Jonathan Nauman – From Rivers to Fountains: Henry Vaughan’s Secular and Sacred Inaugurations

From Rivers to Fountains: Henry Vaughan’s Secular and Sacred Inaugurations

Jonathan Nauman

Published in Connotations Vol. 33 (2024)


Henry Vaughan began his poetic career in emulation of the occasional verse of the Jonsonian coteries; and the pastoral title poem “To the River Isca,” which opens his Olor Iscanus collection, evokes an explicit classicist pedigree of canonical river poets that Vaughan effectively sought to join. This self-canonizing effort was effectively revised and transfigured in Vaughan’s conversion to sacred verse, with the introductory lyric to Silex Scintillans, “Regeneration,” advancing a visionary pastoral sequence merging Vaughan’s new devotional work with the sacred-canonical Song of Songs.

Literary figures conscious of residing on the margins of society often advance their works even more openly as responses to culturally definitive previous prose and poetry than writers resident at well-recognized cultural centers. Such perennial concerns can be seen very much at work in the publications of the seventeenth-century Anglo-Welsh cavalier poet Henry Vaughan, who became a medical doctor in Breconshire after his early training in Oxford and London. This paper will highlight how Vaughan proclaimed canonical aspirations in the first [→ 49]stages of his literary career, and how these aspirations matured and changed when he turned toward writing his much-noted devotional verse.

Henry Vaughan first prepared his classicist verse collection Olor Iscanus for the press in December of 1647, apparently intending the work to emerge as his second published volume, a timely performance that would establish and further his recent efforts in Poems (1646) to emulate amatory and occasional literary exchanges he had observed among fellow Royalists in Oxford and London. The new project, however, was interrupted by a war-related personal tragedy, the death of his younger brother William, and by a resulting spiritual change of heart under which his literary energies were rechanneled toward composing the devotional lyrics of Silex Scintillans, on which his current reputation as a poet largely stands. Through the interventions of his twin brother Thomas Vaughan, who acted as Henry’s literary agent in London during the early 1650s, the non-devotional collection that Henry had envisioned at first did eventually emerge, though not with all of the contents originally intended.1 The general tenor of the work so released remained consonant with the earlier Poems, showing efforts to propagate the goods of antebellum literary culture as a “more calme Ambition, amidst the common noise” (Works 11) of the ascendant Parliamentary regime. Thomas Vaughan published the volume as a work “Formerly written” (Works 167), implicitly acknowledging the emergence and primacy of his brother’s sacred verse.

Here I will examine and compare the two modes Henry Vaughan sequentially chose to continue his poetic works, in first instance as a man of letters emulating the classicist ethos of the Royalist coteries, and in the second instance as a man pursuing authentic Christian faith through lyrics inspired by the letters and poems of the Latin patristic poet St. Paulinus of Nola and the devotional works of George Herbert, of “whose holy life and verse” Vaughan would later profess to be a convert (Works 558). In the introductory lyric to Olor Iscanus, “To the River Isca” (Works 173-75), Vaughan’s speaker articulates and performs his own entry into a classicist literary canon, explicitly and implicitly citing [→ 50]the predecessors he means to join, transforming the Usk valley into a literary pastoral haven “redeem’d from all disorders” (l. 86). In “Regeneration” (Works 57-59), the introductory lyric for Silex Scintillans, Vaughan’s speaker presents himself instead as an explorer of pastoral landscapes that manifest prior transcendent realities and provide means toward spiritual understanding; and the speaker finally joins the plea of the sacred-canonical Beloved in the Song of Songs, asking to become himself by God’s intervention, through his new poetic offerings, a salubrious locale for spiritual transformation: “Arise O North, and come thou South-wind, and blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out” (Works 59; italics in original).

There is reason to believe that Henry Vaughan planned for “To the River Isca” to be the opening lyric of Olor Iscanus through all phases of the book’s construction. The volume’s title implicitly presents the author as “The Swan of Usk,”2 and “To the River Isca” functions as a title poem, both explaining Vaughan’s aesthetic ambition and also ostensibly accomplishing it. The first ten lines offer a catalogue of river poets descending from gods of antiquity to Vaughan’s contemporaries John Milton and William Habington.

When Daphne’s Lover here first wore the Bayes,

Eurotas secret streams heard all his Layes.

And holy Orpheus, Natures busie Child

By headlong Hebrus his deep Hymns Compil’d.

Soft Petrarch (thaw’d by Laura’s flames) did weep

On Tybers banks, when she (proud fair!) cou’d sleep;

Mosella boasts Ausonius, and the Thames

Doth murmure SIDNEYS Stella to her streams,

While Severn swoln with Joy and sorrow, wears

Castara’s smiles mixt with fair Sabrin’s tears. (ll. 1-10; Works 173)

Vaughan reinforces this proffered lineage with a discourse on the enduring gifts of literary fame that river poets have bestowed on their chosen landscapes, and he foresees for such “Genii” of rivers a pastoral apotheosis in Elysian fields merging with the natural beauties they described. Careful attention to Vaughan’s allusions has shown that his [→ 51]learned citations include a significant component of collegial appropriation; see for instance this passage from Habington:

And though Imperiall Tiber boast alone

Ovids Corinna, and to Arn3 is knowne

But Petrarchs Laura; while our famous Thames

Doth murmur Sidneyes Stella to her streames.

Yet hast thou Severne left, and she can bring

As many quires of Swans, as they to sing

Thy glorious love […] (“His Muse speakes to him,” ll. 5-11; Habington 73).

One notes that Vaughan borrows a rhyme and also a full line from this sequence of poetic lovers and their rivers, presented as a literary enshrinement of Habington’s newly-married wife Lucy Herbert, styled Castara. Robert Wilcher has spotlighted this borrowing in his careful examination of Vaughan’s “magpie thefts,”4 the poet’s habitual adoption of other writers’ phrases, pointing out that the verbatim echoing of Habington’s allusion to Sidney and the Thames cannot be taken as a covert plagiarism, since Vaughan openly gestures at his source, Habington’s Castara, in the lines immediately following; and he also points out that the passage quoted from Castara is “intended to bring to mind the relevance of Habington’s ‘many quires of Swans’” (Wilcher 173) as a collegial antecedent to Vaughan’s own new literary identity as Swan of Usk. As Wilcher also mentions, Vaughan’s art of allusion, verbatim or otherwise, was a “play of words or fancy” (182) involving textual knowledge shared by his expected audience; and it is specifically the classicist canon of the posthumous school of Ben Jonson and Thomas Randolph that Vaughan means here to join, extending its migration westward to enable the literary ennoblement of the Usk valley.

When I am layd to rest hard by thy streams,

And my Sun sets, where first it sprang in beams,

I’le leave behind me such a large, kind light,

As shall redeem thee from oblivious night,

And in these vowes which (living yet) I pay

Shed such a Previous and Enduring Ray,

As shall from age to age thy fair name lead

’Till Rivers leave to run, and men to read. (ll. 27-34)

[→ 52]Having stepped forward to perform his offices as a river poet bestowing immortality, Vaughan sets out in his poem so to do; and as Jonathan Post has observed, the transition is signaled by an incantatory “tightening of the verse into octosyllables” (32): blessings invoked here on the Usk include future literary acknowledgment and homage (ll. 35-38); the presence of proximate enchanted groves, vocal as with Orpheus, enabling veridical dreams in their shades (ll. 39-42); idyllic pastoral scenes with country dances and innocent courtships (ll. 43-50); freedom from unpleasant and treacherous animals, from contaminations, and from extreme heat:

May the Evet and the Tode

Within thy Banks have no abode,

Nor the wilie, winding Snake

Her voyage through thy waters make.

In all thy Journey to the Main

No nitrous Clay, nor Brimstone-vein

Mixe with thy streams, but may they passe

Fresh as the aire, and clear as Glasse […] (ll. 51-58)

Vaughan’s allusive gesturing toward fellow classicist poets continues through these passages. Editors have noted that Vaughan’s friend Richard West praised the “Groves” of Thomas Randolph’s pastoral Amyntas as “Propheticall”(Works 986),5 and have also shown that Vaughan’s lines here very closely follow a passage from William Browne’s Britannia’s Pastorals (1613).6 This allusion, one of the most extensive and remarkable in Vaughan’s published verse, seems to indicate that when “To the River Isca” was written, Vaughan considered his and Browne’s literary work to be closely related. Indeed, Browne’s career would have seemed at the moment quite similar to Vaughan’s own. Browne, a son of minor gentry in Tavistock on the western edge of Devonshire, had gone to Oxford as a non-matriculated student and then down to London’s Inns of Court, where he became friends with Ben Jonson and met Selden, Drayton, Chapman, Wither, and others (see Moorman 3-5). His facility for pastoral observation and sensuous natural description would be influential for Milton’s earlier verse as well as for Vaughan’s. [→ 53]It is worth observing that Vaughan himself glances toward Milton in “To the River Isca,” Comus apparently supplying, along with Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the association of the River Severn with the nymph Sabrina. Vaughan’s responses would of course become much less friendly in the following decade, once Milton set about releasing his voluminous political tracts.

Vaughan sums up his extended tetrameter blessing on the Usk with a valediction in dimeter couplets, but then provides a reprise including a characteristic gesture regularly practiced in his devotional verse and prose, a candid glance at the current historical situation.

What gifts more Heav’n or Earth can adde

With all those blessings be thou Clad!

               Honour, Beautie,

               Faith and Dutie,

               Delight and Truth,

               With Love, and Youth

Crown all about thee! And what ever Fate

Impose else-where, whether the graver state,

Or some toy else, may those lowd, anxious Cares

For dead and dying things (the Common Wares

And showes of time) ne’r break thy Peace, nor make

Thy repos’d Armes to a new warre awake!

     But Freedome, safety, Joy and blisse

     United in one loving kisse

     Surround thee quite, and stile thy borders

     The Land redeem’d from all disorders! (ll. 71-86)

Louise Guiney and Gwenllian Morgan, pioneer researchers always on the lookout for Vaughan’s civil war contexts, surmised from this conclusion that “To the River Isca” was probably written in “1646-7, when all was quiet in Breconshire” (see Works 988)7 and the Usk valley briefly provided some opportunity for rest and peaceful literary endeavor after the poet’s military service on behalf of the King’s struggling cause. The ethos of Jonsonian occasional verse continues in a different vein as one moves into the second Olor Iscanus selection, “The Charnel-house” (175-77),8 observations on an indiscriminate collection of exhumed [→ 54]bones, presented as an opportunity for the speaker to “season all succeeding Jollitie” (l. 62) and to enforce through meditations on the inevitability of death the classicist virtues of balance and moderation:

But should wild bloud swell to a lawless strain

One Check from thee shall Channel it again. (ll. 65-66)

Vaughan’s readers have remarked on the considerable difference in tenor between this poem and “To the River Isca,” to the point of viewing “The Charnel-house” as undermining the first lyric or facing it down.9 I suspect that Vaughan meant the first poem’s celebration and the second poem’s sober counterpoise to demonstrate together the versatility and amplitude of his classicist poetic.

The “Check” that Vaughan would actually experience in 1648, when the Royalists’ “repos’d Armes” indeed awakened with uprisings in Brecon and other South Wales towns, apparently induced him to question not so much the vision of “To the River Isca” as the viability of the whole Olor Iscanus collection. Unrest in Wales worried Parliament, where there was concern over the possibility of the King receiving aid from nearby Ireland. Colonel Thomas Horton was first sent west, and then Oliver Cromwell. Horton defeated the Royalists at St. Fagans on 8 May, and Cromwell took Pembroke Castle on 11 July (see Royle 434-41). It has been inferred that Henry Vaughan’s younger brother William was a Royalist combatant, dying from war-related disease or injury on 14 July (see Hutchinson 95-97). Henry’s conscience was stirred by his brother’s manner of death, resolute in faith and Christian hope, and he began to write elegiac prayers in response.

O let me (like him,) know my End!

               And be as glad to find it,

And whatsoe’r thou shalt Commend,

               Still let thy Servant mind it!

Then make my soule white as his owne,

               My faith as pure, and steddy,

And deck me, Lord, with the same Crowne

               Thou hast crownd him already!10

[→ 55]Neither the laureate crown of the poets nor the crown of legitimate kingly authority that he and his brothers defended in arms could compare with the eternal crown of Christian salvation gained through divinely-aided penitence and a spiritual life of conversion. A different genre of verse performance would be needed for this higher calling, one of which Henry Vaughan was quite aware but which he had hitherto sidelined. Now the worldly classicism of Ausonius, whom Vaughan had honored and included in his forthcoming non-devotional collection, was to be abandoned in favor of the sober and transcendently-oriented lyrics and elocutions of Ausonius’ pupil, the Roman senator turned saint, Paulinus of Nola; and the ethos of the coteries would give way to the searching and personal testimonial verses of the university orator turned pastor, George Herbert. Placed in the context of these men’s endeavors, Vaughan now viewed his personal ambition to become the Jonsonian genius of the Usk and to invest his home valley with a literary crown as mere vanity.

Vaughan thus issued the collection which did emerge as his second published volume, Silex Scintillans (1650), consciously and publicly as a redirection of his poetic career, effectively superseding Olor Iscanus, which he was now not inclined to publish at all. One sees this dynamic clearly in the devotional collection’s short verse dedication, modeled in brevity and title after the introductory lyric to Herbert’s The Temple, but differing from Herbert’s piece in its emphatic repudiation of former work, characterizing earlier non-devotional poetic efforts as a land “curs’d, and void of store” (Works 56, l. 8). The introductory poems “Regeneration” (57-59) and “Death. A Dialogue” (59-60)11 correspond with “To the River Isca” and “The Charnel-house” in dealing with life and death from either classicist or sacred points-of-view; and as I shall attempt to show in concluding this analysis, “Regeneration” especially reconfigures for sacred use the canonical concerns and pastoral themes explored in the non-devotional collection’s title poem.

In “To the River Isca” the speaker first establishes a line of literary canonicity, and entering that line is enabled to bestow pastoral bless- [→ 56]ings. In “Regeneration” Vaughan’s speaker does not orchestrate a pastoral; rather, he finds himself within one, experiencing a sequence of spiritual insights figured through natural images.12 With some difficulty—the poem’s movements indicate a young personality quick in pursuit but slow to understand—these images gradually build awareness of a need for spiritual help, and with increasing clarity imply that such help is available but not always accepted. The poem ends with a tetrameter couplet that stands outside of the poem’s metrical frame, a plea for divine intervention; and the epigraph from Canticles shows that, in making his request, the speaker has joined his sensibility with the greatest of all sacred amatory pastorals.

The first three stanzas of Vaughan’s opening lyric dramatically enact the poem’s inward turn, juxtaposing the speaker’s external and unreflective youthful élan with his turbulent inner life impacted with vice and sin, and they also relay his inability to change his wrongful bents through his own efforts.



A Ward, and still in bonds, one day

                           I stole abroad,

It was high-spring, and all the way

               Primros’d, and hung with shade;

               Yet, was it frost within,

                           And surly winds

Blasted my infant buds, and sinne

               Like Clouds ecclips’d my mind.



Storm’d thus, I straight perceiv’d my spring

                           Meere stage, and show,

My walke a monstrous, mountain’d thing

               Rough-cast with Rocks, and snow;

               And as a Pilgrims Eye

                           Far from reliefe,

Measures the melancholy skye

               Then drops, and rains for griefe,



So sigh’d I upwards still, at last

                           [→ 57]’Twixt steps, and falls

I reach’d the pinacle, where plac’d

               I found a paire of scales,

               I tooke them up and layd

                           In th’one late paines,

The other smoake, and pleasures weigh’d

               But prov’d the heavier grains; (ll. 1-24)

Once the scales have shown the speaker that he remains in need of spiritual help, he responds obediently to what seems to be an angelic prompting13 —“Away” (l. 25)—and the poem’s visions move into a pastoral-symbolic recapitulation of salvation history, beginning with “Jacobs Bed” from the Old Testament and modulating into the “new spring” of the Christian church, presented through imagery that implies Vaughan’s respect, in line with St. Paulinus and Archbishop Laud, for the helps provided to Christian holiness by sacred architecture and liturgy. Perhaps it is not surprising that the sensuous natural descriptions here not only incomparably surpass the spiritually compromised “high-spring” of stanza one, but also very much exceed in splendor the Elysian Fields and lyric springtime blessings delivered by Vaughan’s speaker in “To the River Isca” (ll. 19-24, 61-72).


With that, some cryed, Away; straight I

                           Obey’d, and led

Full East, a faire, fresh field could spy

               Some call’d it, Jacobs Bed;

               A Virgin-soile, which no

                           Rude feet ere trod,

Where (since he stept there,) only go

               Prophets, and friends of God.



Here, I repos’d; but scarse well set,

                           A grove descryed

Of stately height, whose branches met

               And mixt on every side;

               I entred, and once in

                           (Amaz’d to see’t,)

Found all was chang’d, and a new spring

               Did all my senses greet;


                           [→ 58]6.

The unthrift Sunne shot vitall gold

                           A thousand peeces,

And heaven its azure did unfold

               Checqur’d with snowie fleeces,

               The aire was all in spice

                           And every bush

A garland wore; Thus fed my Eyes

               But all the Eare lay hush. (ll. 25-48)

The visions that Vaughan’s speaker encounters here are spectacular and impressive, but his own relationship with what he sees remains undetermined, and the final showings of the poem serve to sharpen the question of how the speaker himself will relate to what he has seen. The poem’s narrative has gone forward with quick and restless movement; then stanza eight highlights the speaker’s repeated failures to comprehend by echoing the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, where it is said that “the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” and “there is no new thing under the sun” (Eccles. 1:8-9). The visions, engaging as they are, emerge and are superseded by others: has there been any inner progress toward overcoming the “frost within”? The fountain in the speaker’s stately grove appears to be weeping.


Only a little Fountain lent

                           Some use for Eares,

And on the dumbe shades language spent

               The Musick of her teares;

               I drew her neere, and found

                           The Cisterne full

Of divers stones, some bright, and round

               Others ill-shap’d, and dull.



The first (pray marke,) as quick as light

                           Danc’d through the floud,

But, th’last more heavy then the night

               Nail’d to the Center stood;

               I wonder’d much, but tyr’d

                           At last with thought,

My restless Eye that still desir’d

               [→ 59]As strange an object brought;



It was a banke of flowers, where I descried

                           (Though ’twas mid-day,)

Some fast asleepe, others broad-eyed

               And taking in the Ray,

               Here musing long, I heard

                           A rushing wind

Which still increas’d, but whence it stirr’d

               No where I could not find;



I turn’d me round, and to each shade

                           Dispatch’d an Eye,

To see, if any leafe had made

               Least motion, or Reply,

               But while I listning sought

                           My mind to ease

By knowing, where ’twas, or where not,

                           It whisper’d; Where I please. (ll. 49-80)

Here the ten eight-line stanzas of the poem come to an end, but Vaughan adds a tetrameter couplet in which his speaker finally makes a definitive response to the series of visions, one that combines the image of God’s Spirit as wind14 with St. Paul’s injunction to die to sin in order to live in Christ15:

Lord, then said I, On me one breath,

And let me dye before my death! (ll. 81-82)

Once the speaker has made this request to the Holy Spirit, Vaughan deploys in turn an epigraph that merges the request with the words of the Beloved in Canticles: “Arise O North, and come thou South-wind, and blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out” (59), a sacred-canonical prayer that becomes for his new verse collection what the catalogue of river poets had been for Olor Iscanus. The outcome of “Regeneration” supplies a warrant and a blessing for the lyrics in Silex Scintillans to follow.


The Vaughan Association

Works Cited

Bird, Michael. “Nowhere but in the Dark: On the Poetry of Henry Vaughan.” English 33 (1984): 1-20.

Browne, William. Britannia’s Pastorals. Menston: The Scolar P, 1969.

Durr, R. A. The Mystical Poetry of Henry Vaughan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1962.

Garner, Ross. Henry Vaughan: Experience and the Tradition. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1959.

Habington, William. The Poems of William Habington. Ed. Kenneth Allott. London: The University of Liverpool, 1948.

Halewood, William H. The Poetry of Grace: Reformation Themes and Structures in English Seventeenth-Century Poetry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1970.

Hutchinson, F. E. Henry Vaughan: A Life and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1947.

Moorman, Frederic W. William Browne: His Britannia’s Pastorals and the Pastoral Poetry of the Elizabethan Age. Strassburg: Karl J. Trübner, 1897.

Post, Jonathan. Henry Vaughan: The Unfolding Vision. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.

Randolph, Thomas. The Poems and Amyntas of Thomas Randolph. Ed. John Jay Parry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1917.

Royle, Trevor. The British Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Vaughan, Henry. The Works of Henry Vaughan. Ed. Donald R. Dickson, Alan Rudrum, and Robert Wilcher. 3 vols. Oxford: OUP, 2018.

West, Philip. Henry Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans: Scripture Uses. Oxford: OUP, 2001.

Wilcher, Robert. Keeping the Ancient Way: Aspects of the Life and Work of Henry Vaughan (1621-1695). Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2021.