Vanity of Spirit

by Henry Vaughan

Original Language English

Quite spent with thoughts, I left my cell, and lay
Where a shrill spring tun'd to the early day.
     I begg'd here long, and groan'd to know
     Who gave the clouds so brave a bow,
     Who bent the spheres, and circled in
     Corruption with this glorious ring;
     What is His name, and how I might
     Descry some part of His great light.

I summon'd Nature; pierc'd through all her store;
Broke up some seals, which none had touch'd before
     Her womb, her bosom, and her head,
     Where all her secrets lay abed,
     I rifled quite; and having past
     Through all the creatures, came at last
     To search my self, where I did find
     Traces, and sounds of a strange kind.

Here of this mighty spring I found some drills,
With echoes beaten from th' eternal hills.
     Weak beams and fires flash'd to my sight,
     Like a young East, or moonshine night,
     Which show'd me in a nook cast by
     A piece of much antiquity,
     With hieroglyphics quite dismember'd,
     And broken letters scarce remember'd.

I took them up, and -- much joy'd -- went about
T' unite those pieces, hoping to find out
     The mystery; but this ne'er done,
     That little light I had was gone.
     It griev'd me much. At last, said I,
     "Since in these veils my eclips'd eye
     May not approach Thee -- for at night
     Who can have commerce with the light? --
     I'll disapparel, and to buy
     But one half-glance, most gladly die."

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

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

Several lines in this poem show the same alchemical thinking that also influenced his brother.

There is the alchemical notion that one must discover the secrets held by the natural world, secrets protected by mystical seals:

I summon'd Nature ; pierc'd through all her store;
Broke up some seals, which none had touch'd before...

But, after seeing into the essence of natural forces and creatures, he recognizes that the most important secret is contained within himself, that it IS himself: "...came at last / To search my self..."

Doing this deeply, profoundly, Vaughan enters a state described by mystics throughout the world. He experiences a "mighty spring," and a fundamental sound he describes as "echoes beaten from th' eternal hills." And he witnesses a glimmering of ineffable light that is like a soft dawn or moonlight:

Weak beams and fires flash'd to my sight,
Like a young East, or moonshine night.

Basking in this light, his awareness expands, revealing scattered truths, showing him "...hieroglyphics quite dismember'd, / And broken letters scarce remember'd."

He also expresses the alchemical instinct to gather the results of the Work and join them together:

I took them up, and -- much joy'd -- went about
T' unite those pieces, hoping to find out
The mystery...

These disparate "pieces" are, in truth, the fragments of awareness, and it is the job of the Hermetic philosopher to refine them and draw them together into the ultimate conjunction or unity that is, at the same time, union with the Divine. But he admits that this task was "ne'er done," and the his elevated perception dissipates. The "veils" once more "eclipse" his eyes. But he redoubles his determination to attain this ultimate divine vision by making himself utterly naked to Reality ("I'll disapparel") and completely drop the ego ("and to buy / But one half-glance, most gladly die."). This complete surrender of the self is final ingredient needed in the alchemical compound that leads to completion of the Work.

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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Vanity of Spirit