The World by Henry Vaughan, Analysis & Summary

This study guide provides an analysis of the poem "The World" by Henry Vaughan. It includes a detailed explanation of each stanza, explores the major themes, offers a critical analysis of the poem's elements, such as symbols, language, structure, and sound devices. Additionally, it discusses the attitudes and feelings conveyed in the poem and suggests similar poems that share thematic similarities.

The World Poem

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.
The doting lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights,
With gloves, and knots, the silly snares of pleasure,
Yet his dear treasure
All scatter’d lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flow’r.

The darksome statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight-fog mov’d there so slow,
He did not stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad eclipses) scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
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
That policy;
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 fearful miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves;
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugg’d each one his pelf;
The downright epicure plac’d heav’n in sense,
And scorn’d pretence,
While others, slipp’d into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despised Truth sate counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the ring;
But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shews the way,
The way, which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.
But as I did their madness so discuss
One whisper’d thus,
“This ring the Bridegroom did for none provide,
But for his bride.”


- Stanza 1: The speaker describes an encounter with eternity, envisioning it as a ring of pure and endless light, surrounded by the passage of time. The world and its inhabitants are depicted as being caught within the cyclic nature of time.
- Stanza 2: A lovesick individual expresses his grievances, accompanied by his lute and flights of fancy. The pleasures and distractions he indulges in are trivial compared to his beloved, symbolized by a flower.
- Stanza 3: A statesman burdened by the weight of his responsibilities moves slowly through life, haunted by condemning thoughts and pursued by witnesses to his actions. He resorts to cunning tactics and manipulations, symbolized by his underground workings.
- Stanza 4: A miser lives in fear of losing his wealth, unwilling to part with even a single piece. Others, driven by their own obsessions, become frantic in their pursuits. The poem criticizes the indulgence in sensory pleasure and the triviality of false victories.

Major Themes

- Transience of worldly pursuits: The poem highlights the fleeting nature of worldly desires and possessions.
- Contrast between darkness and light: Darkness represents ignorance and attachment to the material world, while light symbolizes enlightenment and spiritual growth.
- Journey towards God: The poem emphasizes the importance of seeking a higher spiritual realm and transcending earthly illusions.
- Deceptive allure of pleasure: The pursuit of sensual pleasure is criticized, emphasizing the emptiness of such indulgence.
- Eternity and time: The concept of eternity and the passage of time are explored, showcasing the limitations of human existence.

Critical Analysis

The poem "The World" by Henry Vaughan presents a contemplative exploration of human existence and the pursuit of worldly pleasures. It critiques the transience and emptiness of such pursuits and advocates for a higher spiritual path.

The poem employs rich symbolism to convey its themes. The image of eternity as a "great ring of pure and endless light" suggests the eternal nature of spiritual enlightenment. It contrasts with the passing of time represented by "hours, days, years" driven by the spheres. This stark juxtaposition emphasizes the fleeting nature of worldly pursuits in contrast to the timeless realm of the divine.

Each stanza presents a different character trapped in their own delusions. The doting lover is engrossed in trivial pleasures, represented by his lute, flights of fancy, and the "silly snares of pleasure." Despite his obsession, his true treasure remains scattered and neglected. This symbolizes the loss of focus and the temporary nature of worldly desires.

The darksome statesman moves slowly through life, burdened by the weight of his responsibilities. Condemning thoughts and the presence of witnesses haunt him, reflecting the moral conflicts and ethical compromises he faces. His cunning and manipulative tactics are symbolized by his secretive actions underground. The mention of churches and altars feeding him suggests the perversion of religious institutions for personal gain.

The fearful miser clings to his wealth, living in constant fear of losing it. His obsession with material possessions prevents him from experiencing true abundance. The mention of others being equally consumed by their pursuits illustrates the broader theme of the poem: the widespread attachment to transient desires and the lack of spiritual discernment.

The poem's critical tone is evident throughout, questioning the choices of those who prioritize darkness and ignorance over true light and enlightenment. The speaker admonishes those who prefer to dwell in caves and grots, shunning the path that leads to God. The poem highlights the irony of rejecting divine illumination and choosing to remain in a "dead and dark abode."

Despite the prevalent criticism, the poem offers hope through the notion that some individuals do ascend beyond the delusions of the world. These individuals are depicted as weeping and singing, soaring into the ring of eternity. They symbolize those who recognize the limitations of worldly pursuits and strive for spiritual transcendence.

In conclusion, "The World" by Henry Vaughan presents a critical examination of human existence and the allure of worldly pleasures. Through vivid imagery and symbolic representations, the poem highlights the fleeting nature of such pursuits and advocates for a higher spiritual path. It serves as a reminder to seek enlightenment and embrace the path that leads to true light and spiritual fulfillment.


- Ring of light: Represents eternity, a never-ending cycle of spiritual illumination.
- Flower: Symbolizes fleeting beauty and the temporary nature of human desires.
- Underground workings: Symbolize the manipulative tactics employed by the statesman to achieve his goals.


- The language of the poem is descriptive and evocative, employing vivid imagery to engage the reader.
- Metaphors and personification add depth and emotional resonance to the poem.
- Contrasting language is utilized to emphasize the dichotomy between darkness and light, ignorance and enlightenment.


- The poem consists of four stanzas, each comprising four lines (quatrains) and follows an ABAB rhyme scheme.
- The regular structure and rhyme scheme contribute to the poem's musicality and rhythmic flow.
- The progression of stanzas reveals a shifting focus from different individuals to a broader critique of human folly.

Sound devices:

- Alliteration: The repetition of consonant sounds in words such as "pure and endless" and "dark and day."
- Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds, such as the "o" sound in "pining" and "trust."


- Longing: The poem conveys a sense of yearning for a higher spiritual realm and enlightenment.
- Criticism: The speaker expresses disapproval towards individuals who prioritize materialistic pursuits and remain ignorant of spiritual truths.

Similar Poems

- "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats: Both poems explore themes of transience and the contrast between the mortal and the immortal, highlighting the fleeting nature of human existence.
- "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot: Both poems delve into the disillusionment of the modern world and its spiritual emptiness, portraying the longing for a deeper meaning in life.
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