“Will you see the Infancy of this sublime and celestial Greatness? Those Pure and Virgin Apprehensions I had from the Womb, and the Divine Light wherewith I was born, are the Best unto this Day, wherein I can see the Universe …. They are unattainable by Book, and therefore I will teach them by experience.” (1)
‘Unattainable by Book’ was fighting talk in seventeenth century England. What sort of person was using this language? Thomas Traherne (1636-74) was the son of a prosperous Hereford shoemaker – big house, numerous resident apprentices. He grew up during the civil war (1642-49) and England’s republican experiment (1649-1660) in a naturally royalist area. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1652 (16 being a normal age at the time) under a strictly Puritan head, took a BA in 1656 and was appointed minister at the Herefordshire Parish of Credenhill by the Commissioners for the Approbation of Public Preachers in 1657. As soon as Charles II returned to England Traherne arranged to be ordained as Credenhill’s Anglican vicar, developed strong links with the renewed life of Hereford Cathedral, and also found time to be Chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Charles’ Lord Privy Seal. A modern commentator (1) describes Traherne as “distinguished from his seventeenth century peers by the fact that he is blissfully untroubled by the tensions, doubts, anxieties that (we are repeatedly told) mark the age in general”.
Traherne is best remembered as a mystic, and his reputation has strengthened over the last century. His diction is of his time, but in the culture of the English language his note seems that of a later age, whilst ultimately timeless.
“Your Enjoyment of the World is never right, till evry Morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your father’s Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys: having such a Reverend Esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels …
“You never Enjoy the World aright, til the Sea itself floweth in your Veins, till you are clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars: and perceiv yourself to be the Sole Heir of the whole World: and more then so, becaus Men are in it who are evry one Sole Heirs, as well as you….
“Till you are intimately Acquainted with that Shady Nothing out of which the world was made … you never Enjoy the World.”
I’ve enjoyed Traherne for some years. A highly committed Christian, he breaks through formalistic theology, as if drinking directly from a Divine spring. I’ve appreciated him as a kind of Romantic panentheist, from before the time when either term came into use. Now I’m reading him as a Seer as understood in the Headless Way, and I have a clearer focus – the previous one was already fine, but a little fuzzy. Traherne’s human account of Seeing is embedded in time, place and tradition – as is mine. At another level – one awakened joy.
(1) Thomas Traherne Poetry and Prose London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002. (Selected and introduced by Denise Inge for the series The Golden Age of Spiritual Writing)