Thomas Traherne Traherne, Thomas - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thomas Traherne 1637?-1674

English poet and prose writer.

Largely a discovery of the twentieth century, Traherne is becoming a widely-studied author by contemporary critics. A devotional writer, Traherne is widely known for his ability to write in two distinct styles: a plain, easy-to-read style, and a more complex style with stately rhythms, reiterations, and antitheses. The themes apparent in Traherne's religious work, most notably an interest in the nature of childhood and an ongoing focus on the examination of the spiritual through use of the senses, have garnered increasing critical attention.

Biographical Information

What little is known of Traherne's life comes largely from Athenæ Oxoniensis by Anthony Wood. It is thought that Traherne was born into modest circumstances in Hereford in 1637. He was brought up by wealthy relatives, and his uncle supported him in attending Brasenose College at Oxford. Traherne pursued his studies with zeal: he received an M. A. in 1661, and then became a country parson at the parish of Credenhill. In 1667, he became the private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Charles II's Lord Keeper of the Great Seal—this connection would later prove valuable in the attribution of his works. Traherne remained in the service of Bridgeman until Sir Orlando's death in 1674. A few months later Traherne himself died. Traherne's writings portray him as a devoutly religious man, known for his charity to the poor and his rigorous devotional practices.

Major Works

The only work Traherne published in his lifetime, Roman Forgeries (1673), is a polemical treatise attacking Catholic positions on doctrinal issues such as transubstantiation, papal authority, purgatory, and the doctrine of merit. Notable for its scholarly style and oppositional tone, the work depicts an argument between Traherne and a Roman Catholic regarding the authenticity of documents used as a basis for church authority. Christian Ethicks (1675), published shortly after Traherne's death, is a treatise on human conduct and morality. While a theological discourse, the work focuses heavily on ethics and lacks the polemical tone of Roman Forgeries. In Christian Ethicks, Traherne denies a secular basis for ethics by making no distinction between justice and other virtues. He argues that the only quality which interferes in man's happiness is a failure to exercise will. Traherne's most prominent poetical work, Centuries of Meditations (1908) is sometimes considered autobiographical. It was written as a manual of instruction for Sir Orlando Bridgeman's spiritual guidance. In this work, he recounts his life story, his relationships with others, and the mystical experience of his relationship with God. While Centuries of Meditations does portray the author's childhood, the intent of the piece is not to provide biographical details, which it notably lacks. Instead, it functions as a portrait of childhood in general, describing an intellectual curiosity and an eagerness to explore the individual mysteries and whole nature of the universe.

Critical Reception

The attribution of Traherne's works is itself an interesting story of modern literary scholarship. Two Traherne manuscripts were discovered in a London bookstall in approximately 1896, and were originally taken to be the work of Henry Vaughan. In fact, they would likely have appeared in an edition of Vaughan, had not the compiler, Alexander Grosart, died before completion of the volume. The next owner of the manuscripts, Bertram Dobell, did not accept the attribution to Vaughan, and was later able to determine authorship due to a reference in an anonymous publication of A Serious and Pathetical Contemplation (1699)—which shared many significant features with the manuscripts—to the chaplain of “Lord Bridgman.” These manuscripts, first published as The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne (1903) and Centuries of Meditations, began the twentieth-century interest in Traherne and his works.

Unknown to critics of his time period, Traherne's prose works have interested modern critics, who largely see his poetry as little more than shortened versions of his prose. Critics maintain that Traherne's strength as an author lies in his ability to write on different levels blending styles throughout his works. According to Carol L. Marks: “Traherne in his ethics combined scholastic jargon with intuited perceptions, in his style harmonized the plainness of the Royal Society with the richer rhythms of the Jacobean Bible.” Critic K. W. Salter claims that Traherne used imagery to persuade readers to use their senses to experience the spiritual: he “writes of the senses as if they were spiritual and of the spirit as if it were sensuous.” The lack of connections or progressions between parts of Traherne's works has been seen as a major weakness. Critic Gerald H. Cox III argues this is the downfall of the Centuries of Meditations, in which, Cox claims, “the stages … are so obscured by uncontrolled detail that it is difficult to see how any reader's understanding, will, and affections could be moved.” The themes Traherne presents, however, have fascinated modern critics, and Traherne's reputation has been established as an important minor author of his period.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Roman Forgeries, Or, A True Account of False Records Discovering the Impostures and Counterfeit Antiquities of the Church of Rome (prose) 1673

Christian Ethicks: Or, Divine Morality. Opening the Way to Blessedness, By the Rules of Vertue and Reason (prose) 1675

A Serious and Pathetical Contemplation of the Mercies of God, In Several Most Devout and Sublime Thanksgivings for the same (prose) 1699

Meditations on the Six Days of Creation (poetry) 1717

The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne 1636?-1674 [edited by Bertram Dobell] (poetry) 1903

Centuries of Meditations [edited by Bertram Dobell] (poetry) 1908

Traherne's Poems of Felicity [edited by H. I. Bell] (poetry) 1910

The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne, faithfully reprinted from the Author's Original Manuscript, together with Poems of Felicity, reprinted from the Burney manuscript, and Poems from Various Sources [edited by Gladys I. Wade] (poetry) 1932

A Serious and Pathetic Contemplation of the Mercies of God, In Several most Devout and Sublime Thanksgivings for the same [edited by Roy Daniells] (prose) 1941

Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings. 2 vols. [edited by H. M. Margoliouth] (poetry) 1958

Meditations on the Six Days of the Creation [edited by George Robert Guffey] (poetry) 1966

Poems, Centuries, and Three Thanksgivings [edited by Anne Ridler] (poetry) 1966

Christian Ethicks [edited by Carol L. Marks and George Robert Guffey] (prose) 1968

Commentaries of Heaven: The Poems [edited by D. D. C. Chambers] (poetry) 1989

Carol L. Marks (essay date 1966)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Marks, Carol L. “Thomas Traherne and Cambridge Platonism.” PMLA 81, no. 7 (December 1966): 521-34.

[In the following essay, Marks considers the argument that Traherne can be categorized as a Cambridge Platonist and concludes that he defies all attempts at categorization.]

Although the Oxford-educated Thomas Traherne is indeed “thoroughly representative” of the “salient ideas” of the Cambridge Platonists,1 and without a doubt should be classed with them philosophically, he is most akin emotionally to that maverick among the Cambridge men, Peter Sterry. Yet ideological differences separate him from Sterry, and even the emotional intensity...

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Carol L. Marks (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Marks, Carol L. “General Introduction.” In Christian Ethicks, edited by George Robert Guffey, pp. xi-l. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Marks provides an overview of Traherne's works, topics, and philosophical mindset.]

The student of Traherne's thought is fortunate in the abundance of both manuscript and printed works. In the latter category appear not only the Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings, edited by H. M. Margoliouth, but also Christian Ethicks (1675) [CE], Roman Forgeries (1673), and the Meditations on the Six Days of the Creation (1717).1 Five manuscripts include a...

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Stanley Stewart (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Stewart, Stanley. “‘Infinite Center’: The Lyric Voice.” In The Expanded Voice: The Art of Thomas Traherne, pp. 139-69. San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1970.

[In the following essay, Stewart analyzes the themes, strengths, and weaknesses of Traherne's lyrics.]

Traherne's poetry has never quite caught on, not even with the admirers of so-called “metaphysical poets,” with whom his name is often linked. Critical disinterest in Traherne as a poet seems to me symptomatic of certain critical biases, in particular the concern, almost obsessive in some circles, for what is called “organic unity.” This concern goes hand in hand with the assumption...

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Patrick Grant (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Grant, Patrick. “Original Sin and the Fall of Man in Thomas Traherne.” ELH 38, no. 1 (March 1971): 40-61.

[In the following essay, Grant examines Traherne's theology and concludes that his beliefs can be characterized as Pelagian.]

The theology of Thomas Traherne on the questions of Original Sin and the Fall of Man has engaged critics for some time. The charge usually directed against Traherne is that he is Pelagian, and there are of course counter-arguments which claim that he is not.1 The argument about Traherne's orthodoxy has, however, been based on false premises. To argue that Traherne is Pelagian is really to assume that he is not...

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Gerard H. Cox III (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Cox, Gerald H. III. “Traherne's Centuries: A Platonic Devotion of ‘Divine Philosophy.’” Modern Philology 69, no. 1 (August 1971): 10-24.

[In the following essay, Cox provides a thorough examination of Traherne's Centuries in terms of the author's intentions and concludes that the success of the meditations is questionable.]

Since Bertram Dobell attributed and published its manuscript in 1908, the Centuries has interested scholars more as a source for the reconstruction of Thomas Traherne's mysticism than as a prose devotion in its own right.1 The only critic to suggest that the Centuries is more than a haphazard...

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James M. Osborn (essay date 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Osborn, James M. “Thomas Traherne: Revelations in Meditation.” In The Author in His Work: Essays on a Problem in Criticism, edited by Louis L. Martz and Aubrey Williams, pp. 213-28. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Osborn examines Traherne's Meditations for biographical material about the author.]

The manuscript pages of Thomas Traherne's Meditations, written for private purposes and for the eyes of his intimate friends, abound with autobiographical passages. Paradoxically, these passages supply meager biographical details, for Traherne concerned himself primarily with the relationship between God and man. His...

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Maurine Sabine (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Sabine, Maurine. “‘Stranger to the Shining Skies’: Traherne's Child and His Changing Attitudes to the World.” Ariel 11, no. 4 (October 1980): 21-35.

[In the following essay, Sabine examines Traherne's works in terms of his preoccupation with the subject of childhood.]

While reflecting upon his writing craft in the Centuries, Traherne avowed that he would make his literary subject “Things Strange, yet Common; Incredible, yet Known; Most High, yet Plain; infinitely Profitable, but not Esteemed.”1 Readers conversant with the devotional poetry of the seventeenth century will be no strangers to the exultant literary claims which...

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Malcolm M. Day (essay date 1982)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Day, Malcolm M. “A Spokesman for Felicity,” and “Christian Ethicks.” In Thomas Traherne, pp. 1-19; 20-53. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

[In the following essay, Day provides an overview of Traherne's life and works, and examines Christian Ethicks in terms of its thought, structure, and philosophy.]



Over the last fifteen to twenty years we have learned a few new facts about Thomas Traherne's (1637-1674) life, but we still have so little positive information that only the broadest generalizations can be made concerning his biography and its relation to...

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Richard Douglas Jordan (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Jordan, Richard Douglas. “Thomas Traherne and the Art of Meditation.” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 3 (July-September 1985): 381-403.

[In the following essay, Jordan analyzes Traherne's works in the context of the period in which they were written and compares them to those of his contemporaries.]

Thomas Traherne is a devotional writer whose works belong in significant ways to the period in which they were written, the period between the Restoration in 1660 and Traherne's death in 1674, yet they have seldom been considered in that context. Instead, Traherne has repeatedly been discussed by scholars within a context limited to writers of the...

(The entire section is 11068 words.)

Julia J. Smith (essay date March 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Smith, Julia J. “Attitudes toward Conformity and Nonconformity in Thomas Traherne.” Bunyan Studies 1, no. 1 (autumn 1988): 26-35.

[In the following essay, originally presented in March, 1988, Smith characterizes Traherne as a political conformist, based on views expressed in Select Meditations and other works.]

Thomas Traherne in the 1670s refused to admit that genuine religious persecution could be found in England; where Christianity ‘is freely and purely Professed in any Nation or Kingdom (as at present in Ours) a Man may be as divine and heavenly as an Angel’, and would be valued in proportion to his holiness. If schismatics and heretics, in...

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Carol Ann Johnston (essay date fall 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Johnston, Carol Ann. “Heavenly Perspectives, Mirrors of Eternity: Thomas Traherne's Yearning Subject.” Criticism 43, no. 4 (fall 2001): 377-405.

[In the following essay, Johnston argues that the “extraordinary theoretical substructure” of Traherne's work is his “quest to strike a new kind of language from issues resonant in poetics and painting,” particularly “the technologies of three-dimensional perspective and the clear-reflecting mirror.”]

[Holy Days] are Heavenly perspectives wherin we behold the Mystery of Ages, Mirrors of Eternity wherin we feed upon Revelations and Miracles.


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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Iredale, Q. Thomas Traherne. Folcroft, Pa.: The Folcroft Press, Inc., 1935, 87 p.

Overview of Traherne's life and career.

Wade, Gladys I. Thomas Traherne. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1944, 269 p.

Provides a history of Traherne's life as well as an examination of his career and impact of his works.


Balakier, James J. “Thomas Traherne's Dobell Series and the Baconian Model of Experience.” English Studies 70, no. 3 (June 1989): 233-47.

Contends that in the Dobell poems, Traherne “has adapted the...

(The entire section is 803 words.)