Thomas Traherne Essay - Critical Essays


Modern readers first encountered Thomas Traherne as a poet, and the publication of his poems fortuitously coincided with the renewed interest in the seventeenth century poets signaled by H. J. C. Grierson’s 1912 edition of Donne. Although Traherne was not included in Grierson’s famous 1921 anthology of Metaphysical poetry, he has always been categorized with those poets, although in the second rank. Traherne might be surprised to find himself among the ranks of the poets at all, for his verse, at least as much of it as has been discovered, comprises only a portion of his known writings, and there is reason to believe that he placed more importance on two of his prose works, Christian Ethicks and Centuries of Meditations. Thematically, and even stylistically, his poetry is of a piece with his prose, which deserves some consideration here, both for the light it throws on his poetry and for its own sake.

Widely and deeply read, intellectually eclectic, and religiously heterodox, Traherne reminds one of John Milton, whom he preceded in death by less than a month. Both were modernists, sharing in the new Humanist emphasis of their era. Traherne, however, found a place in the established Church, something that the great Puritan poet would have found impossible. Traherne lacked the genius that made Milton an original, and readers of the younger poet are always conscious of his debts to thinkers and writers greater than he. He copied into his Commonplace Book from those whom he especially admired, many of whom are in the Platonic tradition, such as Hermes Trismegistus, whose Divine Pymander Traherne copied in its 1657 English translation, and Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, from whose Divine Dialogues (1668) Traherne copied extracts. Another unpublished manuscript (British Museum Manuscript Burney 126) is known informally as the Ficino Notebook because it consists of extracts from Ficino’s Latin epitomes and translations of Plato. It also contains a long Latin life of Socrates and an otherwise unidentified work titled “Stoicismus Christianus.”

Traherne’s writings are almost exclusively religious, and the influence of Plato, without whom Christianity would be a very different religion, is therefore unsurprising. What is surprising is Traherne’s apparent acceptance of Platonic doctrines usually rejected by the Christian Fathers, such as the doctrine of the soul’s preexistence, and his modification of other doctrines, such as the traditional Platonic opposition of the material and spiritual worlds, from their usual adaptation to Christian dogma. Hints of the soul’s memory of an existence previous to the earthly one is one of the motifs in Traherne’s poetry that reminds readers of the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth of the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Were it not for the fact that Traherne’s work was not discovered until nearly fifty years after Wordsworth’s death, scholars would doubtless have searched for the Trahernian influence on him. In Centuries of Meditations, 3.2, Traherne marvels, “Is it not strange that an infant should be heir of the whole world, and see those mysteries which the books of the learned never unfold?” His exaltation of infancy and childhood in particular makes him seem a precursor of the Romantic movement. Like Wordsworth, Traherne values childhood innocence because the “Infant-Ey,” as he says in a poem of that title, “Things doth see/ Ev’n like unto the Deity.” Attributing such power to the child requires, as he paradoxically says, “a learned and a Happy Ignorance” and is one of the indications that Traherne believed in the preexistence of the soul. Although he never expressly states such a belief, it can be inferred from his writings, particularly Centuries of Meditations and Christian Ethicks, where he discusses other aspects of Neoplatonic mysticism.

On the other hand, Traherne rejects the traditional Platonic preference for the ideal world over the real. In fact, Traherne holds that the spiritual world is enhanced by its physical actualization. Another way in which Traherne departs from strict Platonism is in his conception of time and eternity. For Platonic philosophers, time is the earthly, mortal image of eternity, but for Traherne, this is part of eternity, just as the physical world is part of God’s unified creation. Here again, Traherne is reacting against the medieval emphasis on the opposition between this world and the next, finding instead a reconciliation.

His reaction to the Aristotelian dichotomies of the Scholastic philosophers is one of the affinities between Traherne and the Cambridge Platonists. He also shared their distaste for the Calvinist preoccupation with Original Sin and, like them, focused on humanity’s potential, through the exercise of reason, to achieve happiness. In fact, as more than one scholar has suggested, Traherne’s theology may have been Pelagian; his heavy stress on the power of childhood innocence almost requires a denial of the doctrine of Original Sin. Scholar Patrick Grant asserts that Traherne’s theology is indebted to Saint Irenaeus, one of the pre-Nicene Fathers to whom the Cambridge Platonists also looked for a method whereby pagan philosophy could be incorporated into Christianity. Scholar Stanley Stewart finds Traherne aligned with the Arminians at Oxford who struck a balance between Pelagian “secularism” and Calvinistic determinism. Traherne’s emphasis on humanity’s potential for creation, which humanity shares with God, and his slight attention to sin, certainly distinguish him from Donne and Herbert. Traherne’s accommodation of less traditional religious views probably was one of the factors that earned for him the position as chaplain to Bridgman, who allied himself overtly with the Latitudinarian cause and, before Traherne, had employed a Latitudinarian divine.

Search for religious truth

Traherne’s approach to theology was essentially exploratory, searching for truth rather than dogma. “Let it be your Care to dive to the Bottom of true Religion, and not suffer your Eyes to be Dazled with its Superficial Appearance,” he wrote in Christian Ethicks. That attitude is evident in Roman Forgeries, a polemic with the ostensible purpose of indicting the Roman church for its flagrant forgeries of documents and falsification of historical facts. Stewart’s book sets the work in the rhetorical context of the antipapist tracts of the late Tudor and Stuart dynasties, but goes on to argue the preeminent influence of a 1611 work by Thomas James lengthily titled A Treatise of the Corruption of Scripture, Councels, and Fathers, by the Prelats, Pastors, and Pillars of the Church of Rome for Maintenance of Popery and Irreligion. Like James, Traherne’s purpose is less to vent anti-Catholic vitriol, although Roman Forgeries observes convention in that regard, than to reexamine, scientifically, texts condemned as false, with an eye toward religious certainty.

Renaissance Platonists, such as those at Cambridge and such as Traherne, asserted that humankind was the bond of the universe, the link between the spiritual and the material, between the Creation and the Creator; that belief probably accounts for the self-centered quality of much of Traherne’s work, especially Centuries of Meditations. The notion of humankind as microcosm is found in many places, but a probable source for Traherne is Pico della Mirandola’s Oratio de hominis dignitate (pb. 1496; Oration on the Dignity of Man, 1940), which he especially praised. For Pico della Mirandola and others, when humanity was created in the image of God, humans were also made the quintessence of the universe. Thus, although Traherne’s philosophy of life seems rather self-centered, as more than one critic has pointed out, it is possible that he was using himself as microcosmic man. Stewart finds that the Centuries of Meditations is a self-centered work and yet not egotistic; rather, Traherne indulges in “a process of perfect narcissism,” for in self-love one finds the beginning of love of the universe, created by God.

Centuries of Meditations

Despite Traherne’s identification as a poet, scholarly attention has concentrated on Centuries of Meditations, particularly in the years since the publication of Louis L. Martz’s two studies, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (1954) and, especially, The...

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