Scott, George Walton. Robert Herrick. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.
"CORRUPTION" Henry Vaughan (1650) In his poem "Corruption," Henry Vaughan offers comfort to Christians living in a corrupt era filled with the woes predicted by the biblical book of Revelation to precede the return of Christ and his earthly reign. The poem opens with a sad but accepting tone, as the speaker states of man's early days on Earth, immediately following his eviction from the Garden of Eden,
Sure it was so. Man in those early days Was not all stone and earth;
He shined a little, and by those weak rays Had some glimpse of his birth.
In other words, despite his sinful state, man could recall something of his once-sinless nature, prior to his fall from God's grace through sin. The allusion to light with "weak rays" contrasts to the strong light often referenced in the Bible as a product of knowledge or epiphany. Light also symbolized Christ, particularly as it is used in the opening to the Gospel of John. While man's knowledge at that early point remained "weak," it was at least present.
The poem's imagery emphasizes man's transient state, as when Vaughan compares him to plants, which die at the end of each growing season. He avoids references to nature's abundance of fruits and flowers present in the garden, instead suggesting everything after the fall proved worthless and even harmful, as "a thorn or a weed," adding "Nor did those last, but (like himself) died still / As soon as they did seed." Adopting paradox, Vaughan emphasizes irony in the fact that as soon as a birth occurs, whether human or vegetation, death immediately takes hold and disintegration begins. This long and sure death results from man's sinful nature, which separates him from God. Rather than providing man easy nourishment, as the plants did in Eden, these plants that man must toil and suffer to cultivate "seemed to quarrel with him" because of "that act / That felled him" and "foiled them all." Man's actions in disobeying God drew a curse on every aspect of the world. In Vaughan's imagination, man longed for the time of his creation, believing that "still Paradise lay / In some green shade or fountain" where angels existed.
Eden remains a dim memory, and man's actions have all but destroyed the once beautiful and supportive earth, as well as man's originally divine nature. Vaughan suggests that, as a result of man's sinful acts, the time of troubles predicted by Revelation has arrived. He saw it in the raging of the Civil War that took the life of his brother and disillusioned many. The biblical Gospel of Mark noted that brother would betray brother, as in the domestic conflict that pitted family against family. The speaker describes a scene of insanity representing a loss of control causing man to engage in self-destructive and illogical acts. He begins by questioning where God has hidden his love for man, as he writes in lines 29-32,
Almighty Love! Where art thou now? Mad man Sits down and freezeth on;
86 "COTSWOLD ECLOGUE"
He raves, and swears to stir nor fire, nor fan, But bids the thread be spun.
In this passage, the final line may be interpreted to mean that man takes no action to change his fate, simply accepting it, as one allowing a thread to be spun on a wheel. Vaughan illustrates this idea by describing man as choosing to freeze when he might instead build a fire to prevent his own destruction. The fire also represents purification of man's sinful soul, something God cannot accomplish unless man repents and turns from his corrupt ways.
The poem emphasizes one of several paradoxes that inform Christianity, in this case, that the worse circumstances become, the greater hope Christians may have of improvement, as those circumstances will preface the end of time as man knows it. That ending would be followed by the new beginning that supported the most important of the Christian paradoxes; one must die in order to live. The poem's conclusion alludes to chapter 13 in Revelation with the lines describing the triumph of sin and the sinking of man below "The center," with the world described as being in "deep sleep and night;" in which "thick darkness lies / And hatcheth o'er thy people." This description of the present time marked by a lack of light, or knowledge and redemption, is tempered by the final two lines. Although couched in question form, they allude to Revelation 14:15, where an angel commands one "that sat on the cloud, 'Thrust in thy sickle, and reap.'" The reaping results in a time of harvest, and Vaughan suggests that the time of God's harvest of human souls is near, as he questions, "But hark! What trumpet's that? What angel cries, / 'Arise! Thrust in thy sickle'?" Vaughan's readers would have been well informed about the book of Revelation and would know the words that follow his quotation.
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