[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel. Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect. However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]
1636-38 (Hereford, England) – 27 September 1674 (Teddington, Middlesex, England)
Metaphysical Poet, Priest, Theologian
[The image is from Tom Denny’s _Thomas Traherne Windows_ in the Audley Chapel of Hereford Cathedral]
Thomas Traherne was an Anglican priest whose studies in theology ended during Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Interregnum, which apparently contributes to the fact that Traherne was not ordained until 1660, after the Restoration of the monarchy. He is also considered a theologian because of a couple of his prose works, including Centuries of Meditations, which comprises “paragraphs embodying reflections on religion and Christian morals.” But Traherne is best known as a seventeenth-century poet and is considered by some students of English literature to be the last of the Metaphysical poets, a group that includes John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and others.
The identification of what constitutes Metaphysical poetry has been controversial among literary critics as has been the question of whether this kind of poetry—if one can accurately define it—deserves praise or scorn. The eighteenth-century critic, Samuel Johnson, one of the first to apply the term “metaphysical” to this group of poets, “found their excesses deplorable and … disparaged metaphysical poetic practices [because] in this sort of poetry ‘the most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together.’” This “violent yoking together of apparently unconnected ideas and things” was referred to by the Metaphysical poets as “wit.” By use of obliquity, irony, paradox, dramatic directness, and by rhythms “derived from that of living speech,” this wit was meant to startle the reader out of complacency so as to “think through the argument of the poem.
Though the eighteenth-century Johnson scorned the Metaphysical poets because of their “wit,” this is precisely why the twentieth-century T. S. Eliot prized them. Eliot the literary critic defined the metaphysical conceit or concept as “the elaboration (contrasted with the condensation) of a figure of speech to the farthest stage to which ingenuity can carry it.” Eliot the poet emulated this metaphysical conceit. “He himself was a poet who could famously compare the evening sky to a patient lying etherized upon an operating room table without skipping a beat, so Eliot’s admiration for this capacity of the mind—or wit, as the metaphysicals themselves would have termed it—to discover the unlikeliest of comparisons and then make them poetically viable should come as no surprise.”
Traherne’s place among the Metaphysical poets is made even more interesting by the fact that he was almost unknown as a poet until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Two of his manuscripts were discovered in a London bookstall in 1896, and it was not until 1903 that Poetical Works was published. It “was followed in 1908 by Centuries of Mediations. In 1910, a manuscript found in the British Museum was published as Traherne’s Poems of Felicity. More of his work continued to come to light over the course of the twentieth century. As late as 1967 a poetry manuscript attributed to Traherne was discovered on fire in a refuse dump near Lancashire by a man in search of spare auto parts. The manuscript was published as Commentaries of Heaven: The Poems in 1989. Much of his work to this date remains unpublished.”
Other writers who have acknowledged Traherne’s influence in their work include Thomas Merton and two important Anglicans, Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis. Lewis called Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations “almost the most beautiful book in English”.
Traherne’s childhood in Hereford must have been idyllic since a favorite theme is “the visionary innocence of childhood,” for which reason “he has been compared with William Blake and Walt Whitman.” I would add that this theme in his poetry puts me in mind of St. John Henry Newman’s quote—a recollection from his own childhood—“I say of the Angels, ‘Every breath of air and ray of light and heat, every beautiful prospect, is, as it were, the skirts of their garments, the waving of the robes of those whose faces see God.’” (These words were first spoken in Newman’s Michaelmas Sermon, 1831, and were later quoted in his Apologia pro Vita Sua.) Another important contributor to the Anglican patrimony, Benjamin Britten, also returned again and again to the theme of childhood innocence (though he, even more than Blake, could not treat of the theme of innocence without the theme of experience being close by, if not interwoven into the same moment).
As for the bare biographical facts of Traherne’s early years, he was educated at Hereford Cathedral School and matriculated at Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1652, receiving his undergraduate degree in 1656 and a Master of Arts in 1661. He also received a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1669.
Traherne is said to have served as the rector of Credenhill, near Hereford, starting in 1657. But, as noted above, he was not ordained to the priesthood until 1660, at the beginning of the Restoration. Seven years later, Traherne was named chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, who served in the court of Charles II. This post was at Teddington, near Hampton Court, in Middlesex. It was less than a decade later, but still in Teddington, that Traherne died in 1674.
Though Traherne’s poetry was not discovered until relatively recently, it has inspired a number of twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers. It has resulted in only one hymn of which I am aware: “Sweet Infancy,” set to music by the composer William Wordsworth and included in the Cambridge Hymnal as Hymn 97. But one of the most sublime musical meditations on his poetry is in Gerald Finzi’s masterpiece, Dies Natalis.
The one work from Traherne’s pen that was published during his lifetime was the prose work, Roman Forgeries, which is a polemical work against Rome. This and the fact that some critics claim Traherne’s poetry veers heavily towards pantheism (since there is hardly any reference to sin, suffering, and redemption) might pose challenges to a full embrace of Traherne’s oeuvre as part of the many levels and facets of the Anglican patrimony that effortlessly unite Anglicans and Catholics. But where Traherne’s words and wit and heart are in accord with all that does indeed unite Anglicans, Catholics, and all who seek God by reading what St. Bernard of Clairvaux called the book of nature, we are thankful someone kept digging in the 1896 London bookstall and someone else in the 1967 fire in a refuse dump. To paraphrase Newman and to yoke together apparently unconnected ideas, along lines T. S. Eliot might have appreciated, I say of the angels that even in a bookstall’s dust and in the heat of the grim prospect of a refuse dump, there is, as it were—yes, even in such places—the waving of the robes of those whose faces see God and direct searching hands to retrieve beauty from obscurity.
A prayer in thanksgiving for Traherne’s contribution to the Anglican patrimony:
Creator of wonder and majesty, who didst inspire thy poet Thomas Traherne with mystical insight to see thy glory in the natural world and in the faces of men and women around us: Help us to know thee in thy creation and in our neighbors, and to understand our obligations to both, that we may ever grow into the people thou hast created us to be; through our Savior Jesus Christ, who with thee and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, in everlasting light. Amen.
Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.
 Nasrullah Mambrol, “Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s Metaphysical Poets,” https://literariness.org/2020/07/05/analysis-of-t-s-eliots-metaphysical-poets/#:~:text=%20Analysis%20of%20T.S.%20Eliot%E2%80%99s%20Metaphysical%20Poets%20,not%20a%20matter%20of%20whether%20Eliot%E2%80%99s…%20More%20 – accessed 25 September 2020.
 Bruce Foltz, “Thomas Traherne,” The Encyclopedia of Christian Literature, Vol. 2, G. T. Kurian, ed. (Plymouth, United Kingdom: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 607; https://books.google.com/books?id=dk4G-52QT-8C&pg=PA607#v=onepage&q&f=false – accessed 25 September 2020.