Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Peace, by Henry Vaughan

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Henry Vaughan (1621-95) wrote poetry in the “metaphysical” tradition of John Donne and George Herbert, and declared himself to be a disciple of the latter. Some of his poems are indeed such close parallels to some of Herbert’s that the latter, had he still been alive, might have considered suing
Vaughan for plagiarism! That said, Vaughan did have a distinctive poetic voice of his own, and some of his poems are remarkably well-wrought and expressive.

“Peace” is a short poem that was included in Henry Vaughan’s 1650 collection of religious poems entitled “Silex Scintillans” (“The Flaming Flint”). It runs as follows:

My soul, there is a country

Afar beyond the stars,

Where stands a winged sentry

All skilful in the wars:

There above noise and danger

Sweet Peace sits crowned with smiles,

And One born in a manger

Commands the beauteous files.

He is thy gracious friend

And – O my soul, awake! –

Did in pure love descend

To die here for thy sake.

If thou canst get but thither,

There grows the flower of Peace,

The Rose that cannot wither,

Thy fortress, and thy ease.

Leave then thy foolish ranges

For none can thee secure,

But one who never changes,

Thy God, thy life, thy cure.

This is a simple poem with a simple message, and it is not surprising that it has appeared over the years in many church hymn books, split into four four-line stanzas. However, it is worth examining the methods that Vaughan uses to get his meaning across.

The poem is addressed to the poet (“my soul”), and is therefore introspective. It is a meditation rather than a sermon, intended as a reminder and statement of one’s own faith rather than a call to others.

It speaks of Heaven as “a country far beyond the stars” that is guarded by a winged and experienced sentry. Vaughan clearly has a concept of Heaven as a physical location that has the trappings of an earthly nation, governed by a monarch and comprising “beauteous files” of angels. However, whereas nations are generally warlike, this one is ruled by Peace who wears a crown of “smiles” as opposed to gold or laurels.

Vaughan assumes that his readers will know the nature of the Holy Trinity and therefore not be phased by the apparent distinction between Peace, who wears the crown, and “the one born in a manger” who does the commanding. In Christian theology, they are one and the same being.

There is a short diversion to consider the role of Christ as friend and saviour, then Vaughan returns to exhorting his soul to “get but thither”. He then uses the image of the rose as “the flower of Peace”, followed by that of the fortress as the securer of peace against all troubles.

The concluding lines are reinforcement of the need for faith during one’s earthly life and the need to “leave … thy foolish ranges”. It is noticeable that God is only mentioned by name in the final line, being referred to as Peace in the rest of the poem. Vaughan may well have been thinking about the names of the Messiah given by Isaiah (9:6) as “The Mighty God” and “The Prince of Peace”.

The basic message of the poem is that peace, whether on earth or in Heaven, depends on security. Heaven is guarded, but it is also the source of security, not only for the soul that reaches it but for people of faith who accept God as their fortress.

The idea of Heaven as a country is one that has been taken up by other poets and hymn writers, one example being Cecil Spring-Rice in his 1908 poem “I vow to thee, my country” (famously set to music by Gustav Holst) which also includes the line “and all her paths are peace”. Spring-Rice uses the line “But there’s another country I’ve heard of long ago”; one wonders if it could have been Vaughan’s poem, used a school or church hymn, that was where he first did the hearing.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford

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