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It is with a more than ordinary degree of pleasure that I have undertaken the task of introducing to readers of the present day the writings of a hitherto unknown seventeenth-century poet. Centuries had drawn their curtains around him, and he had died utterly, as it seemed, out of the minds and memories of men; but the long night of his obscurity is at length over, and his light henceforth, if I am not much mistaken, is destined to shine with undiminished lustre as long as England or the English tongue shall endure.
The author of the poems contained in the present volume belongs to that small group of religious poets which includes Herbert, Vaughan, and Crashaw, though he is much more nearly allied to the authors of "The Temple" and "Silex Scintillans" than to the lyrist of Roman Catholicism. Yet he is neither a follower nor an imitator of any of these, but one who draws his inspiration from sources either peculiar to himself or made his own by the moulding force of his own fervent spirit.
Of the inner life of the author of these poems we have abundant and satisfactory knowledge, for it is certain that no man's writings ever furnished a clearer or more faithful mirror of their author's personality than do those of Thomas Traherne. But of the outward incidents of his life little can be told, though that little is sufficient to show that he was a man of the finest and noblest character. Profession and practice in his case went together, and he was no less admirable as a man than he was as a poet and a minister of religion. That he was a person of great sweetness of disposition, of most happy temperament, and of singularly attractive character, is certain; and to know so much of a man is to know everything we really need to know. We cannot help, however, craving for more than this, and we would give much indeed for such a record of Traherne as Walton gave of Hooker, Herbert, Donne, and Sanderson. It is likely, indeed, that other particulars of Traherne's career will in time be discovered; but for the present the reader must be content with the scanty details which are given in the following pages.
I regret to say that the inquiries which I have made, or caused to be made, as to the time and place of Thomas Traherne's birth have been, so far, without result. Probably he was born at Hereford, since his father was a shoemaker in that town; but this is not certain. He may have been born at Ledbury, which is a village a
few miles from Hereford, for it seems pretty certain that his family was in some way connected with that place. The earlier portion of the registers of that village has been printed by the Parish Registers Society, and from this it appears that there were "Trayernes" there in the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, the portion of the Ledbury registers which covers the period during which it is probable that our author was born is missing. That also seems to be the case as regards the Hereford registers of the same period. This is very disappointing; but we may hope that further inquiries will prove more successful.
That the family from which the poet sprang was Welsh by descent seems to be highly probable. It is true that the name is also found in a slightly different form in Cornwall; but no doubt both branches sprang from the same root at some distant period. The poet's character and temperament, as displayed in his writings, almost proclaim his nationality. Herbert and Vaughan, the two poets to whom he is most near akin, were both Welsh by descent, and though neither of them is deficient in warmth of feeling, Traherne certainly surpasses them in the passionate fervour which he infuses into his writings. It is hardly possible to think of them as having emanated from the cooler and less enthusiastic Anglo-Saxon temperament.
All that I am able to say, then, as to the time of Traherne's birth is that it was probably in the year 1636. Wood informs us that he became a commoner of Brazennose College, Oxford, in 1652; and as the age at which it was then usual for youths to commence their college career was about sixteen, the above date seems the most likely one, though it may, of course, have been a year earlier or later. His father was in all probability the "John Traherne, Shoemaker," who is recorded to have received, in conjunction with another person, "from Mistress Joyce Jefferies the sum of three pounds for the shipping money."[A] This lady is also recorded to have paid money to one John Traherne (who may or may not have been the same person) for training as the soldier whom she had to provide for the Trained-bands.
John Traherne, it seems likely, was related to a man of considerable note and influence in Hereford. This was Philip Traherne (the name is sometimes spelt Traheron), who was twice Mayor of Hereford. He was born in 1566, and was noted for his fidelity to the cause of King Charles I., and, to follow the eulogium upon his tombstone, "for his fervent zeal for the Established Church and clergy, and friendly and affectionate behaviour in conversation, which rendered him highly valuable to all the loyal party." He was mayor of
Hereford at the time when the Scots attacked it. He died in 1645, aged 79. It would thus appear that the Traherne family was one which occupied a fairly good position in the middle class of the community. It would seem, however, from a passage in Traherne's "Centuries of Meditations" ("Sitting in a little obscure room in my father's poor house") that John Traherne's circumstances were not very flourishing.
Of the poet's infancy and youth, the only source of information we have is that which we find in his own writings. That the poems in which he dwells so lovingly, and with so much enthusiasm, upon the happiness and innocence of his infancy are somewhat coloured by the warmth of his imagination may, perhaps, be suspected, but not, I think, with justice. It is possible that he, to some extent, confused reflections of later date with those which he represents himself to have experienced in his infancy; but he was evidently a very precocious child, and the dawn of consciousness and thought was surely much earlier in him than it is in ordinary children. I think, therefore, we may trust the evidence of the poems, in which he speaks of his infancy and childhood, as affording a true, or but little idealised, picture of his early life. It might be unsafe to depend upon the evidence of the poems if they stood alone, but the earnestness with which he dwells upon the same topic, and repeats in prose (in
his "Centuries of Meditations") what he asserts in his verse, is sufficiently convincing. I know of no author whose writings convey to the reader a stronger conviction of their author's entire sincerity and absolute truthfulness than do those of Thomas Traherne.
Traherne's "Centuries of Meditations" consists of a series of reflections on religious and moral subjects, divided into short numbered paragraphs. The manuscript (which was probably written in the last years of his life, and therefore contains his most mature thoughts) comprises four complete "Centuries," and ten numbers of a fifth "Century." From the fact that it was left unfinished it would seem that his labour upon it was cut short by his death. It was written for the benefit and instruction of a lady, a friend from whom he had received as a present the book in which it is written. It bears the following inscription on the first page:
"This book unto the friend of my best friend,
As of the wisest love a mark, I send,
That she may write my Maker's praise therein,
And make herself thereby a cherubim."
In the third "Century" of the "Meditations" we find many details of the author's infancy and childhood. I cannot do better that give the greater part of these in the author's own words: