Commentary on Regeneration

A journey

The poem takes us on a journey. Various natural features act as symbols or emblems, including the seasons and the scenery.

More on emblems: see Herbert's The Church-floore

‘I stole abroad,' Vaughan begins, meaning ‘I crept away unperceived to go where I liked.' Clearly, some idea of choosing freedom is involved since he was ‘still in bonds' and ‘A ward'. The term ‘ward' could mean someone under age, being under a guardian. There may be a biblical echo of Galatians 4:2-3 here. ‘Infant buds' reinforces this. But ‘ward' does have ideas of enclosure, too.


The season is significant, too: ‘high-spring', marked by primroses. The weather is also noteworthy: not the outer weather, but what is sometimes called ‘the inner weather': ‘frost within', ‘surly winds', ‘sinne/Like Clouds'. A tension is set up between what appears to be the season of freedom, and the inner weather which is still winter, spoiling the hopes of new growth (‘buds').

… or is it?

Bleak landscape, from the Geography Project, available through Creative CommonsThe second stanza re-affirms that it isn't spring at all. It's ‘Meere stage, and show'. However a journey has begun, though it is up a mountain ‘Rough-cast with Rocks'. The landscape is bleak. Vaughan uses the simile of a pilgrim caught in some desolate place and of the blank sky, weeping with its bleakness, as his inner weather mirrors the outer. If you have ever been caught out by the rain, hiking over some barren and featureless moorland, you will know the feeling.

A time of reckoning

At last Vaughan reaches the top of the mountain in his symbolic journey. There he finds a pair of scales. It is a time of reckoning: what has he got out of life so far? On the one hand, a great deal of pain; on the other, some fleeting pleasure (‘smoake') which weighs more heavily in the scales. The symbolism suggests he hasn't got his values right yet, though that is an inference readers must make for themselves. Unlike Herbert, Vaughan will not interpret for us.

A fair, fresh field

Jacob's ladderThe next landmark on Vaughan's journey is a field, emblematically labelled ‘Jacobs Bed'. This is a reference to Genesis 28:10-19, when Jacob, running away from his brother Esau, has a vision of God and a ladder going up into Heaven. ‘Full East' suggests, as in Donne's Good Friday 1613. Riding Westwards, that Vaughan is prepared to go in a spiritual direction. It is a place of revelation, and is reserved for ‘friends of God'. Here he feels at home, which suggests that he is now in a state of some spiritual enlightenment.

A grove

The next landmark is a grove of trees (an image used by Vaughan to describe the Early Church a period when, he believed, Christianity was more pure, free of its later trappings. Here is ‘a spring', referring back to the season. This really is spring: the inside of the grove of trees is a new reality. Within the grove there is a fountain, a spring of water (stanza 7) which empties into a cistern, as you might find on any hill farm in Wales today. However the cistern is an emblem, containing two different sorts of stones. The first kind of stones are light and moves with the current of water; the second type lie motionless at the bottom.

A rushing wind

The poet cannot understand the symbolism, so a different emblem is brought to his attention: a bank of flowers. Some of the flowers are wide open; others are still closed up as if at night. As he studies the meaning, he hears a wind. The reference is to the wind mentioned in John 3:8 a passage related to the title of the poem. It symbolises the Holy Spirit, who comes to give both spiritual birth and also understanding. Vaughan hears it as ‘rushing wind', a reference to the description of the sound heard on the Day of Pentecost in (Acts 2:2).

The moment of regeneration

For the first time, some words are given to the poet. In a Herbert-like move, God speaks right at the end to resolve the puzzle. The words ‘Where I please' echo the Bible passage from the Gospel of John. The poet's response forms the concluding couplet. It is a prayer for God to breath on him, which could refer to Christ breathing on his disciples so that they might receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22), or to the Song of Solomon, the great love poem of the Bible (Song of Songs 4:16). The poet asks that he may die to his old sinful self, while there is still time, before he has to face physical death. This is the moment of regeneration.

Investigating Regeneration
  • Read through Vaughan's Regeneration
    • What is the interpretation of the stones and the flowers in stanzas 8 and 9?
    • Does the fountain have any symbolic value?
    • How many of the natural details are we meant to try to interpret?
      • Does Vaughan give us any clues?
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