The English colony of Jamestown was only 18 years old in 1625, during the midst of what the poet John Donne, preaching safely from London, had called the “barbarous years,” when disease, starvation, and violence nearly destroyed the Virginian settlement. Its unfortunate colonists had been reduced in their most dire straits to exhuming the corpses of the recently dead, so that the living would have something to eat. If anytime would necessitate prayer, it would seem to be when people resort to cannibalism, and no doubt there was rending of garments in Jamestown. Across the Atlantic, too, for the collapse of the Virginia Company humbled an investor named Nicholas Ferrar. A courtier, and eventually an ordained Anglican deacon, Ferrar reacted to the financial implosion of his American investments by taking what money remained and purchasing an abandoned medieval church named St. John’s in the Salisbury village of Little Gidding.
Orthodox in his Calvinism, Ferrar was still High Church, and mourned for what had been lost from that Catholic past of multicolored stained glass and incense burning in thuribles. His little chapel had been stripped bare during the reformation of a century before, and he hoped to restore some ornamentation to that bare-ruined choir. At Little Gidding, Ferrar and his siblings dedicated themselves to founding a secular oratory, what later Puritan critics maligned as a “Protestant nunnery.” The Ferrars were to live simply, by a rigorous schedule of prayer, study, service, and contemplation. Upon the white-washed walls of their home, Ferrar and his brother John and sister Susan (and their respective families) painted psalms, so as to “excite the reader to a thought of piety.” As prayers are outward expressions of inner devotions, sent on vibrations of sound to whatever Ear is listening, the community at Little Gidding displayed their psalms as a type of signpost to the divine, hoping that they’d be noticed. Appropriate for a family that had turned their walls into printed pages, their home into an anthology, because the Ferrars supported Little Gidding with the trade of book binding.
Critic Don Paterson writes in The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre that poetry has “invested itself with those magical properties, and also took the form of spell, riddle, curse, blessing, incantation and prayer. For those atavistic reasons, poetry remains an invocatory form.” Like spells written on hidden parchments, there was enchantment to the textuality of the Ferrars’ house, with its divinely graffitied walls. The house a book based on the Book, which produced books. None more famous or influential than a slender volume of poetry titled The Temple, written by a friend of Ferrar’s named George Herbert, a priest. Ministering a village over, Herbert was a product of courtier culture as well, and of similar social status to the Ferrars, his mother of the wealthy Newport family, and a patron to Donne. Like the pious Ferrars, Herbert had rejected the trappings of nobility that were his guaranteed birthright, preferring rather to work as a humble reverend on the Salisbury plain. When Herbert sent his friend a copy of his devotional poems in 1633, he said that he wished them to be printed should they have “advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if Ferrar saw no such quality, the verse should be burned.
Herbert’s The Temple pairs with Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” as among not just the greatest of 17th-century metaphysical poetry but the greatest religious lyrics ever written in English. Poems like “The Collar,” “Love (III),” and his “shape poems” (with typography working as image) such as “The Altar” and “Easter Wings,” were as a type of worship. A century later and the Puritan schoolman Richard Baxter would enthuse that “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believes in God;” obvious faith beats like a metronome in the meter of his verse. “Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books,” said Baxter, so that it’s impossible to disentangle theology from his poetry, as it might be for modern readers of sexier metaphysical poets like Donne. Biographer John Drury writes in Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert that “Divinity saturated and enclosed his world: the whole of it, from the slightest movements of his own inmost being to his external circumstances in time and the natural world…Divinity was the cause and the sum of how things are, without remainder.” That being the case, Herbert’s poetry itself couldn’t help but be devotional, couldn’t help but fundamentally be as if a prayer. What I’d venture is that all poetry is fundamentally a prayer.
My ideas may be muddled or inchoate, and for that I beg your patience, but I think that some of my half-formed thinking (multitudinous as it will be) can be illustrated by a Herbert poem appropriately entitled “Prayer (1).” Of the poem’s subject, Herbert describes it as “the church’s banquet…God’s breath in man returning to his birth, /The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.” There are two things happening in those lines; the obvious is the connection of God’s Spirit to the individual spirit of man, how the animus of our breath finds its origin in the divine. All fine and good, but what’s more fascinating is the description of prayer as being a “soul in paraphrase,” for that explicitly aligns prayer not with completism—axioms, treatises, arguments, syllogisms, or any other method of total explication—but that prayer provides an intimation of what a soul is. “Prayer (I)” is replete with this language of incompleteness, it’s in some ways a statement against method. He writes of “The six-days world transposing in an hour,” a type of paraphrase of creation itself, and of “A kind of tune,” or the “Heaven in ordinary.” The imprecision of Herbert’s language is precisely the point—prayers are exemplary because they don’t exist to say everything that can be said; they exist for all of that which can’t be. The result of prayer, Herbert famously concludes, is “something understood.”
Everything depends on that indefinite pronoun, for in the ambiguity of “something” Herbert gestures at what prayer is. It’s not necessarily that prayer deals with only the ineffable (though that concept intersects with prayer), but rather that the product of prayer is this amorphous, free-floating, mercurial something of which Herbert speaks. Prayer imparts a type of knowledge—something has been understood. But good luck in being able to simply or literally say what that something is. So, Herbert differentiates prayer from other forms of sacred language; prayer has not the delineation of a creed or the rigor of an argument, it has not the logic of theology, nor the narrative of scripture. Prayer has this understood something, but by its nature what exactly it is must be felt rather than known, believed rather than stated.
The poem is about prayer, but it’s also about poetry. If Herbert is making an argument about prayer’s significance being incompleteness, then the precise same thing must be said about poetry as well. Like prayer, poetry is not the same as creed or argument, thesis or claim, philosophy or pedagogy. Both prayer and poetry are synonyms, albeit respectively associated with the sacred and the profane. They concern things that can only be espied from multiple perspectives, for the ecstasy of ambiguity and the spurning of literalism, for the quality of having “something understood” even if such a thing is contradictory or indefinable or impossible to summarize. The two forms are mechanisms for approaching the unapproachable, they are engines driving us to that which is an infinite distance away. What’s imparted is the mysterious “something”—when done well, prayer and poetry can both change you, but it’s difficult to put into words what that change was. A sublimity in that paradox, for prayer and poetry are defined by being words that gesture beyond words themselves.
All literary language is a special case; all literary language is exception. Since Plato, philosophers have found it difficult to categorize what exactly literature is supposed to be. Fictional narrative, after all, is simply lies artfully arranged. Or at least that’s one way to look at it, albeit a reductionist one that doesn’t perform due diligence toward just how weird literature is, this process by which we hallucinate entire worlds after staring at abstract symbols. Because it seems real, literature compels questions like that jocularly posed by the Shakespeare scholar L.C. Knight, when in 1933 he asked, “How many children did Lady Macbeth have?” Knight was raising a point about the way we talk about fiction, where a question can be posed that is logically and semantically coherent, yet totally meaningless. Lady Macbeth had no children of course, since she wasn’t real (or at least not in the form that the Bard presented to us). A similar metaphysical conundrum was posed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, when he asked what the “truth status” was of the question “Is the present King of France bald?” There no longer being a King of France, it would seem that either an affirmative or negative answer is completely meaningless, yet that’s affectively the nature of all fiction.
Poetry and fiction aren’t reducible to each other; if anything, they’re sometimes contrasted (in part because narrative poetry, such as the epic, is a largely moribund genre today). But poetry also has an innate weirdness that makes it difficult to classify—what exactly defines it? What makes poetry poetry? Formal characteristics—rhyme, meter, rhythm, and so on—make little sense as a distinguishing characteristic after almost two centuries of free verse. Russian linguist and critic Roman Jakobson argued (in a paper first published in Thomas A. Sebeok’s anthology Style in Language) that the “poetic function” of language was neither to express nor to communicate clear-cut truth, but rather existed with “the message for its own sake.” Jakobson’s claim was that poetry is basically always about poetry, that verse announces the strangeness of language itself rather than communicating literal facts. What defines poetry is not how it’s constructed, but what it does. Poetry announces itself as language through a process of defamiliarization—iambic pentameter and anaphora are ways in which a reader understands that something odd is happening—but it need not be facilitated only through formal rhetorical means. Paterson rightly condemns the fact that “Too often our interpretations are unconsciously predicated on the real-world existence of a truth, albeit a truth conveniently veiled or missing,” but to be overly hung up on the “truth” of poetry is to precisely miss the point. The medium truly is the message.
In an odd way, such pronouncements were anticipated by the Renaissance critic and poet Philip Sidney, who in his 1580 Defense of Poesy argued that “The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Facts can be lied about, but a poem can’t be evaluated on whether it’s “true” or not, at least in any literal or logical way. What’s the “truth status,” Russell might ask, of the statement “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons?” Certainly, it’s not literally accurate, or privy to scientific falsification, but that it says something significant should be obvious. Poetry is thus a cracked type of speech, language that is about language, expressing truths that move beyond mere words but which can be indicated in their splendiferous ambiguities. Poetry is rhetorically distinct from other uses we have for words, Jakobson would argue; it’s not the dry literalism of logic, nor the pragmatic utility of instruction, or even the dense world-building of fiction (though that last certainly can intersect with poetry). Rather verse is when language thinks about itself. Popularizer of religion Karen Armstrong argues something similar in the introduction to Thomas J. Craughwell’s Every Eye Beholds You: A World Treasury of Prayer when she writes that “Prayer helps us to liberate ourselves and to use language in an entirely different way.”
Functionally, I see no difference between prayer and poetry. I should emphasize that this doesn’t necessarily have to do with God per se, but rather with what prayer and poetry do. And as both are in some sense very present-based genres, existing for their own purposes rather than to convey some other primary piece of information, what they do is ultimately the same. W.H. Auden famously declared that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but there is a theological profundity to that, the idea of something existing without pragmatic justification to some bottom line, having being rather as a glorious singularity unto itself. Not dissimilar to the God of the medieval scholastics, whose views the literary critic Terry Eagleton described in The Meaning of Life, writing that God’s purpose and His creation isn’t a “question about what the world is for, since in… [theological] opinion the world has no purpose whatsoever. God is not a celestial engineer who created the world with some strategically calculated goal in mind. He is an artist who created it simply for his own self-delight, and for the self-delight of Creation itself.” The Word of God thus becomes something very close to the word of Auden. Something close to the ecstasy of prayer as well. Poetry fulfills what Jay Hopler described in the preface to Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry when he noted that “poems confront two of humankind’s most powerful actuations: the drive to create and the drive to know a creator.”
Both poetry and prayer are written in a type of transcendent tense, they seem to bring voice forward from a certain perspective of eternity. The visceral presentness of both makes them different from other forms of language, for poetry and prayer don’t merely correspond to things that have happened in the world, but they are a reality itself. Kimberly Johnson writes in the introduction to Before the Door of God that “though a lyric poem may have a narrative that unfolds over its course, the first drama it relates is the coming into being of that speaking voice,” for poetry is an ever regenerative form, it is not ossified representation of some outside subject—it is the subject. Unlike painter Rene Magritte’s visual pun “The Treachery of Images,” with its depiction of a pipe with the sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” a similar gambit makes no sense with a poem. There is no delay in verse, it has an immediacy that oracularly announces itself as a presence. Poetry and prayer share in this incantational quality, because they trade not only in representation but in a certain theurgy. This is the position that the narrator addresses to God in Charles Simic’s poem “Prayer” included in his collection A Wedding in Hell: “You who know only the present moment, /O Lord, /You who remember nothing/Of what came before.” An encapsulation of prayer and lyric alike, as well as the experience of being God in eternity, for unlike other modes, verse exists perennially in this moment we live in right now.
Because poetry and prayer, as an experience, belong not to the past or the future but rather a continual present, they both have the incantational quality of being able to resurrect that which is gone, of bringing to bear an actual presence with the reading of a poem, the chanting of a prayer. Eagleton, with good reason, sees something fallacious in this claim, arguing in How to Read a Poem that “On this view, form and content in poetry are entirely at one because the poem’s language somehow ‘incarnates’ its meaning,” but dismissing such romanticism by saying that “words which ‘become’ what they signify cease to be words at all.” But that might be precisely the point: that which distinguishes poetry from prose isn’t form, but the quality by which the former does actually, in some way, invoke or “call down” a different reality from the one in which the reader exists— while making allowances to poetic “prose” being capable of that same quality.
The Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer performs such an incantation in his lyric “Georgia Dusk.” Toomer writes of a “lengthened tournament for flashing gold,/Passively darkens for night’s barbecue” where men gather and “Their voices rise… the pine trees are guitars,/Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain…/Their voices rise… the chorus of the cane/Is caroling a vesper to the stars.” Poetry is not editorial or syllogism, but it is a calling forth, a transubstantiation. With Toomer’s invocation of this rural black town observing the simple eucharist of a barbecue, how is it not possible to feel the warm breeze of Georgia dusk whistling through the pines, as the yolk dusk descends into the hills, the drone of cicada punctuating the gathering coolness? That Toomer can put the reader there, it seems to me, is not an example of the “incarnational fallacy;” it is simply an incarnation.
Paterson differentiates prose from poetry by noting that with the former, the “well-chosen word describes the thing as if it were present,” but the latter “persists in its attempt to invoke, to call down its subject from above, as if there were no ‘as if’ at all.” That’s because when we read a poem, whether our loud or in our head, we embody the speaker. We’re possessed by the narrator, this spooky character who isn’t quite equivalent with the poet herself. Johnson argues that “poetic speech endures with a kind of immortality. Among other effects, it preserves the human voice far beyond the scale of human life…. the voice that is preserved over centuries comes to the reader’s corporeal as well as intellectual awareness, resurrected anew, as it were, through each new reader’s ears and eyes and breath and heartbeats.”
When we read Marianne Moore’s poem “By the Disposition of Angels,” which takes as its subject this quality of possession itself, we resurrect both Moore and the immanent voice that speaks and exists beyond mere personality, querying “Messengers much like ourselves? Explain it. /Steadfastness the darkness makes explicit? /Something heard most clearly when not near it?” Moore’s poem gives voice, literally and figuratively, to this precise strangeness of poetry and prayer: it’s ability to make us hear that which seems to not be there. “Poet and reader enter a bizarre cultural contract where they agree to create the poem through the investment of an excess of imaginative energy,” argues Paterson, “This convergence of minds adds a holographic dimension to the poem, one denied other modes of human speech. A poem’s elements can sometimes appear to have been summoned into existence with enough potency to engage our physical senses.”
Possession isn’t the same thing as transformation, however. When we pray, we speak to God; as when we read and write poetry, we perhaps speak to our narrators. At their most ecstatic, those things blur into our selves, but when we stand up from the kneeler or close the book we return to being ourselves, what poet Malachi Black describes in his poem “Vespers,” when he writes that “Lord, you are the gulf/between the hoped-for/and the happening.” Any recitation, any reading, has a gulf between it and the actual divine, for a poem must be a mechanism of approaching an eternity that we never quite reach. Ronald Thomas, Welsh poet and Anglican priest, describes in his poem “Kneeling” the “Moments of great calm,/ Kneeling before an altar/Of wood in a stone church/In summer, waiting for the God/To speak.” The simple physicality of his description takes part in that incantational poetics whereby we can transpose ourselves into that private moment, but the illusory nature of that experience isn’t obscured. We are, after all, “waiting” for God to speak, and that uncertainty, that agnostic quiet isn’t incidental to the prayerful qualities of poetry—it’s instrumental to it. Thomas writes, quipping on St. Augustine, to “Prompt me, God;/But not yet. When I speak, /Though it be you who speak/Through me, something is lost. /The meaning is in the waiting.” When Thomas humbly admits that “something is lost,” it’s an acknowledgement that the possessions of poetry are incomplete, yet that gulf between God’s understanding and our fumbling is the vacuum into which poetry must dissipate.
Because if there is anything that poetry and prayer share, that distinguishes them from other forms of language—be they plays and novels, policy briefs or automobile manuals—it’s that both must engage with that abiding sense of mystery that exists in those silent places where the soul dwells. A novel or a play or an essay can have mystery at its core, and can be all the better for it—but such mystery is incidental to it being in whatever particular genre it happens to be in. Philosopher George Steiner noted in Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1967 that “When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins,” explaining that “Language can only deal [with]… a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence.” What differentiates poetry is not form or content, but that poetry is the language that is written not in words, but rather in the gaps between them. Poetry and prayer are implicated in that mystery, that sacrament. “Mysteries expound mysteries,” writes Moore, and it’s a good shared explanation of prayer and its identical twin poetry.
That sense of divine mystery is invoked by our most immaculate of modern devotional poets Denise Levertov in her “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” from the collection Candles in Babylon. Writing at the mystical confluence of her duel Jewish and Christian background, between America and Europe, the political and the sacred, Levertov voiced the “deep unknown, guttering candle, /beloved nugget lodged in the obscure heart’s/last recess” more fully than any poet after the Second World War. Levertov is an incarnational poet, able to describe “woodgrain, windripple, crystal, /in crystals of snow, in petal, leaf… fossil and feather, /blood, bone, song, silence.” A poet of immanence, but one for whom all of this world is built not on exhalation, but inhalation, of “our hope… in the unknown, /in the unknowing.” This is the subject of all poetry and prayer, the injunction “O deep, remote unknown, /O deep unknown, /Have mercy upon us.” The beating heart of all poetry and prayer must be this blessed silence, this sacred unknown. Such a faith is what animates both vocations. For when we approach the sepulcher of that which Herbert called “something understood.”
Image Credit: Needpix.
“To burn a book is to bring light to the world.” —Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)
“Every book burned enlightens the world.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Circumstances surrounding the occasional rediscovery of the poetry of the 17th-century divine Thomas Traherne are as something out of one of his strange lyrics. Intimations of the allegorical, when in the winter of 1896—more than two centuries after he’d died—and some of his manuscript poetry was discovered in a London book stall among a heap that was “about to be trashed.” William Brooke, the man who rescued these singular first drafts, had originally attributed them to Traherne’s contemporary, the similarly ecstatic Henry Vaughan, ensuring that at least until proper identification was made the actual author could remain as obscure in posterity as he had been in life. How eerily appropriate that among that refuse was Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation, which included his observation that the “world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it.” Not until he chances upon it in a London book stall.
Traherne’s lyrics have reemerged like chemicals in a poetic time-release capsule, with the majority uncovered only after that initial lucky find. As his poetry expresses sacred mysteries, holy experiences revealed, and the subtlety of what his contemporary George Herbert termed “something understood,” how appropriate that Traherne’s work should be revealed as if an unfolding prophecy? Traherne, after all, prophetically declares that he will “open my Mouth in Parables: I will utter Things that have been Kept Secret from the foundations of the World,” a poet of secrets whose poetry had been kept secret, a visionary of paradox whose work celebrates “Things Strange yet common; Incredible, yet Known; Most High, yet plain; Infinitely Profitable, but not Esteemed.”
With prescience concerning his own reputation, Traherne wrote of that “Fellowship of the Mystery, which from the beginning of the World hath been hid in GOD, [and] lies concealed!” Like so many of his contemporaries, from Herbert to Vaughan, Traherne was of Welsh extraction, smuggling into English poetics the mystically inflected Christianity of the Celtic fringe. Unlike them, he has remained largely unknown, with the Anglican priest born in either 1636 or 1637 to a Hertfordshire shoe maker and a mother whose name doesn’t survive. Traherne published only a single book before his death in 1674, an anti-Catholic polemic entitled Roman Forgeries. Such didacticism obscured Traherne’s significance, for in his other work uncovered during the 20th century, Traherne has emerged as a luminous, ecstatic, transcendental advocate for direct unmediated experience of the divine, where he instructs in “many secrets to us show/Which afterwards we come to know.”
Now an Anglican divine, honored by the Church of England on October 10 and Episcopalians on September 27, Traherne is venerated in votive candle and stain glass, exemplifying the High Church perspective he embodied—rituals of incense and bells, of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy of hours. Traherne, it should be said, was a bit of a cracked saint, however. As Leah Marcus notes in her essay “Children of Light,” reprinted in the Norton Anthology Seventeenth-Century British Poetry: 1603-1660, Traherne may have “loved Anglicanism” but “he built a large body of thought quite independent of it.” Following the chaos of nonconformism which marked the years of civil war, Traherne’s theology exceeded even the relative tolerance afforded by the developing policy of “latitudinarianism.” Marcus explains that Traherne contradicted “many of the chief tenets of Anglicanism,” possibly believing in a borderline pantheistic sense of God’s immanence in the natural world. Traherne, Marcus writes, intuited that “Heaven, eternity, paradise… are not places. They are a state of mind.”
Such a strange poetic saint has continued to pay academic dividends for scholars fortunate enough to come upon misplaced work, exemplifying Traherne’s contention that “Some unknown joys there be / Laid up in store for me.” Among several such discoveries of “unknown joys,” there was the Traherne recovery by two scholars in 1996 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., when Julia Smith and Laetitia Yeandle found an epic poem that reworked the narratives of Genesis and Exodus. Only a year later, and Jeremy Maute—working in Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury—discovered Traherne’s The Kingdom of God; unread for more than 300 years and regarded as a masterpiece, fulfilling the marginalia of an anonymous 17th-century annotator writing in that book’s flyleaf, who rhetorically queried, “Why is this soe long detained in a dark manuscript, that if printed would be a Light to the World, & a Universal Blessing?”
For sheer miraculousness in the capricious contingency of the Lord, the most striking example of such a discovery is described by Kimberly Johnson in Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry, where she writes that a “manuscript of visionary, rhapsodic work in mixed genre called Commentaries of Heaven… was rescued, half-burning and stinking, from a Lancashire trash heap in 1967.” Singed and still smoking, these singular papers were chanced upon by a man scouring the trash yard for discarded car parts. If said scavenger had been tardy in his scrounging, those verses would have been sent heavenward like the images of luminescence which permeate Traherne’s poetry. Helpful to remember the argument of Fernando Baez in A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq, who explained that when it comes to books, sometimes ironically, “Fire is salvation.” Such power to “conserve life is also a destructive power,” for fire allows us to play “God, master of the fire of life and death.” After all, we often “destroy what we love,” and if there is anything at the center of Traherne’s poetry it is the ecstasies of God’s obscured love, absconded away in lost books hidden at the center of fiery whirlwinds.
A parable worthy of Traherne: hidden scripture as a variety of burnt offering upon the pyre of the Lord, in the form of a smoldering Lancashire garbage heap. Browned paper blackening and curling at the edges, atoms of ink evaporated and stripped to their base elementals, literature reduced to an ash where poetry can no longer be read, but must rather be inhaled. Fortunate that Commentaries of Heaven was found, and yet there is a profundity in disappearing verse; the poem written, but not read; consideration of all which is beautiful that has been lost, penned for the audience of God alone. In that golden, glowing ember of such a profane place as a garbage dump, there is an approach to what literary historian Michael Schmidt references in his Lives of the Poets as Traherne’s “Images of light – starlight, pure light” as belonging to the “fields of heaven and eternity.”
As metaphysical conceit, the manuscript was not simply a burning tangle of paper, but it was as if finding God himself in the trash fire, where the words “Who cannot pleas far more the Worlds! & be/A Bliss to others like the Deitie” were rescued from an oblivion of fire. Baez writes that by “destroying, we ratify this ritual of permanence, purification, and consecration.” After all, it was presumably only the heat and light that drew the scavenger’s attention, a brief moment when the volume could announce its existence before it would be forever burnt up like a Roman candle, lest it rather forever mold and rot. Baez writes that “we bring to the surface” through flammability, there is a restitution of “equilibrium, power or transcendence.” To burn sparks a light; to enflame such poetry is to set a purifying fire, and to find such an engulfed volume is to encounter a glowing divinity on the road from Lancashire. Traherne, the burning poet, who wrote “O fire of heaven! I sacred Light / How fair and bright, / How great am I, / Whom all the world doth magnify!”
Categorized as a “metaphysical poet,” of which Dr. Samuel Johnson in his 1781 Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets described as being “men of learning” only interested “to show their learning.” Dr. Johnson infamously defined the metaphysical poets, 17th-century figures including John Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and (sometimes) Andrew Marvell, as trading in clever metaphorical conceits whereby “the most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together.” In Donne’s verse, for example, two lovers could be described as the arms of a compass, or as Herbert’s devotional poetry took on the shape of objects he describes, as in “The Altar” from his 1633 The Temple. Often dismissed as more concerned with cleverness than depth, wit rather than rectitude, T.S. Elliot would refer to them as a “generation more often named then read.” Defense of the metaphysical poets was a modernist endeavor, begun by criticism like Elliot’s 1921 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, so that eventually the movement came to be regarded as the exemplar of the late English Renaissance.
Traherne’s identification as a metaphysical, especially concerning his erudition and his religious enthusiasms, makes a certain sense. Yet he is less fleshy (and flashy) than Donne, less conventionally pious than Herbert, less political than Marvell, and nearest in tenor to Vaughan. It’s true that they share mystical affinities, even while the enthusiasms of the former are far more optimistic than those of the later. Yet Vaughan, associated with that philosophical circle the Cambridge Platonists, was privy to circulation—to being read and written about—to in short, influence. Traherne, by contrast, scribbled in obscurity. In designating him a member of such a group, we should remember that he had no influence on the rest of that school, for they hadn’t read him. But as Schmidt writes, “Such obliquity doesn’t obscure the material world; it illuminates what exists beyond it.” Traherne may be a poet outside of history and a creature without canon, but his audience is in eternity.
Dr. Johnson wouldn’t have read him a century later, either. For that matter, Elliot wouldn’t have been able to read the majority of work attributed to Traherne, since the initial rediscoveries of the poet’s work only saw print little more than a decade before “The Metaphysical Poets” was published in TLS. More apt to think of Traherne as being a poetic movement of one, for when reading his cracked verse, with its often-surreal content and its ecstatic declarations, it’s just as easy to see Emily Dickinson as Donne, William Blake as Herbert. If anything, a blind analysis of Traherne’s poetry could lead a reader to think that this was verse by an exuberant Romantic, a mystical transcendentalist, a starry-headed Beat burning in the dynamo of the night.
Consider his startlingly modern lyric “The Person,” where Traherne writes of “The naked things” that “Are most sublime, and brightest.” Inheritor of a Christian tradition of our innate fallenness, Traherne focuses on the divine immanence that permeates creation, as well as that transcendence that nature points towards. Nature is precisely not fallen, as when Traherne writes that “When they alone are seen: / Men’s hands than Angel’s wings / Are truer wealth even here below.” An almost exact contemporary of the Dutch Sephardic Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Traherne evidences that pantheistic fervor which understands creator and creation to be synonymous, arguing for direct experience of the noumenal, for their “worth they then do best reveal, /When we all metaphors remove, /For metaphors conceal.”
Traherne argues for divine language, a semiotics that approaches the thing-in-itself, poetry of experience that recognizes metaphor as idolatry, for the “best are blazon’d when we see / The anatomy, / Survey the skin, cut up the flesh, the veins / Unfold, the glory there remains: / The muscles, fibers, arteries and bones / Are better far than crowns and precious stones.” When Traherne wrote, Puritan typologists investigated scripture and nature alike for evidence of predestined fallenness; when Traherne wrote, Christian apologists charted irreconcilable differences between language and our world after Eden. But Traherne, rather, chose to write in that lost tongue of Paradise. His was an encomium to direct experience, an account of what the very marrow of life thus ingested did taste like. A language which in its immediacy seems both shockingly current and as ancient as gnostic parchment. Encapsulated in his poetry there is something not just of his era, but of all eras, occluded though that eternal message may be.
Demonstration of Stuart Kelly’s description in The Book of Lost Books of “an alternative history of literature, an epitaph and a wake, a hypothetical library and an elegy to what might have been.” Traherne’s poetry was written during years of first Puritan Interregnum and then High Church Restoration, but for either authority the poet’s views would be idiosyncratic. Detecting intimations of consciousness on the moon and in the sea, dreaming of both angels and aliens when he “saw new worlds beneath the water like, / New people; ye another sky.” Marcus writes that Traherne couldn’t “be entirely defended against charges of heresy,” which might have been an issue had anyone read his poetry.
Arguments can be proffered that Traherne was a pantheist who believed that nature was equivalent with God, that he was a Pelagian who denied the existence of original sin, or that he was a universalist who anticipated eternal salvation for all. A poet for whom the human body is to be celebrated, who would opine that “Men are Images of GOD carefully put into a Beautiful Case,” who with urgency would maintain that the souls of man are “Equal to the Angels” and that our bodies could be reserved for the “most Glorious Ends.” With antinomian zeal, Traherne argues that “through many Obstacles full of gross and subterraneous Darkness, which seem to affright and stifle the Soul,” the individual who transgresses will find themselves “at last to a new Light and Glory.” He evokes Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell a century before his fellow visionary would engrave his plates.
In Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake, Leo Damrosch accurately describes Blake’s verse as presenting infinity “here and now in the real world we inhabit, not far away in unimaginable endlessness. Eternity, likewise, is present in each moment of lived experience,” but so too is this a description of Traherne. Evocations of not just Blake, but Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism, for when Traherne describes God as “a Sphere like Thee of Infinite Extent: an Ey without walls; All unlimited & Endless Sight,” do we not hear the 19th-century American philosopher’s wish to “become a transparent eye-ball?” When Emily Dickinson sings of “Wild nights – Wild nights!” do we not hear Traherne chanting with declarative exclamation mark of “O ravishing and only pleasure!”
And when Walt Whitman wrote in his 1855 Leaves of Grass that “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” we are reminded of Traherne’s conviction that “all we see is ours, and every One / Possessor of the While.” Traherne anticipates Whitman’s “conviction that all the world’s loveliness belongs to him,” as Marcus describes it, the two bards united in the faith that “although the world was made for him alone, it was made for every other single human being just as it was for him.” Traherne derived his ethic from Psalm 139, an orthodoxy holding that we must “praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” But from scripture Traherne finds a heterodoxy which plumbs the city that “seemed to stand in Eden, or to be Built in Heaven.” In this New Jerusalem, Traherne would list with a catalogue of Whitmanesque regularity that the “Streets were mine, the Temple was mine, the People were mine; their Clothes and Gold and Silver were mine, as much as their Sparkling Eyes, Fair Skins and ruddy faces.”
Such similarities could lead one to assume that Whitman had a copy of Traherne as he gripped notebook and looked out on the brackish waters of New York Harbor writing of those “Crowds of men and women attired in usual costumes, how curious you are to me!”, or that Emerson considered the poet in his Concord manse—save for the fact that it’s impossible. Such are the vagaries of the lost man, the hidden poet who sings of “room and liberty, breathing place and fresh-air among the Antipodes,” this gospel of “passing on still through those inferior Regions that are under… feet, but over the head.” Traherne wrote in the 17th century, but he seemingly had memory of all those who came after. all those women and men who echo him even though they could never have heard him, who came to “another Skie… and leaving it behind… [sunk] down into the depths of all Immensity.”
Writing poetry from a position of eternity, Traherne presents a fascinating anomaly of what Johnson describes as “poetic inspiration,” for until 1896, or 1967, or 1996, or 1997, Traherne couldn’t have inspired any of those poets who are so similar to him. Blake or Dickinson had never picked up a volume of his verse. Traherne’s very life is oddly yet appropriately allegorical, his liturgy concerned with this “preeminent figure… [of] the Unknowable,” as Johnson describes it. She writes that at the heart of devotional poetry is the “perceptual inaccessibility of the divine,” defined by the “fundamental principle of mystery and unknowability.” How perfect then is Traherne’s verse, lost in libraries or singed in trash fires, hidden from view until revealed like some ecstatic epiphany? In the book of Acts, St. Paul speaks to a group of Athenians about their shrine to the “Unknown God.” Traherne is our “Unknown Poet,” overturning our ideas of influence and inspiration, whose work with a mysterious, thrumming electricity courses through the lines of oblivious Whitman or the stanzas of unaware Dickinson, as powerful as magnetism and as invisible as gravity.
Prisoners of linear time that we are, hard to understand that the vagaries of influence don’t simply flow from past to future. When Traherne celebrates “every Mote in the Air, every Grain of Dust, every Sand, every Spire of Grass” that is “wholly illuminated,” do we not detect Whitman? When he sings of “O heavenly Joy!” do we not hear Dickinson? In Traherne’s “On Leaping Over the Moon,” one of his oddest and most beautiful lyrics, I like to imagine that when he writes “I saw new worlds beneath the water lie, / New people; ye, another sky” and where in “travel see, and saw by night / A much more strange and wondrous sight” that what he espied were Blake and Whitman, Dickinson and Allen Ginsburg, you and me. Traherne is a poet who wrote for an audience that had not yet been born—perhaps still has yet to be born.
From his poem “Shadows in the Water” he writes of how “Thus did I by the water’s bring / Another world beneath me think: / And while the lofty spacious skies / Reversed there, abused mine eyes, / I fancied other feet / Came mine to touch or meet; / And by some puddle I did play / Another world within it lay,” so that I imagine Traherne saw nothing less than that other world which is our own, looking onto the mirror of the water’s surface as if it were a portal to this parallel dimension, these “spacious regions” of “bright and open space,” where he sees people with “Eyes, hands and feet they had like mine; / Another sun did with them shine.” There is hopefully a future yet to come, where “chanced another world to meet… A phantom, ‘tis a world indeed, / Where skies beneath us shine, / And earth by art divine / Another face presents below, / Where people’s feet against ours go,” for in scribbling in secrecy what poet has addressed himself more perfectly to people yet to be imagined?
Proper understanding relies on imagination, not just the role played in his composition, but Traherne’s strange status as imagined literature (for whatever manuscripts await to be plucked from burning trash heaps?). Alberto Manguel, writing with Borgesian elegance, argues in The Library at Night that “Every library conjures up its own dark ghost; every ordering sets up, in its wake, a shadow library of absences.” What is most sublime and wondrous about Traherne are not just his literal words on a page, but how we can’t disentangle him from what could have been lost, what perhaps still remains lost, and that which is lost forever. Perhaps in book stalls or trash fires there is more undiscovered Traherne; more rhapsodic, even more visionary than which we’ve been blessed enough to read. Traherne makes the comparison that an “Empty Book is like an Infants Soul, in which any Thing may be Written. It is Capable of all Things” and so is the infinite multitude of not just Traherne’s writings which we shall never read, but the full magnitude of all writings that we shall never see.
Traherne’s magnum opus exists in the gaps, written in the lacunas, on a scroll kept inside the distance between that which is known and that which can never be found. Traherne describes this place as a “Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not man disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God.” Poetry of empty sepulchers and disembodied tombs, of empty rooms and cleared shelves; a liturgy of the Holy of Holies which contains no idol, but only a single, deafening, immaculate absence. At the Temple’s center there is that ever tended, ever burning, ever consuming fire which gives off that sublime heat and light, where Traherne could imagine with prescient clarity that “From God above / Being sent, the Heavens me enflame: / To praise his Name / The stars do move! / The burning sun doth shew His love.” Power of such words written in light, heat, and flame. Such books can burn sacred holes in our soul, a holy immolation in our hearts, giving off that intense light, which diffuse though it may be awaits those eyes that have yet to be born generations hence.
Image: Flickr/Ernest Denim