Looking forward to tomorrow’s Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (also known as Candlemas) in which light plays a predominant theme, the following poem seemed fitting. Henry Vaughan (1621 – 1695) was a physician who, after much time examining the ills of others and a protracted period during which he came close to death himself, converted to Christianity, and thereafter began to write poetry, becoming one of the most notable of the metaphysical school. Vaughan also credited his conversion to the writings of George Herbert, and the former certainly owes the latter a good deal in terms of style and outlook; however, Vaughan can be seen as providing a valid and original contribution to poetry himself, his reflections on the natural world setting him apart in particular, and laying much of the ground for romantic poets such as William Wordsworth.
In the poem ‘They Are All Gone Into The World Of Light’ Vaughan meditates on the loss of those who have been close to him, and the bitter transience of our earthly existence. He uses the image of light to represent the fading memories (‘faint beams’) of the life of dead loved ones, which retain their lustre and clarity only as seen in light of a greater and more permanent luminescence – that of Eternity. Though their memory ‘doth trample on’ the poet’s days, bringing to mind again the pain of loss, the intensity of that memory is also due to the identity of the deceased having been taken to the place of final transformation, where they walk ‘in an air of glory’ animated by the divine light of Love. The weight of loss is paradoxically both intensified and qualified by the knowledge that the dear departed are with God in this new and wondrous glory.
For Vaughan though, and for us, the knowledge of that bright new world remains something that, though we might desire it deeply, and that brings us comfort to know of our loved ones being in its midst, is a mystery – that, as Vaughan writes in The Night, another of his poems, ‘there is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness, as men say it is late and dusky, because they see not all clear.’ This mystery is perhaps, in part at least, what lies behind the strength of our desire for Heaven – not only do we see in it the fulfilment of all we have found good and true here and now, but the knowledge that what we hope for will exceed our every expectation also adds profoundly to that initial sense of longing. Such a spirit animates this poem, in which grief for the departed is married to a spirit of intense desire to be with them, bathed as they are in the eternal light of God, which feeds and warms the souls, and surpasses every earthly hope:
They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.
It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is dressed,
After the sun’s remove.
I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.
O holy hope! and high humility,
High as the Heavens above!
These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
To kindle my cold love,
Dear, beauteous death! the jewel of the just,
Shining no where, but in the dark;
What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust;
Could man outlook that mark!
He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
At first sight, if the bird be flown;
But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.
And yet, as Angels in some brighter dreams
Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes,
And into glory peep.
If a star were confin’d into a tomb
Her captive flames must needs burn there;
But when the hand that lockt her up gives room,
She’ll shine through all the sphere.
O Father of eternal life, and all
Created glories under thee!
Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
Into true liberty.
Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
My perspective (still) as they pass,
Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
Where I shall need no glass.