Saturday, 7 July 2012

Thomas Traherne – a 17th Century Mystic from the Marches


The first time I stumbled across Thomas Traherne was a number of years ago when I was recuperating from surgery. My partner and our children had gone off to a weekend music festival and my elderly parents were staying in my home to look after me. I was beginning to feel much better and suggested a short trip into Hereford Cathedral to take a look at the spectacular Mappa Mundi and the ancient library.   

We decided to take a look around the cathedral before eating lunch in the tea room. I wandered off alone and found myself compelled towards a tiny side chapel. As I entered the chapel it was like entering the tranquility and safety of a womb. Everything became deliciously silent. My mind stilled as the sun’s light shone through the most magnificent stained glass windows I had ever seen in my life.



I was quite literally dumbstruck and overwhelmed. In the space that I had entered I started sobbing with overflowing tears. I know not how long this lasted for time seemed irrelevant. Slowly a nourishing sense of "perfect peace profound" rose in me and I felt joyously happy. Eventually I composed myself and sat down in contemplation, thinking I must find out more about this little room and these fantastic windows. At that point my parent’s walked in and we went for tea to be followed by a look at the Mappa Mundi and the library. 

Over the next few weeks I managed to find out that the windows had been crafted by hugely talented artist Tom Denny and were known as the “Thomas Traherne windows.” I felt a strong sense of inner companionship. 

Who was this person? 

Why had I had such a beautiful experience?

Thomas Traherne was the son of a shoemaker from the Cathedral City of Hereford on the borders with Wales. Nobody knows his exact birth date but it is estimated as circa 1636.

Traherne was well educated and studied at the illustrious Brasenose College at Oxford, where he gained a Master of Arts in Arts and Divinity. Ordained into the Church in 1660, his first ten years following ordainment was spent as a parish priest.  Towards the end of this term he was offered the role of being the private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, a post he held until his death in 1674.

A contemporary of John Donne, by the early 20th Century Traherne was viewed as one of the foremost English Metaphysical poets.  Sadly in his own lifetime he was relatively unknown with only one of his works being publically printed. His obscurity changed during 1896 when a manuscript of Traherne’s beautiful mystic poetry and prose was uncovered at a London bookstall. Fortunately the buyer recognised the supreme worth of Traherne’s work and a publisher was found. Traherne’s “Poems” was printed in 1903, followed shortly afterwards with his “Centuries of Meditations” in 1908.  In the 1960s a collection of his “Select Meditations” was also published with most of his surviving written collection being finally published in the 1990s.

Traherne’s writing covers many common themes of the infinite capacity of the soul, joy, innocence, desire and the power of nature to saturate the human mind with beauty. Many people consider Traherne’s work to be of a similar “current” or inner source as that other favourite English mystic William Blake. 

For the lover of poetry, the mystic, the visionary and the dreamer Traherne’s work offers companionship and inspiration on the journey. His work offers a treasure trove to explore in contemplation, meditation and prayer. I have felt blessed to be touched by Thomas Traherne, a 17th Century Mystic from the borderlands between Wales and England. 


 Dumbness

Sure Man was born to meditate on things,
And to contemplate the eternal springs
Of God and Nature, glory, bliss, and pleasure;
That life and love might be his Heavenly treasure;
And therefore speechless made at first, that He
Might in himself profoundly busied be:
And not vent out, before he hath ta’en in
Those antidotes that guard his soul from sin.
Wise Nature made him deaf, too, that He might
Not be disturbed, while he doth take delight
In inward things, nor be depraved with tongues,
Nor injured by the errors and the wrongs
That mortal words convey. For sin and death
Are most infused by accursed breath,
That flowing from corrupted entrails, bear
Those hidden plagues which souls may justly fear.
This, my dear friends, this was my blessed case;
For nothing spoke to me but the fair face
Of Heaven and Earth, before myself could speak,
I then my Bliss did, when my silence, break.
My non-intelligence of human words
Ten thousand pleasures unto me affords;
For while I knew not what they to me said,
Before their souls were into mine conveyed,
Before their living vehicle of wind
Could breathe into me their infected mind,
Before my thoughts were leavened with theirs, before
There any mixture was; the Holy Door,
Or gate of souls was close, and mine being one
Within itself to me alone was known.
Then did I dwell within a world of light,
Distinct and separate from all men’s sight,
Where I did feel strange thoughts, and such things see
That were, or seemed, only revealed to me,
There I saw all the world enjoyed by one;
There I was in the world myself alone;
No business serious seemed but one; no work
But one was found; and that did in me lurk.
D’ye ask me what? It was with clearer eyes
To see all creatures full of Deities;
Especially one’s self: And to admire
The satisfaction of all true desire:
‘Twas to be pleased with all that God hath done;
‘Twas to enjoy even all beneath the sun:
‘Twas with a steady and immediate sense
To feel and measure all the excellence
Of things; ‘twas to inherit endless treasure,
And to be filled with everlasting pleasure:
To reign in silence, and to sing alone,
To see, love, covet, have, enjoy and praise, in one:
To prize and to be ravished; to be true,
Sincere and single in a blessed view
Of all His gifts. Thus was I pent within
A fort, impregnable to any sin:
Until the avenues being open laid
Whole legions entered, and the forts betrayed:
Before which time a pulpit in my mind,
A temple and a teacher I did find,
With a large text to comment on. No ear
But eyes themselves were all the hearers there,
And every stone, and every star a tongue,
And every gale of wind a curious song.
The Heavens were an oracle, and spake
Divinity: the Earth did undertake
The office of a priest; and I being dumb
(Nothing besides was dumb), all things did come
With voices and instructions; but when I
Had gained a tongue, their power began to die.
Mine ears let other noises in, not theirs,
A noise disturbing all my songs and prayers.
My foes pulled down the temple to the ground;
They my adoring soul did deeply wound
And casting that into a swoon, destroyed
The Oracle, and all I there enjoyed:
And having once inspired me with a sense
Of foreign vanities, they march out thence
In troops that cover and despoil my coasts,
Being the invisible, most hurtful hosts.
Yet the first words mine infancy did hear,
The things which in my dumbness did appear
Preventing all the rest, got such a root
Within my heart, and stick so close unto’t,
It may be trampled on, but still will grow
And nutriment to soil itself will owe.
The first Impressions are Immortal all,
And let mine enemies hoop, cry, roar, or call,
Yet these will whisper if I will but hear,
And penetrate the heart, if not the ear.

By Thomas Traherne



4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post :)

    Traherne is a wonder. I have had the pleasure and privilege of introducing him to both Pagan and Anglican groups at times. They both adored his work :)

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  2. Thanks Peregrin. That's the joy and wonder of Traherne, that he can be embraced by seekers from so many backgrounds. It's a shame that his work is not more widely appreciated. I wonder what Traherne would think about his work being shared and appreciated hundreds of years later on the other side of the globe from his beloved Herefordshire?

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  3. Have you ever asked yourself what it was that shone in Thomas Traherne, and through him upon you, and where Traherne found it?

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  4. Thank you Unknown 26 August 2016. It's certainly a jolly good question for people to consider for themselves and to regularly review in light of experience...

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