Thomas Traherne

Thomas Traherne is one of the great religious poetic visionaries… a marvelous precursor to William Blake, but unfortunately far too little known. He lived 1637-1674… but his writings were not first discovered until the very end of the 19th century and the author was not identified nor the works published until the early 20th century. As recently as 1967 an unknown volume of his work was dramatically rescued from a burning garbage dump in London. This work, the Commentaries of Heaven was not identified as being authored by Traherne until 1982 and had not yet been edited or published at the time of the publication of the Penguin volume of Thomas Traherne: Selected Poems and Prose (unfortunately out of print… see below). To this sad history one must also add the fact that Traherne was poorly served by his literary executor… his brother… who made a shambles (mutilation?) of Traherne’s work through his attempts at editing Traherne’s work in order to make them more fit for the staid religious audience he imagined. Luckily, a good body of these works also exist in Traherne’s own original autograph.

Trahernes writings include poems and poetic prose that recalls nothing so much as Blake or the German Romantic poet Friederich von Hardenberg, known as Novalis. His poetic structures are incredibly varied and avoid traditional forms. Whether this was intentional or simply due to the fact that he was little aware of poetic traditions is unknown. In a manner also similar to Blake his poems often appear upon first reading to convey a child-like innocence or naïvety which grows in depth upon subsequent readings:


HOW like an Angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among His works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown!
The world resembled His Eternity,
In which my soul did walk;
And every thing that I did see
Did with me talk.

The skies in their magnificence,
The lively, lovely air,
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The stars did entertain my sense,
And all the works of God, so bright and pure,
So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure
In my esteem.

A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all his Glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all Spirit. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know
But ’twas divine.

Harsh ragged objects were concealed,
Oppressions, tears and cries,
Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes
Were hid, and only things revealed
Which heavenly Spirits and the Angels prize.
The state of Innocence
And bliss, not trades and poverties,
Did fill my sense.

The streets were paved with golden stones,
The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appeared to me,
And every thing which here I found,
While like an Angel I did see,
Adorned the ground.

Rich diamond and pearl and gold
In every place was seen;
Rare splendours, yellow, blue, red, white and green,
Mine eyes did everywhere behold.
Great wonders clothed with glory did appear,
Amazement was my bliss,
That and my wealth was everywhere;
No joy to this!

Cursed and devised proprieties,
With envy, avarice
And fraud, those fiends that spoil even Paradise,
Flew from the splendour of mine eyes,
And so did hedges, ditches, limits, bounds,
I dreamed not aught of those,
But wandered over all men’s grounds,
And found repose.

Proprieties themselves were mine,
And hedges ornaments;
Walls, boxes, coffers, and their rich contents
Did not divide my joys, but all combine.
Clothes, ribbons, jewels, laces, I esteemed
My joys by others worn:
For me they all to wear them seemed
When I was born.
In spite of the beauty of his poetry, his prose work, Centuries of Meditations is commonly thought of as his masterwork. This visionary and poetic bit of prose reminds me not only of William Blake and the great German Romantic, Novalis, but also of the ecstatic and declaratory manner of Walt Whitman:

1. An empty book is like an infant’s soul, in which anything may be written. It is capable of all things… I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders…

2. Do not wonder that I promise to fill it with those truths you love but know not: for tho it be a maxim in the schools, that there is no love of a thing unknown: yet I have found, that the things unknown have a secret influence on the soul…

3. I will open my mouth in parables: I will utter things that have been kept secret from the foundations of the world. Things strange, yet common; incredible, yet known; most high, yet plain; infinitely profitable, but not esteemed. Is it not a great thing that you should be heir of the world?…

4. I will not by the noise of bloody wars and the dethroning of kings advance you to glory; but by the gentle ways of peace and love… Yet shall the end be so glorious that angels durst not hope for so great a one til they had seen it.

15. …Souls are God’s jewels. Every one of which is worth many worlds… So that I alone am the end of the world. Angels and men being all mine… God gave me alone to all the world, and all the world to me alone.

Thomas Traherne- Selected Poems and Prose

Further works by Traherne online:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: