By H. Boone Porter
In the Anglican perception of the mystery of creation, one name stands out. That is Thomas Traherne. He is unique in the content of his spirituality, which is very largely based on a pervasive awareness of the glory of God reflected in all created things. He is also unique in his historical position. Considered a pious but minor author during his lifetime in the seventeenth century, he was forgotten for over two centuries after his death. At the end of the nineteenth century, some curious anonymous manuscripts were discovered by chance. In the beginning of the present century, they were identified as his by a triumph of literary detective work. Thus Traherne has emerged in our own time as a significant English poet and as a major spiritual and mystical writer.
Thomas Traherne belonged to the golden age of Anglicanism, but few details of his life are known. He was born in 1637, the son of a poor shoemaker in Hereford, in Western England. He and his brother Philip received good educations, probably through the generosity of an uncle. Thomas began to study at Oxford in 1652, and later received degrees from this university. Ordained deacon and priest in 1660, he became rector of a small parish in Hereford. In this period of his life he became friends with some outstanding clergy and laypeople. In 1669 he became chaplain to the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and lived near London. He did not marry, but remained close to his brother, who also became a priest, and to his sister-in-law. Contemporaries were impressed by his regularity in the daily recitation of Morning and Evening Prayer, his piety, his scholarly knowledge of the ancient church fathers and councils, and his generosity to the poor. He died in 1674.
He left books and manuscripts with his brother Philip who planned to publish some of his poetry, but evidently did not succeed in doing so. Some other material was published anonymously in 1699, and in 1717. By this time, Traherne was generally forgotten.
The story resumes when two unidentified manuscript books turned up in a London bookstall and were purchased for a few pennies in the winter of 1896-7. They soon came into the hands of Bertram Dobell, a literary critic, who was determined to ascertain their authorship. He found passages in the manuscripts which were closely related to the anonymous publication of 1699. The authorship of the latter was traced to Thomas Traherne. This identification was confirmed by material in the manuscripts which also appeared in Treherene’s acknowledged work which he had published in his own name. Then Philip’s manuscript of his brother’s poetry, explicitly designated as such, was found in the British Museum and published in 1910. Two other collections of unpublished material were also identified by Dobell. Today, Traherne is credited with a substantial number of religious and reflective poems, somewhat in the style of the earlier Anglican poets George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. He also wrote a series of long, unconventional, psalm-like poems called Thanksgivings. Perhaps most distinctive of all is a collection of meditations and short discourses arranged in groups of one hundred, generally known today as Centuries of Meditations. These are mostly in prose, but some poetry is also included. They were first published by Dobell in 1908. Several later editions have followed. Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings, edited by H.M. Margoliouth, were published in a scholarly two-volume edition by the Oxford University Press in 1958.
It is in the Centuries that Traherne makes his most consistent effort to explain his vision of the universe as a sparkling disclosure of the greatness, love, and wisdom of its Creator. Near the beginning he says to the reader:
I will open my mouth in parables: I will utter things that have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. Things strange yet common; incredible, yet known; most high, yet plain; infinditley profitable, but not esteemed. It is not a great thing, that you should be heir of the world? Is it not a very enriching veritie? … It is my design therefore in such a plain manner to unfold it, that my friendship may appear, in making you the possessor of the whole world. (Centuries I, 3)
In the pages which follow, Traherne undertakes to make good this promise, taking the entire universe as the materials with which to carry out his work.
Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in heaven: see your self in your Father’s palace: and look upon the skies and the earth and the air, as celestial joys, having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the angels…
You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea it self floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive your self to be the sole heir of the whole world: and more than so, because men are in it who are ever one sole heirs, as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and kings in scepters, you never enjoy the world.
The world is a mirror of infinite beauty … It is the place of angels, and the Gate of Heaven. When Jacob waked out of his dream, he said, God is here and I wist it not. How dreadful is this place! This is none other, than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven. (Centuries I, 27-31)
For Traherne, the mystic vision of a universe permeated by the love of God is always a specifically Christian vision. Returning, for instance, to this reference to Jacob in later meditations, he writes,
The Cross … is the root of happiness, and the Gate of Heaven. The Cross of Christ is the Jacob’s ladder by which we ascend into the highest heavens. (Centuries, I, 58, 60)
In the next few weeks, we will consider more of this fascinating writer’s view of the world and of the cross. Although some of Traherne’s expressions and phrases are puzzling to the modern reader, and although his thought itself is sometimes very difficult, he has much to say to us today. Traherne was discovered too late for him to have been promoted and popularized by the great leaders of the church in the nineteenth century. His name has not become as familiar as those of such seventeenth-century luminaries as Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, George Herbert, or Jeremy Taylor. Yet in our own time he can provide a significant answer to the widespread yearning for inner religious experience and for a kind of mysticism which can relate itself to the reality of the world of which we are a part. The extraordinary and romantic emergence of his writings after two centuries of oblivion comes as an unexpected gift from the seventeenth-century Church of England to searching Christians of the twentieth century.
The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our January 22, 1978 issue.