Henry Vaughan's The Retreate

In the poem The Retreate Henry Vaughan deals with the loss of the heavenly glory experienced during the childhood and expresses a fanciful desire to get back that original stage. The theme, on the surface level, appears very simple; but going into the deeper the reader will find that the poem is founded on the diverse European idealistic, psychological, religious/mystical and philosophical doctrines in the western culture. On the socio-cultural level, the poem can be interpreted as a reflection of the urge for liberating the human psyche from the torments and tyrannies of civilization, an urge which, it must be said, has been expressed by Vaughan in the purest, distilled and highly cultivated form of thought. On the psychological level, the desire to go back to a happy childhood can be interpreted, Freud said, as an escape from the hard realities of life in the defence mechanism of regression, as a daydream, the root cause of which can be traced in the agoraphobia of a person, which constantly goads him/her to seek refuge in the mother’s womb. On the philosophical level, what Vaughan’s says in the poem, tallies with Plato’s theory of anamnesis and transmigration of the soul. But above all, the purpose of the poet here is didactic, and he has given to the poem a deep religious meaning and fervour by drawing upon the inherent Christian doctrines and symbols. The poem begins with the characteristic lament for the lost childhood days, “Happy those early days! When I Shin’d in my Angell-infancy.” The word “angel-infancy” refers to that period of life, which is marked of innocence and ignorance. If we think of this from a secular perspective, this period of life is seen to have a special attraction for all the human beings. So the poetic property has not been reduced in its secular appeal. But Vaughan is here thinking in terms of mystical Christian theology, in which the child occupies a significant place, on the one hand, symbolising innocence, and on the other, representing the Babe of Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ—a theme which remained a favourite one among the Renaissance painters like Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Bellini. Vaughan’s theme here is not the glorification of Christ as the Babe, the theme is here a retrospection of the degeneration and degradation of his own personal life in contrast to what he had been during his childhood. The memory of that phase of life forces him to go back to that divine world, from which his soul, he believes, came to this world. The poet, however, gives a theoretical justification to his beliefs by drawing upon the Platonic doctrine of the transmigration of the soul. In this process the soul, Plato said, resides in the world of Ideas, of Beauty, Truth and Goodness before being transplanted into the human body. But once transplanted into matter it forgets its previous existence in the gradual growing contacts with the material world. The theoretical bias is most strongly evident in the lines where the poet says that everything was different, “Before I understood this place Appointed for my second race.” But the next moment the poet uses an image, “a white, Celestiall thought”, which derives its symbolism from Neo-Platonic mysticism and Christian mythology. Neo-Platonism explains the manifest material world as merely an illuminated illusion of a light from a single, ever-radiant divine source, God. But the poet’s back also reminds us Adam and Eve’s looking back at the lost Garden of Eden in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “They looking back, all th’ eastern side beheld Of paradise, so late their happy seat, ……………………………………… ………………………………………. They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow Through Eden took their solitary way.” (Book IV) The agony for the poet’s loss of childhood vision of heavenly glory is, it may be said, felt on the same level as that for the loss of Eden and the subsequent degeneration in the archetypal Biblical theme. All is, however, not lost. The poet finds a spiritual recovery in the Platonic doctrine of Love: he finds the reflections of the Universal Beauty in the particular things of physical beauty. That is to say, by meditating on the particular he tries to graduate to the understanding of the Universal Beauty of God. The poet can, “…see a glimpse of his bright face; When on some gilded Cloud or flowre My gazing soul would dwell an houre.” Speaking scientifically, this is a psychological journey in its extreme form, in which the poet seeks extinction of the flesh so that the soul is released and made one with the divine source once again. Though this is purely a Platonic concept, it is justified in relation to the Christian theology. Like Moses, who was once granted one side of the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, the poet wants to go back to “That city of Palm trees” or heaven. This is purely a mystical concept, and this distinguishes Vaughan from Wordsworth, who dealing with the same theme in his Immortality Ode works out a poetic resolution, which does not negate the beauty of matter. But Vaughan, on the contrary, finds “weaker glories…some shadows of eternity” in matter. He wants to suspend all the properties of the senses from matter or reality now and hopes to become one with the divine after his death. At the same time, however it must be said that Vaughan’s vision is also apocalyptic. During the Renaissance St. John’s “Book of Revelation” proved to be a dangerous book of prophecy, and during the Reformation the Apocalypse took various forms, among which spiritual or inner apocalypse entered the collective unconscious of the European peoples. It became a process of purifying one’s inner being. So it may be said that for Vaughan “the Retreate” was also a revelation.

The Retreat

  1. “Happy those early days…everlastingness”. (ll. 1-20)

In these lines from the poem The Retreat the poet Henry Vaughan laments over the loss of his childhood vision and the fading away of the heavenly glory associated with that kind of vision. Not only that, he confesses how he has moved himself away from the glory by committing various sins of the body.

The poet begins the poem with an agonizing realization that he had been really happy in his childhood. The reason he cites is that at that time he had been in that period of life, which is marked of innocence and ignorance. At that time he only had in mind the memory of the ever-radiant supreme being, God. He feels that he was not far from God then, and that he could see His bright face from a distance. Not only that, during his childhood it was possible for him to see that reflection of the eternal glory of God in the transitory yet beautiful things of the world, like a sunlit cloudlet or flower. He confesses agonizingly that all that had happened long ago before he learnt the crooked ways of life and began committing all kinds of sins with all the senses.

On the philosophical level, what Vaughan’s says in the poem, tallies with Plato’s theory of anamnesis and transmigration of the soul. Plato said that before being transplanted into the human body, the human soul resides in the world of Ideas, of Beauty, Truth and Goodness. But once transplanted into matter it forgets its previous existence in the gradual growing contacts with the material world. But the next moment the poet uses an image, “a white, Celestiall thought”, which derives its symbolism from Neo-Platonic mysticism and Christian mythology. Neo-Platonism explains the manifest material world as merely an illuminated illusion of a light from a single, ever-radiant divine source, God. But the poet’s back also reminds us Adam and Eve’s looking back at the lost Garden of Eden in Milton’s Paradise Lost,

“They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow

Through Eden took their solitary way.” (Book IV)

The agony for the poet’s loss of childhood vision of heavenly glory is, it may be said, felt on the same level as that for the loss of Eden and the subsequent degeneration in the archetypal Biblical theme. The poet finds a spiritual recovery in the Platonic doctrine of Love: he finds the reflections of the Universal Beauty in the particular things of physical beauty. That is to say, by meditating on the particular he tries to graduate to the understanding of the Universal Beauty of God.

2. “O how I …return”

In these lines from the poem The Retreat the poet Henry Vaughan makes a retrospection of the degeneration and degradation of his own personal life in contrast to what he had been during his childhood. The memory of that phase of life forces him to go back to that divine world, from which his soul, he believes, came to this world.

The poet comes to an agonizing realization that he had been really happy in his childhood. At that time he only had in mind the memory of the ever-radiant supreme being, God. He feels that he was not far from God then, and that he could see His bright face from a distance. Not only that, during his childhood it was possible for him to see that reflection of the eternal glory of God in the transitory yet beautiful things of the world, like a sunlit cloudlet or flower. He confesses agonizingly that all that had happened long ago before he learnt the crooked ways of life and began committing all kinds of sins with all the senses. That is why he expresses his peculiar desire to take a backward motion in order to reach the source, that is, heaven from which he came. Like Moses, who was once granted one side of the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, the poet wants to go back to “That city of Palm trees” or heaven. Now, he feels that his soul, after remaining for a long time in this world and drinking too much to the material things of this world, is feeble. He knows he is unsteady, yet he firmly expresses his renewed conviction that he will be able to reach the original home when his body dissolves into dust.

Comments

aashinomics said…
very well put up...this poem is really v bful...
Anonymous said…
thanx man ur explication is perfect!!!!!
itachi said…
now thats the most awesome analysis i'v ever read 4 the retreat
thnx dude that was a real help!
Anonymous said…
Thank you very much. It was really helpful.
Anonymous said…
Dt ws quite sm help. Not much needs 2 b taught 4 d language remains less complicated thru out...however 4 d last few lines i needed sm xplanatn at least. Thx :)

Popular posts from this blog

Analysis of Sir Philip Sidney’s Loving in Truth (Sonnet No. 1 from Astrophil and Stella)

Finding the answers in Charles Lamb's Dream Children: A Reverie