UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The mysticism of George Herbert and Henry Vaughan Richardson, Nenagh Gweneth Mary


Mysticism is simply religious experience in its highest manifestations. In Christian mysticism, love is the distinguishing factor; its focal point is the Incarnation. The mystic worships God both In His Transcendence and In His Immanence, his emphasis usually being on one or other of these aspects of His nature. In the seventeenth century, two main mystical traditions existed. One was the orthodox Catholic tradition; the other was more unorthodox in character, stemming from the philosophy of Hermes Trismegistes. The mystic way consists of the five-fold path beginning in Awakening, followed by Purgation, Illumination, the Dark Night of the Soul, and climaxed by Union. The mystic life itself is not vague or escapist: it is a life deified in order that it may be dedicated. Contemplation and activity go hand in hand. Mystical and poetical experience can be differentiated by the direction which each experience takes: the poet returns from his experience with his poem, whereas the mystic pushes on to the fuller vision of God. Turning specifically to George Herbert, I believe he was never fully awakened in the mystical sense; hence, his subsequent experience cannot be considered truly mystical. Nevertheless, there are points of reference and similarities between Herbert and the mystics. His Purgation, however, lacked the fullness of the mystic's experience, for it lacked the most significant attribute of the purgative state, the stimulation of the will. A sense of Illumination, moreover, is never sustained in Herbert. Rarely does he express joy at God's presence. Indeed, he was most like the mystic in his expression of despair. Thus the peace he came to exemplify in his life at Bernerton is truly remarkable in the light of the suffering revealed in his poems. The sense of harmony and peace he ultimately achieved came not through inner peace but through triumph over constant turmoil and despair. Henry Vaughan, on the other hand, experienced, I believe, a true mystic Awakening, accepting the obligations implicit in it, and undergoing, as a consequence, a certain degree of Purgation. His deepest suffering was closely linked with the persecution of the church. His Illumination is best understood through his approach to nature. His treatment of light imagery in nature, however, tends to be misleading in an assessment of his mysticism. I believe that the poems which deal most successfully with light are really philosophical rather than mystical, and that his Illumination, or vision, was essentially that of the poet and not that of the mystic. The vision he captured is, nevertheless, one of the fullest and loveliest to be found in our English poetry. Both Herbert- and Vaughan sought to praise their Maker through the medium of their art. They were deeply spiritual poets though neither can be considered a mystic in the full sense of the word. Each was essentially mystical in his aspirations, nevertheless and In their individual accomplishments each tells us something of the final and full accomplishment of the mystic: Vaughan through his illuminated vision of the world, Herbert through his exemplary life of holiness.

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