The World // Henry Vaughan

Vaughan concocts a creative double meaning in the title of his poem, ‘The World’ where it refers to two kinds of worlds – an earthly world for humans and the eternal world for souls. Both these worlds are visualised by the poet, who looks at eternity as a ring of ‘pure and endless light’ – timeless – and beneath it, sees the mortal world which is overcast and driven by shadows of the sun, moon and satellites – time-bound. He zooms from this ethereal perspective to see the lives of different people in the world, moving from an astronomical field to a sociocultural and ethical field where the movement from the physical to the spiritual is the central conceit of the poem.

The poet starts with the use of first person to draw attention to his own placement in the poem, where he is given a macrocosmic vision of the entire universe, as he looks from the point of constellations to see eternity as a ‘great ring’. The visual image of the ring reinforces the idea of eternity being endless as a circle has no end, in contrast with the earth which lies flat and ends at a certain point. This idea of the ring is again referred to in the fourth and last stanza of the poem as Vaughan concludes that eternity is not merely a ring, it is a bonding between God and us. Vaughan, then, moves the focus on to the microcosmic physical world which is surrounded by this spiritual world. This world is controlled by the forces of time with ‘hours, days, years’ which is regulated by the sun and the moon, spherical objects which shadow the earth. The image of shadows first brings into light the darkness of the physical world which lies in stark contrast with the ‘pure light’ of the spiritual world, connoting to how in the bonding with God in eternity do we acquire the actual light of spiritual emancipation.

Vaughan, then, changes the lens from the big world to its features where he first explains different forms of human afflictions caused by earthly desires, love for people, money, power and so on. The lover who is complaining about his failure to reunite with his beloved, sits beside his lute and his fanciful love poems, creating a picture of romantic desperation. On the other side of him lies his gentlemanly wear – ‘gloves and knots’ – which symbolise his stature. However, he keeps all these aside to gaze upon a flower. This representation of the lover identifies how immersed we are with physical objects that die, when we can be engrossed with the spiritual object which is eternal.

In the second fifteen-line stanza of the poem, Vaughan draws in the dark side of humanity – the side which preys on innocents and gets away with it – through the image of a politician. The poet integrates the sense of darkness through the metaphor of a ‘midnight fog’ and a conceit of a ‘mole’. This condemning nature of his thoughts weigh down the movement of the statesman which is analogous to a thick midnight fog that moves slowly, all the while he is being pursued by the victims of his political ambition. The parallelism between him and a mole draws in the image of him as a predator who digs his way underground and from there pounces on his next prey. Vaughan shows the extent of which these opportunists get away with their crimes when he admits that the churches – institutions that are supposed to protect people – condone their actions and accept perjury. The victims may protest but the politician, with his mind filled with ideas of exploitation and corruption, are superior to them and can get away. This Vaughan shows through a demonic representation of the statesman drinking ‘blood and tears’ ‘as free’, which heightens the image of darkness, especially in the 17thcentury where this would be considered as Satanism.

The third stanza follows the image of a miser who lives in fear due to his greed. Vaughan is very expressive on his repulsion of the different forms of human indifference to God where he identifies money as ‘rust’ – the degeneration of a shiny object. The fear of losing something that is momentary is so powerful within the miser that he is as afraid of his own hands as he is of thieves. This infatuation with wealth is also present within the epicure who indulges in physical pleasure but not moral, believing this to be the heavenly lifestyle. Vaughan sees people all around him who enjoy excessive lifestyles through promiscuity and lust, being completely unaware of how transient this is.

Yet, they all crave for eternity and in the last stanza, Vaughan witnesses how those people who are devoted to God can be lifted up and ‘use no wings’ to eternity and live a life that is immortal. This spurs the poet’s synthesis as he uses direct speech to address the reader and remind them of their own foolishness to follow the path to damnation by preferring ‘dark night before true light’. Through the identifications of the lover who is encompassed with the physical desire instead of the spiritual one, the politician who thinks too heavily about a physical ambition, the miser who is too engrossed in his own greediness about a physical object and the epicure who is overindulgent on a physical life, Vaughan exemplifies the human frailty. He bemuses over how humans can live a primitive life in ‘grots and caves’ and reject daylight when it is this light that makes us brighter than the sun. But as he wonders on human weakness, he hears a whisper which adjoins the idea of eternity as a ring to eternity as a wedding band where God is the groom and those who are devoted to Him are His brides. Therefore, Vaughan concludes, gaining salvation is not only for eternal emancipation but to also be bonded with God as lovers are.

Being a didactic poem, Vaughan quotes the words of the Bible to reinforce the conception that our life on earth is not transient and that lust of all things physical will go away, but the spiritual life that lies beyond will always remain. Written in iambic pentameters, Vaughan expresses human hindrance to salvation and acceptance of damnation while concluding with how salvation will allow us to gain the strongest bond in existence with God.

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