Angel Infancy

Angelika Kauffmann, "Children with Bird's Nest and Flowers (late 18th C)

Angelika Kauffmann, “Children with Bird’s Nest and Flowers (late 18th C)

Spiritual Sunday

Julia and I are back from our vacation in Iowa and Chicago and are currently visiting our two-year-old grandson Alban in Silver Spring. I love his intense engagement with small, everyday things. The 17th century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan finds a spiritual meaning in such engagement.

In his lovely poem “The Retreat,” Vaughan expresses a view similar to that of Wordsworth in Intimations of Immortality, which Vaughan’s poetry undoubtedly influenced. Children in their “early days” can still see, in a cloud or a flower, “shadows of eternity.” Life has not yet distracted them from “a white, celestial thought,” and they still see “through all this fleshly dress/ Bright shoots of everlastingness.” Note the poet’s deep longing to “travel back,/And tread again that ancient track!” Since leaving childhood, he feels that his soul has been staggering drunkenly forward. Through adult language he has taught “my tongue to wound/My conscience with a sinful sound” while sin has corrupted his once innocent senses. Therefore, death is not something to be feared but a “retreat” back to that innocent state.

Being around children causes one to pick up this vision. Here’s the poem.

The Retreat

By Henry Vaughan

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 tongue 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 long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left my glorious train,
From whence th’ enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.
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.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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