Thomas Traherne goes walking

November 7, 2020 0 Comments

Today Thomas Traherne is counted alongside George Herbert and Henry Vaughan as one of the great ‘metaphysical’ poets of the seventeenth century.  All three, interestingly, were men of Welsh and Welsh Borders origin.  Herbert was born in Montgomery, Vaughan came from Llansantffraed near Talybont-on-Usk and returned there to live, and Traherne was probably born in Hereford in 1636 or 1637, and did most of his writing while a priest at Credenhill, a small village just north-west of the city of Hereford.  All three held strong feelings for the natural world of their homelands.

Traherne was different from Herbert and Vaughan in three respects.  He came from a relatively humble background: his father was a shoemaker in Hereford.  He was younger, and lived through the Commonwealth into the period of the Restoration.  And he had to wait centuries before being recognised as a poet.  According to contemporary accounts, he was unusually pious, but cheerful and generous, and died with few possessions but his books.  He was fond of libraries and called the Bodleian Library ‘the Glory of Oxford, and this Nation’.  He was hard on himself, writing, ‘Too much openness and proneness to speak are my disease. Too easy and complying a nature’.

As a country priest Traherne led an obscure life.  His religious prose writings were little noticed – only one work was published during his lifetime – and almost no one knew Traherne as a poet.  The manuscripts of his poems lay unnoticed until the 1890s.  They were rescued from destruction, only for the verses to be misattributed to Vaughan.  In 1903 they were finally published in part, almost 230 years after his death.  Even then it took decades more for his true status as a poet to be recognised, and the first volume of the new, standard Oxford Traherne is yet to be published.

Thomas Traherne’s ‘Walking’, part of a collection called ‘poems of felicity’, was not published until 1910.  It’s sometimes anthologised, but curiously, given that it’s one of the earliest English poems about walking, it’s seldom if ever mentioned by writers on the history or philosophy of walking.

To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
Else may the silent feet,
Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good
Nor joy nor glory meet.

Ev’n carts and wheels their place do change,
But cannot see, though very strange
The glory that is by;
Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
Yet not behold the sky.

And are not men than they more blind,
Who having eyes yet never find
The bliss in which they move;
Like statues dead
They up and down are carried
Yet never see nor love.

To walk is by a thought to go;
To move in spirit to and fro;
To mind the good we see;
To taste the sweet;
Observing all the things we meet
How choice and rich they be.

To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey;
Admire each pretty flow’r
With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
The marks of his great pow’r.

To fly abroad like active bees,
Among the hedges and the trees,
To cull the dew that lies
On ev’ry blade,
From ev’ry blossom; till we lade
Our minds, as they their thighs.

Observe those rich and glorious things,
The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
The fructifying sun;
To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
For us his race to run.

A little child these well perceives,
Who, tumbling in green grass and leaves,
May rich as kings be thought,
But there’s a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight,
To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant paths we talk,
‘Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;
For we may by degrees
Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
From viewing herbs and trees.

I’d like to imagine Traherne tramping the lanes and fields of Herefordshire, perhaps on his way to visit his parishioners, or maybe with no destination in mind, and taking in the ‘fructifying sun’, the song of birds and the green leaves on the trees.  The distinction he makes in the first three stanzas, between mechanical walking (feet ‘like logs of wood’, ‘dead puppets’ and ‘statues’) and walking with your eyes and mind wide open, is one that lies at the heart of the case for walking as a form of personal liberation and fulfilment – ‘felicity’, in Traherne-speak.  ‘To walk is by a thought to go / To move in spirit to and fro’. It’s to open the door to capturing a multiplicity of things that make life worth living.  These include the features of the natural world around us.  Traherne lists some, and all of them are perfectly ordinary and everyday, like ‘rivers, meadows, woods and springs’.  Through walking and observing, we can store them up in our minds, like bees transporting nectar on their hind legs.

In the eighth stanza Traherne introduces small children, tumbling in grass and leaves, who instinctively cache in their minds this direct experience of the natural world, and so become ‘rich as kings’.  Throughout his work, in prose and verse, Traherne sees childhood as a time when people are closest to fulfilling their true potential to be at one with the world – when our minds are most open to new experience.   The first words of Centuries of meditations, a long series of Traherne’s thoughts on the religious life, are ‘An empty book is like an infant’s soul, in which any thing may be written. It is capable of all things, but containeth nothing. I have a mind to fill this with profitable wonders.’  Later in the Centuries, he writes, ‘All appeared new, and strange at the first, inexpressibly rare, and delightfull, and beautifull.  I was a little stranger which at my enterance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys’.  To some, his vision of childhood is a foretaste of the view Wordsworth and Coleridge held, over a hundred years later.  Others have wondered whether Traherne looked back on his own childhood, spent in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War, as a time of idyllic contentment.  He wrote, ‘certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child’.

It’s interesting that in this poem, expressed simply and with much repetition, Traherne refrains from subordinating his walking thoughts to a heavy religious message.  It’s true that in the fifth stanza ‘the Maker’ and his ‘great pow’r’ make an appearance, and ‘praise’ is repeated in the last.  But Traherne says farewell to us, at the end of our walk with him ‘in those pleasant paths’, with a cheery, secular wave and a reminder that ‘by degrees’ we too can learn, ‘by viewing herbs and trees’, to appreciate the felicity that love brings.

In 2007 Thomas Denny created four stained glass windows in memory of Thomas Traherne for the Audley Chapel in Hereford Cathedral.  He used as inspiration images and phrases from Traherne’s writings, including the Centuries of meditation.

Thomas Denny, Thomas Traherne windows, Hereford Cathedral, Light 3, detail
Thomas Treharne MS, The world is a pomegranate, Centuries of meditation, II, 96
St Mary’s Church, Credenhill

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