Treatment of Childhood and Adulthood in Henry Vaughan’s “The Retreat”
The central theme of ‘The Retreat’ by Henry Vaughan is the glorification of childhood based on the Platonic doctrine of immorality and of anti-natal existence, of the soul- the belief that life on earth is not our first state of existence, that the soul comes from Heaven which is its true home, lives a “second race “on earth and goes back to heaven after death. The poem expresses a passionate yearning for going back to Heaven. The poet pines for the happy days of childhood when the vision of heaven gleamed before him. The mystical note of ‘The Retreat’ comes out in Vaughan’s approach to childhood in his conception of childhood innocence and of the child’s initiative communion with heaven. Although the main argument of the poem is the retreat of a Human soul to Heaven, Vaughan‘s treatment of childhood constitutes a major attraction of ‘The Retreat’. In fact, the earlier portion of the poem is concerned with the poet’s novel and mystical views about childhood.
‘The Retreat’ begins with the poet’s craving for the happy days of his childhood. Those were the bright and pure days when he ‘Shined’ in his ‘Angel-infancy’. The poet had then no knowledge or comprehension of the human world which was ‘appointed for’ his ‘second race’. In his eyes, it was an unreal and unsubstantial place more like a dream than a reality. His Soul was still a stranger to the evils and sins of the world. It had not yet traveled far from Heaven and God and the remains of the formal glory still clung to it. He felt the presence of God in every object around him and saw the bright face of God who was an abiding reality to him. Beautiful objects of nature like a gilded cloud or a lovely flower seemed to him to be a reflex of the divine radiance. His Soul was then fresh from Heaven, clear and free from all earthly contaminations. His mind was not vitiated yet by any corrupt thought, feeling, fancy, or utterance, nothing but a white celestial thought than that possessed him.
What Vaughan emphasizes here are childhood’s proximity to Heaven and absolute purity. He asserts through childhood retains its contact with Heaven and remains in a pure and innocent State-
When yet I had not walked above A mile, or two for my first love
Vaughan proceeds further to declare the innocence of childhood emphatically
Before I taught my tongue to wound My conscience with a sinful sound, or had the black art to dispense A several sins to every sense
This is no doubt, an idealism of childhood. His conscience was clear and pure. He had not yet learned the language of man, which is so often sinful and profane. He had not yet acquired a knowledge of evils that prevails in the world. His senses were not perverted and directed away from their normal function to anything evil. He was thoroughly permitted by the divine effulgence and the gross preventing the light of God form on his souls.
The prerogatives of childhood are contrasted in the poem with the miserable lot of the grown-up man with a marked preference for the flowers. When the child grows into a man, all the memories of Heaven are forgotten. The soul falls under the influence of this material world and becomes oblivious of its prenatal existence. Mature years bring with them a deadening effect on souls. A grown-up man is much obsessed with the material occupation as well as temptations of life. He does no more bear his childhood innocence and celestial experience. His long stay in the world amidst material pursuits and preoccupations has spoiled that Heavenly gleam. But in his heart of hearts, he still hungers for Heaven wherefrom he has come He feels Sick of his like on earth with all its passion for material pleasure and yearns his retreat in heaven. He still cherishes a ferment faith in his return to his original home. The poet’s devotional tone is heard abode.
The poet confesses his earthly sins and like a true Christian repents and pines for his pure celestial home. In the characteristic metaphysical style of or fashion, the poet concludes with a stark hope for his retreat to heaven after his death.
And when this dust falls to the urn, In that state I came, return