Thomas Traherne: His Search for Felicity

By Elsa-Brita Titchenell
Hence comes it to pass, that all Ages and Kingdoms, Heaven and Earth, Time and Eternity, Angels and Seraphins, the infinite Heights and Excellencies of God, are, after a sort, in the Soul of Man. -- Thomas Traherne (1637?-1674)

Seventeenth-century England was the stage for fierce religious controversy, with a broad spectrum of differences between the Roman Church and the Puritans, and between both and the Church of England. Civil war raged among religious and political factions, cities were besieged, fear and bloodshed were common throughout the land. The Restoration of the monarchy brought a new set of problems; for the society of the court of Charles II was notoriously corrupt and profligate.

This England was nevertheless the setting for some outstanding thinkers, whose search for enlightenment surmounted the controversial atmosphere both of religious bigotry and blatant vice. The Cambridge Platonists brought to the scene a breath of the eternal verities, whose champions they were. Gladys Wade's 1946 biography of Traherne expresses a commonly held attitude of bias against all pioneering thought, while inevitably revealing the powerful influence of this group on their contemporaries:

[Henry] More, . . . Van Helmont, Lady Conway, Glanvil, Thomas Vaughan, are but some of the more prominent of those who wasted their energies on Hermetic and Cabalistic and Rosicrucian lore, and on incredible experiments in magic and necromancy. Traherne is perfectly free from any taint of this. More's speculations drifted off, as he grew older, into aberrations of mysticism, . . .It might be said that Traherne was saved from a like fate by the accident of early death. -- p. 233, 232

If it were indeed true that Thomas Traherne was "saved" from this "taint" by his early death, Christian mysticism would have lost one of its most enthusiastic proponents. There are, as we shall see, unmistakable indications that Traherne had some contact with individuals of the same bent, who mutually supported one another in the quest for universal truth and the revival of the Hermetic tradition, which had well nigh vanished from sight during Europe's dark ages.

Thomas Traherne was born in the late 1630s, the son of a shoemaker at Hereford in western England. He and his younger brother Philip did, however, receive an education above their station, probably through the generosity of a wealthy relative who owned a tavern and who twice served as mayor of the city. At two separate periods Thomas attended Oxford, where the variety of subjects for study delighted his avid mind. It is possible that he there became acquainted with Susanna Harvey who was later, as Mrs. Hopton, to be the recipient of the Centuries of Meditations, which expresses some of his most intimate and inspired philosophy. He became rector of a church at the little town of Credenhill, near Hereford, and subsequently private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Lord Keeper of the Seals of England, a kindly and high-principled man.

The Centuries was evidently written at Credenhill, where the young man underwent an experience which was to color all his thinking for the remainder of his life. During his first undergraduate stay at Oxford, he had become an agnostic and found himself in that unhappy no-man's-land of youth, where existence seems to lack meaning. Such a crisis is not uncommon in sensitive natures and all too often results in tragic discouragement, even suicide. It is the age of emergence into adulthood, when the soul must determine what path to pursue through life: the lonely search for truth, or conformity to common standards. Traherne found himself at this point, when

in a lowering and sad evening, being alone in the field, when all things were dead and quiet, a certain want and horror fell upon me, beyond imagination. The unprofitableness and silence of the place dissatisfied me; its wideness terrified me; from the utmost ends of the earth fears surrounded me. . . . I was a weak and little child, and had forgotten there was a man alive in the earth. Yet something also of hope and expectation comforted me from every border. This taught me that I was concerned in all the world: and that in the remotest borders the causes of peace delight me, and the beauties of the earth when seen were made to entertain that I was made to hold a communion with the secrets of Divine Providence in all the world: . . . -- Centuries of Meditations, III, 23

Before a human soul can "hold a communion with the secrets of Divine Providence," it must face the fears that convene about it "from the utmost ends of the earth," and overcome them. This experience marked the initial awakening of Thomas Traherne to the reality of consciousness as man's fundamental being and to the inward life which beckons beneath the concealing camouflage of trivial concerns. Singular individuals have, throughout history, taken this ancient and solitary path to self-discovery. Few of them are ever known among their contemporaries; it is only rarely and in retrospect that the bright trail of their passage may be glimpsed. Traherne's unobtrusive existence in his small sphere would have passed unnoticed but for a series of fortuitous circumstances which brought some of his writings to light and aroused the curiosity of scholars.

Having surmounted this trial, young Traherne resolved to seek above all else the felicity he now knew was attainable through the affinity he sensed within himself with all divine manifestation. Once opened, this "inward eye" demands unswerving allegiance to the glimpsed ideal. Traherne seized upon this vision and, excluding all self-interest, determined to pursue the path of growth toward ever more sublime apprehensions. Yearning to share his discovery, he found in Mrs. Hopton a receptive correspondent to whom he could convey the spiritual elation which fired his soul. To love the world, just as it is, arouses an inner effervescence, a bubbling source of delight in the whole of nature's mystery, and this is abundantly expressed in his subsequent work. His joyous exuberance, the poetic imagery in both verse and prose, arise from Traherne's commitment to a conscious alliance with the divine root of being, and portray an irresistible urge to share this exultation with his fellow human beings.

The Centuries was clearly never intended to be a published work. The brief paragraphs are the uninhibited outpourings of a man's most intimate and sacred discoveries on his road toward progressively greater awareness, shared with a sympathetic associate bent on the same quest. Every human being receives such "intimations of immortality," when tendrils of awareness touch on the sublime, but few have the courage to embark on a voyage of discovery that they fear others could not share or would not understand. For those who dare, the inner life becomes paramount; drawing sustenance from outer events, it transcends them and is independent of them. Thomas Traherne attained a recognition of this transcendence through his ordeal in the quiet field and knew that thenceforth he must pursue his quest for ever greater enlightenment through the means available to him. His daily life became the arena wherein he sought to gain a constant increment of soul-experience. He recognized the need to apply his vision of the solidarity of all beings to a selfless practice of unfailing kindness and understanding in the practical pursuits of his career. That he did gain insights is clear from the enthusiasm he infused into his writings to his friend.

But it is an happy loss to lose oneself in admiration at one's own Felicity: and to find GOD in exchange for oneself. -- Centuries, I, 18
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: . . . Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; . . . till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: . . . -- Centuries, I, 29, 30

He was moreover not alone in his search. His companions are not named, but he evidently introduced Mrs. Hopton to a group of students engaged in the same quest for human perfection and eternal truth, for he tells her that "there are a sort of Saints meet to be your companions, in another manner, but that they be concealed" and proceeds to describe three grades of searchers: those whom she might help instruct, also "practicers and growers [who] will mingle souls and be delightful companions" as well as "the sublime and perfect." Susanna Hopton's home became a gathering place for a "family" of such individuals, who led blameless and ascetic lives amid the surrounding profligacy of Charles II's reign. As no names are given there is no way of knowing whether the group included any of the Cambridge Platonists or their adherents, but there is ample room for conjecture.

Though devoutly Christian in approach and expression, Traherne clearly does not subscribe to the popular intent of gaining salvation merely for oneself. Bertram Dobell, in his splendid introduction to the Centuries of Meditations, remarks upon this attitude and contrasts the work of Traherne with the Roman Catholic classic Imitation of Christ:

The author of the "imitation" wanted to save his own soul; Traherne wanted to save the world. However much assured he might have been of his own salvation, the latter writer would never have been content merely with that. -- Centuries, xvi

Nor was he ignorant of the reality of an esoteric system of initiation, for he wrote: "Teach me, O Lord, these mysterious ascencions. By descending into Hell for the sake of others, let me ascend into the glory of the Highest Heavens" (Centuries, I, 90).

There are other indications also that he belonged to some secret community of searchers. Traherne was familiar with Platonic thought and devoted himself to a study of Hermes Trismegistus, Plotinus and Ammonius Saccas. During his second sojourn at Oxford, he no doubt gathered material for Roman Forgeries, which was published in 1673 and dedicated to his patron, Sir Orlando Bridgeman, with an affectionate simplicity usually lacking in those days of fawning obsequiousness. Roman Forgeries traced with scholarly care and precision the adulterations to which Christian doctrine had been subject in its early history and, surprisingly, had far greater popularity than Christian Ethicks, which was published two years later, posthumously, for Traherne possessed that rare combination of qualities which marks the truth-seeker: scholarly integrity and intuition. His learning was remarkable and Dobell states that "he was an unwearied student of the antiquities of the Church, of its Fathers, Councils, and Doctrines" (Introduction to The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne, B.D., Bertram Dobell, p. xxxv). Here was no starry-eyed mystic without common sense, but a man of learning and character, whose search for truth was founded on a solid base of scholarship and reason.

Traherne died in 1674, a few months after Sir Orlando, who had fallen into disfavor with the king over a matter of principle. The Bridgeman household had been one of harmony and kindliness, strangely at variance in its climate of virtue and unselfishness with the general tenor of the times. Into this atmosphere Traherne fitted admirably. Here also he was at liberty to devote himself to writing and research.

Before he died, Traherne made a will bequeathing such trivia as his best hat, but characteristically forgot four houses which he owned. His poems he gave into the keeping of his brother, who edited and prepared them for publication. Philip's slightly pedestrian alterations, while they improved their style and fluency, also robbed the poems of some of the vaulting elation which had infused his brother. Thomas had resorted to verse as a mode of expressing his unbounded love for all creation, a love which filled him with a sense of wonder and delight at nature's beauty and perfection.

Definitions of poetry are probably as numerous as its readers. What distinguishes the poet from the mere versifier is not excellence of rhyme and meter but the luminous ideation he conveys. Impelled by an inner urgency to share the sublimity of his vision of truth, the poet can but strike a chord, whose resonance he alone can hear; the reader must respond with his own inner harmonies attuned to the inexpressible import within the words. One may find Traherne's poems of less than perfect form, but a supernal awareness implicit within them is potent and sincere, evoking a remembrance of each reader's own most treasured moment.

Recalling his childhood, Traherne wrote: "My knowledge was Divine. I knew by intuition those things which since my Apostasy, I collected again by the highest reason" (Centuries, III, 2).

This inner sensitivity is the subject of the poem "Sight":

Mine Infant-Ey
Abov the Sky
Discerning endless Space,
Did make me see
Two Sights in me,
Three Eys adorn'd my Face:
Two Luminaries in my Flesh
Did me refresh;
But one did lurk within,
Beneath my Skin,
That was of greater Worth than both the other;
For those were Twins; but this had ne'r a Brother.

It is tempting to multiply quotations on a wide variety of subjects that occupied the fertile mind of Thomas Traherne. The very discovery and identification of some of his writings make intriguing history, wherein many people were involved as well as curious coincidences and ingenious detective work. Bertram Dobell in his excellent introduction to The Poetical Works relates the serendipitous purchase by a scholar in the late 1890s of two manuscripts from a street barrow, "that last hope of books and manuscripts in danger of being consigned to the waste-papermills," their ascription to another author, and the fortuitous sequence of events which eventually led to their identification as the work of Thomas Traherne. It has been three centuries since the death of this almost unknown young mystic, which has made research into his life and writings an unusually difficult undertaking. Whether or not during his lifetime he had ever received credit for his enthusiastic expressions of the vision he perceived within the beauties and harmonies of the natural world, the stream of thought from which he drank has continued to flow through the consciousness of mankind. Our own times are no less obstreperous to the gentler influences he exerted, yet there is clearly today a receptivity that allows more open expression of the ideals of human growth and perfectibility.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 1976. Copyright © 1976 by Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu