Henry Vaughan – The Retreat (Summary)

The Retreat‘ is the best known poem written by Henry Vaughan, a metaphysical poet. Earlier he was considered the most disdained poet of all the lesser poets of the seventeenth century, but renewed interest and critical re-appreciations have made him one of the most admired. A serious illness in 1651, led to deep religious fervour which appeared in his poems. Spark of the Flint, published in 1650 and 1655, is a two volume collection of his religious outpourings. It is considered his best work and contains the poem ‘The Retreat’.

About the Poet (Henry Vaughan)

Henry Vaughan was born into a middle-class Welsh family in Breconshire. In 1638 he went to Jesus College, Oxford, with his brother Thomas, who later achieved fame as an alchemist. Henry left Oxford in 1640 without taking a degree, and spent two years in London studying law. He was recalled home when the Civil War broke out, and he is thought to have served on the Royalist side in South Wales sometime around 1645.

During the 1650s Vaughan began practising medicine. After the death of his first wife he married her sister Elizabeth in about 1655. He had four children by each wife, and in his later years he became involved in legal wrangles with his older children. Though his poetry did not attract much attention for a long time after his death, Vaughan is now established as one of the finest religious poets in the language, and in some respects he surpassed his literary and spiritual master, George Herbert.

Summary of the Poem (The Retreat)

In the poem ‘The Retreat‘ Henry Vaughan regrets the loss of the innocence of childhood, when life was lived in close communion with God. Here the poet glorifies childhood, which, according to Vaughan, is a time of innocence, and a time when one still has memories of one’s life in heaven from where one comes into this world. The poet regards the time of childhood as a happy time. It was a time when the poet shone with an angelic light. He was not sullied and spoiled by the physical and material world.

It was a time when the poet had thoughts only of heaven and when he could still see glimpses of God. During his childhood, the poet had vision of eternity when he looked at a cloud or a flower as the beauty of these natural objects was a reflection of the glories of heaven and the poet was able to perceive those glories. He was so innocent in those days that he never uttered a sinful word and never had a sinful desire. The white-souled child coming from celestial home felt ‘bright shoots of everlastingness’ through his fleshly screen. In other words though this physical body he could feel the bright beams of eternity.

The poet feels that as the man grows he becomes sinful in thoughts, words and deeds. Now the influences of the material world prevent him from seeing visions of heaven. So the poet wishes to retrace his steps to the past when he was a child. He wants to be a child again so that he can bathe himself in the golden vision of heaven. People generally like to go forward in life. But the poet wants to retreat to his childhood because according to him a movement back to childhood would also be a spiritual progression.

Stanza 1

Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;

Explanation :-
In these lines, the poet says that childhood is a golden period when the child shines like an Angel. Childhood is angelic in the sense that it is both innocent and pure. A Child is nearer to God because a child’s vision of heaven has not yet been sullied and spoiled by the physical and material world. It is his second life on earth. The poet lived his first life in heaven, the vision of which is still nourished by the child. The childhood is the time when he has not yet learnt to think of any other matter except the purity of heaven. Thus in these lines, the poet regrets the loss of his childhood.

Stanza 2

When yet I had not walked 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 flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;

The poet says that the period of his infancy was the time when he had just come from heaven. Heaven is poet’s first love from whence he has come to this earth. As a child, he has not travelled farther than a mile or two and therefore, he can still envision heaven’s celestial beauty and glory. The poet in his childhood finds vision of heaven and eternity in the glories of natural objects such as flowers and cloud. The beauty of natural objects is only a faint reflection of the glories of heaven and as a child he can perceive those glories. In his childhood he could see the bright face of God. The poet wants to convey the idea that in childhood, man is near God. But as he grows up, he moves away from God because of materialism.

Stanza 3

Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.

In these lines, the poet describes that childhood is angelic because it is both innocent and pure. It was a time when his thoughts, words and deeds were pure. He had not yet learnt to say any sinful word which would hurt anyone’s conscience. But as man grows up he becomes sinful in thoughts, words and deeds. He acquires enough wickedness and wants to satisfy the needs of his five sense. The poet says that in childhood, he could feel through his body, the bright rays of eternity. Thus in these lines the poet glorifies the childhood.

Stanza 4

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’ enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.

In these lines there is a strong desire in poet to go back to the old days of his childhood. He wants to be a child again so that he can bathe himself in the golden vision of heaven. Childhood was his golden period which had enabled him to have communion with God. These golden memories reminds him of the scene of the heaven which is a city of Palm trees. This city of Palm trees is seen as a second Jerusalem. In this way the poet longs for going back to the days of his childhood.

Stanza 5

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.

In this stanza the poet wishes to return to the heavenly days of his childhood. But he regrets that now he cannot do so. After his prolonged stay on this earth, his life has been badly influenced by the materialism. Now his soul feels unable to go back the golden days of childhood. The poet says that people want to make progress in life but
he wishes to go back in his childhood. The poet’s movement back to childhood suggest a spiritual progress where he can again have communion with God and see the heavenly glories.

Question-Answer on the Poem (The Retreat)

Q.1. What does a child see in childhood?
Ans.: According to the poet childhood is angelic in the sense that it is more pure and innocent. As angles are nearer to God than human beings, children are also more close to the master of universe, the almighty God. A child can still envision heaven’s celestial beauty and glory. When he looks back, he can see the shining face of God because as a child, he has not ravelled much away. A child finds vision of heaven and eternity in the beauties of natural objects such as flowers and clouds because these objects are the reflection of the glories of heaven.

Q.2. How and why is the heavenly vision perceived in childhood dimmed as one grows
old?

Ans.: As a man grows old, he is surrounded by the corrupt effects of the materialism and the physical world. He becomes sinful in thoughts, words and deeds. He acquires enough wickedness and is lost in the worldly affairs. Now he wishes to satisfy all his five senses. So he can not envision the heaven’s celestial beauty and glory in the natural objects. That’s why he can not feel he presence of God.

Q.3. What do you understand by “City of Palm Trees”?
Ans.: Here the city of Palm trees means the celestial city or Heaven which is also
considered as a second Jerusalem.

Q. 4. Why does the poet want to be a child?
Ans.: The poet wants to be a child so that he can feel the presence of God once again.
According to the poet a child is innocent and pure in his thoughts, words and deed and is more near to God. A child’s soul is not spoiled by the bad effects of materialism and he can envision the heavenly beauty and glory in the beauties of natural objects such as clouds and flower.

Q. 5. Why can’t his soul regain its pristine glory?
Ans.: His soul can’t regain its pristine glory as he is lost in this physical world’s material affairs. He has acquired enough wickedness and wants to satisfy the needs of his five senses. He has become sinful in his thoughts, words and deeds. Under the bad and corrupt effect of materialism he has become selfish and utters sinful words which hurt the conscience of someone.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s