Jun 15 2011

Henry Vaughan – The Night

Published by at 7:34 am under Poetry

The Night
by Henry Vaughan

            Though that pure Virgin-shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er thy glorious noon
That men might look and live as glow-worms shine,
                  And face the moon:
      Wise Nicodemus saw such light
      As made him know his God by night.

            Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long expected healing wings could see,
                  When thou didst rise,
      And what can never more be done,
      Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!

            O who will tell me, where
He found thee at that dead and silent hour!
What hallowed solitary ground did bear
                  So rare a flower,
      Within whose sacred leaves did lie
      The fullness of the Deity.

            No mercy-seat of gold,
No dead and dusty Cherub, nor carved stone,
But his own living works did my Lord hold
                  And lodge alone;
      Where trees and herbs did watch and peep
      And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.

            Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of Spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
                  Which none disturb!
      Christ’s progress, and his prayer time;
      The hours to which high Heaven doth chime.

            God’s silent, searching flight:
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
                  His still, soft call;
      His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
      When Spirits their fair kindred catch.

            Were all my loud, evil days
Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark Tent,
Whose peace but by some Angel’s wing or voice
                  Is seldom rent;
      Then I in Heaven all the long year
      Would keep, and never wander here.

            But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
                  To every mire,
      And by this world’s ill-guiding light,
      Err more than I can do by night.

            There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness; as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
                  See not all clear;
      O for that night! where I in him
      Might live invisible and dim.

— from Henry Vaughan: The Complete Poems, by Henry Vaughan


/ Photo by Zoey Hao /

Let me first point out that this is a poem to be read out loud. Actually, all poems, except maybe some of the most contemporary poems and translations, are intended to be read aloud. Always remember, poetry is not about quietly reading in a book. Poetry requires us to make some noise!

If you just look at these lines on the page (or the computer screen), your eyes will tend to skim through the lines and not really take them in. This is a poem with rhyme and meter — and life! — but all that is easy to miss, unless you read it aloud. So go ahead, turn some heads, read out loud, feel this poem on your tongue. Several of the lines are worth savoring… tasty poetry!

Henry Vaughan starts off by recalling the Christian gospel story of Nicodemus visiting Christ in secret at night. He plays with the English pun of Christ as both Sun and Son. Thus, Nicodemus accomplishes a most amazing feat when he “Did at mid-night speak with the Sun!”

More broadly, this poem is a meditation on night as the initiator of light. It is when the worldly sphere is in darkness, when its endless activity comes to rest (“the stop to busy fools”) that the mind settles and we have the opportunity to turn inward. It is in the womb of night that we stop our constant distractions and the light of spiritual awakening can be perceived. The night is God’s “knocking time; the soul’s dumb [silent] watch.”

But there is an even deeper meaning here, one that is more consciously mystical.

There is in God (some say)
A deep, but dazzling darkness…

The closing reference to the “dazzling darkness” is directly quoting a famous phrase from the hugely influential Christian mystical writings of Dionysius (who probably lived around 500 AD). Dionysius wrote that the “unchangeable mysteries of heavenly Truth lie hidden in the dazzling darkness of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness.”

This “dazzling darkness” is a reference to the state of awareness experienced in deep communion when the mind has settled completely into stillness and no longer projects a conceptual overlay upon reality. You can say that seeing (in the normal sense) stops, but perception finally opens. A person is no longer seen as a person, a table is no longer seen as a table. Surfaces and categories — the foundation of mundane perception — become ephemeral, dreamlike, insubstantial. You stop witnessing the surface level of reality in the common sense, and this can be compared to blindness or darkness. Instead, everything shines! Everything is radiant with a living sense of light. And the same light shines in everything.

This is the dazzling darkness. This is why many mystics assert they no longer even see the world and, instead, only see God. It is not that they start bumping into furniture when they walk across a room; perception on the mundane level doesn’t stop (except in the most ecstatic states), but surfaces take on a thin or unreal quality; it only occupies a minimal level of the awareness. This is the way you can “at mid-night speak with the Sun!”

Henry Vaughan, Henry Vaughan poetry, Christian poetry Henry Vaughan

Wales (1621 – 1695) Timeline
Christian : Protestant
Secular or Eclectic : Alchemy

Henry Vaughan is one of the best known of the British Metaphysical poets. He was born in Wales. Most historians assume that he attended Oxford with his twin brother Thomas Vaughan, who later became a famous alchemist and hermetic philosopher.

When the English Civil War broke out, Vaughan took the king’s side in South Wales.

Vaughan had a powerful mystical conversion which he links to the inspired poetry of George Herbert. But, in contrast to Herbert’s praises of institutional religion, Vaughan was more immediate and overtly mystical in his spirituality, describing ecstatic states of communion with the divine and a deep affinity for the natural world.

Henry Vaughan eventually settled into the life of a well-respected physician. He married in 1646, the same year that his first collection of poetry was published. In 1650, the first part of what would become his greatest collection of poetry, Silex Scintillus (The Fiery Flint), was published. Five years later, a second edition was published, with several additional poems.

He had three children by his first wife and, after she died, he remarried, having two more children with his second wife.

More poetry by Henry Vaughan

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Henry Vaughan – The Night”

  1. johannanon 15 Jun 2011 at 2:51 pm

    So surprise for that ‘no comment’yet from people,I found.Are they all cut in those thik,dazling nights?Hey,wake up you all!Our friend Ivan has just came to attempt to clean our dusty, troubled narrowed minds !
    Thank you for the poetery-Vaughan,
    and the comment-Ivan,that was Grande

    i certanely had a terrible ”one of those ”days when the stupid reality of this world attempting to have you
    for a lunch with all his army of politicaly correct people sitting in a square chairs in a square world of they own!
    The wind of poetery rised and all confusion vanished.

  2. Janeton 16 Jun 2011 at 3:01 am

    I am working on an MA in Book Arts in London and I have been writing about darkness and the clarity found through the emanation of dark images. I made a note of the same quote-“There is in God (some say) a deep and dazzling darkness.” so I was thrilled when Ivan focused on it later in his commentary! I am always awakened and inspired by Ivan’s poetry choices as well as his following thoughts.

    Compassion for all those sitting on square chairs…

    Thanks Ivan

  3. nasihaon 17 Jun 2011 at 12:51 am

    wonderful commentary! beautiful read once again. many many thanks to you Ivan.
    Have a dazzling day & night!

  4. Carol Burnson 17 Jun 2011 at 4:39 am

    Thank you, Ivan for your poetry selections, your thought
    for the day, and your commentary.

    I’ve had no time till this morning to take in this poem – why do I live that way – but it is truly lovely. My soul is still
    calm from God’s dazzling darkness of the night. Would like to look up more Henry Vaughn poetry and Dionysius
    as well. Thank you so much for the work you do here – greatly appreciated. Carol

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