Of Paradise and Light: Essays on Henry Vaughan and John Milton in Honor of Alan Rudrum

By Donald R. Dickson; Holly Faith Nelson | Go to book overview

Henry Vaughan's Poems of Mourning

Alan Rudrum

FESTSCHRIFTEN ARE ESSENTIALLY ELEGIAC ENTERPRISES, NOT customarily offered to “the forward youth that would appear.” Mixed emotions are likely to be felt: in this case pleasure and gratitude most certainly, but also a melancholy sense of “the lyf so short, the art so hard to learn, ” and of having left undone those things that ought to have been done. So when it was kindly suggested that I might contribute an essay, a consideration of Henry Vaughan's poems of mourning seemed both timely and appropriate.

Vaughan has been a constant “significant other” to me for fifty years, on three continents, through the vicissitudes of an entire adult life. It seems right, then, on this occasion, to think of his meditations on his significant others, in his poems of mourning. No other period of English literature has surpassed the poems of mourning of the early seventeenth century; and while most readers will doubtless feel that no one poem of Vaughan's can challenge King's “Exequy” or Milton's “Lycidas, ” few other poets of the period produced so large a body of splendid verse in that kind as he did. The literature on poems of mourning is extensive, and accustomed as one has become to the comparative neglect of Vaughan by many who regard themselves as specialists in the literature of his period, it still came as a surprise to discover that his work is scarcely mentioned in it. 1

In this paper I consider Vaughan's poems of mourning in the light of conventions of funeral practices, mourning, and the poetics of elegy. After a brief discussion of context, I shall turn to a few poems of mourning from Olor Iscanus (1651) and Thalia Rediviva (1678), before passing on to Silex Scintillans, first published in 1650, and reissued, with a new preface and additional poems, in 1655.

In the literature on poems of mourning we soon encounter statements about the transition from medieval to early modern and modern thinking about death. The important distinction is,

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