A Serious and Patheticall Contemplation of the Mercies of God, 1699 (better known as Thanksgivings)
The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne, 1903
Traherne’s Poems of Felicity, 1910
Roman Forgeries, 1673
Christian Ethicks, 1675
Meditations on the Six Days of the Creation, 1717
Centuries of Meditations, 1908
The seventeenth century meditative religious poet Thomas Traherne(truh-HURN) did not acquire literary fame until the late nineteenth century, for the poems and the prose reflections, Centuries of Meditations, on which his reputation rests, were lost for more than two hundred years after his death, reappearing finally at a London bookseller’s in 1897. Consequently, little is known about the poet’s quiet life. Most of the extant information was recorded by Anthony à Wood, a seventeenth century man of letters, in his Athenae Oxoniensis (1691-1692), a collection of brief biographical sketches of all the Oxford graduates he considered noteworthy.
Traherne was the son of a shoemaker who had come from a once-prominent Welsh family. His Celtic heritage links Traherne with Henry Vaughan, another seventeenth century religious poet whose works reveal a mystical concept of the relationship between humans and nature as well as a soul seeking to return to its original state of innocence when it was one with God.
Both Thomas and his elder brother, Philip, were provided with financial support for a good education, apparently by another Philip Traherne, a wealthy innkeeper of their village, who was probably a relative. Thomas entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1652. He was granted the degree of bachelor of arts in 1656 and received his master of arts in 1661, after his ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England in December, 1657. He remained a staunch, if somewhat unorthodox, Anglican throughout his life.
Traherne accepted the position of rector of the parish of Credenhill, near Hereford, soon after his ordination, but, according to the custom of the time, he evidently spent at least part of the years of his tenure there in Oxford, studying for the degree of bachelor of divinity, which was granted in 1669, and doing research in the Bodleian Library for his scholarly treatise, Roman Forgeries.
It was probably during the time at Credenhill that Traherne wrote many of his meditations glorifying the innocence and wonder of childhood and lamenting the corruption that wealth and the desire for it brings. His best poems and meditations dramatize his conception of Felicity, the “Highest Bliss,” which he experienced naturally as a child, subsequently lost, and then regained in adulthood. Traherne’s imagery for expressing his Felicity reflects an excitement for the new open spatial model of the universe that replaced the closed Ptolemaic system. As he wrote in one of his meditations: Were nothing made but a Naked Soul, it would See nothing out of it Self. For Infinite Space would be seen within it. And being all sight it would feel it self as it were running parallel with it. And that truly in an Endless manner, because it could not be conscious of any Limits: nor feel it self present in one Center more than another. This is an infinite sweet mystery: to them that have Taste[d] it.
Were nothing made but a Naked Soul, it would See nothing out of it Self. For Infinite Space would be seen within it. And being all sight it would feel it self as it were running parallel with it. And that truly in an Endless manner, because it could not be conscious of any Limits: nor feel it self present in one Center more than another. This is an infinite sweet mystery: to them that have Taste[d] it.
By 1669 Traherne had joined the staff of Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Charles II, as chaplain. When Bridgeman retired to Teddington, a London suburb not far from Hampton Court, in 1672, Traherne accompanied him and remained in service there until his death, at the age of thirty-seven, in 1674.
The sophisticated, witty court near which Traherne spent the last few years of his life was a world completely foreign to his temperament. His intensely introspective meditations on innocence, childhood, and the beauties of nature reveal him as the true contemporary not of urbane Restoration classicists such as Edmund Waller and John Dryden but of poets such as Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, William Blake, and William Wordsworth, fellow seekers after a pure and uncorrupted spiritual state of Felicity.