The Retreate

Platonic Christianity

This is one of Vaughan's more obviously mystical poems, based on a form of Platonic Christianity which is typical of such mysticism. It can also be found in William Blake's poems. Vaughan's Platonism is quite close to another metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell, who was writing at the same time. Marvell, however, is not at all mystical but much more defined in his intellectual statements, more in the manner of Donne.

More on Platonism: see Andrew Marvell's The Garden.

Vaughan's Platonism in this poem is expressed in the idea of the soul of the newborn child coming straight out of heaven. It therefore retains memories of heaven for a few years, and there is always a desire to return to that half-remembered state of happiness ever after. In this, the poem anticipates a famous poem by William Wordsworth, Ode. Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. This is ‘my Angell-infancy'. ‘My second race' means his life on earth after having lived a life already in heaven.

The journey of life

The central image is pilgrimage, the journey of life.

When yet I had not walkt above
A mile or two from my first love.

The poet is walking away from Heaven, not towards it as envisaged in the Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progresstraditional image of a journey through life (expressed, for example, in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, written some twenty years later). As with the night/light imagery of The Night, Vaughan is taking a common place image from the Christian tradition and reinventing it.Hence, in the second part of the poem, the sense of loss and longing: the further he goes on in life, the more he will forget happiness.

O how I long to travel back
And tread again that ancient track

This ‘is a haunting and poignant couplet. ‘Track' seems such an ordinary word for this journey, yet how much desire is invested in it! The track leads back to a shining plain, and the symbolic geography spreads out before us as it does in Bunyan or even the novels of Thomas Hardy.

‘That shady City of Palme trees' is presumably the heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation 22:2, rather than the city of Jericho which is called by that name in the Bible (2 Chronicles 28:15). The image of drunkenness is one of Vaughan's most vivid, for the rhythm exactly mirrors the drunken motion. The final image echoes the biblical one of ‘dust to dust' (Genesis 3:19), the urn being metonymic of death, since at cremation, ashes are often put into urns.

Investigating The Retreate
  • Read Vaughan's The Retreate
    • Why does Vaughan think souls lose this sense of heavenly origin?
    • In what sense is a ‘gilded Cloud' a shadow of eternity?
  • What seems to you the most striking feature of the poem?

(see Themes and significant ideas > The Loss of Innocence).

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