A Study of Traherne's Metaphysical Poetry

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A Study of Traherne's Metaphysical Poetry It is more than mere coincidence that the two poets who have produced the greatest visions of Paradise in the history of English literature both composed their works in the same twenty-five year period. The first - John Milton, needs very little introduction, while the second is the lesser known seventeenth century religious poet Thomas Traherne. Traherne's poetry, only uncovered at the end of the nineteenth century, has been quickly disregarded by many critics who consider Traherne an unrefined blend of Herbert and Vaughan. This hasty dismissal of Thomas Traherne as a poet in his own right seems a little unfair. Rather than judging Traherne's poetry by the preconceived standards we use to judge the likes of Herbert and Vaughan, his poetry should be analysed independently. Graham Parry, writing in his book, Seventeenth Century Poetry, states that Traherne's works record `the essentials of a life of praise and delight within a recovered Eden'1 This underlying theme of Paradise was one that was to dominate the mid-seventeenth century. It is not chance that Traherne and Milton emerged from the same period. Amidst the fervent atmosphere of the English Civil War there was much expectation that Christ would return to restore an Earthly Paradise. At a time when institution was collapsing many of the creative minds in England sought God outside the structure of established religion.


References to ordinary objects, a perfume box or a section of timber, would seem inappropriate to Traherne's verse that operates on a plane far removed from the everyday. Herbert is able to blend more physical images within a spiritual poem whose central theme is the virtuosity of the soul. The final line of `Vertue' reaches a definite conclusion: though our lives are transient and we `all must die' the last words reverse this notion: `But the whole world turn to coal / Then chiefly lives.' Traherne and Herbert take contrasting paths to reach a similar destination: a final transcendent image of spiritual resurrection. A poem that Davis identifies as being among Traherne's best is `Shadows in the Water'.8 Again the poet returns to his childhood - that state of `unexperienced Infancy', and conveys the wonder with which he viewed reflections in a body of water. This notion of the state of oblivion in which a young child genuinely believes the images he sees in a pool of water to be another world furthers Traherne's representation of the innocent child as someone who as yet is unable to locate himself outside the world in which he lives. Traherne is able to work cleverly between this image of the playing child staring with wonder at his own reflection and the idea that the reflection represents a spiritual domain: `Our second Selvs these Shadows be'.


`Hosanna' is a poem far more representative of Traherne's work. It speeds sporadically from image to image, there is little opportunity to pause in a poem with an intoxicating quality. Traherne conveys his elation with the excited enthusiasm of a child and two images in the final stanza exemplify his view of the world as God's perfect creation with him and his Creator at its centre: For me the world created was by love; For me the skies, the seas, the suns do move; His laws require His creatures all to praise His name, and when they do't be most my joys. The poetry of Thomas Traherne provides an important insight into the workings of a creative mind in the mid-seventeenth century. Emerging from one of the bleakest periods in English history it is somewhat surprising that Traherne's poems are characterized by a strong sense of joy and a celebration of the world around him. The traditional literary vision of Paradise comes from the pen of John Milton. His meticulously crafted epic reflects the period in which it was constructed and its dark cynicism conveys the bitterness of an angry man who had experienced the cruelties of the world. Traherne offers a fresh perspective. He lives in an Earthly Paradise and sees the splendours of the world through the eyes of a child. Miltons Paradise is lost slowly, painfully and with precise calculation. Traherne's Paradise is rediscovered through the spontaneity and the nervous energy of his child-like mind.

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