Thomas Traherne was one of the last seventeenth century inheritors of the Metaphysical tradition of religious poetry, developed to its height by John Donne and George Herbert, who drew of every aspect of the world around them to express their faith and their longing for closer communion with God. Much of their complexity of thought and their awareness of the essentially paradoxical nature of the Christian religion was lost on Traherne, whose concepts and style were much simpler and less compact than theirs. The greatest differences between Traherne and his predecessors undoubtedly resulted from his radically different theology. Both Donne and Herbert struggled with a strong sense of sin, a feeling of human unworthiness, and as a consequence of this realization they had an equally overwhelming perception of the miraculous, outreaching mercy of God.
Traherne, who was closer in spirit to the great Romantic poets William Blake and William Wordsworth than to his own contemporaries, wrote out of a deep conviction of innate human innocence. Original sin forms no part of his faith, though he was conscious, intellectually if not emotionally, of human corruption, which he felt was derived from the world’s emphasis on materialism. Evil comes from human greed; gold, silver, and jewels are symbols not of beauty but of temptation and of that avarice that perverts youthful joy in the creation. Nature, not wealth, is for Traherne the greatest of human possessions. Those who are inheritors of the light of the stars and the fruitful soil can desire no more.
Just as Donne’s complex metaphorical language reflects his equally involved theology, so Traherne’s brief stanzas echo the essential simplicity of his vision. His lyrics have been compared to Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789), though he never achieved the sustained control of the later poet. Both his form and his devotional tone are perhaps closest to the less impassioned poems of Herbert, who may have inspired him to experiment with a wide variety of verse forms, not always successfully. Traherne’s work is characterized by lines of striking loveliness in the middle of uninspired, wordy mediocrity. His limitations in his religious thought are partly responsible for those of his poetry: a narrowness of vision, a lack of awareness of many significant sides of life, and a tendency to repetitiveness. He never really mastered the poetic control of Donne, of Herbert, or even of Henry Vaughan, another late Metaphysical poet with mystical tendencies, who shared Traherne’s propensity for unevenness in his writing. This problem can be clearly seen in a lyric that begins with an unusual and striking vision of “new worlds beneath the water.” The intensity of the opening is dissipated by the weakness of the end of the stanza.
I saw new worlds beneath the water lie, New people; yea, another sky And sun, which seen by day Might things more clear display. Just such another Of late my brotherDid in his travel see, and saw by night A much more strange and wondrous sight; Nor could the world exhibit such another So great a sight, but in a brother.
Dominant themes in Traherne’s poetry include the innocence of childhood, when human eyes look upon everything with delight and wonder, the glories of the natural world, and the corruptions of the commerce-directed society of the time. Perhaps the best known and most skillful treatment of these characteristic themes comes in “Wonder,” a rather ecstatic statement of the poet’s childhood reaction to the world around him.
How like an Angel came I down! How Bright are all Things here!When...
(The entire section is 1671 words.)