Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Friday, October 1, 2010

The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought in the Centuries of Meditations

Here I seek to show that the seventeenth century poet was a mystic expressing his own insights rather than Christian orthodoxy when the two clashed.

Traherne's religious thought resists categories. Attempts to trace in him a spiritual progress common to the main tradition of Christian mystics (if such a tradition even exists) seem to me artificial and forced [1], and all his critics find that his emphases diverge from those of other meditative poets of his time. His comparative lack of concern with sin, death, and penance, to take one example, is a notable exception to conventional practice, [2] and his cosmology is complex and individual. Searching for parallels to clarify his thought, some of his readers [3] have developed comparisons with later writers (often Blake or Wordsworth) that seem to me misleading and largely fruitless. I believe that the origins of Traherne's ideas may be found and their nature best described in three major influences: first, the neo-Platonism that was being revived at Cambridge and elsewhere; second, the original insights of his own intuitions, intuitions that often diverged from his conscious orthodoxy, but which informed his work with energy and direction; and third, the common-places of Anglican devotion which were the intellectual stuff of daily life for Traherne as a clergyman at a time when the "new" thought of neo-Platonism was suspect in many quarters. [4]

Without any speculative intrusions into Traherne's mind in his construction of an idiosyncratic system, I will attempt to distinguish these influences in his work and to indicate a few of the most provocative problems their combination poses for the reader in understanding his religious writings as a coherent whole. I shall be concerned primarily with Traherne's concepts of God, nature, and sin in their interrelationships inasmuch as they illuminate his "felicity," the motive of much of his religious enthusiasm and the experiential kernel, as it were, of his faith.

In my reading the first two of the strains that I have outlined are original to Traherne in that he arrived at their intellectual and emotional conclusions himself, however many had preceded him along like paths, while the last, the orthodox, gives form to his intuitions and explains several otherwise inconsistent statements without contributing itself any notions that are really essential to my thesis. This will become more clear as I proceed to specific detail.

Traherne’s assimilation of some amount of neo-Platonic thought is accepted by the two critics, Wade and. Salter, who have surveyed the whole range of his work; indeed, Wade even feels that he nay be considered a member of the group known as the Cambridge neo-Platonists. [5] After the fact of a resemblance (and its limits) has been demonstrated by a comparison of similar passages in Traherne and a representative neo-Platonist, it will be possible to place this element in the poet's thought more precisely into perspective with the experiential and the orthodox.

As my central text for Traherne, I use the Centuries of Meditations as the fullest expression of his thought and hence the most appropriate work to investigate as a source for thematic analysis, though the same ideas are often reflected in the poetry. John Smith’s Selected Discourses may serve as an example of neo-Platonist thought and rhetoric of the era. This work is a systematic exposition by an author whom Wade claims to have been closest to Traherne in spirit, who may have even had a direct influence [6], and whom Salter adopts for a suggestive but rather summary comparison as a matter of course without particular justification.

Both Smith and Traherne use clearly Platonic language to describe God as a supreme mind in harmony with which one may attune his own mind. Smith quotes “Tully” with approbation as saying that, “The mind that understand [divine] things is like to that in heaven that made them.” [7], and he deduces God's existence from an unsatisfied desire within most men for unity with God by the principle of the attraction of like things, [8]

Similarly, Traherne says of God in an important passage, “He is One infinite Act of KNOWLEDG and Wisdom . . . we being an Act of KNOWLEDG and Wisdom as He is. When our Souls are Present with all Objects, and Beautified with the Ideas and Figures of them all. For then we shall be Mentes as He is Mens. We being of the same Mind, with him who is an infinit Eternal mind . . .Heaven and Earth, Angels and Men, GOD and All Things must be contained in our Souls, that we may become Glorious Personages, and like unto Him in all our Actions.” [9]

Traherne also discusses at length the joyful value of a burning dissatisfaction and longing in men as a proof of their rightful heavenly estate and a sign of their kinship with the divine. I will have occasion later to return to some notable differences that distinguish Traherne and Smith, but for now only the concept of God as a mind is significant.

For both Smith and Traherne the final object of life is union -- with God in this world. Smith speaks of "the true metaphysical and contemplative man, who, running and shooting up above his own logical or self-rational. pierceth into the highest life. Such a one, by universal love and holy affection, abstracting himself from himself, endeavours the nearest union with the divine essence that may be — knitting his own centre unto the centre of divine being.” [10] “We must open the eye of the soul, which indeed all have, but few make use of." [11] Traherne provides many similar passages. At the end of the fourth Century he describes his goal as "A Perfect Indwelling of the Soul in GOD, and GOD in the soul. So that as the fulness of the GODHEAD dwelleth in our Savior, it shall dwell in us." [12]

It is interesting to note that both Smith and Traherne use the image of the eye (Traherne in the passages and poems concerning the “Infant-Ey” and elsewhere as well) as the vehicle to an apprehension of God. This fact underlines the highly experiential approach that both feel to be necessary to know God. Although reason will bring the worshipper a long way it is only intuition beyond logic, or, in Traherne's terms, a “higher reason” that can complete his knowledge. Both speak of "tasting" the glory of God, and Smith says that, "divinity” is something rather to be understood “by a spiritual sensation than by any verbal description," [13], and Traherne says that the contents of his book cannot be got by any learning but only by life.

For Smith this acknowledgement of the limitations of logic makes little impact on his working method as a whole; he is always careful to provide rational arguments for each of his points. For Traherne, on the other hand, logic is often superfluous and the tumbling words of his repetitions and exclamations offer only their enthusiasm for justification.

The distinction becomes even more important in the manner in which the two deal with the problem of evil. For Smith evil is an active force opposing God. He devotes entire discourses to specific forms of error and catalogues the evils of man. His last discourse, "Of a Christian's Conflicts with, and Conquests over, Satan," suggests in its title alone the prevailing tone of vigilance and militance in the cause of the good. In contrast, for Traherne sin is essentially an unfitting turning from God, a failure that could only arise out of ignorance. "No man can sin that clearly seeth the Beauty of Gods face: Becaus no Man can sin against his own Happiness, that is, none can when he sees it Clearly willingly and Wittingly forsake it." [14] He says in the same passage that anyone who can see the kingdom of glory which is the visible world rightly understood can debase himself in sin. The misplaced values and limitations of men result from a decay from original perfection in childhood. Han's nature is not depraved but merely subject to error. "Few will believ the Soul to be infinit: yet Infinit is the first Thing which is naturally Known. Bounds and Limits are Discerned only in a Secondary manner." [15]

He repeats Christ's injunction that we must become as little children, "so that 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.” [16] “And that our misery proceedeth ten thousand times more from the outward Bondage of Opinion and Custom, then from any inward corruption or Depravation of Nature: And that it is not our Parents Loyns, so much as our Parents Lives, that Enthrals and Blinds us.” [17]

In Traherne's view, then, original sin is simply the tendency to error. It is reenacted every generation and is only the more regrettable because it is unnecessary. Savages, he says, live lives very close to God and nearly approximating prelapsarian bliss. [18] With this departure from Smith (closely skirting heresy) one enters that strain of Traherne's thought that derives directly from his own experience and intuition. The basis of this thought, characteristic of his individual genius, may be described as an intense numinous apprehension of the beauty of the world. It is pervasive throughout the body of his work, perhaps most widely known in the passage beginning "The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat . . .” [19]. Since this worldly and apparently sensual delight contradicts the normal Platonic contempt for the world [20] as nothing but vain illusion as well as contradicting the usual Christian view of the world as a vale of tears, to be valued only as proving ground for the next life, Traherne had to reconcile the insight he knew from experience with that he had learned.

Surprisingly, he has his cake and eats it too. On the same pages that he celebrates the glories of the physical world, he denies them. Despite such affirmations as these, selected at random from the many that fill his pages, "By the very Right of your Sences you Enjoy the World. Is not the Beauty of the Hemisphere present to your Ey?” [21] and "Your Enjoyment of the World is never right, till you so Esteem it, that evry thing in it, is more your Treasure, then a Kings Exchequer full of Gold and Silver.” [22] he can also include such statements as "Thy body is confined, and is a Dull lump of Heavy Clay, by which thou art retarded,” [23] or "The Material World is Dead and feeleth Nothing. But the Spiritual World though it be Invisible hath all Dimensions.” [24] Matter is at once for him. "Bulk,” a solid, retarding weight without life, and it is a great marvel, animated by God and provided expressly for man's pleasure. There are, I think, two groups of pas-ages that sketch out a resolution of the problem: one in which the solution is Christian and Biblical, in terms of Adam and the fall, and one which is more Platonic, directed at finding the same pure perfection in the forms of ones perception that the Platonist finds in the forms of his contemplative thought.

Traherne often expresses his love of the world as love of God, seeing God's qualities in every created object. “The World, is a Pomegranate indeed, which GOD hath put into mans Heart, as Solomon observeth in the Ecclesiastes, because it containeth the Seeds of Grace and the Seeds of Glory. All Virtues lie in the World.” [25] Sometimes he describes the world as an occasion for praise the purpose of which is to gratify God, who in Traherne's theology has passions and desires, with a grateful human race. At other time the chief value of nature is as the book of God, the source wherein man can read of God's designs and his wishes through the examples of created things. All of these motives for praise are more or less common in seventeenth century devotional literature, but the unusual strain in Traherne is the repeated implication that the world in which we live is the same as Eden.

He is always reminding the reader, "You are the Adam, or the Eve, that Enjoy [the world.]” [27] "Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and Curious Apprehensions of the World.” [28] "The Citie seemed to stand in Eden, or to be Built in Heaven." [29] Just as he all but denies original sin in holding out a possibility for perfection for every generation, he almost convicts himself by implication of Pelagian beliefs, including the denial of original sin and man’ innate depravity.
He glorifies the world in terms that are more Platonic than Christian by finding the highest expression of goodness and wisdom not only in man's mind (or soul) and in God's mind, but in the external world, too, which he calls "the Body of GOD."[30] Following Platonists with whom he was familiar like Ficino who had explained the proper way to love a woman, as a type of divine wisdom and beauty, the temporary embodiment of transcendental principles, Traherne repeats the argument, adding "It is a vain Thing to say they loved too much. I dare say there are 10000 Beauties in that Creature which they hav not seen."[31]"

The same qualities are present in any created object. Traherne sees in a grain of sand. God's "infinit Goodness and Wisdom and Power and Glory,"[32] He says that it is a divine thing which should imitate to hold the world in “a Thought containing Heaven and Earth.” [33] Here just as in the passage quoted earlier [34] concerning the nature of true union with God, he stresses stresses the need to hold the entire world within oneself in order to become like God, He says in another place that God is upholding the existence of the material world by a thought in his mind which, if he should neglect for a moment, heaven and earth alike would collapse.[35] "these Liquid Clear Satisfactions, were the Emanations of the Highest Reason, but not atchieved till a long time afterwards.”[36] The New English Dictionary comments on the seventeenth century meaning of emanation as “that which proceeds from a source,” adding that the word was associated particularly with theories that regard either the universe as a whole, or the spiritual aspect of it, as deriving from the essence of God and not from an act of creation out of nothing.[37] This, it seems to me, is precisely what Traherne is talking about.
Finally, I think that he comes very close to a direct justification for his extravagant world-love based in Platonism in another place. "An Object Seen, is in the Faculty Seeing it, and by that in the Soul of the Seer, after the Best Maners. Whereas there are eight maners of In-being, the In-being of an Object in a Faculty
is the Best of all.[38] By a kind of side-stepping, he claims that his joy in the world is really joy in his own mind and in God's nind, though this thought seems irrelevant to the emphatically physical passages in which the joy is expressed.
This is by no means the only problem that arises in understanding Traherne's religious system. The amalgam of three influences out of which it is constructed displays many other disparities. For example, near the end of the first century he enters into a lengthy meditation on the crucified Christ which seems to have little in common with any other portions of his work. He says with unbounded affirmation “all men and Angels should appear in Heaven,” [39] without ever elaborating on this striking heresy.

I have discussed only a few examples of the many problems that have been largely ignored by those who are so impressed by Traherne's ardor and his prose style that they may neglect the real substance of his thought. An attempt to integrate the whole of the Centuries of Meditation would demand a book-length study, but I hope that here I have been able to suggest major elements that must be considered in that future work.

Despite the mixing of elements not always obviously compatible, Traherne produced a book that is striking and beautiful, and considerably more subtle than one might think from its surface orthodoxy.

1. Here I am thinking particularly of the analysis in K.W.Salter, Thomas Traherne;_ Mystic and Poet, Barnes and Noble (New York, 1964), p. 43 ff.

2. Though he is not unique. I would take the opportunity to mention the name of Christopher Smart in the next century who exemplified many of the same ideas and stylistic characteristics. I do not believe that there is any evidence of direct influence from Traherne.

3. Gladys Wade and Margaret Willy, among others.

4. For a defense that reflects the bitterness of the specific charges, see Simon Patrick, A Brief Account of New Sect of Lattitude-Men, Augustan Reprint Society (Los Angeles: 1963).

5. Gladys Wade, Thomas Traherne, Princeton University Press (Princeton, 1946), p. 221.

4. Ibid. p. 221. Smith's Discourses were published in 1652.

7. John Smith, Selected Discourses, Rivington (London, 1821), p. 86-87.

8. Ibid., p. 148.

9. Thomas Traherne, Poems, Centurie.s, and three Thanksgivings, ed. by Anne Ridler, Oxford Press (London, 1966). In all my references to the Centuries of Meditation I am using this edition, but I will give only the century and the meditation numbers, preceded by the author's name. Here the reference is to Traherne, II, 84.

10. Smith, p. 24.

11. Smith, p. 18.

12. Traherne, IV, 180.

13. Smith, p. 4.

14. Traherne, II, 97.

15. Traherne, II, 81.

16. Traherne, III, 5.

17. Traherne, III, 8.

18. The fact that he will not grant his noble savages unqualified perfection is due, I think, more to the dogma that only Christ can save than to any fault he imagines in them.

19. Traherne, III, 3.

20. See, for instance, Smith, p. 15.

21. Traherne, I, 21.

22. Traherne, I, 25.

23. Traherne, II, 51.

24. Traherne, II, 90.

25. Traherne, II, 96.

26. Traherne, II, 94 is one example.

27. Traherne, II, 12.

28. Traherne, III, 1.

29. Traherne, III, 8.

30. Traherne, II, 21.

31. Traherne, II, 68.

32. Traherne, II, 67.

33. Traherne, II, 87.

34. See page three above.

35. Traherne, II, 87.

36. Traherne, III, 22.

37. For this observation, I am indebted to Salter, n. 36-37.

33. Traherne, I, 100.

34. Traherne, III, 22.


Patrick, Simon, A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude-Men, Augustan Reprint Society, no. 100 (Los Angeles, 1963).

Salter, K.W., Thomas Traherne, Barnes and Noble (New York, 1966).

Smith, John, Selected Discourses, Rivington (London, 1821).

Traherne, Thomas, Poems, Centuries, and Three Thanksgivings, ed. By Anne Ridler, Oxford Press (London, 1966).

Wade, Gladys, Thomas Traherne, Princeton Press (Princeton, 1946).

Willy, Margaret, Three Metaphysical Poets, Longman’s, Green, and Co. (London, 1961).

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