A brief visit to the Usk valley, in the Marches between Wales and England, revealed some little-known [to me] history.
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd; in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd
I did know of the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan, author of devotional works with a mystical aspect and metaphysical manner in the wake of Donne and Herbert. I didn’t know that he was born and lived most of his life in the Usk valley at a place called Llansanffraid, that he was ‘not born to’ English, but Welsh (presumably through his mother), that his twin brother Thomas studied alchemy and hermeticism and that their early adulthood coincided with the English Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration. Nor that in this tumultuous time Henry remained loyal to the Anglican church, with its Catholic inheritance, rather than to the Puritan version, which removed many clergy from their posts including Thomas Vaughan, and banned the Prayerbook.
Before that, he followed Thomas to Jesus College Oxford (a Welsh foundation, as witnessed by a fine effigy of its founder in Abergavenny church) but soon left, ‘being designed by my father for the study of the law’ in London, ‘which the sudden eruption of our later civil warres wholie frustrated’.
Like many gentry sons, Vaughan supported the King, and joined the royalist forces fighting and defeated near Chester in 1645. His first volume of poems was printed in 1646, his second Olor Iscanus (Swan of Usk) was composed in 1647 and his third Silex scintillans (Fiery or Flashing Flint) appeared in two volumes 1650 and 1655. He made a virtue of retirement, identifying himself with the Silures who occupied southern Wales in antiquity, composed ‘solitary devotions’ to substitute for the liturgy and at some stage began to study medicine from the books then available, a large number of which are to be found in a Philadelphia Library. He also studied the natural history of Breconshire, partly for knowledge of plants’ medicinal properties. John Aubrey described him as ingenious (clever) but proud and humorous or moody. He seems to have given up poetry by the Restoration spent the next thirty years as a peripatetic, possibly occasional doctor.
Landscape features in Vaughan’s verse as evidence of the divine purpose, so his literary heirs are Blake, Christina Rossetti, Gerald Manley Hopkins rather than Wordsworth.
There’s a political message here, too; one wonders what Vaughan made, devotionally, of Charles II and the restored Church.
|Alexander Voet St David Lewis, NPG|
According to his hagiography, no-one in Usk could be persuaded to erect the gallows or act as hangman, for fear of popular reprisals. On the scaffold he affirmed his faith:
“My religion is Roman Catholic; in it I have lived above these forty years; in it now I die, and so fixedly die, that if all the good things in the world were offered to me to renounce it, all should not remove me one hair’s breadth from the Roman Catholic faith. A Roman Catholic I am; a Roman Catholic priest I am; a Roman Catholic priest of that order known as the Society of Jesus, I am."
This was August 1679, when Henry Vaughan was 25 miles north up the Usk valley, where he died in 1695, being buried with a similarly pious but less courageous epitaph describing him as ‘Silurist, Doctor of Medicine, unworthy servant, greatest of sinners, may God have mercy’.
They lived in interesting times. David Lewis, who has a gravestone outside the church door in Usk, was canonised in 1970 along with 40 other ‘English Martyrs’.