back to heaven from Where he has come to the earth. He desires a backward movement of life so that he gets back his childhood innocence and insight of his infancy. But his soul halts and staggers on the way of his retreat as it is intoxicated with the worldly pursuits, and the pleasures of the world. He realizes that it is not possible to go back to the pure innocence and insight of infancy. Death can alone enable him to go back to his childhood days of innocence and perfection.

Long — desire much; yearn, travel back — go back. Ancient track — Old path of childhood. To travel....... track — to retrace his steps and go back to the innocent days of his childhood. This is the sense of “Retreat” which is the title of the poem. Vaughan hates the life of worldliness and worldly sins. He wants to escape from it into the world of innocence and purity which he possessed in his childhood. That plain — heaven, the city of God. Reach the plain — arrive at heaven where innocence, perfection and purity prevail. The glorious train — the band of angels in heaven; the company of saints. Where I first........ train — the soul, before being born on the earth, was in heaven, because heaven is the original home of the j soul. In heaven God and the angels were an abiding presence. As soon as the soul is born, it becomes detached from heaven and the glorious com­pany of angels. Enlightened — illuminated; emancipated.   The enlight­ened spirit — death liberates the soul from the bondage of the mortal body and brings it to heaven, which is the original home of the soul. After death, the soul of man becomes illumined. Sees — finds. That........ palm trees the city of God, i.e., heaven.  In the Bible heaven is portrayed as the city of palm trees. Too much stay — long residence in the world where all pleasure abound.  Drunk — intoxicated with the pleasures of the senses enjoyed for long.  My soul...... drunk — the poet admits that his soul is intoxicated with worldly pursuits and mundane affairs, and thus his soul is darkened. Staggers — reels; falters. Forward motion — going forward. Some man ....... love — generally people march forward in the path of life, grow up and advance in years and experience, power and wealth, etc., but the poet seeks to march backwards.   But I ......... move — the poet will move backward in search of childhood innocence and purity which he en­joyed in his childhood. This dust — it refers to the human body which is believed to be made of dust ; the earthly or moral body. Falls to the urn — lies buried in the grave. In that.......... return — Vaughan says that it is not possible for an aged person to become a child to regain his childhood in­nocence and purity. It is death which can alone liberate his soul from the mortal body, and the soul will be reborn on the earth, and thus he will go back to his former innocence and perfection.

Introduction: The poems by which Vaughan is remembered are contained in Silex Scintillans, which appeared in two parts in 1650 and 1655 respectively. This is largely religious inspiration and its title is significant for the emblem on the title page that reveals its meaning to be a heart of flint burning and bleeding under the stroke of a thunder bolt and so throwing off sparks. It is of course the light of divinity.

 Vaughan is at his best when he deals with the themes of childhood and of communion with nature and with eternity. His poem in our syllabus The Retreat influenced Wordsworth in the composition of The Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early childhood. Vaughan’s Retreat is a religious lyric, a spiritual optimism. It is also a characteristic poem of the metaphysical school. Vanghan’s expression and imagery bear the marks of the metaphysical religious poem of Donne and Herbert.

A deep religious poem: Vaughan’s first love in his poem The Retreat is God. When he was still a child and had hardly made any progress into worldly existence, he could have a glimpse of God’s bright face whenever he looked back. But as the burden of worldly existence grew upon him, he lost the glimpse of the divine visage. Indeed, adulthood taken away that divine vision of childhood. This is the loss, the poet laments. In this critical situation Vaughan pleads to move backward because forward because forward movement in time leads to sin. The backward movement leads to innocence:
            “Some men a forward motion love
            But I by backward steps would move”.
Rhetorically, a paradox is a statement which apparently seems self-contradictory or absurd, but in reality carries a sound sense. Here, too, the poet makes a paradoxical statement that backward motion would be better for him. This is because forward motion is morally backward as it leads on to sin, on the other hand backward motion in time leads to innocence and so morally forward. ‘Retreat’ to the innocent days of childhood, when God was an ever-present reality to him, is his welcome note. The title word thus strikes the essence of the poem. The poet dislikes human or earthly existence i.e. ‘this place’ and ‘second race’ because on earth the soul is far removed from God. He wishes to retreat to heaven, the abode of God.

Glorification of the Childhood: We find the child as an ever idealized picture in The Retreat. As a defense of the poet we can say that the poem is a passionate lyric and no philosophical thesis and here is the account of the  poet’s personal experiences and longing for the innocence and purity of childhood. The soul of in the human child which can perceive a faint heavenly glory in the natural beauty of the world, if stays too long in this world would forget their heavenly memory and the soul would be intoxicated into worldly affairs. Thus the child in his journey to innocence to experience corrupts himself. A grown up like poet wishes to retreat into the childhood innocence and it is possible when he would die and liberates his soul from the odds of worldly affairs:
            ‘And when this dust falls to the urn,
            In that state I came, return’.

 A metaphysical poem: The Retreat is full with short and suggestive conceits, homely images and compressed sentences essentially belong to metaphysical poetry. Even the poet expresses his devotional thought through extraordinary and straight forward imageries –
            “But ah! My soul with too much stay
            Is drunk and staggers in the way”.
Further the mystical ideas, childhood, God, innocence and the journey of soul – everything is so sincere and personal. Taken from homely affairs of life, they are well visualized. We can compare his compressions to an eminent Victorian artist Hopkins. For example, ‘angel infancy’, shoots of everlastingness’, ‘ancient track’, ‘glorious train’ etc adds the linguistic glamour in the poem.

Conclusion: Through the metaphysical network and religious conscience Vaughan’s The Retreat is thematically superb. As far as the syntax and rhyme-pattern is concerned, it finds a place of perfection in English verse. It is a gift of music, no doubt restrained, but full of melody and grace.