The Morning Watch

by Henry Vaughan

Original Language English

O joys! Infinite sweetness! with what flowers
And shoots of glory, my soul breaks and buds!
          All the long hours
          Of night and rest,
          Through the still shrouds
          Of sleep, and clouds,
     This dew fell on my breast;
          O how it bloods,
And spirits all my earth! hark! in what rings,
And hymning circulations the quick world
          Awakes, and sings!
          The rising winds,
          And falling springs,
          Birds, beasts, all things
     Adore Him in their kinds.
          Thus all is hurl'd
In sacred hymns and order ; the great chime
And symphony of Nature. Prayer is
          The world in tune,
          A spirit-voice,
          And vocal joys,
     Whose echo is heaven's bliss.
          O let me climb
When I lie down! The pious soul by night
Is like a clouded star, whose beams, though said
          To shed their light
          Under some cloud,
          Yet are above,
          And shine and move
     Beyond that misty shroud.
          So in my bed,
That curtain'd grave, though sleep, like ashes, hide
My lamp and life, both shall in Thee abide.

-- from Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems, by Henry Vaughan

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

This poem by Henry Vaughan is an excellent example in English of a mystic's ecstatic utterances.

There are so many phrases and lines here that can be repeated again and again to draw the awareness into remembrance of the ecstatic state within each of us...

Here's a hint to start you off: If you're struggling to really connect with this poem, read it out loud. Feel its rhyme and syncopation drawing you more deeply in. A poem like this can't fully be savored until it is spoken and tasted by the tongue.

O joys! Infinite sweetness! with what flowers
And shoots of glory, my soul breaks and buds!

There is a specific experience referred to when Vaughan writes "This dew fell on my breast; / O how it bloods..." In states of mystical ecstasy, there is often a sensation of drinking a subtle, divinely sweet liquid. Many saints and mystics refer to this 'substance' metaphorically as 'wine.' But, in alchemy and other esoteric traditions, it is sometimes called "dew," for it descends secretly from heaven and marks the coming of dawn, enlightenment. This "dew" when it descends, and when we drink it, settles upon the heart ("my breast") and warms it, giving new life to the heart, causing it to awaken and feel ("O how it bloods") and expand in ways inconceivable before.

Vaughan gives us a wondrous segment in the middle of this poem that describes the "symphony of Nature," a swirling vision of the living world awakening and filled with activity, and it is all a living prayer: "Birds, beasts, all things / Adore Him in their kinds / Thus all is hurl'd / In sacred hymns and order..." (And what a great line to remember: "Prayer is / The world in tune.") This is the vision of unity embodied in the natural world, but it is also a vision of unity within himself, a vision we can also see within our own selves. Again, there is a touch of European alchemical thought here. The elements, the animals, all of nature, are recognized as being within each of us. Normally we struggle through life feeling as if those aspects of ourselves are disjointed, separate, in conflict. But in the startling vision of divine ecstasy, we are shown that the great drama of those elemental forces within us is part of a rich, unified symphony. We see the natural world as a living unity, and we see the forces that comprise ourselves too as a living unity -- and then we open to the vision of heaven and earth as a living unity, as well.

The closing image of the "pious soul" being like a "clouded star" is an important metaphor to pay attention to. Vaughan is reminding us that the soul is always -- always -- unhindered awareness and bliss. Even if those "stars" seem obscured "Under some cloud" of limited awareness, that only affects the earthbound awareness that looks up. But a cloud is no limitation to our natural perfection, for our "souls," our true selves "Yet are above, / And shine and move / Beyond that misty shroud..." Even death ("The curtain'd grave") may try to hide our light, but it only manages to obscure it from those who can't see beyond earthly sight.

Recommended Books: Henry Vaughan

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems Metaphysical Poetry: (Penguin Classics) Henry Vaughan: Selected Writings
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The Morning Watch