Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > The Sacred Poets > The re-discovery of Traherne’s poetry and prose-writings
  His links with Wordsworth Habington’s Castara  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

II. The Sacred Poets.

§ 14. The re-discovery of Traherne’s poetry and prose-writings.


The religious and mystical literature of the seventeenth century has been recently enriched by Bertram Dobell’s discovery of Thomas Traherne, who is specially welcome for his fresh and interesting outlook on life. Like Herbert and Vaughan, he came from the Welsh borders, and had his full share of Celtic fervour. The son of a Hereford shoemaker, he entered Brasenose college, Oxford, in 1652, and graduated in arts and divinity. He was admitted in 1657 12  to the rectory of Credenhill, near Hereford, where he remained for about ten years, until, in 1667, he was made chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgman, on his appointment as lord keeper, when the Cabal ministry took office. After seven years in this service, Traherne died in his patron’s house at Teddington, near Hampton court, and was buried on 10 October, 1674, “in the Church there, under the reading-desk.” According to Anthony à Wood, he always led a simple and devout life; his will shows that he possessed little beyond his books, and thought it worth while to bequeath his “old hat.”   28
  In his lifetime, he published only Roman Forgeries (1673), which might be left to slumber, except for its preface, showing his scholarly love of the Bodleian library, “which is the glory of Oxford, and this nation.” Just before his death, he sent to the press Christian Ethics (1675), and, a quarter of a century later, the non-juring divine, George Hickes, printed anonymously, with a friend’s account of the nameless author, A serious and patheticall Contemplation of the Mercies of God. This latter work contained thanksgivings for all the common blessings of life, arranged rhythmically, much in the manner of bishop Andrewes’s Devotions. The rest of Traherne’s works remained in manuscript till the Poems were printed in 1903, and Centuries of Meditations in 1908. Another octavo volume of meditations and devotions is still extant in manuscript.   29
  All these works, except the controversial volume, reveal an original mind, dominated by certain characteristic thoughts, which are commended to the reader by a glowing rhetoric and a fine conviction of their sufficiency. Like Vaughan, Traherne retains an idyllic remembrance of the innocence and spiritual insight of childhood, and insists that he “must become a child again.” The child knew nothing of “churlish proprieties,” and rightly regarded himself as “heir of the whole world”:
       
Long time before
I in my mother’s womb was born,
A God preparing did this glorious store
The world for me adorn.
Into His Eden so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come His son and heir.
Only “with much ado” was the child taught by his elders to prize gew-gaws above the common things of earth and sky; “it was a difficult matter to persuade me that the tinseled ware upon a hobby-horse was a fine thing.” But the lesson was successfully taught, and now, for the man who would recover felicity, there was no remedy left but to get free of “the burden and cumber of devised wants,” and to recognise again the true wealth of earth’s commonest gifts. Man could do God Himself no greater homage than to delight in His creation:
       
Our blessedness to see
Is even to the Deity
A Beatific Vision! He attains
His Ends while we enjoy. In us He reigns.
  30
  It is a fortunate circumstance that Traherne has given parallel expression to his leading ideas both in verse and in prose, as it affords an opportunity of estimating which medium was the better at his command. His mind was poetic and imaginative rather than philosophic and logical, and yet it may be urged, with some confidence, that he achieved more unquestionable success with his prose than with his verse. Even the opening poems on the thoughts of childhood, beautiful as they are, have nothing so striking as the corresponding prose passage, which begins: “The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting.” Again, the poems on Thoughts, as being every man’s “substantial treasures,” are less flowing and musical than such lines as these:
I can visit Noah in his ark, and swim upon the waters of the deluge. I can see Moses with his rod, and the children of Israel passing through the sea…. I can visit Solomon in his glory, and go into his temple, and view the sitting of his servants, and admire the magnificence and glory of his kingdom. No creature but one like unto the Holy Angels can see into all ages…. It is not by going with the feet, but by journeys of the Soul, that we travel thither.
Such writing as this has some of the magical quality and personal note of Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici.
  31
  As a poet, Traherne has not mastered his technique. His poems are often diffuse and full of repetitions. He is obsessed with the rime, “treasures” and “pleasures,” using it on page after page; and, even for an age that was not careful of such things, the proportion of defective rimes is high. The categorical habit, also, has had disastrous effects, in unbroken strings of fifteen nouns in one poem, thirteen adjectives in another, fourteen participles in a third. In other poems, the didactic purpose gets the upper hand, and we hear the preacher’s voice: “This, my dear friends, this was my blessed case.” In spite of such poems as Wonder, News, Silence and The Ways of Wisdom, he wrote nothing in verse that is so arresting as his rhetorical prose:
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.
  32
  The success of Herbert’s Temple inevitably produced a crop of imitations, ranging from Christopher Harvey’s Synagogue, which, by being bound up with The Temple in many editions from 1640 onwards, achieved a reputation beyond its deserts, down to the doggerel and wholesale plagiarism of Samuel Speed’s Prison Pietie (1677). Vaughan rightly complained of these facile imitators that “they cared more for verse than perfection.” Those of Herbert’s contemporaries who attempted sacred verse without falling under his influence deserve more consideration. To right and to left of Herbert stand William Habington and Francis Quarles. Both belong by birth to the country gentry; but the former found readers only among his own class, while the latter was more successful than any writer of his time in gauging the protestant religious feeling of Englishmen at large. Habington’s associations from birth onwards were with the Roman Catholic minority. He was born at Hindlip hall near Worcester, a house famous for its concealment of priests, on the very day on which the Gunpowder plot was discovered in consequence (so tradition has said) of his mother’s letter to lord Monteagle. His father was an antiquary, whose History of Edward IV the son completed and published in 1640. William Habington, after being educated at St. Omer and Paris with a view to his becoming a priest, returned to England and, probably in the early months of 1633, married Lucy Herbert, youngest daughter of the first baron Powis.   33

Note 12. If Traherne was of canonical age at the time of his institution, this may, perhaps, indicate the year of his birth as not later than 1634, though it has been usual to give 1636 on the assumption that he was sixteen when he matriculated in 1652. Crashaw went to Cambridge at the age of eighteen, and a poor student like Traherne may well have found difficulty in going up earlier. [ back ]

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