Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem argues that the innocence which typifies childhood is an actual state of pure awareness that is recoverable in adulthood. It is, according to Traherne, the basis of both a full inner spiritual life and of a glorious and free enjoyment of the world. The mind in this state of felicity is fully awake, self-sufficient, and naturally tending to good. It is, in short, a state of awareness having primordial Edenic overtones.

In addition to the felicity theme, the concept known as the “pre-existence doctrine” is strongly implied by Traherne’s poem. This idea, that children may recall their previous unclouded existence in heaven, also occurs in “The Retreate,” a poem by another Metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan. Vaughan, interestingly, was initially thought to be the author of the first anonymous Traherne poetry manuscript that was found in the late nineteenth century, but Dobell corrected this misattribution. Traherne, like Vaughan, reflects the stress that Anglicanism placed on an idealized childhood characterized by original innocence. This concept stands in contrast to the view of the Puritans of the time that children were wicked creatures who inherited original sin, though they could be morally transformed.