So in this last and lewdest age,
Thy antient love on some may shine.
Vaughan, “White Sunday”
The subtitle to this chapter is adapted from the title of an essay by the American feminist poet, Adrienne Rich. In the essay, Rich remarks how, as a student in her early twenties, she was led to believe that poetry was “the expression of a higher world view, what the critic Edward Said has termed ‘a quasi-religious wonder,’ instead of a human sign to be understood in secular and social terms.” 1 My starting place is to remark that whatever conditions underlie Rich’s sense of the opposition between poetry as transcendental expression versus poetry as a sign system to be understood in secular and social terms, the dialectic is misleading, although in interesting ways, when applied to a pre-Romantic (who is sometimes thought to be a proto-Romantic) like Vaughan, despite the fact that he is almost always remembered as the signal instance of a seventeenth-century poet who became memorable once he became a poet of transcendence: “Lord, then said I, on me one breath,/And let me dye before my death.” 2
In beginning in this way, I do not mean to suggest that the difference between secular and devotional poetry is insignificant to the seventeenth century or to Vaughan. Indeed, one of the many ironies produced by the English Civil War points in just the opposite direction. The distinction Milton drew with characteristic emphasis in The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty (1642), alluded to in the previous chapter, between “vulgar amorists” in verse and poets inspired by “devout prayer to that eternal spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge,” gets redrawn with new emphasis and force in the next decade by a royalist-turned-religious seer: a poet from Wales who, in the 1655 Preface to the completed Silex Scintillans, regarded himself nonetheless as a citizen of “this Kingdom” (my italics), rather than of the Commonwealth.
Nor do I want to suggest that the more distant reaches of the devotional