This article explores Thomas Traherne's attraction to collaborative and continuously unfolding lyric projects. I argue that Traherne sees unfinished manuscripts as a reflection of the infinite capacity of a human soul, which is itself the signature of a divinity and lovability that does not rely on successful habituation into a life of virtuous conduct. This article was supported by a fellowship from the University of Iowa to consult Traherne's autograph manuscripts at the Bodleian and British Libraries.

Figure 1. "Autograph Manuscript" in Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, n.d., Manuscripts by Thomas Traherne, MSS. Eng. th. e. 50, f.2r, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.
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Figure 1.

"Autograph Manuscript" in Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, n.d., Manuscripts by Thomas Traherne, MSS. Eng. th. e. 50, f.2r, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

This book unto the friend of my best friendas of the true Token Wisest Love a Mark I sendthat she may write my Makers prais therinAnd make her self therby a Cherubin.

—Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations1 [End Page 103]

This dedication in Thomas Traherne's manuscript, what we now call Centuries of Meditations, appears just before its opening lines: "An Empty Book is like an Infants Soul, in which any Thing may be Written. It is Capable of all Things, but containeth Nothing."2 These are among the most famous Traherne ever wrote, and yet criticism up to now has captured only a splinter of their significance for Traherne and his thoughts on writing, the book, collaboration, knowledge, matter, the soul, friendship, love, and the relationship between the embodied human soul, God, heaven, and earth. In particular, they cast important light on Traherne's attraction to the manuscript form and his general lack of interest in print publication. They also clarify his well-established but often misunderstood syncretism and his desire to ground love ontologically and phenomenologically rather than epistemically or scholastically. In fact, this desire is the motivating force behind his compositional practice. Yet despite the explicit connections Traherne makes between his content, his mode of address, and the material circumstances giving form to both, Julia J. Smith has recently and rightly lamented the paucity of "contextual interpretation" in Traherne criticism.3 Smith highlights the pressing need for "a means of interpreting the very specific milieu in which Traherne's unique corpus of autograph manuscripts were produced," and of understanding "the ways in which even the act of writing for Traherne was socially engaged."4 The recent anthology, Thomas Traherne and Seventeenth-Century Thought, does fill in some of these contextual gaps by revealing Traherne to have been far more engaged, and happily embodied, in his culture and community than his previous reputation as a hermetic mystic would have allowed.5 Other recent scholarship, emphasizing Traherne's scholastic inheritance, has only obscured the relationship in many of his manuscripts between his compositional practice and his broader religious and ethical worldview. And while Jan Ross's critical edition of Traherne's works and Carol C. Marks's manuscript studies of the 1960s remain enormously valuable, none of the above editions or studies theorize the intersections among Traherne's medium, process, influences, and content.6 This article takes up that task by arguing that Traherne's idea of the book is in most cases necessarily and exclusively a manuscript, whose essence, like a soul, is changeability and capacity. In the process, it clarifies significant and ongoing misunderstandings about Traherne's philosophical inheritance, which in texts from Centuries of Meditations and Commentaries of Heaven to Christian Ethicks reflects an idiosyncratic yet broadly Piconian synthesis of [End Page 104] Platonic anamnesis and Aristotelian tabula rasa ontologies. It is hard to overstate the significance of Traherne's ontologized idea of the manuscript, because for him the embodied, social process of manuscript composition is itself an embodiment, which print forecloses, of his philosophy of capacity and lovability.

What exactly is the book that is now called Centuries of Meditations, and what was Traherne's idea of it as he wrote it? To begin, I return to the beginning of the book: "An Empty Book is like an Infants Soul, in which any Thing may be Written." Though any reader is likely to read these words on a screen or in a printed, published book, this opening line indicates that the "Book" Traherne writes about, being empty, is a bound soon-tobe manuscript. And not just a manuscript; he writes about this manuscript, the one he writes now to you, "[a]nd since Love made you put it into my Hands, I will fill it with those Truths you Love, without knowing them" (Centuries, 1.1, p. 7). Traherne takes this "Empty Book," likely given already bound by an unnamed friend, and composes 410 numbered entries, organized into meditative "Centuries."7 He dedicates the book to his friend with a quatrain inviting her to "write my Makers prais" inside the book, and he leaves space for her to do so (Centuries, p. 6). He numbers one last entry—year eleven of the fifth century—but leaves it blank, along with the remaining forty-nine leaves of the book (Figures 2 and 3).8

Figure 2. Final completed entry in Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, n.d., Manuscripts by Thomas Traherne, MSS. Eng. th. e. 50, f. 91r, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.
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Figure 2.

Final completed entry in Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, n.d., Manuscripts by Thomas Traherne, MSS. Eng. th. e. 50, f. 91r, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

[End Page 105]

Figure 3. Final numbered but unwritten entry in Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, n.d., Manuscripts by Thomas Traherne, MSS. Eng. th. e. 50, f. 91v, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.
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Figure 3.

Final numbered but unwritten entry in Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, n.d., Manuscripts by Thomas Traherne, MSS. Eng. th. e. 50, f. 91v, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

Centuries is written entirely in Traherne's hand, and it now rests in the Bodleian. There is only one manuscript that we know of, and it was never printed in Traherne's life. In fact, there is no indication that Traherne ever intended for anyone other than his friend to read it. Most critics suppose the "friend" to be Susanna Hopton, a devotional writer whose niece married Traherne's brother Philip, though Smith has convincingly challenged this supposition as no more than merely possible.9 It certainly would not hurt to know the identity of Traherne's friend, or if she ever received the book, but what is already known about the manuscript is more than enough to clarify some misunderstandings. First, despite persistent assertions to the contrary, Centuries clarifies both in form and content Traherne's attraction to compositional forms that remain in a state of continuously unfolding capacity. For example, despite the numbered but unwritten eleventh entry in the fifth century, H. M. Margoliouth "cannot but look on V. 10 as a triumphant and perfect conclusion." "The Centuries," he defiantly adds, "are not unfinished."10 A. Leigh Deneef, based on a misconception that Traherne "fully inscribed" the originally "blank pages" of the book, rather than leaving forty-nine leaves blank, argues that the dedication inviting collaboration is metaphorical. [End Page 106] The dedicatee, "reading what Traherne has now supplied, 'writes' herself within the already filled pages and thereby adds to that fullness her own cherubic innocence." "[E]mptiness," Deneef continues, "is equivalent to value-less-ness."11 Most recently, Finn Fordham argues from an analysis of Commentaries of Heaven that Traherne's "Natural Ambition" will desire "the stainless and unblemished appearance of a printed work and therefore of completion—but in the meantime it will have to make do with the imperfections of manuscripts, the imperfect acts of human making."12 A finished printed work, however, is itself an "imperfect act[] of human making" and is quite literally the opposite of stainless. For Traherne it is not the finished product but the infant manuscript that is "stainless and unblemished." Not only that, but the partially inscribed yet unfinished manuscript is perfective insofar as it remains in a state of capacity. Traherne insists near the end of the Centuries that the "Changeable Estate" of humans, which he has already associated with the unfinished manuscript he is currently writing, is not "Derogatory, but perfectiv to His Being" (4.79, p. 175). While for Traherne, excellence lies in capacity and changeability, Deneef, Fordham, and Margoliouth, assuming the superiority of print, associate excellence with completion and therefore fail to see how Traherne's dedication and opening section situates Centuries explicitly within a manuscript context. This is nowhere more apparent than in Bertam Dobell's first ever printing of the Centuries in 1908, which ends the book entirely after chapter 10 of the fifth century, without any indication of Traherne's numbering of chapter 11 of the fifth century (Figures 2 and 3).13

Centuries is not the only Traherne manuscript to remain in a "Changeable Estate," nor is it the only one to reflect Traherne's "wish that he not have the last word in his creation."14 Commentaries of Heaven, for example, with a stated goal of representing alphabetically "EVRY BEING / Created and Increated," seems designed to make finishing it impossible; Traherne makes it only to "Bastard," and still fills 201 folios recto and verso in a small, double-column script.15 Moreover, with the lone exception of Roman Forgeries, published a year before his death, none of Traherne's many manuscripts were printed during his lifetime, and almost all of them "contain sections or additions in the hands of other people" and reveal a "pattern of collaborative production."16 One such hand in the Lambeth Palace manuscript, incredulous at Traherne's apparent ambivalence toward print, writes a note on the opening page asking, "Why is this soe long detaind in a [End Page 107] desk Manuscript, that if printed would be a Light to the World, and a Uniuersal Blessinge"17 Similar commendatory notes appear elsewhere in the manuscript, as well as in the Commentaries of Heaven and The Ceremonial Law manuscripts, and in total his works contain "contributions in some six other hands."18 That his manuscripts were not printed, then, is not to say they were "detaind in a desk" at all times. Instead, they participated in an interactive exchange with a select community of other readers, writers, and friends, and were apparently composed without the prospect of print seriously in mind. Between his irregular and compulsive punctuation, his predilection for hybrid forms and second-person address, his tendency to undo, augment, and overrun whatever formal limits his works set in place, and the "in some degree … communal production[]" of most of his manuscripts, Traherne establishes himself as a manuscript writer par excellence—and a nightmare for editors.19 This is not to say that he was entirely opposed to print. Traherne was, for example, preparing Christian Ethicks for the press at the time of his death.20 But whereas Traherne associates print with fulfilment of a particular potential and a corresponding closure of the capacity to respond, change, clarify, and interact, he associates the unfinished manuscript with the divine capacity of "Naked Simple Life," which may behold and respond to each unfolding moment of encounter with friends, texts, and the created world.21 And while Traherne is absolutely singular in his enthusiasm and felicity, his sense of the manuscript as uniquely conducive to social expressions of lovability and capacity is very close to John Donne's admittedly more anxious but equally intense interest in Platonic anamnesis and the power of manuscript lyrics to manifest and acknowledge lovability.22 It should be no wonder, then, that Peter Beal calls Traherne, along with Donne, "one of the classic authors whose texts should be edited according to manuscript, rather than according to individual 'work' as defined by modern editors."23

The communal character of Traherne's manuscripts brings us to another prevalent misconception about Centuries and the nature of his relationship with the "friend of my best friend." While Stanley Stewart does note Traherne's "openness to the shaping influence of a friend," he also refers equivocally to a "distance between teacher and pupil" in the Centuries.24 He argues that Traherne "destroys the boundary between them" only after "initiating those committed to his charge."25 Detecting "an element of flattery" in the dedication and opening passage, Stewart suggests that "the final test of the spiritual guide will be in the performance of his [End Page 108] pupil."26 More recently, Benjamin J. Barber frames Traherne's relationship not as a friendship but as one of "spiritual advisor and novice."27 And Cedric C. Brown, one of the best writers on friendship in early modern English literature, calls Traherne the "spiritual mentor" to his reader "pupil."28 Brown considers Traherne only very briefly in Friendship and Its Discourses, but he does make a convincing case, when discussing Jeremy Taylor and John Evelyn, for "a kind of bond largely ignored in modern analysis, configured by the role of spiritual advisor." Taylor, a contemporary of Traherne, was also a High Anglican preacher and writer, but unlike Traherne, he was diligent about having his works printed, and he wrote "the most widely used advice book on friendship for the second half the seventeenth century."29 Evelyn admired Taylor's sermons and printed works, and "wanted Taylor as his spiritual advisor."30 "As mentor," says Brown, "Taylor could be stern, and friendship codes demanded frank counsel."31 In keeping with the Aristotelian virtue ethic of the high English church, Taylor emphasizes a practical piety based on works and the transformation of good intentions into concrete actions.32 This creates for Taylor a conditional basis for friendship according to which, Brown observes, "'the good man' is the most beneficial friend, and the key criterion is actually doing good."33 As Taylor puts it, "although I love my friend because he is worthy, yet he is not worthy if he can do no good."34

Stewart's description of Traherne, emphasizing conditionality, "performance," and a mentor's "initiat[ion]" of a spiritual neophyte is similar to Brown's description of Taylor, and it is also consistent with a recent trend in Traherne studies of foregrounding the scholastic elements of Traherne's thought. Paul Cefalu refers to a "straightforward Aristotelian theory of ethical habituation," most pronounced in Christian Ethicks but also visible to him in the Centuries.35 According to Cefalu, Traherne "emphasiz[es] the arduous process and discipline integral to his attainment of 'felicity.'"36 Barber similarly notes the scholastic influence in the Centuries and argues that Traherne "provides practical direction" to the reader in the form of "a detailed schematic of his own contemplative labour," going so far as to identify "seven distinct moments in the progress Traherne describes."37 I should note before continuing that Brown's discussion of Taylor is not quite so one-dimensional as my summary might suggest. He observes, for example, that Evelyn apparently proved a "worthy" friend to Taylor, and that over time "beyond respect, some intimacy had developed."38 This ultimately serves a larger thesis of Brown's [End Page 109] book, convincingly defended, that "the whole early modern friendship spectrum was indivisible."39 Individual relationships could take on different forms of friendship at different times or even simultaneously. Instrumental friendships, for example—those "based on utility and mutual benefit"—could easily take on affective and sympathetic registers, and a relationship initially based on a hierarchical mentorship could also show signs of reciprocal affection.40 As Brown notes elsewhere, Donne's relationship with the Countess of Bedford fits this description quite well.41 It is certainly possible that the relationship between Traherne and his dedicatee in the Centuries began as a mentorship and developed into a more affective bond, or that it contained an affective bond even as it preserved the hierarchy implicit in a spiritual mentorship. But judging from the evidence available—the manuscript itself—Traherne does not play a mentor the way Taylor does, and nor does he describe friendship in the same conditional, scholastic terms of arduous "ethical habituation."

In fact, Traherne explicitly contrasts the "Advancement" he promises with the weary pedantry of scholasticism and the rules of right conduct. His "Advancement" is, or at least intends to be, easy and delightful: "As a Deep Friendship meditats and intends the Deepest Designes for the Advancement of its Object, so doth it Shew it self in chusing the Sweetest and most Delightfull Methods, wherby not to Weary, but Pleas the Person, it desireth to advance. Where Lov administers Physick, its Tenderness is exprest in Balms and Cordials. It hateth Corrosives, and is Rich in its Administrations. Even so God, Designing to shew his Lov in exalting you hath chosen the Ways of Eas and Repose, by which you should ascend. And I after his Similitude will lead you into Paths Plain and Familiar" (Centuries, 1.4, pp. 7–5). There is nothing here that explicitly distinguishes a "Deep Friendship" from an "instrumental friendship," especially if we keep Brown's indivisible spectrum in mind.42 In fact, just two entries later Traherne argues that "[t]rue Lov … contenteth not it self in Shewing Great Things unless it can make them Greatly Usefull" (1.6, p. 8). But despite the scholastic teaching that "there is no Lov of a thing unknown," it is essential to Traherne that love precede knowledge: "We lov we know not what. and therfore evry Thing allures us" (1.2, p. 7). And later in the Centuries: "Unless therfore I could advance you Higher by the uses of what I give, my Lov could not be satisfied, in Giving you the Whole World. But becaus when you Enjoy it, you are Advanced to the Throne of God, and may see his Lov; I rest well pleased in Bestowing it" (1.6, p. 8). The reader can love [End Page 110] and take enjoyment from her loving, which Traherne's returned love can multiply, and which her invited additions can multiply again. And in case she forgot in the meantime, she can also be reminded to love by enjoying Traherne's love for her. Given to him in love, and returned to her in love, the book-as-soul, just like her real soul, is an ever-ready reminder, and it doesn't teach her anything new so much as it seeks to delight her with what is already "Plain and Familliar." The usefulness Traherne refers to is not a criteria for lovability or praiseworthiness. Instead, it inheres in the act of loving or being reminded to love by being loved. He rests well pleased in bestowing his love, because before any deed, she advances to the "Throne of God" by enjoying his love. This does not mean that Traherne denies the existence of instrumental friendships as Brown describes them, but rather that love is both the necessary means and the desired end. It does not make sense to Traherne to talk about usefulness as an effect of love or friendship, and as distinct from love or friendship. Cefalu describes the "perfection and re-ascension following a simple and abrupt meditative turn toward God or nature" as incompatible with "the arduous process and discipline integral to his attainment of 'felicity.'"43 Traherne, however, suggests in these passages that the "discipline" of felicity is in fact nothing more than a particular act of enjoying and delighting in love: "when you Enjoy it, you are Advanced." This advancement takes place each instant one rests in love, but as will become clearer shortly, humans are also capable in any moment of not loving. Traherne is not describing stepwise progress, by which to reach a state of virtuous actuality from a previous state of potency—not that there is anything wrong with that. Instead, he describes a perfect ascent every time one delights in love. It is both easier, in that it is immediate and delightful, and also more difficult, in that a soul may become useless again—though not unlovable—by not loving. It would therefore be meaningless for Traherne to think of himself as a superior to his friend. Her love was the first act in their exchange—it put the book into his hands—and that love already advanced her to the "Throne of God."

Given the intimately particular context of the Centuries, it might be premature to infer from these opening passages an abiding philosophical and ethical vision, but their emphasis on the innate human capacity for an ever-renewing apprehension of love and felicity intensifies through to the end of the book, and it also appears in Traherne's poetry, in Commentaries of Heaven, and in Christian Ethicks. Before getting into the other manuscripts, [End Page 111] however, it will help to linger a little longer on the Centuries's opening line: "An Empty Book is like an Infants Soul, in which any Thing may be Written. It is Capable of all Things, but containeth Nothing." From here it is possible to trace the intellectual origins of Traherne's understanding of capacity.

The earliest precedent for a textual soul is Plato's Phaedrus, though the idea is presented similarly in the Meno and Phaedo as a general theory, which proposes the existence of innate forms of knowledge, of which the soul has a presensory memory. Socrates introduces the textual metaphor late in the Phaedrus as part of a critique of material writing. He recounts the myth of Thamus and Theuth (Thoth/Hermes), in which Theuth discovers "writing" and calls it "a potion [Parmakon] for memory and for wisdom."44 Thamus replies, "in fact, [writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own."45 Writing offers not remembering but "reminding" and provides a reader with only "the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality."46 Writing, says Socrates, is inert, because "if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever."47 "When it has once been written down," Socrates continues, "every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn't know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not."48 Remembering "from the inside," as Thamus says, involves a discourse that is "brother" to material writing but "by nature better and more capable."49 This discourse is "written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener."50

Theories of anamnesis certainly attracted Traherne. In his poem "A Poetical Reflexion," he writes of "The Native Characters of Bliss, that were / Engraven in the Soul" and "Are all reviv'd again by this Bright Day, / That in the Soul, and on the World doth Ray."51 Traherne also opens the Third Century by contrasting those "Native Characters" with the writing in books: "Those Pure and Virgin Apprehensions I had from the Womb, and that Divine Light wherwith I was born, are the Best unto this Day, wherein I can see the Universe. By the Gift of GOD they attended me into the World, and by his Special favor I remember them till now. Verily they seem the Greatest Gifts His Wisdom could bestow. for without them all other Gifts had been Dead and Vain. They are unattainable [End Page 112] by Book, and therefore I will teach them by Experience" (3.1, p. 93). The following section continues: "Is it not Strange, that an Infant should be Heir of the whole World, and See those Mysteries which the Books of the Learned never unfold?" (3.2, p. 93). Here we see Traherne explicitly distinguish the divinity of infancy and capacity, which he associates with the manuscript and Platonic anamnesis, from the "Books of the Learned," which lack the changeable capacity of an embodied soul's lived existence. I return to Plato's critique of writing in a moment, but first I want to note that both the Phaedrus and the Third Century enlist accommodating similes to talk about the soul. "Native Characters of Bliss" are like material writing, but they remain superior despite requiring accommodation for intelligibility. This construction, however, is different in a couple of ways from the opening of the Centuries and its image of the infant soul, which as a simile for the empty book, "is Capable of all Things, but containeth Nothing." This image resembles Aristotle's tabula rasa conception of intellect (nous) as "in a way potentially the objects of thought, but nothing in actuality before it thinks, and the potentiality is like that of the tablet on which there is nothing actually written."52 This seems closer to Traherne's formulation, but like the Phaedrus and the Third Century, it inverts the First Century simile. The former three examples are accommodating—the soul climbs down the ladder to writing, but the First Century ontologizes—the empty book climbs up the ladder: "An Empty Book is like an Infants Soul." If there is an appearance of incompatibility here, it dissolves in light of Traherne's most likely source for the opening of the Centuries, which is neither precisely Platonic anamnesis nor Aristotelian tabula rasa, but instead their reconciliation in Pico della Mirandola's Oration on the Dignity of Man.

According to Pico's account of Genesis in the Oration, which Traherne translates and appropriates in the Fourth Century, God "desired som one, that might weigh and reason, lov the Beauty, and admire the Vastness" of heaven and earth, but "All Things were already full, all things were already distributed into their various Orders of Supreme Middle and Inferior" and there was no place for God's desired being (Centuries, 4.75, pp. 173–4). So, God decided that "he to whom nothing proper to himself could be added, should hav som thing of all that was peculiar to evry thing. And therfore he took Man, the Image of all his Work," and placed him "in the Middle of the World" (4.75, p. 174). "God," he continues, "infused the Seeds of evry Kind of Life into Man, Whatever seeds evry one chuseth those spring up with him, and [End Page 113] the fruits of those shall he bear and enjoy" (4.77, p. 174). These seeds, like the "Native Characters" from "A Poetical Reflexion," are in the infant soul, but unlike writing they are not properly contents or attributes but capacities. Humans are in their very essence undesignated—"loos from all"—with "neither a certain seat, nor a Private face, nor a peculiar office," but "whatsoever Seat or face or office thou dost desire, thou mayst Enjoy" (4.76, p. 174). Human essence, being undesignated, expresses itself in its present mode of existence, which at every moment is marked by a capacity to change.

Traherne clarifies the sense in which capacities can be said to exist in the soul in his entry on "Affections" in Commentaries of Heaven. Distinguishing between natural and accidental affections, he argues that "Natural Affections are always innate, and one."53 They are "not Motions and Perterbations, but natural Abilities and Capacities wherwith the Soul is endued in its greatest and deepest Rest" (Commentaries, 2:275). He calls these capacities "the Seeds and Principles of Actions, abiding in the mind before they be exerted" (2:275). But, Traherne insists, Natural Affections "are stiled Affections, only as Powers bear the name of their Operations, or as Causes the notion of their Effects" (2:275–6). There is no "Joy in the Soul, till the Act of Joy is there," and therefore an Affection "is some thing added to nature, wherby the thing capable of an Affection is endued therwith. So that accidental or acquired Affections are the only true ones. The Soul being then affected when its Abilitie to love or griev is exerted" (2:276). This is not strict Platonic anamnesis—the "seeds" of capacity are not imprinted in the soul as formal knowledge. Traherne and Pico's divine signature is instead the being-in-existence of the embodied soul as formless, changeable capacity. In fact, Traherne continues his commentary of Pico in Centuries by concluding that human formlessness, the image-as-capacity of all God's work, makes humans superior even to angels: "All Angels were Spectators as well as [man], all Angels were free Agents as well as He: as we see by their Trial, and the fall of Som; All Angels were seated in as Convenient a Place as he. But this is true, that He was the End of all and the last of all. And the Comprehensiv Head and the Bond of all, and in that more Excellent then all the Angels … And that for infinit Reasons it was best that He should be in a Changeable Estate, and hav power to chuse what himself listed. for he may so chuse as to becom One Spirit with GOD Almighty" (Centuries, 4.79, p. 175). One entry earlier, Traherne clarifies that "[t]he Changeable Power [Pico] Ascribeth to man is not to be referred [End Page 114] to his Body" but that "the Interior Stupidness, or sensuality, or Angelical Intelligence of his Soul, make him accordingly a Plant a Beast, or an Angel" (4.78, p. 175). Humans most reflect the image of all of God's work in the idleness of undesignated capacity—not in the later act of choosing only heavenly attentions, as the monk does, or only earthly attentions, as Aristotle does.

Figure 4. On Pico and "The Changeable Power" of man in Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, n.d., Manuscripts by Thomas Traherne, MSS. Eng. th. e. 50, f. 82r, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.
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Figure 4.

On Pico and "The Changeable Power" of man in Thomas Traherne's Centuries of Meditations, n.d., Manuscripts by Thomas Traherne, MSS. Eng. th. e. 50, f. 82r, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

Pico believed Platonism and Aristotelianism were fundamentally compatible, so it makes sense that Traherne would signal such a reconciliation in the opening lines of the Centuries and then appropriate Pico's own ontology near the end. In fact, Traherne outdoes himself in inventiveness by employing Piconian "potentiality" in service of a cheat against Plato's critique of material writing. Plato distrusts writing, because unlike speech, it "signif[ies] just that very same thing forever" and cannot listen or respond, clarify, or change.54 Furthermore, "roam[ing] about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately," writing cannot consider who is reading or adapt its mode of address to suit a specific reader's particular [End Page 115] needs, abilities, or circumstances.55 This is Eric Jager's sense when he proposes that Plato's textual soul "may be meant as a prophylactic against an identification between soul and text that is already taking place, a reaction to the advent of 'abstract and depersonalized systems of representation, disembedded [sic] from any particular social relationship.'"56 From this perspective, it is easy to imagine a seventeenth-century reader of the Phaedrus falling into a presentism of her own and reading Plato's critique of writing as a critique of the print book. Perhaps that is why for Traherne the "Native Characters of Bliss" really are superior to "books of the learned" and why his capacious manuscript really is more like a human soul than it is like a printed book. An infant's soul already bears the signature of its similitude with God as capacity, before anything is ever written in it. But even after the dawn of experience—even after Traherne writes in this manuscript book and ends its infancy—it remains in a state of continuously unfolding capacity and thus retains the signature of a soul's lovability. Addressed to a single person, and inviting collaboration, this manuscript book is not only changeable, thus preserving capacity and its similitude with God. It is also capable, like a soul, of receiving the imprint of its objects in the form of his friend's own handwriting—identifiable, like a fingerprint, by its idiosyncrasies. Traherne thus performs in the presently unfolding act of composition, and not in a completed state, the very operations he seeks to describe to his reader and to exalt in her soul as well. As Gary Kuchar suggests, these two acts, of knowing and praising, are in the Centuries one and the same: "For Traherne, thought and knowledge are not static, affective-free things; nor are they reducible to an epistemology of correspondence between mind and world; acts of knowing are an outflowing of love reaching to an inexpressible mystery that is the source of desire and joy. In this respect, an act of knowledge is itself a form of praise."57 This operation, which collapses epistemology into ontology, knowledge into acknowledgment, is deeply connected to Traherne's sense of capacity, and this connection is nowhere more apparent than in his poem "My Spirit," from the Dobell folio.

"My Spirit" seeks to resolve the seeming paradox of essence as capacity, that is, of formless essence, within the scholastic terminology of potentiality (dynamis) and actuality (energeia). As we noted earlier, Traherne sees the face of capacity always and necessarily in an embodied human's present mode of being, independent of the fulfilment of any telos. This capacity, which Traherne understands ontologically and not epistemically, replaces [End Page 116] the formal knowledge of Platonic anamnesis as the signature of human similitude with God. It is in this sense that "My Spirit" should be read. The poem opens abruptly with an association of essence both with act and capacity:

    My Naked Simple Life was I.            That Act so Strongly Shind    Upon the Earth, the Sea, the Skie,It was the Substance of My Mind.        The Sence it self was I.I felt no Dross nor Matter in my Soul,No Brims nor Borders, such as in a BowlWe see, My Essence was Capacitie.        That felt all Things,        The Thought that Springs        Therfrom's it self.

("My Spirit," 6:26–7)

"Naked Simple Life," without needing to do anything or receive any outside alloy—"I felt no Dross nor Matter in my soul"—is itself an "Act" that "so Strongly Shind … It was the Substance of My Mind. / The Sence it self was I." This shining act is not the shining of knowing or of doing but of being. The "I" is the "Act." And this act is capacity itself: "My Essence was Capacitie." This capacity "felt all Things," referring to the "Earth, the Sea, the Skie" from a few lines earlier, and finally, but crucially, "The Thought that Springs" from this Capacity is "it self" capacity. Traherne is coming very close to associating "Naked Simple Life" with consciousness itself, but in a phenomenological and not a cartesian way. The act of human capacity shines on and beholds creation, rather than working purely intellectually, as with René Descartes, from innate and positive formal knowledge. As Kuchar puts it, "The beginning of wisdom for Traherne lies in the way one understands and experiences oneself as an embodied being."58 And while Traherne read and was interested in his Cambridge Platonist contemporaries, it is this orientation that distinguishes him from Henry More's more systematic apologias for Neo-Platonic dualism.59 Thought, or phenomenological consciousness, the act of which is itself capacity, aligns with Traherne's definition of natural affections, discussed earlier. The thought that both springs from and is capacity: [End Page 117]

                hath no other Wings        To Spread abroad, nor Eys to see,            Nor Hands Distinct to feel,                Nor Knees to Kneel:But being Simple like the Deitie            In its own Centre is a Sphere            Not shut up here, but evry where.

("My Spirit," 6:27)

Natural affections are the capacities for accidental or expressed affections. They "hath no other wings" but the thought of their own capacity. But in the simple state of consciousness, "Naked Simple Life," the essence of which is capacity itself, is "Simple like the Deitie" and, as Traherne goes on to say:

    It Acts not from a Centre to        Its Object as remote,    But present is, when it doth view,    Being with the Being it doth note.        Whatever it doth do,It doth not by another Engine work,But by it self; which in the Act doth lurk.Its Essence is Transformed into a true                And perfect Act.

("My Spirit," 6:27)

Traherne's essence, capacity, does not act spatially from himself to a remote object, but instead is present with itself when he notes his own being viewing other being. And whatever Traherne's capacity does, it does by itself, which continues to "lurk" in whatever it does. This is absolutely crucial. If human capacity was only capacity to do this or reach that end, then upon fulfilling that end, the human would no longer be in that state of capacity, and capacity itself could no longer be said to be an essential part of the human. This is what Traherne is getting at when he refers to infinite capacity, rather than simply a capacity, say, to print a book, or even to write a poem. But if Traherne's capacity is always the capacity to assume a different form, then even in a particular act, Traherne remains in a state of capacity, because he can always change. He retains capacity and therefore also his similitude with God. When Traherne says, "My Essence was Capacitie," and then that such "Essence is transformed into a true [End Page 118] / And perfect Act," he is treating the paradox of indeterminate, privative essence as a radical tautology. Capacity can only be Traherne's "Essence" if it is necessarily always true of him. Even when Traherne ascends to the Throne of God in a particular act of love, he remains in an essential state of capacity in that he can always descend again, become a brute and hate. This capacity is precisely what he praises in a manuscript. It is also what a print book lacks, and why, echoing Jaeger and Plato, Traherne resists the growing association of "books of the learned" with the souls of their authors.

Traherne describes capacity as an essence that is always true of a human, both before and in every act. Framed phenomenologically, capacity has to do with the manner in which we behold God's work. It should come as no surprise, then, that the notion of being present with oneself when noting one's own being viewing other being reappears at the end of the poem with an ethical thrust:

O what a World art Thou! a World within!                All Things appear,                All Objects areAlive in thee! Supersubstancial, Rare,    Abov themselvs, and nigh of Kin        To those pure Things we find            In his Great MindWho made the World! tho now Ecclypsd by Sin    There they are Usefull and Divine,    Exalted there they ought to Shine.

("My Spirit," 6:29–30)

Even in a world eclipsed by sin, all things are alive in Traherne as a capacity to behold or not behold them, exalt or not exalt them, let or not let them shine. But we ought to let them shine, partially because by beholding them we are made aware of our own taking place—he views being with the being he notes, which is his own. This is the same line of thinking that contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben follows in his discussion of lovability in The Coming Community: "Thus, whatever singularity (the Lovable) is never the intelligence of some thing, of this or that quality or essence, but only the intelligence of an intelligibility. The movement Plato describes as erotic anamnesis is the movement that transports the object not toward another thing or another place, but toward its own taking-place—toward the Idea."60 Agamben refers to the same ontologized version of anamnesis Traherne proposes, [End Page 119] via Pico, in the Centuries as well as in "My Spirit." Agamben elaborates on the significance of "taking-place" as an ontological signature of lovability a few chapters later: "That the world is, that something can appear and have a face, that there is exteriority and non-latency as the determination and the limit of every thing: this is the good. Thus, precisely its being irreparably in the world is what transcends and exposes every worldly entity. Evil, on the other hand, is the reduction of the taking-place of things to a fact like others, the forgetting of the transcendence inherent in the very taking-place of things."61 When Traherne talks about letting something shine, he is talking about letting it take place; about bearing witness to the fact that taking-place is not a "fact like others" but is in fact transcendent, or as Traherne himself puts it, "supersubstancial."62 Being "Ecclypsd by Sin" does not inhere in any particular evil deed, but instead in the prior act of "forgetting of the transcendence inherent in the very taking-place of things," of forgetting that all things are "Usefull and Divine / Exalted there they ought to Shine." As Traherne says in Christian Ethicks, "WHATEVER we close our Eye against, we exclude out of our Knowledge. Whatsoever we Hate, we reject, tho we Know it. We give a Place in our Heart only to that, which we receive and embrace with a Kind Affection."63 At another point in Christian Ethicks, Traherne insists that "WERE a Man a Seraphim by his Essence, or something by nature more Glorious and Divine then the Highest Order of the most Blessed Angels, nay the greatest Creature that Almighty power was able to produce, his Soul and Body would signifie nothing, if he were unknown to himself, and were not aware of his Excellence" (pp. 53–4). Placed in the context of "My Spirit" and of the Centuries, it is clear that human "Excellence" is circularly the capacity to behold or not, in any moment, the divinity of anything in its taking-place. An awareness of one's excellence therefore requires nothing more than letting anything, as it is, shine in one's soul.

Christian Ethicks was likely written in the final four years of Traherne's life, and despite being a treatise on ethics, it is explicitly unconcerned with questions of conduct. Traherne advises readers from the outset that if they want a treatment "of Vertues in the ordinary way," then they should read The Whole Duty of Man, a popular English High Church devotional book at the time (Christian Ethicks, A2v). Timothy F. Sedgwick, contrasting Traherne with Taylor, similarly observes that "there is little" in Christian Ethicks "of Taylor's focus on the practices that form human intentions and by which human persons experience the [End Page 120] ends intended."64 "Actions and practices," Sedgwick notes, "are assumed."65 There is, however, a persistent refrain in the Christian Ethicks of rendering things their "due Esteem" (p. 98). Traherne insists in one example that "to value all Things just as they are, tendering to them neither more nor less then they deserve, is to do Right to our selves and them" (p. 128). It might be easy to read interpretive necessity into this act of valuing. We must know something before we can love it, and some things will turn out to deserve more love than others. Under this reading the Christian Ethicks certainly would depart dramatically from the ethos of the Centuries and of Commentaries of Heaven. In the Commentaries, for example, in which "ALL THINGS" are "Discovered / to be / Objects of Happiness," Traherne's entry on the lowly "Ant" calls it "no less a Monument of Eternal Lov, then Almighty Power" (3:3 and 93). It is "our fellow Creature" and yet "[w]ithout Remorse we kill it, and pass by without Concernment; scorning and neglecting so small a Creature" (3:93). And in the Second Century, Traherne writes: "Never was any thing in this World loved too much, but many Things have been loved in a fals Way: and all in too short a measure" (Centuries, 2.66, p. 76). This last line, however, points to a way in which the impossibility of loving anything too much is also perfectly compatible with the notion in the Christian Ethicks of rendering "due Esteem." Traherne elaborates on what it means to love "in a fals Way" in the very next entry, and it is worth quoting in full:

Suppose a Curious and fair Woman. Som hav seen the Beauties of Heaven in such a Person. It is a vain Thing to say they loved too much. I dare say there are 10000 Beauties in that Creature which they hav not seen. They loved it not too much but upon fals Causes. Nor so much upon fals ones, as only upon som little ones. They lov a Creature for Sparkling Eys and Curled Hair, Lillie Brests and Ruddy cheeks; which they should love morover for being GODs Image, Queen of the Univers, Beloved by Angels, Redeemed by Jesus Christ, an Heires of Heaven, and Temple of the H. Ghost: A mine and fountain of all Vertues, a Treasurie of Graces, and a Child of GOD. But these Excellencies are unknown. They lov her perhaps, but do not lov God more: nor Men as much: nor Heaven and Earth at all. And so being Defectiv to other Things, perish by a Seeming Excesse to that. We should be all Life and Mettle and Vigor and Lov [End Page 121] to evry Thing. And that would Poys us. I dare Confidently say, that evry Person in the Whole World ought to be Beloved as much as this: And she if there be any caus of Difference more then she is. But GOD being Beloved infinitly more, will be infinitly more our Joy, and our Heart will be more with Him. So that no man can be in Danger by loving others too much, that loveth GOD as He ought.

(Centuries, 2.68, p. 76)

We tender to an object less than it deserves when we love "upon som little [causes]" such as individual attributes like "Sparkling Eys and Curled Hair, Lillie Brests and Ruddy cheeks," and we tender more than an object deserves by loving it to the exclusion of all other objects—by not loving "God more: nor Men as much: nor Heaven and Earth at all." Instead, the "Art," as Traherne says one entry later in the Centuries, "lies in Managing our Love: to make it truly Amiable and Proportionable" (2.68, pp. 76–7). What deserves emphasis in the Christian Ethicks, then, is less the "neither more nor less," but instead what precedes it: we ought to "value all Things just as they are," in their shining forth.

If a print book is for Traherne a benign but limited one-off act that fulfills a particular potential, then an unfinished manuscript is the Piconian "true and perfect act" of a human soul's essence as changeable capacity. Donald Revell writes in his 2005 poem "For Thomas Traherne" that:

A sight above all festivals or praiseIs earth everywhereAnd all things hereBecoming youngerFacing change.66

Just as today "our coastlines grow younger / With tides," humans face change in each moment of existence and become new in a capacious now.67 "Only inattention," Revell writes, "can interrupt the prolific and ongoing miracle."68 Traherne, Revell sees well, does not want to go back to infancy. He wants to praise the infancy of each new moment's capacity for sight, acknowledgment, and love. As long as "any Thing may be Written," his infant books keep growing younger, reborn anew with each new word. [End Page 122]

Brett Defries

Brett DeFries is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at St. Olaf College.


Thanks to Logan D. Browning and Leslie Marie Aguilar at SEL. Thanks also to Julia J. Smith for her hospitality and help in the early stages of research for this article, to the Bodleian Library and the University of Iowa for a T. Anne Cleary International Dissertation Research Fellowship, and finally a special thanks to Blaine Greteman for his expert supervision.

1. Thomas Traherne, "Autograph Manuscript," in Centuries of Meditations, n.d., Manuscripts by Thomas Traherne, MSS. Eng. th. e. 50, f.2r, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

2. Traherne, "Centuries of Meditations and Select Meditations," in The Works of Thomas Traherne, ed. Jan Ross, 8 vols. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013), 5:1–249, 7, First Century, chapter 1. Subsequent references to this text, hereafter Centuries, are from this edition and will appear parenthetically by century, chapter, and page number.

3. Julia J. Smith, "Traherne and Historical Contingency," foreword to Thomas Traherne and Seventeenth Century Thought, ed. Elizabeth S. Dodd and Cassandra Gorman (Suffolk UK: D. S. Brewer, 2016), pp. xiii–xx, xiv.

4. Smith, "Traherne and Historical Contingency," p. xviii.

5. See Phoebe Dickerson, on "contact" in Traherne between "skin and soul" ("'The Lanthorns Sides': Skin, Soul and the Poetry of Thomas Traherne," in Thomas Traherne and Seventeenth Century Thought, pp. 31–47, 36); Kathryn Murphy, on "thingliness" in Traherne, placing him in conversation with Aristotle and Francis Bacon ("No Things but in Thoughts: Traherne's Poetic Realism," in Thomas Traherne and Seventeenth Century Thought, pp. 48–68); and Cassandra Gorman, on the influence of atomic theory on Traherne's work and his attempt to draw analogies between atoms and the Christian community ("Thomas Traherne and 'Feeling Inside the Atom,'" in Thomas Traherne and Seventeenth Century Thought, pp. 69–83).

6. Ross, introductions to The Works of Thomas Traherne, by Traherne; Carol Marks, "Traherne's Ficino Notebook," PBSA 63, 2 (Spring 1969): 73–81; Marks, "Thomas Traherne's Early Studies," PBSA 62, 4 (Fall 1968): 511–36; Marks, "Thomas Traherne and Cambridge Platonism," PMLA 81, 7 (December 1966): 521–34; Marks, "Thomas Traherne and Hermes Trismegistus," Renaissance News 19, 2 (Summer 1966): 118–31; Marks, "Thomas Traherne's Commonplace Book," PBSA 58, 4 (Fall 1964): 458–65.

7. Ross, introduction to Centuries of Meditations and Select Meditations, by Traherne, 5:xiii–xxxvi, xiii.

8. Ross, introduction to Centuries of Meditations and Select Meditations, by Traherne, 5:xxi.

9. Smith, "Susanna Hopton: A Biographical Account," N&Q 38, 2 (June 1991): 165–72, 171.

10. H. M. Margoliouth, ed., "Notes on the Centuries: The Fifth Century," in Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings, by Traherne, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), 1:295–7, 297n11.

11. A. Leigh Deneef, Traherne in Dialogue: Heidegger, Lacan, and Derrida (Durham NC and London: Duke Univ. Press, 1988), p. 183.

12. Finn Fordham, "Motions of Writing in The Commentaries of Heaven: The 'Volatilitie' of 'Atoms' and 'Ætyms,'" in Re-Reading Thomas Traherne: A Collection of New Critical Essays, ed. Jacob Blevins, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 325 (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2007), pp. 115–34, 119–20.

13. Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, ed. Bertram Dobell (London: Published by the Editor, 1908), p. 327.

14. Stanley Stewart, The Expanded Voice: The Art of Thomas Traherne (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1970), p. 105.

15. Traherne, "Autograph Manuscript," in Commentaries of Heaven, ca. 1673–74, Western Manuscripts, Add. MS 63054, British Library, London.

16. Smith, introduction to Select Meditations, by Traherne, ed. Smith (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009), pp. x–xxiii, xii.

17. [Traherne], Lambeth MS, ca. 1660, MS 1360, f. 1, Lambeth Palace Library, London.

18. Smith, "Traherne, Thomas (c. 1637–1674)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, last modified 27 May 2010,

19. Smith, "Traherne, Thomas."

20. Smith, "Traherne, Thomas."

21. Traherne, "My Spirit," in Poems from the 'Dobell Folio,' Poems of Felicity, The Ceremonial Law, Poems from the 'Early Notebook,' of The Works of Thomas Traherne, ed. Ross, 8 vols. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014), 6:26–30, 26. Subsequent references to Traherne's Poems are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text by title, volume, and page number.

22. Brett DeFries, "'Whatsoever' Being: Agamben, Donne, and Lovability," ELH 85, 2 (Summer 2018): 415–40. For a fuller account of textual soul metaphors in Donne, see James Jaehoon Lee, "John Donne and the Textuality of the Two Souls," SP 113, 4 (Fall 2016): 879–918.

23. Peter Beal, "Thomas Traherne, 1637–74," in pt. 2 of Index of English Literary Manuscripts, comp. Beal, 2 vols. (London: Mansell, 1993), 2:477–85, 482.

24. Stewart, pp. 105 and 108.

25. Stewart, p. 108.

26. Stewart, p. 104.

27. Benjamin J. Barber, "Syncretism and Idiosyncrasy: The Notion of Act in Thomas Traherne's Contemplative Practice," L&T 28, 1 (March 2014): 16–28, 20.

28. Cedric C. Brown, Friendship and Its Discourses in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2016), p. 18.

29. Brown, Friendship, p. 5.

30. Brown, Friendship, p. 29.

31. Brown, Friendship, p. 31.

32. For more on Jeremy Taylor and the Aristotelian foundations of the Anglican virtue ethic, see Timothy F. Sedgwick, "The Anglican Exemplary Tradition," Anglican Theological Review 94, 2 (Spring 2012): 207–31.

33. Brown, Friendship, p. 27.

34. T[aylor], A Discourse of the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship, with Rules of Conducting It (London: Printed for R. Royston, 1657), p. 24; EEBO Wing T317.

35. Paul Cefalu, English Renaissance Literature and Contemporary Theory: Sublime Objects of Theology (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 142.

36. Cefalu, p. 153. Cefalu is a very precise reader of Aristotle as well as of antique and medieval Neo-Platonists. He is also right to reject common associations of Traherne with a reductively mystical and Adamic picture of Neo-Platonism. But by already assuming Traherne's genre and method to be primarily scholastic and correspondingly systematic, he is inattentive to those idiosyncracies of Traherne's compositional process that point him equally away from Adamic nostalgia and scholastic tedium.

37. Barber, p. 20.

38. Brown, Friendship, p. 33.

39. Brown, Friendship, p. 194.

40. Brown, Friendship, p. 3.

41. Brown, "Presence, Obligation, and Memory in John Donne's Texts for the Countess of Bedford," RenST 22, 1 (February 2008): 63–85.

42. Brown, Friendship, p. 3.

43. Cefalu, p. 153.

44. Plato, Phaedrus, trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 1995), 274e.

45. Plato, 275a.

46. Plato, 275a.

47. Plato, 275d.

48. Plato, 275e.

49. Plato, 276a.

50. Plato, 276a.

51. Traherne, "A Poetical Reflexion," in Commentaries of Heaven, Part 2: Al-Sufficient to Bastard, of The Works of Thomas Traherne, ed. Ross, 8 vols. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007) 3:204–7, 204. Subsequent references to Commentaries of Heaven, hereafter Commentaries, are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text by volume and page number.

52. Aristotle, De Anima, trans. Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London: Penguin, 1987), 3.4.429b.

53. Traherne, Commentaries of Heaven, Part 1: Abhorrence to Alone, of The Works of Thomas Traherne, ed. Ross, 8 vols. (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007), 2:275.

54. Plato, 275d.

55. Plato, 275e.

56. Eric Jager, The Book of the Heart (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 6–7.

57. Gary Kuchar, Divine Subjection: The Rhetoric of Sacramental Devotion in Early Modern England (Pittsburgh PA: Duquesne Univ. Press, 2005), p. 217.

58. Kuchar, p. 191.

59. For more on Traherne's interest in and criticism of the Cambridge Platonists, see Marks, "Thomas Traherne and Cambridge Platonism."

60. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community. ed. Sandra Buckley, Michael Hardt, and Brian Massumi, trans. Hardt (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 2.

61. Agamben, p. 15.

62. Agamben, p. 15.

63. Traherne, Christian Ethicks, or, Divine Morality. Opening the Way to Blessedness, by the Rules of Vertue and Reason (London: Printed for Jonathan Edwin, 1675), p. 133. EEBO Wing T2020. Subsequent references to Christian Ethicks are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the text by page number.

64. Sedgwick, p. 219.

65. Sedgwick, p. 219.

66. Donald Revell, "The Apostasy of Here and Now: Easters with Traherne," BJJ 17, 2 (November 2010): 249–258, 250.

67. Revell, p. 249.

68. Revell, p. 251.

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