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The poem “The Retreat” exalts childhood as the most ideal time of a man’s development. Readers should be aware that the title uses the word “retreat” before continuing. This philosophical idea has two meanings thanks to Vaughan’s choice of it.
The first is a metaphor for running away from or hiding from one’s life, and the second alludes to a happy place. He wants to retreat to a better moment as well as go back in time. The speaker and the two are in agreement.
About the Poet
Welsh philosophical poet, author, translator, and physician Henry Vaughan also wrote in English. The second part of his devotional poetry was published in Silex Scintillans in 1655. His Poems, which included the tenth Juvenal satire in English, were published in 1646. By reading the religious poet George Herbert, he had come to reject “idle verse” in the interim.
His honesty and the breadth of his views are demonstrated in the prose Mount of Olives and Solitary Devotions (1652). Although he purportedly didn’t approve of the subsequent two volumes of secular poetry, it is his religious poetry that has received praise. Additionally, he translated two prose medical texts as well as brief religious and moral writings. He started his lengthy medical profession in the 1650s.
Happy those early days! when I Shined in my angel infancy. Before I understood this place Appointed for my second race, Or taught my soul to fancy aught But a white, celestial thought;
The speaker starts the first section of Vaughan’s “The Retreat” with an exclamation that, at this time, lacks any distinguishing context. This line might appear to be a joyous one at first glance, but when one gains a deeper comprehension of the text, it becomes evident that it is more akin to mourning than joy.
The narrator is reflecting on his earlier years and recalling what it was like to “Shine in [his] angel infancy.” Though these times are long gone, he still cherishes his memories of them. He believes these are the purest and most lucid aspects of his existence. He continues his recollections in the paragraphs that follow by describing how he now knows “this place.”
He is aware of his surroundings and can see all of their dark crevices. This wasn’t the case in the past though. He used to lead such a pure life in his youth that he never even considered how “celestial” his thoughts were. Now, clear thinking requires deliberate effort.
When yet I had not walked above A mile or two from my first love, And looking back, at that short space, Could see a glimpse of His bright face; When on some gilded cloud or flower My gazing soul would dwell an hour, And in those weaker glories spy Some shadows of eternity;
The speaker continues to recount his life before leaving his home in the following part. He “had not walked” farther than a “mile or two” from his “first love” during this time. He had not yet experienced much of the world and was unaware of its hazards. He now understands that this was the time when he first “saw” God’s face.
This was only achievable for a “brief” time and during those moments when he looks at a “gilded cloud or blossom.” He used to be able to sit and think about how beautiful the natural world was for an hour when he was younger. He discusses the “eternal” glances he saw in these moments in the concluding paragraphs. Even though they were mere “shadows,” to him, they seemed incredibly significant.
Before I taught my tongue to wound My conscience with a sinful sound, Or had the black art to dispense A several sin to every sense, But felt through all this fleshly dress Bright shoots of everlastingness.
Vaughan continues to describe his early childhood in these lines, continuing on the same theme. The speaker is thinking back on the years of his life when his “tongue” did not injure his own “conscience.” He simply lived his life as a young person, not worrying about what was morally right or bad. He elaborates on this in the words that follow when he talks of “dark art” tainting emotions.
He was not concerned about how he felt or whether it was wicked before he got older. However, he is now troubled by the nature of his own feelings. The social and perhaps religious doctrines that have led to this are to blame. He sensed “shoots of everlastingness” within his “fleshly dress,” or body, as opposed to his regretful ideas about his own life. His younger self believed that he would live in an eternal state of youth.
O, how I long to travel back, And tread again that ancient track! That I might once more reach that plain Where first I left my glorious train, From whence th’ enlightened spirit sees That shady city of palm trees.
The Retreat’s following section changes direction. He stops thinking about the past and instead declares his general yearning for it. “O, how I desire to travel back,” he exclaims in another cry (to the past). The speaker prefers living as he does now over going back in time and walking on “that ancient pathway.”
He could have a chance to get to “that plain” where he left his “beautiful train” if he could get back. He would want to get back to how he was before. He is also aware of exactly where he left it—next to the “enlightened spirit” on the hill. From its resting place, the soul, which stands in for his infancy, can observe the “shady metropolis of palm trees.”
But, ah! my soul with too much stay Is drunk, and staggers in the way. Some men a forward motion love; But I by backward steps would move, And when this dust falls to the urn, In that state I came, return.
The speaker laments about what he will never have again in the final six lines. He has gotten “sozzled” by his own memories and longings. The speaker is aware that living this manner would cause him to “stagger” through life without a clear goal. He is unaffected by this truth and continues to change his mind.
He is aware that, in contrast to other guys, he prefers “backward steps” to “ahead movements.” He discusses his own death in the last two sentences. As he resumes the shape of “dust,” it will be the final return. His body will resurface on the planet and revert to its pre-birth state.