The visions of Thomas Traherne

Wandering around Hereford Cathedral after viewing the Mappa Mundi yesterday, we encountered three beautiful stained glass windows.  They were designed and created in 2007 to commemorate Thomas Traherne, a 17th century writer, contemporary of John Donne, who was completely unknown to me.

Traherne was the son of a Hereford shoemaker, born around 1636. He had a good education and entered Brasenose College at Oxford University, achieving an M.A. in Arts and Divinity. He was ordained in 1660, was a parish priest for ten years, then private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman until his death in 1674. He is now regarded as one of the foremost English Metaphysical poets, yet in his lifetime only one of his works was ever printed.

It wasn’t until 1896 that a manuscript of his poetry and prose was discovered on a London bookstall and subsequently published as Poems (1903) and Centuries of Meditations (1908).  In 1964 the Select Meditations, a book of meditations, like the Centuries, grouped in hundreds, was discovered, but not published until 1997.

His work, especially the poems and the Centuries of Meditations develop common themes of childhood innocence, the infinite capacity of the soul, desire and happiness, and the power of nature to infuse the mind with beauty.  In their blend of deep religiosity and visionary ecstasy, they are reminiscent of  William Blake.  These verses, from The Salutation, a meditation on the child born into the world, are typical:

From Dust I rise,
And out of Nothing now awake,
These Brighter Regions which salute mine Eyes ,
A gift from God I take.
The Earth, the Seas, the Light, the Day, the Skies,
The Sun and Stars are mine; if those I prize.

Long time before
I in my Mother’s womb was born,
A God preparing did this Glorious Store,
The World for me adorne.
Into this Eden so Divine and fair,
So Wide and Bright, I come his Son and Heir.

A Stranger here
Strange Things doth meet, Strange Glories see;
Strange Treasures lodg’d in this fair World appear,
Strange all and New to me.
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That Strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.

Centuries of Meditations is a collection of short paragraphs or meditations reflecting on Christian life and ministry, philosophy, happiness, desire and childhood. These are gathered in groups of a hundred, four complete centuries and an unfinished fifth. Some describe childhood and the ecstatic harmony of a child with the natural world, others are concerned with the power and beauty of nature.  Passages from The Centuries provided the inspiration to Tom Denny in creating the stained glass windows which ‘seek to be a visual expression of the visionary beauty and the richness of Traherne’s imagery’.  For example, Light 1 (top), illustrates Traherne’s idea of landscape seen as the body of God:

How do we know, but the world is that body; which the Deity hath assumed to Manifest His beauty!

Beauty being a thing consisting of variety, that body…must be sweetly tempered of a manifold and delightful mixture of figures and colours.

A figures runs through a cornfield:

The corn was orient and immortal wheat which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown.

The field is framed by trees, a large oak appears in the middle distance and beyond are wooded knolls:

The green trees when I saw them first….transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap.

In the distance we see the city of Hereford and we are:

Entertained with Prospects and surrounded with the beauty of hills and valleys

A pool fed by a spring occupies the foreground:

Love in the foundation and love in the stream.

The third light (top) illustrates Traherne’s sense of the revelationary in everything he encountered – seeing
the vast and the miniature:

You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth this wisdom and power of God.

Suppose a river, or a drop of water, an apple or a sand, an ear of c0rn or an herb: God knoweth infinite excellencies in it more than we: He seeth how it relateth to angels and men; how it proceedeth from the most perfect Lover to the most Perfectly Beloved.

An ant is a great miracle in a little room and no less a monument of eternal love than almighty power.

You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars.

You are as prone to love as the sun to shine.

Traherne’s great passion is his love of the natural world, displayed in a very Romantic treatment of nature. While Traherne credits a divine source for its creation, his celebration of nature is reminiscent of writers such as Thoreau. Many critics regard him a writer of the sublime, paying tribute to nature that was more powerful than he was. In this sense, Traherne seems to anticipate the Romantic movement and especially the visions of William Blake.

The world is a mirror of Infinite Beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God. It is more to man since he is fallen than it was before. It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven.
– First Century, Meditation 31

Souls are God’s jewels.
– First Century,Meditation 15

5 thoughts on “The visions of Thomas Traherne

  1. Excellent, Gerry. This man was a true visionary, with much to say to our present condition (regardless of one’s religious beliefs). I also found Tom Denny’s work to be an inspirational introduction to Traherne.

    As if by prophecy, Hereford Council is planning to build a bypass near where Traherne lived and worked:

    ‘The world is a mirror of Infinite Beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it.’

    Please send this link to anyone who might be interested:

    http://www.bettertransportforhereford.org.uk/supportus/

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