Critical Analyses of Henry Vaughan's poem " THE RETREAT"

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. The poem in discussion 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.

Now try to answer these questions:

  •  How does Vaughan idealize his childhood days in The Retreat? Does the poem strike a lyrical note?
  • Critically appreciate the poem The Retreat as metaphysical religious poem.
  • How does Vaughan draw a contrast in his poem The Retreat between his childhood days and later years?