Published in 1650, a year after England had killed their king, Charles I (the king of the Welsh and Scottish, too), Henry Vaughan’s poem The World starts with a description of a sublime vision:
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d.
Vaughan lived in Brecknock– now known as Brecon, in Wales, and was known to love wandering atop the local hills when he found time away from his work as a clerk, and later a physician. I like to think that this vision was inspired by a walk up the Brecon Beacons, where, on a clear night, you surely do get a view of the universe and at least some cognisance of the greater time scale at which the cosmos operates. We are getting a God’s eye view of the universe here: Vaughan was a Christian, and Christians believe that God exists outside of time – or perhaps inside and outside of it, and thus can perceive eternity. The imagery is very Platonic, too– with the universe moving according to the harmonious motion of the higher spheres.
This is only the beginning, however. According to Platonic cosmology, the universe consisted of a series of concentric spheres which diminished in their perfectness, with the most corrupted matter at the very centre – the earth that is, the world of the poem’s title. In the poem, Vaughan describes people in this world trapped in sin, sorrow or darkness – who, like the figures in Plato’s cave allegory, prefer the darkness to the light, while only few can rise up to the eternity that he presents right at the start. The poem is a fascinating, and quite beautiful vision, borne of Vaughan’s Platonic Christianity. But, as befits a poem that must describe our corruptible world, it alludes no less fascinatingly to secular matters too. Here is part of the second stanza:
Yet digg’d the mole, and lest his ways be found,
Work’d under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but one did see
Churches and altars fed him; perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rain’d about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.
The mole surely alludes to the old English or Welsh prophecy of the Mouldwarp (itself a dialect word for mole), a great disrupter who would overturn the country, sowing chaos and disorder where there had been harmony. This was an insult thrown at Henry VIII, for one, whose reformation of the English church and dissolution of the monasteries in the early 16th century caused a radical and painful break with England’s mediaeval past. The description of one who works underground, however, would be better suited to a courtier, one who operates behind the glittering façade of royal power. It brings to mind Thomas Cromwell, the Machiavellian right-hand man of Henry, in the traumatic early days of the English Reformation, who helped solve the King’s ‘great matter’ in a way that engineered the transformation of England– and thus Wales – from a Catholic to a Protestant country. This radical break with the past, forced on a reluctant population, involved the desecration of churches and altars, the selling off of church and monastic property; it also led to the executions of many who resisted the changes, from figures like Thomas More and the Carthusians of London who refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the church, to the brave men of the North who rose up against the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and – after being hoodwinked by the king’s fake peace agreement, were hanged in their hundreds. The story seems to fit Vaughan’s description very well – a great overturning, Machiavellian plotting, the destruction of churches and straightforward lies...
All that happened a hundred years before Vaughan’s time, but his too was an age of great upheavals. At the time of the poem’s publication, the English Civil Wars (actually a series of interlinked wars that had stretched across all the countries of the British Isles) were drawing to a bloody close, with the defeat of the Royalists and the ascension to power of the amilitaristic faction of the Parliamentarians, who, in fact, dismissed the parliament and in its place, and the kings place, put their leader, one Oliver Cromwell, in power. Oliver was not a direct descendant of Thomas, but his family could trace their back to the influential Cromwell family from which had sprung their predecessor, illustrious or infamous depending on one’s religious sensibilities. Among his followers were many zealous Protestants, including determined ‘iconoclasts,’ who destroyed church property because of their religious beliefs. After the war, Cromwell’s forces also took revenge on some of the people who had defied them, even in distant parts of the Kingdoms like Wales – Vaughan, with strong Anglican and Royalist sympathies suffered some loss of property, so he had more than an academic interest in the figures who executed the war. Oliver Cromwell as a general and later dictator does not fit the bill of someone working ‘underground’, as Thomas did, but he was certainly responsible for blood and tears – and his troops were known to be especially cruel to the Welsh – if only because they mistook them for the Catholic Irish. This figure in the poem is perhaps kind of amalgamation of figures from current events, history – including one figure, pointedly, related to a prominent figure of the present, and folklore.
I have seen the ‘mouldwarp’ prophecy described as ‘Galfridian’, an adjective that refers to another Welshman, the 12th-century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote the Historia Regum Britanniae, The History of the Kings of Britain. Although himself a clergyman, Geoffrey’s history is a world away from the pieties of the Catholic Mediaeval Europe: despite occasional nods to Christianity, it is, for the most part, a celebration of the heroic history of the Welsh up to their eclipse by the invading Anglo-Saxons. The adjective Galfridian refers to the practice of using animals or creatures in prophecies, although Geoffrey claimed that the prophecies in question were not his own but those of the great wizard of Welsh legend, Merlin. In Geoffrey’s account, Merlin is invited to give a prophecy by the king of the Welsh – the Britons, as they were then called. Merlin orders a hole to be dug up, under, which lies a pool, so he orders the pool to be drained and at the bottom of the pool lies a white dragon and a red dragon. The two dragons tussle and eventually the white dragon prevails. Merlin offers an unambiguous interpretation of this vision:
Alas for the Red Dragon, for its end is near. Its cavernous dens shall be occupied by the White Dragon, which stands for the Saxons whom you have invited over. The Red Dragon represents the people of Britain [i.e. the Britons, that is, the Welsh], who will be overrun by the White One: for Britain’s mountains and valleys will be levelled, and the streams in its valleys shall run with blood.
Later, however: ‘The seed of the White Dragon shall be rooted up from our little gardens and what is then left of its progeny shall be decimated.’ This is, of course, an all too uncannily accurate prediction, first of Britain’s conquest by the English, and secondly, the English’s own conquest several centuries later by the Normans. It was likely concocted by Geoffrey or his sources to match the historical facts. One of the reasons his history was so resonant in his own age and beyond, aside from its great font of Arthurian legend, is that it indirectly supported the Norman Elite’s legitimacy – if the English had effectively stolen the land from the Welsh in the first place, then that undercuts the narrative of the lingering English resistance to Norman rule.
Merlin’s prophecy goes on for pages and pages, but he ceases to offer further explanations of what he describes, as a host of strange figures, human and animal range across Britain, besieging, conquering and slaughtering as they go. Much is a condensed and obscure history of Britain since the Saxon conquest, but there is also a lot of concealed comment on contemporary Norman affairs in there. Like Vaughan, Geoffrey lived through a Civil War – the so-called Anarchy of the mid-12th century, in which two grandchildren of the Conqueror, Stephen, and Matilda, vied for the throne as the country’s institutions decayed, local lords acted like kings in their own realm and the Scottish and Welsh grabbed portions of England for themselves. The key battlefields of the war – Lincoln and Oxford – are referred to frequently, but what exactly Geoffrey made of events and who he is rooting for is never quite clear – it is obscured by all his Galfridian tendencies, perhaps deliberately so: Geoffrey had an ecclesiastical career to look to, after all.
Interestingly, on the frontispiece of his poetry, Vaughan signed himself ‘The Silurist.’ The Silures were a Welsh tribe famous for their effective opposition to Roman invaders. Perhaps he saw parallels between the 17th century Cromwellian and the Roman threat to Wales back in the first century CE. The Welsh have been resisting foreign invaders for quite some time. Although it hasn’t been preserved for posterity, I expect a druid or two made a ‘Galfridian’ sort of prophecy about the fate of the Romans in Britain– and I expect it was quite right.
Sources and Credits:
The Oxford Authors: George Herbert and Henry Vaughan, ed. Louis L. Martz, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986– it is Martz’s introduction that explained the significance of the Silurian connection
The History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth, ed. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, London 1966