Henry Vaughan was born in 1621 at Newton Farm, Llansantfraed near Talybont- on-Usk, He was the elder of twins. His father was Thomas Vaughan of Tretower Court.
Henry’s paternal grandfather owned Tretower Court and his paternal Grandmother Frances was the daughter of Thomas Somerset, who for over twenty years was kept imprisoned in the Tower of London by Queen Elizabeth 1 due to his support for Mary Queen of Scotts and his Catholicism.
He was tutored in his childhood for six years by Reverend Matthew Herbert who served as a rector of Llangattock Parish. When he was 16, he went to Oxford to study for about two years. After this he spent two years in London studying law.
In 1645 he briefly joined the Royalist forces where he fought for Charles 1 during the Civil War. Henry then returned home where he remained for the rest of his life.
Henry Vaughan’s day job was as a Doctor and he would have travelled through local villages and the towns of Brecon & Crickhowell. His home overlooked the River Usk. He was surrounded by the diversity of wildlife, hills, and mountains and many of his poems reflect the love he instinctively felt for the Usk valley.
His nick name was The Swan of Usk.
In 1646, he published a small collection of original poems. He was greatly influenced by George Herbert who was known for his religious verse. Henry grew up in a time of religious and political upheaval, having suffered the loss of his brother in the Civil War and the closure of his own place of worship, Llansantfraed Church where his twin brother was rector.
The themes of religion, spirituality and nature are celebrated in his poetry. Henry died in 1695 and is buried at Llansantfraed Church which has become a place of literary pilgrimage. A walk from Talybont-on-Usk has been established which is an easy 4km stroll that takes you through countryside that Henry might very well have experienced.
Along the route are poetry posts offering snippets from his poetry.
‘Tis day, my crystal Usk; now the sad night
Resigns her place as tenant to the light.
See the amazed mists begin to fly
And the victorious sun hath got the sky.
How shall I recompense thy streams, that keep
Me and my soul awakened when others sleep’?
Extract from On the River Usk, printed in his hermetic treatise Anima Magica Abscondita (1650)
How to experience this legend: Swan of Usk
Start the Henry Vaughan trail from the Monmouth and Brecon Canal, follow the waymarkers which have a White Swan.
The church is open and welcomes visitors 10am-4pm on the 4th Sunday in the month from May – September inclusive.
Further reading : Henry Vaughan Selected Poems- Anne Cluysenaar ISBN0-281-05542-4
Henry Vaughan and the Usk Valley- Edited by Elizabeth Siberry & Robert Wilcher –ISBN-978-1-910839-02-7