The Retreat by Henry Vaughan
The theme of The Retreat is really mystical. This is all about the poet’s belief in the heavenly existence of the human soul, his childhood visualization of common earthly objects with a celestial halo, and his spiritual optimism about man’s final repose in heaven his retreat to his heavenly home.
The mystical note of The Retreat comes out in Vaughan approach to childhood in his conception of childhood innocence and the child’s intuitive communion with heaven. Although the main argument of the poem is the retreat of the human soul to heaven, Vaughan’s treatment of childhood constitutes major attraction of Retreat. In fact, the earlier portion of the poem is concerned with poet’s novel and mystical views about childhood.
The Retreat begins with the poet’s craving for the happy days of childhood. Those were the bright and pure days when he shined in “angel-infancy!” The poet had then no knowledge or comprehension of the human world which was ‘appointed’ for his ‘second race’. His soul was then fresh from heaven, pure and free from all earthly contaminations. His mind was not vitiated yet by any corrupt thought, feeling, fancy, or utterance. Nothing but a white celestial thought then possessed him.
What Vaughan emphasizes here is childhood’s proximity to heaven and absolute purity. He asserts, through his intimately personal admission, that childhood retains its contact with heaven and remains in a pure and innocent state, being free from earthly grossness.
“When yet I had not walked above
A mile, or two, from my first love.”
Vaughan proceeds further to declare the innocence of childhood emphatically
“Before I taught my tongue to wound
My Conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispence
A sev’rall sinne to ev’ry sence.”
This is, no doubt, a glorification of childhood, an unqualified admission of its innocence and heavenly association.
Vaughan here seems to anticipate Wordsworth’s glorification of childhood in his celebrated ode, Intimations of Immortality. Wordsworth’s conception, as in Vaughan’s childhood bears the trace of heaven, and is in a close link with it. The poet’s statement is, like Vaughan’s, clear and unequivocal:
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting :
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s star
Hath had elsewhere its setting.
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And hot in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home :
Heaven lies about in our infancy!”
Wordsworth is here mystical like Vaughan. Both the poets are found to bear a spiritual view in regard to the relation between childhood and heaven. Both of them hold the same vision, mystical no doubt, that soul is fresh from heaven in childhood and as such retain spiritual kinship with this.
Vaughan’s mystical appraisement of childhood is not simply this also attributes to childhood a celestial vision by means of which child invests the common objects of nature with a heavenly gleam communicates with God. The poet’s personal realization illustrate mystical vision of the spiritual visualization in childhood:
“And looking back (at that short space)
Could see a glimpse of his bright-face :
When on some gilded cloud, or flowre
My gazing soul would dwell an houre,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity.”
This is a sort of the spiritual idealization of childhood and Vaughan’s mysticism here is strongly pronounced and invariably leads to his comparison with Wordsworth’s spiritualization of childhood in his Immortality Ode, already quoted. The very opening lines of the poem echo Vaughan’s contention of the childhood vision-
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparalled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.”
Both Vaughan and Wordsworth are truly mystic in their assertion of the Childhood vision of and communion with heaven. Both of them exalt childhood and invest this with a spiritual vision, that is not for remove from the glories of life before birth on this earth. They also assert how these glories slowly fade and grow dim amid the growing complexities and evils of the material world.
Vaughan’s The Retreat is found to anticipate Wordsworth For Immortality Ode in the poet’s mystical attitude to and idealization of childhood. Yet, the two poems are not exactly same. The Retreat is a devotional poem, whereas Immortality Ode is a philosophical one, Vaughan’s objective is to emphasize man’s ultimate retreat to heaven, original home, after the end of his earthly existence, where Wordsworth traces philosophically the loss of childhood vision manhood, the cause of this loss and the consolation derived ultimately for this loss.
In fact, in Vaughan, childhood constitutes a state in human life when the contact with heaven is fresh and the communication with God, easy. Wordsworth’s poem also bears almost the similar view. But childhood means to Vaughan an affirmation of man’s faith in heavenly happiness after his retreat from this physical world. Wordsworth, on the other hand, interprets childhood philosophically, and takes this as the state of communications with the entire cosmic force in operation.
There is one more point to be noted here. Vaughan’s statement about childhood, though mystical, is straight-forwarded, precise and realistic. Wordsworth is more speculative, elaborate and reflective in his idealization of childhood. This is, however, the natural difference between a metaphysical poet and a romantic one.