A Study of Traherne's Metaphysical Poetry
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. This new search for God through truth and good, a quest to find an inner spiritual Paradise, is an important feature of Traherne's poetry.
One of the methods by which Traherne conveys the notion of an inner Paradise is through the innocence of infancy. In `Wonder'2 Traherne returns to the naive state of childhood in which he perceives all he sees around him as beautiful: `How like an angel I came down! / How bright are all things here!' . Traherne recalls the vision of an infant, returning to a state which `precedes the knowledge of good and evil'.3 There is a sense of the child viewing the world from a pure unblemished perspective, that differentiates `Wonder' from other poems in which Traherne sees Eden through the eyes of adult meditation.
The lines are characterized by an atmosphere of effervescent excitement. The objects he sees around him are less important than the vision with which he sees them. These visions do not have a merely passive role, they communicate with the child: `And everything that I did see / Did with me talk'. There is a strong sense that the child is unable to detach himself from the world around him. All that he sees is bound up with himself and God's creations are part of him. This concept of nothing being discrete or easily definable is furthered in the second stanza. It is infinite features, those with no distinct boundaries that Traherne finds most marvellous:
The skies in their magnificence
The lovely, lively air ;
O how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
It is through the unknowing eyes of a child that Traherne is able to view the world as an Earthly Eden - `I nothing in the world did know / But 'twas divine.'
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It is important to remember that a poem such as `Wonder' is reflective. What we read are not the uncultivated words of the child but an interpretation of an innocent vision made by the adult Traherne. It is only as a grown man that Traherne is able to describe his vision as angelic. As a child who possessed this angelic vision he would have no ability to step outside his experience and recognise it as such. Now as an adult, Traherne sees this as an ideal way of viewing the world - with an innocent mind uncluttered by evil. As children we automatically see the world in these terms, our vision is free from `Oppressions, tears and cries / Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes.' It is through these eyes, not rose but innocence-tinted spectacles, that Traherne wants to see the world.
Traherne's own prose confirms his belief that to rediscover Eden we must see like a child we must see through Adam's eyes:
All our thoughts must be infant-like and clear; the powers of our soul free from the leaven of this world, and disentangled from men's conceits and customs.4
One of the key implications of `Wonder' is that to achieve happiness one needs to be unaware of certain aspects of human experience. Traherne's reflections on his conception of the world as a child has the negative ideas - `envy, avarice' , added on afterwards by the adult Traherne. When he was an infant these `Harsh, ragged objects were concealed.'
Despite Traherne's celebration of the divine status achieved in childhood and his acceptance as an adult that there exists `those fiends that spoil even Paradise', the tone of `Wonder' is not one of loss. Childhood vision is for Traherne something that can be rediscovered. As adults we must transcend the `hedges, ditches, limits, bounds' and look once more with the eyes of Adam at the infinite works of God.
It is the sense of the infinite in Traherne's work that Dick Davis draws attention to in his Selected Writings on Thomas Traherne .5 Davis contrasts Traherne's poetry with the work of one of his contemporaries, George Herbert. The latter often uses allegory and tends to focus on objects in the more customary metaphysical tradition, while Traherne's work is characterized by abstract ideas and a constant feeling of restlessness. Davis describes Traherne's language as `intangible vocabulary',6 highlighting his tendency to concentrate on entities that are difficult to limit or contain - `eternity, light, mind, soul, day, and sky.' While Herbert's poetry achieves a sense of equilibrium and the final lines of his poems create a feeling of completion, Traherne's dynamic verses are often open-ended. His poetry demonstrates the limitations of language and the reader shares in his frustration that words can go no further.
If we contrast Traherne's poetry with a poem such as Herbert's `Vertue'7 many differences become evident. As with Traherne, Herbert experiences a sense of wonder - `sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright.' It is this calmness that distinguishes the two poets. There is not the frenzied activity, jumping from image to image. Herbert moves slowly towards a conclusion, rather than listing abstract concepts he employs metaphors such as his description of the soul: `Like season'd timber, never gives; '. 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'. The dual value of the central image of the refections in water epitomises Traherne's outlook. On one hand he finds himself in Eden, simply through the pure view he has of the world as a child while as an adult he rediscovers Paradise through a more refined symbolic vision. Throughout the poem Traherne draws attention to the `Water's brink'. This interface between the real world and the reflection or, at another level, between the real world and the symbolic spiritual world is something Traherne can see through. As a child he sees the reflected world because he is fascinated and as an adult he transcends the `Film' and celebrates the prospect that he will join the shadows in the water:
Som unknown Joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin Skin
Is broken, be admitted in.
Typically, Traherne is not trying to offer simple answers. The reader is not allowed to settle on any of the images the poet himself is reflecting. When reading we become sucked in by the poet's rhetorical questions: `Are lofty Heavens hurl'd / 'Bout your inferior World?' . The final image of a transcendent state, is infused with a sense of emptiness and expectation. We are left, like Traherne, peering into the water for those `unknown Joys'.
Like `Shadows in the Water', `Solitude'9 is a poem that demonstrates the fluidity of Traherne's thoughts. In contrast to `Wonder', in which Traherne conveys the possibility of rediscovery, `Solitude' is a poem that emanates from the dark middle ground between the infantile vision of Paradise and the return to Eden as an adult. The tone of despair in the poem is perhaps more reflective of the society in which it was written. Even a visionary such as Traherne experiences moments of doubt and a loss of direction during a period when England lay so bitterly divided. Parry describes this era as a time in Traherne's youth when:
a heaviness settled over him, the imaginative light faded, and ordinariness filtered into his being. 10
The opening line of `Solitude' is a cry of anguish. The boundless entities that served as marvels in `Wonder' are now greeted with fear. The `field', `seas' and `silent skies' no longer speak to Traherne, instead they exacerbate his isolation. The divine vision of childhood has passed. The restless quality, so manifest in Traherne's poetry is self-consciously referred to by the poet as he describes his desire to recover felicity:
My roving mind
Searched every corner of the spacious earth,
From sky to sky, if it could find
(But found not) any mirth.
The physical world around Traherne, so bright and colourful in `Wonder' again reflects the poets mental state in `Solitude'. Traherne's surroundings are no longer `Rare splendours, Yellow, Blew, Red, White and Green'. Instead his environment is `shady and obscure'. In `Wonder' even the silent objects around Traherne `Did with me talk' yet now `chirping birds' and `humming bees' fail to communicate with the poet.
Despite the fact that the poet can no longer find that elusive signifier in the physical world around him the poem is still filled with an overwhelming sense that it does exist. Though this vision has become obscured, Traherne leads the reader into the poem and like him we are desperate to know what the secret is, we anticipate a revelation. The sense of fear and utter hopelessness is accompanied by an underlying knowledge that the elusive proof for which Traherne is searching can be found. The fact that the Earthly Eden is hidden makes this undiscovered Paradise even more special - the quest to find it becomes obsessive. This urgency is conveyed by the internal rhyme in the last two lines of each stanza. This subtle use of rhyme gives the end of each stanza a greater emphasis and stresses the poets desperation:
Nor in the field, nor in a trade
I can it see. Felicity! O where
Shall I thee find to ease my mind! O where!
As is often the case with Traherne's poetry the final lines of this poem are far from comfortable or satisfactory. Where Herbert may have restored a sense of calm Traherne's final despairing `O where' fills the reader with a hollow sense of unease.
It should be remembered, however, that `Solitude' is the product of a transitional period in Traherne's spiritual development. It offers a marked contrast to much of his poetry, forming a lull between the vibrant joy evoked by his poems of childhood vision and his poetry that stems from his recovery of this condition as he matures.
In `Hosanna'11 Traherne breaks out of the restrictions that blind him in `Solitude': `No more shall walls, no more shall walls confine, / That glorious soul which in my flesh doth shine.' As the title suggests the poem is one of celebration and praise. Where in `Solitude' everything turned away from Traherne, now he becomes the focus of attention:
God's wealth, His holy ones,
The ages too, and angels, all conspire:
While I, that I the centre am, admire.
The dominant tone is no longer one of isolation, Traherne now basks in the glories of God. `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.
1 G Parry Seventeenth Century Poetry - The Social Context
(Tiptree 1985) p.117
2 D Davis (Ed.) Thomas Traherne - Selected Writings
( Manchester 1980) pp. 20-22
3 K W Salter Thomas Traherne - Mystic and Poet
( London 1964) p. 25
4 Ibid., p.25
5 Davis, p.9
6 Ibid., p9
7 H Gardner (Ed.) The Metaphysical Poets
(London 1957) pp. 127-128
8 Davis, pp.58-61
9 Davis, pp.50-53
10 Parry, p117
11 Davis, pp.67-69
Davis, Dick Thomas Traherne - Selected Writings ( Manchester 1980)
Doughty, W L Studies in the Religious Poetry of the Seventeenth Century
( New York 1946)
Gardner, Helen The Metaphysical Poets (London 1957)
Happold, F C Mysticism ( Reading 1963)
Martz, Louis The Paradise Within ( Yale 1964)
Parry, Graham Seventeenth Century Poetry - The Social Context
Salter, K W Thomas Traherne - Mystic and Poet ( London 1964)
Select any `minor' poet of the period and write a short critical study of his verse.
Poet: Thomas Traherne (1637-1674)
Selected Poems: `Wonder', `Shadows in the Water', `Solitude' `Hosanna'
& `Vertue' (George Herbert)