Sunday 17 May 2015

The gift of Thomas Traherne to our age

One of the most extraordinary, but hardly known, events in the history of the Christian church was the recovery of the great works of Thomas Traherne (c1637-1674).

And his work really is great: the quality and beauty of his prose is among the highest in the English language, and unique. Nobody has ever matched Traherne for his Christian expression of gratitude and sheer joy in in the beauty of natural life.

Yet all his great work was lost for more than 200 years, then emerged by strange accidents through the twentieth century.


In the late nineteenth century, nearly 200 years after the publication of A Serious and Pathetical Contemplation, two manuscripts were found on London bookstalls: some of Traherne’s poems and a series of prose meditations divided into sections of a hundred. The poems were published as The Poetical Works in 1903 by Bertram Dobell, who then published the prose work in 1908 under the title Centuries of Meditations. A second version of many of the poems, seemingly prepared for publication by Traherne’s brother Philip, was then identified in the British Museum. This latter version of the poems, which included various poems not in the earlier volume, was published by H. I. Bell in 1910 as The Poems of Felicity. 

Select Meditations was almost certainly written at the end of the Commonwealth when Traherne was in his twenties, and had just become Rector of St Mary’s Church Credenhill (1657-74). It includes reflections on the problems confronting the ecclesiastical settlement of the Restoration England (1660). The handwritten book, found in Birmingham in 1964, was edited by Julia Smith and published in 1997. 

In 1997 two further discoveries were made. One was of five previously unknown works found by Jeremy Maule in Lambeth Palace Library; these were edited by Jan Ross and published in 2005 as the first volume of The Works of Thomas Traherne. One of these five works, The Kingdom of God, is arguably Traherne’s magnum opus. The others are Inducements to Retiredness, A Sober View of Dr Twisses his Considerations, Seeds of Eternity or the Nature of the Soul and a fragment with the editorial title ‘Love’. 

Prior to this in about 1967 another manuscript had been rescued from a fire on a Wigan rubbish tip by a man looking for car parts. This was Commentaries of Heaven, a kind of Christian encyclopaedia. It was not identified as Traherne’s until 1981 and was finally published in two volumes in 2007, edited by Jan Ross.

In 2009 The Church’s Year-Book was published as Volume 4 of The Works of Thomas Traherne together with A Serious and Pathetical Contemplation and a doubtful work, Meditations on the Creation. In preparing the Year-Book Traherne drew on a wide range of sources. It covers church festivals from Easter to All Saints’ Day (but with the pages for Trinity cut out). If there was a second book covering the rest of the Christian year, it has yet to be found. 

The other discovery of 1997 was at the Folger Library in Washington DC. Here Julia Smith and Laetitia Yeandle identified as Traherne’s a poem of about 1800 lines based on Genesis and Exodus and called The Ceremonial Law, which is currently (2013) being prepared for publication in volume 6 of The Works. Traherne’s notebooks, edited by Jacob Blevins, are also due to be published as part of The Works.

Has there ever been such a situation? A writer whose prose is - within its range - the equal of Shakespeare; yet who was utterly obscure at his death and whose significant work was unpublished and lost - yet finally much of it recovered.

What does it mean? It means, I think, that Traherne is exactly what somebody needs now. He is a man for our time. He has emerged in this age, because he supplies what was previously lacking in our tradition.


Perhaps he has already done some of his work, especially via CS Lewis (perhaps the best-read man of his era) - who called Centuries of  Meditations 'almost the most beautiful book in the English language'

and transmitted some of the spirit into his fictions such as Perelandra and the Narnia stories - especially the Last Battle.


But perhaps there is more to come - perhaps that is the meaning of the continuing discoveries of Traherne's work. Perhaps we are supposed to be taking notice of him.

Traherne is not the kind of author that invites analysis or exposition, there isn't much to say about him. You don't need to read much of him. He was a pure angelic spirit who communicates briefly, almost instantly and permanently.

Traherne's primary expressed emotion was joyous gratitude at the gifts of God; his words are a delayed-action explosion preserved and saved for a cynical and nihilistic age.

My feeling is also gratitude and joy that these manuscripts survived; and to try and allow my Christian life to grow from a heart in harmonious accord with the spirit of Traherne.



Leo said...

Thank you for calling my attention to a writer and clergyman I have had only a nodding acquaintance with who is worthy of much greater attention.

Bach and Vermeer had once passed into relative obscurity before gaining near-universal acclaim, so perhaps Traherne will become better known in the future.

Unknown said...

Your posting is a gift! I had not heard of Traherne, and I am eager to expand upon my reading of Christian writers, so your gift arrived just at the right time. Thank you!

drizzz said...

I discovered Traherne through this old blog which reprinted Charles William's "The New Christian Year" and "The Passion of Christ" I noticed Traherne's quotes were always worth saving.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Traherne is an immensely moving writer. I discovered him via Aldous Huxley, who cites him extensively in The Perennial Philosophy. It's interesting to learn that C. S. Lewis also appreciated him.

Bruce Charlton said...

@drizzz- Yes, I have a copy of that book; and tried to follow the readings daily for a while - but I'm afraid it became a chore after a few weeks, due to my own personal deficits.

@WmJas - I get the impression Traherne is most known (although even then not much so) as a generic mystical writer, via Huxley and another compliers of lists; or else as one of the - obscure -'Cambridge Platonist' group.

Both of these classifications seem seriously to distort and misrepresent his fullness of stature; which is specifically Christian and only very incidentally Platonic.

I think I first came across him in the Oxford Book of English Prose edited by 'Q', where the quality of the prose comes across; but the special quality does not especially stand-out among a collection of outstanding but detached-paragraphs from English writers of an era when the language reached a peak.

Generally (despite the importance of the subject to me) I don't find 'mystical' writers to be readable in quantity, or readable at all. For example, Lady Julian of Norwich disappointed me; and I could make no headway with Evelyn Underhill's collection.

But Traherne - in the Centuries - is at a different level - I just bask in his language and goodness!

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"Another compiler of lists"? Would that be Harold Bloom?