Poem of the Week: The Morning Prayer - Metaphysical Poetry and Theosis

Sep 12, 2013

The Morning Watch
by Henry Vaughan

O joys! Infinite sweetness! with what flowers
And shoots of glory, my soul breaks and buds!
                All the long hours
                Of night and Rest,
                Through the still shrouds
                Of sleep, and Clouds,
        This Dew fell on my Breast;
                O how it Bloods,
And Spirits all my Earth! hark! in what Rings,
And Hymning Circulations the quick world
                Awakes, and sings!
                The rising winds,
                And falling springs,
                Birds, beasts, all things
        Adore him in their kinds.
                Thus all is hurl'd
In sacred Hymns and Order; the great Chime
And Symphony of nature. Prayer is
                The world in tune,
                A spirit-voice,
                And vocal joys,
        Whose Echo is heaven's bliss.
                O let me climb
When I lie down! The Pious soul by night
Is like a clouded star, whose beams, though said
                To shed their light
                Under some Cloud,
                Yet are above,
                And shine and move
        Beyond that misty shroud.
                So in my Bed,
That Curtained grave, though sleep, like ashes, hide
My lamp and life, both shall in thee abide.

REFLECTION

Henry Vaughn (1621-1695) was a metaphysical poet, and though rather underappreciated for a couple hundred years, has steadily grown in respect and is accorded a place with the great metaphysical poets like Donne and Herbert. He was an Oxford student and a practicing physician most of his life. His fame rests primarily on his two volumes of religious verse, Silex Scintillans, published in 1650 and 1655. A major influence on his poetic work was "the blessed man, Mr. George Herbert, whose holy life and verse gained so many pious Converts (of whom I am the least)." (Preface to Silex Scintillans)

Let us first note that the title, "the morning watch," means morning prayer. What kind of morning prayer will this be? A pretty phenomenal one, I'd say. In the opening two lines, the speaker ecstatically expresses love and gratitude for the opportunity to pray and commune with God: "O Joys! Infinite sweetness!" (l.1); and then he likens his soul to a flower breaking and budding in the morning, introducing the poem's important nature conceit.

Next, he recaps the night, presenting what happens in the course of his soul's slumber. "Through the still shrouds / Of sleep, and clouds, / This Dew fell on my breast / O how it Bloods, / And Spirits all my earth!" (ll. 7-9) The dew here is a traditional image for grace, divine power, and the coming of Christ. The image of grace and the Spirit irrigating his barren self is bolstered by the hint of Christ's blood mingling with his blood, and that with the watering of earth.

It is clear that the speaker honors God and creation and views himself as a part of nature. "In what Rings, / And Hymning Circulations the quick world / Awakes, and sings" (ll. 9-11). The bloods, spirits, and circulations combine the old notion of blood creating "spirits," a rarified substance that links the soul to the body, with Harvey's new scientifically-accurate theory (1628) on the circulation of the blood. As Joan Bennett aptly states, "the blood-begotten vital spirits and the circular movement of the blood represent the revitalizing of the poet and the rest of the created world, at dawn" (85).

Not only is the speaker's soul awakening in joy to pray, but all of creation is: winds, springs, birds, beasts—"all things adore him in their kinds." (ll. 10-15)  Indeed, all of the cosmos prays—it is the great "Chime and Symphony of nature." This morning prayer is expansive in metaphysically rich and paradoxical ways—simultaneously private and universal, physical and allusive.

After all, the echo of all this is "heaven's bliss" (l. 22)

After the prayer of the morning/day, the speaker is ready for the night, "O let me climb (pray) / When I lie down!" (ll. 23-24)  The imagery for night is mystical and profound, once again fusing the physical cosmos with God and his soul. If his night is prayerful, his soul will elevate to the heavenly realm, and like a clouded star, shed its light down through a misty shroud while he sleeps in his curtained grave.

His last utterance intimates theosis, union with God. Though he sleeps, he prays his lamp and life will abide in Thee.

May we find inspiration to abide in our morning watch; or at least reside in the presence of a poem whose metaphysical artistry might water our soul, clearing the mist for the morning's first Ray.

 
David M. Wright

David M. Wright

David M. Wright is the director and writer of the Upper-School literature curriculum at Memoria Press. He has taught AP Literature and English with a focus on the Great Books for the last ten years. He received his master’s degree in English lit. from DePaul University, completed the CiRCE Teacher Apprenticeship program, and is currently working on a PhD. at the Univ. of Louisville. He is the founder and director of the annual Climacus Conference in Louisville, KY.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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