The Retreat by Henry Vaughan

About the Poet

Henry Vaughan was born in Brecknockshire, Wales. He received his early education in Wales and in 1638 matriculated at Jesus College, Oxford. He left Oxford without taking the degree and started studying law in London. He fought Civil war and served on the Royalist side in South Wales.

During the 1650s Vaughan began practising medicine. After the death of his first wife he married her sister Elizabeth in about 1655. He had four children by each wife, and in his later years he became involved in legal wrangles with his older children. Though his poetry did not attract much attention for a long time after his death, Vaughan is now established as one of the finest religious poets in the language, and in some respects he surpassed his literary and spiritual master, George Herbert.

Summary of the Poem

“The Retreat’ is the best known poem written by Henry Vaughan, a metaphysical poet. Earlier he was considered the most disdained poet of all the lesser poets of the seventeenth century, but renewed interest and critical re-appreciations have made him one of the most admired. A serious illness in 1651, led to deep religious fervour which appeared in his poems. Spark of the Flint, published in 1650 and 1655, is a two volume collection of his religious outpourings. It is considered his best work and contains the poem ‘The Retreat’.

In the poem ‘The Retreat’ Henry Vaughan regrets the loss of the innocence of childhood, when life was lived in close communion with God. Here the poet glorifies childhood, which, according to Vaughan, is a time of innocence, and a time when one still has memories of one’s life in heaven from where one comes into this world. The poet regards the time of childhood as a happy time. It was a time when the poet shone with an angelic light. He was not sullied and spoiled by the physical and material world. It was a time when the poet had thoughts only of heaven and when he could still see glimpses of God. During his childhood, the poet had vision of eternity when he looked at a cloud or a flower as the beauty of these natural objects was a reflection of the glories of heaven and the poet was able to perceive those glories. He was so innocent in those days that he never uttered a sinful word and never had a sinful desire. The whitesouled child coming from celestial home felt ‘bright shoots of everlastingness’ through his fleshly screen. In other words though this physical body he could feel the bright beams of eternity.

The poet feels that as the man grows he becomes sinful in thoughts, words and deeds. Now the influences of the material world prevent him from seeing visions of heaven. So the poet wishes to retrace his steps to the past when he was a child. He wants to be a child again so that he can bathe himself in the golden vision of heaven. People generally like to go forward in life. But the poet wants to retreat to his childhood because according to him a movement back to childhood would also be a spiritual progression.

Explain with reference to the context:-

Stanza – 1

Happy those ………………………………… celestial thought

Reference to Context:-

These lines quoted above have been taken from the poem ‘The Retreat’ written by Henry Vaughan. In this poem, the poet glorifies the childhood. He says that in childhood, life was lived in close communion with God. At that time, he was innocent and pure. But now he is surrounded by materialism and worldly affairs.

Explanation :-

In these lines, the poet says that childhood is a golden period when the child shines like an Angel. Childhood is angelic in the sense that it is both innocent and pure. A Child is nearer to God because a child’s vision of heaven has not yet been sullied and spoiled by the physical and material world. It is his second life on earth. The poet lived his first life in heaven, the vision of which is still nourished by the child. The childhood is the time when he has not yet learnt to think of any other matter except the purity of heaven. Thus in these lines, the poet regrets the loss of his childhood.

Stanza 2

When yet I had ………………………….. shadows of eternity

Reference to Context:-

These lines quoted above have been taken from Henry Vaughan’s poem ‘The Retreat’. In this poem, the poet regrets the loss of his childhood. It was his golden period when he could have the vision of heaven. It was innocent and pure childhood. But now it lost in this material world.

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Explanation :-

The poet says that the period of his infancy was the time when he had just come from heaven. Heaven is poet’s first love from whence he has come to this earth. As a child, he has not travelled farther than a mile or two and therefore, he can still envision heaven’s celestial beauty and glory. The poet in his childhood finds vision of heaven and eternity in the glories of natural objects such as flowers and cloud. The beauty of natural objects is only a faint reflection of the glories of heaven and as a child he can perceive those glories. In his childhood he could see the bright face of God. The poet wants to convey the idea that in childhood, man is near God. But as he grows up, he moves away from God because of materialism.

Stanza – 3

Before I taught……………… everlastingness

Reference to Context:-

These lines quoted above have been taken from Henry Vaughan’s poem ‘The Retreat’. In this poem, the poet regrets the loss of his childhood. It was his golden period when he could have the vision of heaven. It was innocent and pure childhood. But now it is lost in this material world.

Explanation :-

In these lines, the poet describes that childhood is angelic because it is both innocent and pure. It was a time when his thoughts, words and deeds were pure. He had not yet learnt to say any sinful word which would hurt anyone’s conscience. But as man grows up he becomes sinful in thoughts, words and deeds. He acquires enough wickedness and wants to satisfy the needs of his five sense. The poet says that in childhood, he could feel through his body, the bright rays of eternity. Thus in these lines the poet glorifies the childhood.

Stanza 4

O How I long ………………………… city of Palm Trees

Reference to Context:-

These lines quoted above have been taken from Henry Vaughan’s poem ‘The Retreat’. In this poem, the poet regrets the loss of his childhood. It was his golden period when he could have the vision of heaven. It was innocent and pure childhood. But now it is lost in this material world.

Explanation :-

In these lines there is a strong desire in poet to go back to the old days of his childhood. He wants to be a child again so that he can bathe himself in the golden vision of heaven. Childhood was his golden period which had enabled him to have communion with God. These golden memories reminds him of the scene of the heaven which is a city of Palm trees. This city of Palm trees is seen as a second Jerusalem. In this way the poet longs for going back to the days of his childhood.

Stanza 5

But ah! …………………………….. I came, return.

Reference to Context:-

These lines quoted above have been taken from Henry Vaughan’s poem ‘The Retreat’. In this poem, the poet regrets the loss of his childhood. It was his golden period when he could have the vision of heaven. It was innocent and pure childhood. But now it is lost in this material world.

Explanation :-

In this stanza the poet wishes to return to the heavenly days of his childhood. But he regrets that now he cannot do so. After his prolonged stay on this earth, his life has been badly influenced by the materialism. Now his soul feels unable to go back the golden days of childhood. The poet says that people want to make progress in life but he wishes to go back in his childhood. The poet’s movement back to childhood suggest a spiritual progress where he can again have communion with God and see the heavenly glories.

Important Questions and Answers

1. Identify an example of half-rhyme in this poem.
Answers may vary. Examples: “I” and “eternity,” “spy” and “eternity,” “wound” and “sound,” and “love” and “move.”

2. How are the ideas in Henry Vaughan’s introduction reflected in this particular poem?
Answers may vary. Example: In the introduction to Henry Vaughan’s work, the reader is told that his verses contained alchemical themes. One facet of alchemy was the desire to discover a means to indefinitely prolonging life. In this poem, Vaughan reflects on his youth, and by the end, reveals he wishes he had stayed forever young and wishes to be that way again.

3. In your own words, explain the first stanza of this poem. What does Vaughan miss? How does he believe he has changed? Use quotes from the poem to support your translation.

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Ans. In the first stanza, Vaughan writes that he misses the days of

“angel-infancy.” When he was a child, he could gaze at a flower or cloud for an hour and see in them “shadows of eternity.” He feels he has changed because now he knows how to hurt people (“taught my tongue to wound”) and has sinful thoughts (“conscience with a sinful sound”).

4. In the last stanza, how does Vaughan see himself as different from other men?
Ans. Vaughan writes that while most men wish to move forward in time, perhaps working toward success, love, and rewards, he wishes to move backwards. He wishes that once he dies, he will become as pure as he was when he was born: “And when this dust falls to the urn/In that state I came, return.”

Question-Answer (Short Type)

Q.1. What does a child see in childhood?

Ans.: According to the poet childhood is angelic in the sense that it is more pure and innocent. As angles are nearer to God than human beings, children are also more close to the master of universe, the almighty God. A child can still envision heaven’s celestial beauty and glory. When he looks back, he can see the shining face of God because as a child, he has not ravelled much away. A child finds vision of heaven and eternity in the beauties of natural objects such as flowers and clouds because these objects are the reflection of the glories of heaven.

Q.2. How and why is the heavenly vision perceived in childhood dimmed as one grows old?

Ans.: As a man grows old, he is surrounded by the corrupt effects of the materialism and the physical world. He becomes sinful in thoughts, words and deeds. He acquires enough wickedness and is lost in the worldly affairs. Now he wishes to satisfy all his five senses. So he can not envision the heaven’s celestial beauty and glory in the natural objects. That’s why he can not feel he presence of God.

Q.3. What do you understand by “City of Palm Trees”?

Ans.: Here the city of Palm trees means the celestial city or Heaven which is also considered as a second Jerusalem.

Q. 4. Why does the poet want to be a child?

Ans.: The poet wants to be a child so that he can feel the presence of God once again. According to the poet a child is innocent and pure in his thoughts, words and deed and is more near to God. A child’s soul is not spoiled by the bad effects of materialism and he can envision the heavenly beauty and glory in the beauties of natural objects such as clouds and flower.

Q. 5. Why can’t his soul regain its pristine glory?

Ans.: His soul can’t regain its pristine glory as he is lost in this physical world’s material affairs. He has acquired enough wickedness and wants to satisfy the needs of his five senses. He has become sinful in his thoughts, words and deeds. Under the bad and corrupt effect of materialism he has become selfish and utters sinful words which hurt the conscience of someone.

Question-Answer (Essay Type)

Q.1. Write the development of theme in the poem in your own words?

Ans.: The theme of the poem is the glorification of the childhood. Henry Vaughan was a very religious person at heart. This poem ‘The Retreat’ can be seen as outpouring of his religious notions. He says that man’s soul came from heaven. There the man lived in communion with God. So in the early childhood, the child has memories of that first home. When he looks back he can see the shining, bright face of God, the master of universe. As a child he has not travelled farther than a mile or two and, therefore he can still envision heaven’s celestial beauty and glory. He can perceive the heavenly beauty and eternity in the beauties of natural objects like clouds and flowers as these natural objects are the pictures or images of those glories of heaven. But as the man grows up he is lost in this material world. He becomes sinful in his thoughts, words and deeds. He acquires enough wickedness. He becomes selfish and is lost in the worldly affairs. He just wants to satisfy the needs of his five senses. Now he utters sinful words and his heart is full of wicked ideas and thoughts. Now the vision of heavenly beauty, which is perceived by him as child, is lost. Under the corrupt effect of materialism, his soul staggers. Here the poet’s soul is compared to a drunken man who cannot think and walk properly. In the same way a grown up man can not have communion with God. But the poet is fed up of these worldly affairs and wishes to go back to the past when he was a child. He wants to be a child again so that he can bathe himself in the golden vision of heaven. Here the title of the poem ‘The Retreat’ itself is justified in the sense that the movement back to childhood would be a spiritual progression of the poet. Thus the poet beautifully expresses the theme of heavenly purity of the childhood.

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Q. 2. List the Bounties of Childhood.

Ans. According to the poet, a child is very much close to heaven and the God. Childhood is angelic in the sense that it is both innocent and pure. A child is nearer to God than human beings and a child’s vision of heaven is not sullied and spoiled by the physical and material world. A child can still catch glimpses of the bright face of God in whose presence he used to live before coming into this world. A child can perceive the heavenly glories in the beauty of natural objects like flowers and clouds. These natural objects remind him of the higher beauty and glory with which the child used to be familiar in the heaven. In spite of the restraints of this body the child can feel the bright rays of heaven. A child’s thoughts are heavenly thoughts effect and he is more near to God. All these are the bounties of childhood, as a child’s thoughts and words are more pure. He has not yet learnt to say any sinful word which would hurt anyone’s conscience. Nor he has at that time such a wicked nature that, in our mature days, leads us to commit unholy deeds to satisfy our five senses. The poet says that in his childhood, he could feel through his body the bright rays of eternity. So the poet glorifies these bounties of childhood.

Q.3. What does earthly existence do the vision of heaven in childhood?

Ans.: In childhood, the child’s soul is pure and innocent in the sense that child is nearer to God. As a child, he has not travelled farther than a mile or two and, therefore, he can still envision heaven’s celestial beauty and glory. The poet in his childhood finds visions of heaven and eternity in the glories of flower and cloud as these natural objects are the reflections of the glories of heaven. So the child can have visions of God in everything. But as a man grows he becomes sinful in thoughts, words and deeds. He acquires enough wickedness to sin through each one of the senses. There is imprisoning influence of materialism on his soul. Now he cannot see the glory of God in natural objects. He utters sinful words which hurt the conscience of someone. The poet in his grown up age is compared to a drunken man who cannot think and walk properly. Now he just wishes to satisfy his senses. Even if he wishes to go back to God, he cannot do so. Under the bad effect of this physical world and its materialism and vices, his soul staggers. Through this the poet brings out the very bad influence of materialism on man’s soul.

Stanza-Wise Summary Of The Retreat by Henry Vaughan

Stanza 1

The poet remembers his childhood which was a happy time, marked of innocence and ignorance. In his childhood, he was not far from God and used to shine like an angel. The was the time when he knew only purity of heaven and was away from the crooked ways of life.

Stanza 2

In his childhood, he used to see the reflection of God in beautiful things of the world like cloud or flower.
Man is close to God in childhood but as he grows up he moves away from God due to materialism.

Stanza 3

In this stanza, the poet remembers innocent days of his childhood which was free from wicked nature and unaware of any sinful word which would hurt others’ conscience. He used to feel the bright rays of eternity through his body.

Stanza 4

The poet wishes to go back to his early childhood and experience those happy days once again. He wants to enjoy the golden memories of that period from where he had seen heaven from close quarters.

Stanza 5

The poet due to his long stay in this materialistic world cannot go back to the heavenly days of his childhood. He says that people wish to move forward, he wishes to go back but he cannot do so. After his death, he wishes that his soul should return to heaven in the same glorious state from where it came.

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