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 ...

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