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.
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.
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.
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.