Monday, October 31, 2022

Thomas Traherne*

Thomas Traherne (1637—1674) was largely unknown as a poet at the time of his death — or even two hundred years after his death. Two manuscripts containing poetry and prose, at first thought to be by Henry Vaughan, were discovered in the winter of 1896—97, and were almost published as such. By 1903 the poems had been identified as Traherne’s and were published under his name.

There’s no evidence William Blake was familiar with Traherne’s lines —
-----"In all Things, all Things service do to all:
-----And thus a Sand is Endless, though most small.
---------- And every Thing is truly Infinite,
---------- In its Relation deep and exquisite."
which seem to pre-echo “Auguries of Innocence” — however, this similarity says much about the depth of Traherne’s originality of thought and poetic vision.

His philosophical/theological priorities were also expressed in his Christian Ethicks (1675): “He that would not be a stranger to the universe, an alien to felicity, and a foreigner to himself, must know God to be an infinite benefactor, all eternity, full of treasures, the world itself, the beginning of gifts, and his own soul the possessor of all, in communion with the Deity.”

Critical interest in Traherne continues, as further manuscripts come to light. A project known as “The Oxford Traherne” — a planned 15-volume critical edition of Thomas Traherne’s works commissioned by Oxford University Press — is planned to begin production in 2024.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson has the following poem appear in her novel Jack (2020, FSG) which is the fourth novel in the series that began with her Pulitzer Prize winner Gilead (2004). The book’s title-character receives the first ten lines of this poem on a slip of paper, from a woman whose interest in him is both curious to him and revitalizing.

For Man To Act As If His Soul Did See

For Man to Act as if his Soul did see
The very Brightness of Eternity;
For Man to Act as if his Love did burn
Above the Spheres, even while it's in its Urne;
For Man to Act even in the Wilderness,
As if he did those Sovereign Joys possess,
Which do at once confirm, stir up, enflame,
And perfect Angels; having not the same!
It doth increase the value of his Deeds,
In this a Man a Seraphim exceeds.
To Act on Obligations yet unknown,
To Act upon Rewards as yet unshewn,
To keep Commands whose Beauty's yet unseen,
To Cherish and retain a Zeal between
Sleeping and waking; shews a constant care,
And that a deeper Love, a Love so rare,
That no Eye Service may with it compare.
The Angels, who are faithful while they view
His Glory, know not what themselves would do,
Were they in our Estate! A Dimmer Light
Perhaps would make them erre as well as We
And in the Coldness of a darker Night
Forgetful and Lukewarm Themselves might be.
Our very Rust shall cover us with Gold,
Our Dust shall sprinkle while their Eyes behold
The Glory Springing from a feeble State,
Where meer Belief doth, if not conquer Fate
Surmount and pass what it doth Antedate.

*This is the third Kingdom Poets post about Thomas Traherne: first post, second post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. He is the author of five poetry collections including Angelicus (2021, Cascade) ― a book of poems written from the point-of-view of angels. His books are available through Wipf & Stock.