Thomas Traherne (1636 or 1637 – ca. 27 September 1674) was an English mystic, poet, clergyman, theologian, and religious writer. Little information is known about his life. The intense, scholarly spirituality in his writings has led to his being commemorated by some parts of the Anglican Communion on 10 October (the anniversary of his burial in 1674) or on September 27.
The work for which Traherne is best known today is the Centuries of Meditations, a collection of short paragraphs in which he reflects on Christian life and ministry, philosophy, happiness, desire and childhood. This was first published in 1908 after having been rediscovered in manuscript ten years earlier. His poetry likewise was first published in 1903 and 1910 (The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne, B.D. and Poems of Felicity). His prose works include Roman Forgeries (1673), Christian Ethics (1675), and A Serious and Pathetical Contemplation of the Mercies of God (1699).
Traherne’s poetry is often associated with the metaphysical poets, even though his poetry was unknown for two centuries after his death. His manuscripts were kept among the private papers of the Skipps family of Ledbury, Herefordshire, until 1888. Then, in the winter of 1896–97, two manuscript volumes containing his poems and meditations were discovered by chance for sale in a street bookstall. The poems were initially thought to be the work of Traherne’s contemporary Henry Vaughan (1621–95). Only through research was his identity uncovered and his work prepared for publication under his name. As a result, much of his work was not published until the first decade of the 20th century, and much still remains unpublished.
Traherne’s writings frequently explore the glory of creation and what he perceived as his intimate relationship with God. His writing conveys an ardent, almost childlike love of God, and is compared to similar themes in the works of later poets William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. His love for the natural world is frequently expressed in his works by a treatment of nature that evokes Romanticism—two centuries before the Romantic movement.
Traherne was among about twelve Anglican lyricists labelled by Samuel Johnson as “the Metaphysical Poets.” While Johnson did not favour their work, and implied that their poetry was pretentious and obscure, the label has endured and has become respected as that of a school of poets. Their poetry “combined passionate feeling with intellectual rigor,” and “sought to express deeply felt religious and secular experiences in the form of highly intellectual poems.” The metaphysical poets, Traherne included, exhibited an “avid interest in science” drawing upon “imagery from all the new and exciting areas of scientific learning: astronomy, mathematics, geography, medicine” in their works.
Traherne’s poetry and prose works have been described in oxymoronic terms as “bafflingly simple.” Traherne delves into issues such as the origins of faith, the nature of divinity and the faith, divinity, and the innocence of childhood and his style seems to enforce with verse that takes on the form of an incantation. At the core of his work is the concept of “felicity”, that highest state of bliss in which he describes the essence of God as a source of “Delights of inestimable value.” It is a quest for this divine and essential truth that Traherne is said to exemplify a “playful but passionate exposition, denoting both a profoundly enlivening experience and a practical set of interrelated abstract principles.” Traherne mixes mystical elements and seeks to explain issues of truth, knowledge, and the faculties of the mind and heart by methods of theological and rational examination. He seeks to explain the “Principle of Nature” in which through his inclination to love truth (“Light”) and beauty seek him to identify felicity as its source and a natural experience.Traherne argues that man can only experience this felicity by understanding the will of God and divine love and he describes the beauty of this in childlike terms. In a poem called “The Recovery”, Traherne claims:
“A Heart returned for all these Joys,
These are the Things admired,
These are the Nectar and the Quintessence
The Cream and Flower that most affect his Sense”
One Voluntary Act of Love
Far more Delightful to his Soul doth Prove
And is above all these as far as Love.”
Traherne’s works are inherently mystical in that they seek to understand and embrace the nature of God within his creation and within man’s soul. Traherne seems to describe his own journey of faith in Centuries of Meditation, which was likely written when Traherne was at Credenhill—a work that is noted for its “spiritual intensity,” and “the wide scope of the writer’s survey” which includes “all heaven and earth he takes for the province of the pious soul”. Traherne’s work is said to look “upon the hidden things of the soul, and, in them, he sees the image of the glory and love of God” and “the eternal theme of the goodness and the splendour of God.”
In the spirit of the gospels, Traherne’s “great theme is the visionary innocence of childhood,” and his writings suggest “that adults have lost the joy of childhood, and with it an understanding of the divine nature of creation.” Traherne seems to convey the idea that paradise can only be rediscovered and regained through reacquiring this childlike innocence—a state which “precedes the knowledge of good and evil” and seems to be composed of a boundless love and wonder.
In this respect, Traherne’s work is often compared to the abounding joy and mysticism found in the works of William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. According to Traherne scholar Denise Inge, Traherne’s introduction of a child’s viewpoint to narrate his theological and moral premises was unknown or certainly unappreciated in the literature of this time. His poems frequently explore the glory of creation and what he perceived as his intimate relationship with God. He drew deeply on the writings of Aristotle and on the early Church Fathers for his concept of Man and human nature. Little mention is made of sin and suffering in the works that have dominated 20th-century criticism, and some critics have seen his verse as bordering upon pantheism (or perhaps panentheism).
Traherne is heavily influenced by the works of Neoplatonist philosophers and several of his contemporaries who were called the Cambridge Platonists.The Cambridge Platonists were latitudinarians in that they argued for moderation and dialogue between the factions of Puritans and High Churchmen in the Anglican church. They believed that religion and reason could be in harmony with one another based on a mystical understanding of reason—believing that reason rose beyond mere sense perception but was “the candle of the Lord” and an echo of the divine residing within the human soul. Reason was both God-given and of God. Indeed, critic K. W. Salter notes that Traherne “writes of the senses as if they were spiritual and of the spirit as if it were sensuous.” However, according to Gladys Wade’s 1946 biography of Traherne, she distinguished that the Cambridge Platonists “wasted their energies on Hermetic and Cabalistic and Rosicrucian lore, and on incredible experiments in magic and necromancy,” and remarked that Traherne’s mysticism was “perfectly free from any taint of this.”
Another great passion that is depicted in Traherne’s work is his love of nature and the natural world, frequently displayed in a very Romantic treatment of nature that has been described as characteristically pantheist or panentheist. While Traherne credits a divine source for its creation, his praise of nature seems nothing less than what one would expect to find in Thoreau. Many scholars consider Traherne a writer of the sublime, and in his writing he seems to have tried to reclaim the lost appreciation for the natural world, as well as paying tribute to what he knew of in nature that was more powerful than he was. In this sense Traherne seems to have anticipated the Romantic movement more than 130 years before it actually occurred.There is frequent discussion of man’s almost symbiotic relationship with nature, as well as frequent use of “literal setting”, that is, an attempt to faithfully reproduce a sense experience from a given moment, a technique later used frequently by William Wordsworth.
Because Traherne’s works were lost for 200 years after his death they did not influence other writers until the 20th century. Indeed, while Samuel Johnson included him in his criticism of what he termed “metaphysical” poetry, many of Johnson’s contemporaries did not know of Traherne. Since their rediscovery, however, they have influenced the thought and writings of Trappist monk, social activist, and author Thomas Merton, crime writer and Christian humanist Dorothy L. Sayers, poet Elizabeth Jennings and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis. Lewis called Centuries of Meditations “almost the most beautiful book in English.”
In 1939 the English composer Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) completed writing a cantata for solo voice (typically a soprano or tenor soloist) and string orchestra entitled Dies natalis (his Opus number 8) of which four movements are settings of writings by Thomas Traherne: “The Rapture”, “Wonder”, “The Salutation” and (the only prose piece among the four) an extract from Centuries of Meditations. In each of these pieces, the text chosen by Finzi reflects the joy and wonder of a newborn child’s innocent perspective on the world and the wonderment in being born into a world of such beauty. The first performance of the cantata was delayed until 1946 because of the Second World War.
In commemoration of his poems and spiritual writings, Thomas Traherne is venerated as a saint within Anglicanism and is included in the Calendar of Saints in many national churches within the Anglican Communion.
Two appreciations of Thomas Traherne’s mysticism can be found here:
Some Quotes from Traherne:
“An empty book is like an infant’s soul, in which anything may be written. It is capable of all things, but containeth nothing. I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders.”
“Had we not loved ourselves at all, we could never have been obliged to love anything. So that self-love is the basis of all love.”
“Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child.”
“Happiness was not made to be boasted, but enjoyed. Therefore tho others count me miserable, I will not believe them if I know and feel myself to be happy; nor fear them.”
“I will not by the noise of bloody wars and the dethroning of kings advance you to glory but by the gentle ways of peace and love.”
“The soul is made for action, and cannot rest till it be employed. Idleness is its rust. Unless it will up and think and taste and see, all is in vain.”
“How like an angel came I down.”
“To love one person with a private love is poor and miserable: to love all is glorious.”
“This visible world is wonderfully to be delighted in, and highly to be esteemed, because it is the theatre of God’s righteous Kingdom.”
“It is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable, for he hath a benefactor so prone to give, that he delighteth in us for asking. Do not let your inclinations tell you that the world is yours. Do you not covet all. Do you not long to have it end.”
“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.”
“Love is the true means by which the world is enjoyed: our love to others, and others love to us.”
“A little grit in the eye destroyeth the sight of the very heavens, and a little malice or envy a world of joys. One wry principle in the mind is of infinite consequence.”
“You never know yourself till you know more than your body.”
“Your enjoyment of the World is never right till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace, and look upon the earth and air as celestial joys, having such reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels. The bride of a monarch, in her husband’s chamber, hath no such causes of delight as you.
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.
Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world.”
“The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from Everlasting to Everlasting. The Dust and the Stones of the Street were as precious as Gold. The Gates were at first the end of the World, the Green Trees when I saw them first through the Gates Transported and Ravished me; their Sweetness and unusual Beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with Ecstasy, they were such strange and Wonderful Things; The Men! O what Venerable and Reverend Creatures did the Aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And the young Men Glittering and Sparkling Angels and Maids strange Seraphic Pieces of Life and Beauty! Boys and Girles Tumbling in the Street and Playing, were moving Jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die…”
“And thus all ages are present in my soul and all kingdoms and God blessed forever. And thus Jesus Christ is seen in me, and dwelleth in me, when I believe upon Him. And thus all Saints are in me, and I in them. And thus all Angels and the Eternity and Infinity of God are in me for evermore. I being the living temple and comprehensor of them. Since therefore all other ways of In-being would be utterly vain, were it not for this; And the Kingdom of God (as our Saviour Saith) is within you, let us ever think and meditate on Him, that His conception, nativity, life and death may always be within us. Let heaven and earth, men and angels, God and His creatures be always within us, that is in our sight, in our sense, in our life and esteem: that in the light of the Holy Ghost we may see that glory of His Eternal Kingdom, and sing the song of Moses, and the song of the Lamb saying, ‘Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty, just and true are Thy Ways, Thou King of Saints’.”
“You are as prone to love, as the sun is to shine.”
“We do not ignore maturity. Maturity consists in not losing the past while fully living in the present with a prudent awareness of the possibilities of the future.”
“Let those parents that desire Holy Children learn to make them possessors of Heaven and Earth betimes; to remove silly objects from before them, to magnify nothing but what is great indeed, and to talk of God to them, and of His works and ways. before they can either speak or go.”
“Love can forbear, and Love can forgive…but Love can never be reconciled to an unlovely object… He can never therefore be reconciled to your sin, because sin itself is incapable of being altered; but He may be reconciled to your person because that may be restored and Loved.”
“Our Saviour’s meaning, when He said, He must be born again and become a little child that will enter in the Kingdom of Heaven is deeper far than is generally believed. It is only in a careless reliance upon Divine Providence, that we are to become little children, or in the feebleness and shortness of our anger and simplicity of our passions, but in the peace and purity of all our soul. Which purity also is a deeper thing than is commonly apprehended. For we must disrobe infant-like and clear; the powers of our soul free from the leaven of this world, and disentangled from men’s conceits and customs. Grit in the eye or yellow jaundice will not let a man see those objects truly that are before it. And therefore it is requisite that we should be as very strangers to the thoughts, customs, and opinions of men in this world, as if we were but little children. So those things would appear to us only which do to children when they are first born. Ambitions, trades, luxuries, inordinate affections, casual and accidental riches invented since the fall, would be gone, and only those things appear, which did to Adam in Paradise, in the same light and in the same colours: God in His works, Glory in the light, Love in our parents, men, ourselves, and the face of Heaven: Every man naturally seeing those things, to the enjoyment of which he is naturally born.”
“By Love alone is God enjoyed, by Love alone delighted in, by Love alone approached or admired. His Nature requires Love, thy nature requires Love. The law of Nature commands thee to Love Him: the Law of His nature, and the Law of thine.”
“This moment exhibits infinite space, but there is a space also wherein all moments are infinitely exhibited, and the everlasting duration of infinite space is another region and room of joys.”
“Let [my love for Thee] be more vehement than flame, more abundant than the sea, more constant than the candle in Aaron’s tabernacle that burned day and night. Shall the sun shine for me; and be a light from the beginning of the world to this very day that never goeth out, and shall my love cease or intermit, O Lord, to shine or burn? O let it be a perpetual fire on the altar of my heart, and let my soul itself be Thy living sacrifice.”