Henry Vaughan – “The Retreat”, “Silence and Stealth of Days!”

In “The Retreat” Vaughan alludes to the belief in the pre-existence of souls, the belief that the souls exist in paradise before they are sent to earth to enter the physical human bodies. The speaker describes his childhood as a blessed phase of life when he was still fresh out from the hands of God, so to speak. So it was enough for him just to turn back to see God’s face. Back then, he could meditate for an hour on a cloud or a flower, seeing in them “shadows of eternity”. Back then, his tongue could not sin and neither could his senses. He longs to go back (hence “the retreat” of the title but his soul is tired and staggering. He wishes he could return to heaven the same way he came from it. The poem is written in simple short tetrameter line with rhyming couplets, emphasizing its central message about the wish to return to childlike innocence.

“Silence and Stealth of Days!” is a poem mourning the death of Vaughan’s younger brother William. It’s not been two months yet since William died (“twelve hundred hours”, says the ever-precise Vaughan) and everybody is grieving. To describe the process of memory, Vaughan uses the metaphor of a miner (the image he surely knew from his native Wales) who fixes his lamp in the mineshaft and goes further down, but returns when he ventures outside the range of the lamp light. The speaker tries to do the same: he feels he goes further into the darkness with every day that passed after his brother’s death, but when he uses his memory to go back to the last moments when he saw his brother on his deathbed, he sees only the burned wick because his brother is no more. His light is fled to the throne of God and the speaker’s only solace is the light of his “pearl” – his faith or his Bible – in which he can see all things and find the soul of his brother.

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