Thomas Vaughan reads God's Second Book

May 14, 2014

All readers of seventeenth century literature know of the great Welsh religious poet, Henry Vaughan, but not all these readers will have read far into the work of his twin brother, Thomas — or perhaps they just know of Jonathan Swift’s accusation that he wrote “the most unintelligible Fustian, that, perhaps, was ever publish’d in any language,” or of Anthony Powell’s references to him as an inspiration for the seedy alchemist Dr. Trelawny in “A Dance to the Music of Time”.  Thomas Vaughan is, however, interesting in himself.  He was the rector of Llansantfraed near Brecon until he was evicted in 1650 under the provisions of the Act for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales.  The charges against him were more serious than for any other Breconshire incumbent, describing him as ‘a common drunkard, a common swearer, no preacher, a whoremaster and in arms personally against the Parliament’.  As I have indicated elsewhere1, there are reasons for thinking that the first and fourth of these charges were justified.

The transcription of the British Museum MS Sloane 1741 (AQUA VITAE: NON VITIS) in my edition of “The Works of Thomas Vaughan” (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1984), available on Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, has been built upon by  Donald Dickson’s volume in the Medieval And Renaissance Texts and Studies program, Tempe, Arizona, 2001. In this Dickson provides an interpretation of the alchemical recipes and incorporates some valuable original research on Thomas Vaughan’s wife.

There are reasons for believing that the Vaughans’ interest in hermetic philosophy began as early as their schooldays, when they were educated privately by Matthew Herbert.  Henry was to repudiate this interest later in life, writing “my false magic, which I did believe, / And mystic lies to Saturn I do give.”

Facsimile title page of ‘Lumen De Lumine’
Thomas Vaughan, Lumen de Lumine: Facsimile title page in Alan Rudrum (ed.), The Works of Thomas Vaughan
Do not reproduce without permission.  

The twins’ shared interest is manifested in Thomas’s treatment of the figure of Thalia, seen in ‘Lumen De Lumine’ (lines 220-32):

“I could see
between me and the Light, a most exquisit, divine Beauty.
Her frame neither long, nor short, but a meane decent
Stature. Attir'd she was in thin loose silks, but so green,
that I never saw the like, for the Colour was not Earthly.
In some places it was fansied with white and Silver Rib-
, which look'd like Lilies in a field of Grasse. Her
head was overcast with a thin floating Tiffanie, which
she held up with one of her hands, and look'd as it were
from under it. Her Eys were quick, fresh, and Celestiall,
but had something of a start, as if she had been puzzl'd
with a suddaine Occurrence. From her black Veile did her
Locks breake out, like Sun-beams from a Mist
(Thomas Vaughan, Lumen de Lumine: LUMEN DE LUMINE. in Alan Rudrum (ed.), The Works of Thomas Vaughan)

The figure of Thalia in Vaughan’s allegorical presentation is not only veiled physically in this description, but is also hidden to the majority of Vaughan’s readers through their spiritual incapacity. Thalia represents not merely nature, but transformed nature, the nature that the alchemists hoped their labours were bringing about, the Paradise that, as Jacob Boehme had argued, was “in the world. . .swallowed up in the Mystery. . . but. . . . not altered in itself.” Thalia’s head was “overcast with a thin floating Tiffanie”. It is a hermetic platitude that the phenomenal world both conceals and reveals the divine nature. Here, insofar as “tiffanie” is a veil it hides or overcasts; but it also reveals, for “tiffany” is etymologically related to “theophany,” as Vaughan was linguistically alert enough to know.

Thalia, then, represents the possibility of earth’s transformation, and this conception has a bearing on the endeavours of the alchemists.  So, at Thalia’s departure Vaughan-as- protagonist “discover’d certain peeces of Gold, which she had left behind her,” and in Henry’s poem “Regeneration” “the unthrift Sun shot vital gold / A thousand pieces.” She is “the virgin, clad in flowers and green,” of the pre-lapsarian world, in Henry’s “Ascension-Day,” and also the Eternity in which all Nature will rest when death and pain are destroyed. 

1"Henry Vaughan's Poems of Mourning", pp. 309-328, Of Paradise an Light: Essays on Henry Vaughan and John Milton in Honor of Alan Rudrum, edited by Donald R. Dickson and Holly Faith Nelson, Newark, Univ. of Delaware Press, 2004.

Alan Rudrum fell in love with the poems of Henry Vaughan when he was an undergraduate at King’s College, London; his doctoral dissertation, “Henry Vaughan and the Hermetic Philosophy,” was completed in 1961. His edition of Thomas Vaughan’s “Works” was published by the Clarendon Press in 1984, and was published online in 2012 to Oxford Scholarly Editions Online. His life-partner for the past fifty years has been the Romantics and Victorian scholar, June Sturrock, an alumna of St. Anne’s College Oxford and the dedicatee of Thomas Vaughan’s “Works”. 

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