Sunday, 22 November 2009

HENRY VAUGHAN - Silurist, Hermeticist Welsh Poet and Doctor

Henry Vaughan, was a seventeenth century poet and doctor,who appended the term Silurist to his name.It was said that Locrinus, the son of Brutus, after his father's death divided the lands of Britain between himself and his two brothers. After overcoming Humber, Locrinus found in one of the king's ships, three damsels of celestial beauty, one of which was called Esyllt. She became associated with the country around the rivers Wye and Usk. Esyllt had a daughter with Locrinus called Hafren, who became immortalised in Mor Hafren, which is the Welsh name for the severn Sea, in which both mother and daughter drowned.

The Silures were natives of the regions arond the rivers Wye and Usk, including parts of Herefordshre, Monmouthshire, Breconshire and Glamorgan. The name Siluria came from a corruption of Seisyllwg. The people were a hardy race ,ruled by princes, the most famous of whom was Caractacus, whose seat was said to be at Isca Siluram, known now as Carleon, belived to have been the seat of King Arthur. Patriots of this area became known as the Silurists, which is where Henry Vaughan took his name.

Henry Vaughan dedicated his life to poetic writing, medicine and Hermeticism.We know he died at LLanstantffraed and was buried in a little churchyard here, in a quiet corner of the churchyard, under a yewtree, here we see that Vaughan died in 1695. On his gravestone are his coat of arms consisting of a chevron between three boys heads, each with a snakes entwined about the neck. Included on the stone are words from Vaughan's poem, " The Mount of Olives ".

On the stone it says he died at the age of 73, so he must have been born in either 1621 or 1622.He was born the elder of twin brothers at Trenewydd, or Newton St Bridget in a house in the hamlet of Scethrog, in the parish of Llansantffraed.

Henry's younger twin Thomas was to become the famous mystical poet, Eugene Philathese.He also had a younger brother called William. Not much is known of his childhood, but is believed to have gone with his brother in 1638 to study at Jesus college, Oxford. His brother finished his course but Henry did not and was taken by his father to London where it is thought he studied at the Inn of Court at the same time as the mighty Oliver Cromwell was studying at Lincolns Inn. Henry was not called to the bar.

From 1642 until the battle of Naseby on 14th June, 1645, Henry was a clerk to the judge, Sir Marmaduke LLoyd. Unfortunately for me at least he became a strong Royalist supporter, but whether he actually saw any armed combat is again speculative. Henry wrote a poem in 1646 to being a captive at Raglan, which fell to the great Cromwellian army on 19th August 1646, shortly before the end of the Civil War.

At the end of the war Henry returned home to concentrate on writing poems and began translating many important philosophical works. He was fluent in Welsh and English, although he mostly used the former. He also knew Latin, Greek, German and French.

In 1646 he published a translation of Iuvenal's " Tenth Satyre", along with 14 other poems, and in 1650 saw him publish "Silex Scinillans", which was a volume of 122 sacred poems he had written and compiled wen he was only 22 or 23. Poetry was very much in the air, a time when people seemed to actually breath it. Around this time he translated the works of Plutarch, and one of these was "Of the diseases of the mind and the body". In 1651 his most famous work was published " Olor Iscanus, The Swan Of Usk". He became interested in medicine, especially the causes of diseases and their relation to the different schools of philosophy. He began to believe in to different kinds of diseases, the diseases of the soul and the diseases of the body. times !

In 1665 at the age of only 34ish came the second part of "Silex Scinillans" completed after a serious illness and a religious conversion, being completely different to the first part, and dealt chiefly with the concerns of metaphysics. Included were large references to medicine which had been found in previous works by John Donne and George Herbert, who I believe he must have studied at some point.

In the late 1640's he started practicing medicine in an area near Brecon. Here again their is not much evidence as to where or how he actually got his medical degree, he had M.D caved on his tombstone anyway, and like plenty of this era there is an air of mystery about it all. In 1673 he was to writ to his cousin sayin "My profession is in Physics which I have practiced now for many years with good success ( I thank God ), and a repute big enough for a person of greater parts than myself".

In 1655 Vaughan published "Hermetical Physick, or, the right way to preserve, and restore Health".It contained physics based on the "principles of true philosophy" as was the "Physick Of Hermes".It was a tranlation of the work of one Henry Nollius.

The Hermeticists related the causes of all diseases to the powers pf philosophy, especially the astrological ones, so Hermeticism has been regarded as an esoteric religion, full of counter signs, fantastic beiefs and exotic rites, though based on doctrine and demandind spiritual preparation. Fantastic really ,in an age where belief in superstition was rife, religious fundamentalism nothing new ,one had to be careful what one believed. The Hemetcisists also thought that where some diseases were caused by gods, others caused by fire, and that pregnancy was due to impregnation by a star, unbelievable perhaps, but even today belief in fantasticals all around, an age where some peoples absolute truths are still being fought for.

The most famous of the Hermetical Physicists at this time was Henry's brother, Thomas, who died in year of the great fire of London. His death recorded in true Hermetical fashion when " as twere suddenly when he was operating strong mercurie, some of which by chance getting up into his nose marched him off".

The Hermetical Physicians, Henry included believed they could cure diseases which the Galenists could not including epilepsies. Their basic message though were for the prevention of diseases. Several ideas were -
1.Lead a pious and wholly righteous life.
2.Follow after sobriety.
3.Eat not greedily and drink not immoderately.
4.Eat simple foods.
5.Eat only one type of food and drink at each meal.
6.Eat only foods to which you are used.
7.Use antidotes freely.
8.Change habitation if the air is contagious.
9.Use not too frequently the permission of marriage.

That's me fucked then, along with many of my fair-weathered friends. Hey ho!
Vaughan was perhaps attracted to the Hermeticists by their principle not to accept anything at its face value, but to critisize even the most accepted of theories by testing it with experiment. He was convinced that to be a successful physician one must be addicted to no particular school, but must be prepared to learn from all. Fair enough I say. I too like to learn, at the foot of mystics like Henry Vaughan their will always be questions to ask after all.

In 1695 Vaughan died a Welsh poet with an English tonque.In the words of Siegfried Sasoon-

Here sleeps the Silurist; the loved physician;
The face that left no portraiture behind;
The skull that housed white angels and had vision
Of daybreak through the gateways of the mind.
Here faith and mercy, wisdom and humility
(Whose influence shall prevail for evermore)
Shine, And this lowly grave tells Heaven's tranquillity
And here stand I, a suppliant at the door.

The Retreat

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;
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;
Before I taught my tonque 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

O how I longed to travel back,
And tread again in that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left my glorious train;
From whence the enlightened spirit sees
That shady City of Palm-tress.
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

Henry Vaughan


Bennett, Mrs. J. (Frankau) 1953. 4 Metaphysical Poets; Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, Cambridge University Press.


  1. i really enjoyed reading this post... and i guess i'm well fucked too. nice bit on the oulipo on radio 4 last week

  2. cheers will have to have a look laters heddwch.x

  3. Apparently picture I have up is of John Donne and not Henry Vaughan ....