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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 377-405
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Heavenly Perspectives, Mirrors of Eternity:
Thomas Traherne's Yearning Subject
Carol Ann Johnston
[Holy Days] are Heavenly perspectives wherin we behold the Mystery of Ages, Mirrors of Eternity wherin we feed upon Revelations and Miracles.
—Thomas Traherne, "Book of Private Devotions"
Before, Behind, and evry where, Faith is,
Or sees, the very Masterpiece of Bliss.
All Its Materials are a Living Tomb
Of Glory, striking the Spectator dumb
And there our GOD is seen in Perspective
As if he were a BODY and alive.
"Article" in Commentaries of Heaven
THE CHANCE APPEARANCE in a London bookstall of Thomas Traherne's manuscripts of poems and meditations 1 early in the twentieth century coincided with Modernist interests in seventeenth-century poetry. 2 This coincidence naturally included Traherne in Modernist studies of lyric poetry. Modernist ahistoricism, however, relegated Traherne to a secondary place among already established poets such as Donne, Herbert, and Marvell: his work did not conform to standards that established poetry as "classic," such as compressed metaphors, double entendres, "telescoping images," and formal unity. In his essay "Mystic and Politician as Poet" (Listener 3 : 590-91), T. S.Eliot exercises his Modernist detachment from cultural context, deeming Traherne "more a mystic than a poet," 3 a writer attentive to contemporary religious and political ideology at the cost of language and form. Thus, Eliot dismisses Traherne from the pantheon of worthy poets. Ironically, while modernist requirements for inclusion into the canon eschew historical and cultural circumstance, the cultural circumstance of Traherne's discovery is the very criterion that placed him [End Page 377] in Modernist sight lines. Further, precisely due to circumstance, and in spite of steady critical activity and the recent discovery of several new manuscripts, 4 Traherne's language and ars poetica remain among the most maligned among anthologized seventeenth-century poets.
A further irony encompasses the critical judgments expended upon Traherne's oeuvre. While Modernists found his work too imbedded in culture, attempts to place it specifically within that culture have proven difficult indeed. Comparatively little is known about situations in which Traherne wrote his poems and prose meditations, or about Traherne's life. Traherne's biographers have largely based their accounts upon readings of his poetry and prose, which seem ecstatic and childlike. Placing Traherne's spiritual autobiography into biographical lacunae is one method of organizing the scant information that we have about him: he was born in Herefordshire in 1637, a shoemaker's son; attended Brasenose College, Oxford, at 15, earning his B.A. at 18; was ordained in 1657 as a Puritan minister to the rectorship of the parish of Credenhill, near Hereford; earned his Oxford M.A. in 1661; became one of the conforming clergy in 1660; served as the Anglican chaplain to Charles II's Lord Keeper of the Seal, Orlando Bridgeman by 1667; died in 1672 at Bridgeman's house in Teddington. Yet, even these few biographical facts suggest that Traherne did not withdraw to the world of naive ecstasy that his biographers find in his spiritual autobiography, but that he engaged in the intellectual and political life of the period. A literal reading of the "I" in Traherne's poems and meditations creates a tautology: critics build a fiction of Traherne's life out of the fiction of his work in order to clarify the known facts about his life, which in turn will clarify his work. His biographer and editor Gladys Wade codifies this identification of cause and effect when she concludes in 1942 that Traherne is "one of the most radiantly, most infectiously happy mortals this earth has known." 5 Recent articles have attempted to rescue Traherne from the legacy of his early biographers, placing him in a political context. Both N. I. Matur and Julia J. Smith connect Traherne to political events during his lifetime, and the recent discovery of Traherne's long political poem sanctions such a reading. 6 A political reading of Traherne however, remains somewhat problematic, since Traherne was in the employ of both Puritan and Anglican...