Stevie Davies. Henry Vaughan. Wales: Seren, Poetry Wales Press, 1995. 213 pp.
Review by,
Jeffrey Powers-Beck
East Tennessee State University

Powers-Beck, Jeffrey. "Review of Henry Vaughan." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.2 (1995): 8.1-7. <URL:

  1. Bardolatry is still alive and enshrining different bards! While romantic legends and popular biographies have long swirled around the likes of Shakespeare, Donne, and Rochester, the Welsh poet Henry Vaughan has enjoyed little vibrant bardolatry--until now. Stevie Davies, the prolific British biographer, novelist, and critic, applies her narrative skills and lambent wit to an engaging celebration of Vaughan in this Seren book. The Silurist, as Vaughan styled himself with Welsh pride, re-emerges in Davies's treatment as "holistic Vaughan," a writer of exuberantly animistic, even "orgasmic" verse, a passionate communicant with nature and a suffering exile of England's Civil Wars. If there is a little or a lot of anachronism (and Blakean delectations) in this portrait, there is also great verve, genuine poetic sensitivity, and several novel arguments.

  2. Davies's book appears in Seren's Border Line Series, a set of mostly introductory studies dedicated to writers on both sides of the England-Wales border, including A. E. Housman, Wilfred Owen, Mary Webb, and Raymond Williams. The series editor, John Powell Ward, however, distinguishes Davies's Vaughan from more elementary works in the set. In his afterword to the volume, Ward comments that while Davies's book is not "`academic' in the pejorative sense . . .; at the same time it is a specialist book, entailing among other things the essential scholarly apparatus such a study requires." It seems that Ward has allowed Davies a bibliography, parenthetic notes, professional acknowledgments, and an index, undoubtedly in the hope that the work might contribute to scholarly discourse about Vaughan. In fact, it does, in brilliant patches, however erratically.

  3. In two respects, Davies's Vaughan does not seem "academic" at all: the tone and manner are often far from serious; and the absence of archival research is everywhere apparent. While the book is immensely readable, it is sometimes flippant in its humor and laborious in its definitions. The departures from scholarly gravitas are many and often quite amusing: she quotes impishly from Thomas Vaughan's ranting assaults on Henry More; she reminds us gratuitously that Henry Vaughan was "as a male . . . exempt from the more menial aspects of child-care, coping with tantrums, ear-aches, or the seventeenth-century equivalent of nappy-changing"; and she characterizes the speaker of "The Day of Judgement" irreverently as "troubled about being caught with his spiritual trousers down." If such violations of decorum can be refreshing, the labored definitions cannot--as when Davies recounts the dictionary distinctions between mono- and di-zygotic twins, and between sessile and pedunculate oaks. Yet, in other regards, Davies proves herself a graceful and allusive writer--as when she compares Vaughan's inspired exile to Bunyan's, or when she refers to Vaughan's aborted apprenticeships in law and cavalier poetry (with a wonderful phrase of George Eliot's) as "handsome dubious eggs." Davies's graces cover many faults.

  4. A greater defect of this biography is the virtual absence of archival research about Vaughan's life. While Davies has thoroughly digested the biographical materials collected in F.E. Hutchinson's Henry Vaughan (1947), she has added very little to them. She floridly describes the landscape of Vaughan's boyhood home and records her literary pilgrimage to his grave, but she does not venture to cite new documentary evidence. Still, in places, she profitably reconsiders several of Hutchinson's conclusions: she suggests that we cannot know from Thomas Vaughan's offhand reference to "a far more glorious imployment" whether William Vaughan died in the Civil Wars in 1648; and she urges that Henry Vaughan's ugly legal disputes with his children were the almost inevitable result of "a double family cloven by step-sibling jealousies" (whereas Hutchinson had blamed Vaughan's second wife, Elizabeth). These corrections upon the venerable Canon Hutchinson are slight, but both quite sensible.

  5. By far the most intriguing, if most speculative, portions of Davies's biography are two original theses-- the twin thesis and the night thesis. As Thomas and Henry Vaughan were twin brothers, nearly identical in appearance, Davies (herself the mother of twins) conjectures that individuation posed special challenges for them. Their psyches were supposedly "forged in the crucible of twinship." In Davies's estimation, the Vaughan twins reacted to their problems of identity in opposite ways: Thomas, the "centrifugal twin," established his identity by vehement argument and the cultivation of singularity as an alchemical philosopher; Henry, the "centripetal twin," formed his identity more by conjunction and assimilation, as a poet of nature and a holistic physician. Thus, Henry's poetic apprenticeship in London, when he self-consciously imitated the cavalier verses of Jonson and Habington, represented a failed attempt at "twinning." It was not until later, during the anguish of the Civil Wars, that Henry discovered the devotional poetry of George Herbert and responded to it as to a revelation. This conversion experience, in which Vaughan found a second poetic self that he could both merge with and diverge from, was not so much a religious transformation as a personal and literary one. Although Davies's twin thesis savors something of pop psychology, it does manifest well Vaughan's unusual achievement of an original voice through assimilation of Herbert's devotional poetics. In its own way, the twin thesis is at least as plausible as Jonathan Post's argument (in Henry Vaughan, 1982) that Vaughan's imitation of Herbert exemplified a cavalier ideal of friendship. As Davies suggests, the relationship between Vaughan and his poetic mentor went even deeper, to the core of the poet's being.

  6. Another even more speculative thesis of Davies's book concerns Henry Vaughan's nighttime anxieties. According to Davies, the brooding images of night in Vaughan's most powerful poetry--"I saw eternity the other night"--testify to the poet's almost neurotic fears of night, sleep, and dreams. In The Mount of Olives, Vaughan had enjoined his readers to keep vigil throughout the night. Davies concludes: "Vaughan's 'mystical' poems are the testaments of a person in a state of self-induced sleep starvation." She continues in this vein to ascribe Vaughan's night fears to "an anxiety about the loss of control that comes with sleep" and to a regressive "separation-anxiety," the childhood fear of separation from parents. Furthermore, Davies thinks, the poet's idealization of "angel infancy" bespeaks his strong desire to escape the adult self and to return to the enveloping comforts of the womb (what Freud called "the Oceanic sense").

  7. The reader may question Davies's ability to psychoanalyze Vaughan through the centuries, but cannot doubt her keen ear for passionate poetry. The reader may also be disappointed by the absence of archival research in Davies's Vaughan, but must be impressed by the tormented and sublime voice she distills from the poetry. Whatever the limitations of this biography--and they are many--it is in its best moments a moving and joyful book. Henry Vaughan the Welsh bard is now a little more a hero.
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(RGS, rev. 14 February 1998)