I think one of the greatest of metaphysical poems is Henry Vaughan’s masterpiece “The Night.” The poem takes as its inspiration the scene from the third chapter of John, Nicodemus visiting Jesus by night. But, rather than a simple retelling of the gospel story, Vaughan engages in a deeply moving meditation on the encounter with God—an encounter that can only take place in the darkness of unknowing.
The unique thing about Vaughan’s poetry when compared to the other seventeenth-century Metaphysicals (Donne, Herbert, Crashaw,) is how nature is so integral a part of his religious aesthetic. For Vaughan—as for his identical twin, the alchemist and Anglican priest Thomas—nature, scripture, and the soul are inextricably intertwined with one another, revealing each other, opening the way to God. Other poets of the era rarely mention nature, certainly not with the intentionality we find in Vaughan. Not until the Romantics do we find anything even remotely similar in English poetry.
It would not be accurate, though, to think of Vaughan’s poetry as pantheistic, a charge often (and rightly) levied at the Romantics. Rather, his verse reveals itself as thoroughly sacramental, an extended meditation on the ways the transcendent majesty of God again and again makes itself immanent through incarnational grace. Every poem of his, in one way or another, proclaims this good news. For Vaughan, all of creation participates in the sacramental blessing of the Eucharist. If only we can see it.
Alchemists like Vaughan’s brother Thomas and their countryman and contemporary Robert Fludd sought to do in chemistry what Henry did in verse. They searched nature for Christ and the wondrous power of regeneration. When they found it, they looked to scripture for confirmation.
Unfortunately, the religious aesthetic of the Vaughans and Fludd disappeared after the little cultural capital it possessed washed away in the wake of Cartesian dualism. At that point, all of creation was artificially (but more or less officially) divided into a host of binaries: spirit and matter, soul and body, church and state, and, eventually, religious and spiritual. This bifurcation of the universe has proved doggedly resilient and adaptable.
Some of us still maintain some resonance with Henry Vaughan’s holistic image of the soul, scripture, and nature, but the day is not ours. But despite the poverty of our circumstances, we continue to rest in the confidence that the surest way of knowing is obtained through unknowing.
There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness. As men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear;
O for that night! where I in him
Might live invisible and dim.
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