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Monday, April 22, 2013

Curious and sparkling Traherne--

From a solo show by painter and storyteller Eleanor Allitt,
inspired by the visions of Thomas Traherne
1. Traherne

I must have been around 23 when I first read the meditations of seventeenth-century poet and writer Thomas Traherne. No doubt I am lucky to have read him; much of his work was lost for centuries, and neither his poems nor meditations were published until the twentieth century. Much of what we value in him was found as a handwritten manuscript tucked in a London bookstall or rescued from a fire at an English tip. Five manuscripts have been found in the past eighteen years. Who knows what treasures we have lost, or may yet to be found?

I can't help but feel sorry that a number of past poets missed his beauties, kindred to their own, during their writing years. Blake would have reveled in portions of Traherne's poetry and in the great Centuries (exuberance, joy, curious sight!) The Romantics would have found kindred elements in his treatment of childhood and the beauty of nature. He holds up the lamp of his sight and throws gleams into the natural world: "Since therefore we are born to be a burning and shining light, and whatever men learn of others, they see in the light of others' souls: I will in the light of my soul show you the Universe." In innocence, he is the owner and steward of all the world, and all things and people and pieces of nature live in the bright light of his seeing.

If you have a taste for the better-known Metaphysical poets like Donne and Herbert but have not read Traherne, well, you ought to try him. When discovered in the early twentieth century, Traherne's metaphysical poetry and meditations were first mistaken for the work of that marvelous poet, Henry Vaughan ("I saw eternity the other night / Like a great ring of pure and endless light.")

From JOYS, passages from the works of Thomas Traherne, 
The Old Stile Press, 2004.Wood-engraving, hand coloured. 
See at: Angela LemairePrintmaker and Painter
2. Child sight

As a young writer, I was bowled over by his often curious phrasing and the freshness of his way of seeing the world. Certain phrases from the passage below and elsewhere lingered in my mind, and linger there still: the "orient and immortal wheat," "seraphic pieces of life," "moving jewels." The exuberant rhythms and ecstatic immersion into child sight--"the Estate of Innocence"--moved my imagination.

Traherne could "enter in" so easily to a time in childhood when all the world seemed fresh and magical, new-minted in the heavenly realms. In fact, he seems to have maintained infant sight well into the years when most of our eyes have lost the ability to see the freshness and beauty of the world. Although this idea clearly connects to his vocation as priest and the love of God, even here he seems strikingly unusual in his ability to "become like a little child" and "enter the Kingdom of Heaven" that is right next to him. In fact, he sees glory everywhere.

The Traherne windows at Hereford Cathedral. Source here.

3. Passage from "The Third Century" of Centuries of Mediation

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties* and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God.


  1. Traherne is one of those inexhaustibles, like Blake: whatever the weariness of my heart, he can refresh me.

    He does sit oddly in literary time! Like the Beowulf-Poet: very much of his time, and yet, as far as literary history and the stream of poetry goes, they are both 19th Century poets.

    (Did Francis Thompson read Traherne? I wonder.)

  2. Traherne is a pure fountain, certainly!

    Perhaps he bumped into one of the theological books, or maybe the 1903 poetry collection--the Centuries came out a year after Thompson died, so not those.

    It makes one wonder how many precious things have been burned or left to rot. Remember the fabulous Book of Durrow being dunked in a trough to make holy water for cows...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.