I was introduced to Traherne by Keith Waldrop; Waldrop was teaching a seminar in Restoration Literature, in which, with lasting impression, he indulged us in readings from both the forgotten and the admired greats of late-seventeenth-century poetry. Before reading from various poets, he would introduce them to the class with anecdotes and wry critical observations; along the way, he would stop for explanation if it was required. It was a class in reading and listening, with the assumption that the thought of digestion could occur at our own pace.
I remember both his deep respect for Traherne and also his opinion, quite common, that Traherne’s poetry, though very good at times, is nothing compared to his prose. He may have opined that Traherne’s Centuries are among the great prose achievements in the language, along with Thomas Browne’s works, which I know he said he admired the most.
I mention Waldrop because he is respected as a poet and translator and because he is that rare thing: a contemporary reader and writer of poetry with a strong opinion about Restoration figures beyond Milton, Marvell, and Dryden. His generosity was bestowed from a vantage of rare breadth.
The mystery of Traherne is why the poetry is not quite as good as the prose–or rather, what the prose is doing that the poetry is not.
The difference in the poetry and prose is most obviously one of rhythm, but on this ground, Traherne is at least adept enough to make Yvor Winters wish that Wordsworth might have read his works; he found the rhythms of Traherne’s “best poem,” “News,” “almost electrically perceptive.”
But the territory of the poems feels familiar, and perhaps too familiar, after Herbert and Vaughan; as sprightly and attuned as the movement of the verse might be, it does not seem to move towards a new discovery.
The word “drift” feels relevant, not because it is a word special to Traherne, but because it is a word that poets–Tennyson and Eliot for instance–have found useful to describe not the rhythmical movement itself, but the relationship of rhythm and everything else to the the semantic center of gravity of the work; how does this center, or how do these various centers, determine the course of the words on the page?
“Drift” might also help explain the difference between the Centuries of Meditations and the Select Meditations, another set of meditations arranged in groups of 100, but likely written for a different audience than the other . Here is a passage from the latter, which I think is similar to the former in the essential subject matter (which is not the same as the semantic center of gravity, since the semantic center of gravity resides in the complexity of a word, rather than in the paraphrasable content or idea):
God is a Fulness in all Extremes: Happieness a mystery in which contrarieties are coincident: And Glory an Abysse in which contradictions unite, and reconcile them selves. He is an Infinit Sphere, yet an infinite Centre. He is infinitly before us yet infinity after us. we are Equal to Him, yet infinity beneath Him. And more blessed than if we had been from Everlasting. By obliging us to Lov Him more than our selves He hat made us Blessed us Himself is. By Makeing us Blessed as Himselfe is He hath made us infinitly beneath Him. By makeing us each a Possessor of Eternity and the End of all Things He hath mad us Like Himselfe. By making us Like Him hath exalted us to his Throne and by doing so made us his Peers. All like Him, of him it is said, Arise O sword and smite the man that is my Fellow. No Distance was convenient between God and us, but that of obligation. We are infinitely beneath Him, because infinitely obliged. (III.82)
Here is one of the Centuries of Meditation:
Creatures that are able to dart their Thoughts into all Spaces, can brook no Limit or Restraint, they are infinitely indebted to this illimited Extent, becaus were there no such Infinitie, there would be no Room for their Imaginations; their Desire and Affections would be coopd up, and their Souls imprisoned. We see the Heavens with our Eys, and know the world with our Sences. But had we no eyes, nor Sences, we should see Infinitie like the Holy Angels. The Place wherin the World standeth, were it all annihilated would still remain, the Endless Extent of which we feel so realy and palpably, that we do not more certainly know the Distinctions and figures, and Bounds and Distances of what we see, then the Everlasting Expansion of what we feel and behold within us. It is an Object infinitly Great and Ravishing: as full of Treasures as full of Room, and as fraught with Joy as Capacitie. To Blind men it seems dark, but is all Glorious within, as infinit in Light and Beauty, as Extent and Treasure. Nothing is in vain, much less Infinity. Every Man is alone the Centre and Circumference of it. It is all his own, and so Glorious, that it is the Eternal and Incomprehensible Essence of the Deitie. A Cabinet of infinity Value equal in Beauty Lustre and Perfection to all its Treasures. It is the Bosom of God, the Soul and Securitie of every Creature. (V.3)
Both are passages that make Traherne seem the grandfather of Coleridge and Blake; but they did not know his work, almost certainly could not have, and if anything the passages suggest how strong the current of religious thought must have been that transmitted the paradoxes and exuberance down the century.
They do not, of course, take up the same thoughts, but they are not as distant in mode as some of the Centuries are from the Meditations, and their proximity in mode and their sharing the same general vicinity of subject matter is helpful because they seem nonetheless distinct in “drift”: wherein does the difference lie? to what does the one drift that the other does not?
I would suggest we look at one of the starkest differences between the two: the pronouns. In Select Meditations, the first person plural, “we,” “us,” is scattered throughout; here is a passage that concerns all of mankind of which we, the readers, are examples. There is no objection to the third-person; it is not presumptuous or doubtful. But in the second passage, from Centuries of Meditations, the pronoun is released and contained within the center of the passage: We see the Heavens with our Eys, and know the world with our Sences. But had we no eyes, nor Sences, we should see Infinitie like the Holy Angels. The Place wherin the World standeth, were it all annihilated would still remain, the Endless Extent of which we feel so realy and palpably, that we do not more certainly know the Distinctions and figures, and Bounds and Distances of what we see, then the Everlasting Expansion of what we feel and behold within us.
Here the “we” of the passage is both the same as and other than the “creatures” in the first part of the passage–that “creature” of rational intellect might be angels as well as men; but the “we” is also limited, since it only takes in those men who can see, as “blind men” cannot; nonetheless, “every man” is at the center and circumference of infinity, and “we” may be accounted “every man” in his potential form. Whatever the value of the distinctions, they show where Traherne is placing great emphasis–where one center of gravity of the Centuries lies: the personal pronouns. And personal pronouns, essential though they might be to the Select Meditations and to the poems, are not semantic centers of gravity.
The personal pronouns, in other words, direct and determine the drift of the prose: the intrusion of the first-person singular; the variously steadying and bracing address, in the opening Centuries especially, to the second person singular (or is it plural?); the third person singular, when a single life, without identity beyond the humanizing pronoun, is the object of focus.
So we find I.28:
Your Enjoyment of the World is never right, till every Morning you awake in Heaven; see your self in your father Palace: and look upon the Skies and the Earth and the Air, as Celestial Joys, having such a Reverend Esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels. The Bride of a Monarch, in her Husbands Chamber, hath no such causes of delight as you.
The field of possibilities for the second-person is enormous: singular, plural; stranger, friend, enemy; public, private; adult, child; other, self. But that field’s expanse is not limited, but rather measured out, surveyed, by the course the poem takes: these are words of consolation, admiration, urgency, relief; they are words to a stranger and a friend; they are words to be spoken in public with the shared ground of experience that makes public discourse intimate; they are words to be spoken in private with the knowledge of a general application that makes intimate discourse communal; they are whispered and bellowed. The full range of the second-person is exploited, setting broad demands on the rest of the prose.
Granted, it could be said that the rest of the prose opens the possibilities of the second-person, but this is likewise to say that the meditation leaves one feeling that the pronoun has been served.
Here is the first meditation in the Third Century:
Will you see the Infancy of this sublime and celestial Greatness? Those Pure and Virgin Apprehensions I had from the Womb, and that Divine Light wherewith 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 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 by Book, and therefore I will teach them by Experience. Pray for them earnest: for they will make you Angelical, and wholy Celestial. Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and Curious Apprehensions of the World then when I was a child.
The “you” enters with a sweeping movement outward from the speaker’s self; the experience he will teach will be taught “you,” who has become a part of the experience of the speaker’s writing; and no sooner are “you” touched by the passage than you are pulled back inwards to the “I” of the speaker. The question is whether we relate to what we read as a book or whether, reached by the pronoun, our reading of the book becomes a part of the experience by which Traherne teaches. The question need not be answered, but the relationship between the pronouns opens it, as it opens the passage so that it becomes about more than the experience of the speaker, but also about how a reader understands her own experience of that experience in what will be read; in a series of meditations that insists and celebrates on shared experience, and that joyfully dispels falsely imposed boundaries of self and other, man and god, the orbits of pronouns sway the course of thought.