“Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.” -Andrew Marvell, 1681
Sometime in 1612, the genius dramatist, unofficial Poet Laurette, and all-around Falstaffian personality that was the writer Ben Jonson imagined a sort of epic voyage down London’s now-long-lost Fleet River. Jonson’s epic concerned neither the harrowing of hell, nor the loss of Paradise, or at least it didn’t do either in quite the manner that Dante had or that Milton would. Rather, Jonson envisioned the travails of his characters on this industrial Styx as less sacred and more profane, lacking transcendence but making up for it in the sheer fecundity of sewage that floated upon the canal that today flows underneath the bohemian environs of Camden Town, and whose tinkling can be heard through sewer grates in Clerkenwell.
In Jonson’s mock-epic “On the Famous Voyage,” the bucolic and pastoral have been replaced with offal and shit, where “Arses were heard to croak, instead of frogs,” and a thick crust called “Ycleped Mud” composed of excrement and refuse was known to bob like moss on the surface of the water. So disgusting are the noxious fumes from both commerce and latrine that Jonson’s fellow colleague, the poet Sir John Harrington, would write in his 1586 A New Discourse of a Stale Subject Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax that such smells “are two of those pains of Hell…and therefore I have endeavored in my poor buildings to avoid those two inconveniences as much as I may.” And so, at his manor of Kelston, he constructed the forerunner of the modern flushing toilet.
Conventions of pastoral poetry often had characters with names like Strephon and Chloe in repose upon halcyon shores; Jonson’s is rather a sort of anti-pastoral, one in keeping with the grime and dirt that increasingly defined his era. On the Fleet River, “The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs, /The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs.” Flowing from the center green of the city out to the Thames, the Fleet was polluted with the garbage of nascent industry, a slick, oily stream; a fetid and beshitted, offal-filled cesspool, made glistening with the rendering of animal fat and the corpses of dogs and cats. Notorious prisons like Ludgate and Newgate were on the banks of that now-subterranean river; plague-ridden slums filled with rural transplants clung to the brown shores of the Fleet.
In his delightful A Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England, social historian Ian Mortimer describes the privies that would have been in homes lining rivers like the Fleet: a “twelve-foot shaft of several hundred gallons of decomposing excrement and urine…seeping into the clay, for two or three years.” Mortimer reminds us, however, that though “Noisome smells and noxious fumes are common” in early modern England, this “does not mean that people do not notice them.” Indeed, both the population growth of London as well as the beginnings of mass industry, from leather tanning to wool dying, would have wafted new smells into the nostrils of the English. As Jonson wrote with infernal gleam, “Your Fleet Lane Furies…That, with still-scalding streams, make this place hell.”
Filth had been a topic of literary expression long before Jonson, one only read Geoffrey Chaucer, Francois Rabelais, or Giovani Boccaccio to know that poets have long sung not just of heaven, but of the asshole, the piss-bucket, and the privy as well. I’d venture that “On the Famous Voyage” does something a little bit different than the scatological depictions in The Canterbury Tales, however. Because Jonson’s London was so much bigger than Chaucer’s, because it was just beginning to be ensnared in the environmental degradations of industrialization, the scope of the olfactory and hygienic assault is greater than a Medieval writer could have imagined. “On the Famous Voyage” is satirical verse, yes; but it’s also an ecological poem.
Almost three centuries before the Romantic poet William Blake would castigate the “dark Satanic Mills” of Britain’s industrial revolution, Jonson gave expression to misgivings about how London was quickly erasing nature in the name of mercantile aspiration. Throughout the 16th-century, London expanded from the former sleepy agrarian capital of a sleepy agrarian kingdom into what would soon be the largest city on Earth. Around when Jonson was born, the city’s population was roughly 70,000 people; by the time he wrote “On the Famous Voyage,” it had grown to 200,000. Only a half-century later and London was home to half-a-million women and men. Emily Cockayne writes in Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England that “London was a wealthy bustling and expanding city, but infrastructural development could not keep pace and parts of the city became increasingly crowded, dirty and noisy.” Jonson didn’t just speak of dirt, he sang about waste; he didn’t just talk of filth, he was revulsed at garbage. “On the Famous Voyage” was among the first of what critics call ecopoems, and that’s because it’s an early missive from the beginning of our current geological epoch of the Anthropocene.
That term has become recently trendy in academic discussions of literature, a designation borrowed from geologists and climatologists to clarify the ways in which the Earth has been inextricably altered by humanity. With coinage frequently credited to the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, the Anthropocene is supposed to define our current era, when people have (mostly for worse) altered the environment of the world in such a way that we’ve become the dominate actor and force in the acidity of the ocean, the thickness of the ozone layer, the very temperature of the planet. Legal scholar Jedediah Purdy explains in After Nature: A Politics of the Anthropocene that “we have made the world our anthill: the geological layers we are now laying down on the earth’s surface are marked by our chemicals and other industrial emissions, the pollens of our crops, and the absence of the many species we have driven to extinction.”
Scientists disagree on when it’s appropriate to mark the beginnings of the Anthropocene. As the period is most spectacularly defined by anthropogenic climate catastrophe, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, with its harnessing of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, would seem an appropriate starting point. Others identify the Anthropocene’s creation moment as recently as the Trinity test of the first atomic bomb in 1945, to as long as 10 millennia ago when agriculture first emerged on the silty banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. At the risk of betraying my own early-modern-minded myopia, a credible case could be made for Jonson’s era as the dawn of the Anthropocene, which would have certain implications for how we read him and his compatriots in our own day, when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report concludes that we may have less than a decade to avert the worst results of global warming.
There are social, cultural, technological, and economic reasons for understanding the 16th and 17th centuries as the earliest decades of the Anthropocene. By Jonson’s birth there had already been a century of the Columbian Exchange, whereby the flora and fauna of the western and eastern hemispheres, which had been separated for millions of years, suddenly circumnavigated the world in a flurry of trade that radically altered the planet. Many of the economic and social trends that we associate with modernity—colonialism, globalization, and capitalism—see their start in Jonson’s century. The Renaissance also helps us to understand the interactions between climate and humanity, as the women and men of Jonson’s day were in the midst of what’s been called the “Little Ice Age.” During that period, temperatures plummeted, possibly due to the reforestation of North America brought about by plague and genocide that decimated native populations. Arguably, this process didn’t end until the cumulative effect of the Industrial Revolution’s mass emissions of carbon-dioxide began to warm the planet—obviously an ongoing process. During those years of snow and ice, Europe appeared radically different from the way it does today, as accounts of Tudor fairs upon the frozen Thames or the grey winter paintings of Peter Breughel attest. Philipp Blom in Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present writes that “Climate change…affected everyone. There was no escaping the weather.” What’s crucial to remember is that though the thermometer’s mercury was headed in a different direction than it is today, the weather of Jonson’s day was also shaped profoundly by the affairs of people.
An important result of humanity’s changed relationship to nature—the alteration that defines the Anthropocene—is the emergence of new urban spaces, new relationships between people and place that fundamentally changed the experience of what it means to be an inhabitant of Earth. Something new in “On the Famous Voyage:” Jonson has produced a literature that isn’t just about hygiene (or the lack thereof) but about mass pollution. For such lyrics to be written, the conditions of crowded, filthy, industrialized urbanity were required. “On the Famous Voyage” is about environmental collapse. Though rarely thought of as such, Jonson is an ecopoet at the precise moment in history when we redefined our relationship to nature—for the worse. Which is precisely what begs for a reevaluation of not just Jonson, but that entire tribe of under-read 17th-century poets whom he influenced and that called themselves the “Tribe of Ben,” posterity remembering them (when it does) as the Cavalier poets. Writers like Robert Herrick, John Suckling, Thomas Carew, Richard Lovelace, and most famous of them, though only occasionally categorized in their company, Andrew Marvell. Editor Miriam K. Starkman writes in her introduction to 17th-Century English Poetry that for the Cavalier poets, “External nature is…[the] most direct referent, source of beauty, joy, and mutability.”
For the Cavaliers, the pastoralism of classical poets like Hesiod and Virgil had much to recommend. One of their favored genres was the “country-house poem,” where their ecological concerns become apparent. In Jonson’s 1616 “To Penshurst,” he described the manor of Sir Richard Sidney with a language very different from that which he deployed four years earlier in his panegyric to the Fleet River. In “To Penshurst” Jonson extols this estate with its “better marks, of soil, of air, /Of wood, of water,” this “lower land, that to the river bends, /Thy sheep, they bullocks, kine, and calves do feed;/The middle grounds they mares and horses breed.” Jonson’s is a rhetoric of Eden, with prelapsarian tongue he describes:
…thy orchard fruit, they garden flowers, hurstFresh as the air, and new as are the hours. The early cherry, with the later plum, Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come;The blushing apricot and wooly peachHang on thy walls, that every child may reach.
Such prelapsarian evocation of Eden is a common
trope in country-house poems, what Starkman described as “vague overtones of a faded
fragrance, a world just lost.” Unlike the Puritan, the Cavalier does not simply
mourn paradises lost, but rather preserves a bit of that charged immanence
within nature as it is now, acknowledging for the possibility of transcendence
just below surface appearances. What the country-house poem presents is paradise
in verse, a lyric crafted by the human mind as surely as a garden is planted by
human hands, with the verse itself becoming a type of perfection that you can
step into. Consider Jonson’s clear influence in Marvell’s almost-perfect 1681 “Upon
Ripe apples drop about my head;The luscious clusters of the vineUpon my mouth do crush their wine;The nectarine and curious peachInto my hands themselves do reach;Stumbling on melons as I pass, Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.
By imagining a world without the fall, poems such as these query us with the possibility of a future where the fall has been reversed, where the exploitation of nature is ceased. “On the Famous Voyage,” with its bawdy, earthy, fecal corporality may seem a long distance from Penshurst Palace. Yet pastoralism and its discontents are actually part of the same project; the disjunct between depicting nature in its abundance as well as the exploitation of the environment share a similar ideological underpinning. Starkman explains that for the Cavaliers, there is a “stoical awareness of the tragedy of Nature, the garden of innocence violated by experience.” Whether writing about bucolic orchards or shit-contaminated rivers, whether talking of nature or its violation, what these poems take as their subject is the environment. What their critics might say they lack in ingenuity, the Cavaliers more than make up in ecological prescience.
Drawing inspiration from Jonson’s verse, the Cavaliers have historically (and with much reductionism) been made to contrast with the other dominant tradition of 17th-century English poetry, the metaphysical school influenced by John Donne, and including George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Thomas Traherne. Owing much to a distinction made by Dr. Johnson (of no relation to Ben) in his 1781 Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, the author described the Cavalier as being concerned with “sprightliness and dignity,” a verse which “endeavors to be gay,” where the poetry is “liberally supplied with… soft images; for beauty is more easily found.” By contrast, Dr. Johnson saw the metaphysicals as writing poetry where the “most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and illusions.” Something, perhaps, to be observed in the fact that where the Cavaliers were content to observe nature, the metaphysicals mined the environment for metaphors, as if they were a precious non-renewable resource hidden below the broken crust of the world. Poetry such as Donne’s was defined by the so-called “metaphysical conceit,” the deployment of a metaphor that was surprising and novel—Dr. Johnson’s “heterogenous ideas… yoked by violence together.”
If the Cavaliers were plain-spoken, the metaphysicals were sophisticated; the former literal and physical, the latter metaphorical and spiritual; the first were backward-looking pastoral conservatives, the second forward-looking aesthetic radicals. Not to mention the coming political and sectarian splits of the English civil wars, with the Cavaliers (true to their courtly name) associated with High Church religion while fighting on behalf of the Royalist cause. John Stubbs writes in Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War that “the cavaliers were elegant gentlemen, chivalrous if sometimes dissipated,” though by contrast their political adversaries “the roundheads were religious and social revolutionaries.” Such a difference could presumably be seen in their writing. Cavalier verse lends itself to the almost pagan imagery of a poem like Herrick’s 1648 “The Argument to His Book,” which indeed could be read as an ars poetica for the entire tradition:
I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers:Of April, May, of June, and July-flower.I sing of Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakesOf bride-grooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.I write of youth, of love and have accessBy these, to sing of cleanly-wantonness.
Nobody would mistake that sentiment for a Puritan ethos. Yet there is a simplicity to the traditional division; it implies that the Cavaliers lacked in Christianity (though Herrick was a priest), or that the metaphysicals lacked in sensuality—and anybody who has read Donne knows that that’s not the case. Literary historians often still teach the split between those two 17th-century literary traditions as an archetypal and Manichean struggle between abstraction and literalism, metaphysical sophistication and sentimental pastoralism. Despite the crudeness of such a formulation, there is a romanticism in understanding seventeenth-century poetry as divided between the head of the Puritan and the heart of the Cavalier. Scholar Earl Miner observes in an essay included in the Norton Critical Edition of Ben Jonson and the Cavalier Poets that the Cavalier ideal “reflects many things: a conservative outlook, a response to a social threat, classical recollections, love of a very English way of life, and a new blending of old ideas.”
Dr. Johnson, it should be said, cared not for the metaphysicals; his poetic conservatism and political royalism predisposed him to the Cavaliers, but this is a position that has not been commonly held for a very long time. For the literary modernists of the early 20th-century, the Cavaliers seemed naïve, sentimental, simple, pastoral; poet T.S. Eliot in his 1922 essay on the metaphysicals argued that “civilization comprehends great variety and complexity… The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.” For Eliot and others like him, the metaphysicals with their ingenious and sophisticated rhetoric, their complexity and abstraction, were a model to be emulated, and the Cavaliers, well, not so much.
The result is that the Cavaliers have seen a critical eclipse over the course of the last 10 decades. The metaphysicals dwelled amongst the stars, but the Cavaliers were content to muck in the dirt, and perhaps to dwell upon the beauty of the rosebuds while they were there. The ideology of the Cavalier was seen as hopelessly archaic when confronting the complexity of modernity. Not for nothing, the Cavaliers—and their royalist political program—are associated with Maypoles and Mummer parades, feast-days and carnival, and all the rest of the lackadaisical accoutrement conflated with a Merry Old England swept aside by Puritanism and modern capitalism. The Cavalier is thus a figure of naïve romanticism, Stubbs writing of how “Everyone can picture him…with his lovelocks, his broad hat, his mantle and bucket-topped boots, the basked handled rapier at his side, a buskin covering his satin doublet.” It’s true that the Cavaliers were often aristocratic (though not always), often royalist (though some like Marvell equivocated with chameleon-like urgency depending on politics), and that their verse could be plain-spoken and conservative (though deceptively so).
But we need not abandon them because of their embrace of a royalist politics; we need not obscure them because they spoke not to Eliot, or because modernists didn’t find their verse sufficiently complicated. To slur the Cavaliers as “conservative” is to perform a political category mistake; it’s to impose the conditions of the present day onto a period where exact corollaries are impossible to find. Michael Schmidt writes in Lives of the Poets that the Cavaliers mark the “beginnings of a literary tradition that takes pastoral convention into the actual countryside and finds in the harmony between nature and nurture a civilizing theme.” They have at the core of their ethics an understanding about an inseparable connection between nature and humanity that is almost “pagan in attitude.” For all of their reputation as being steadfastly traditionalist, and as much as their enthusiasms for the Caroline regime strike us as reactionary, the Cavaliers’ embrace of nature does have a radical message, standing as it does in opposition to the environmental exploitation that in our current day takes us to the precipice of complete collapse.
Stubbs described how the “cavalier and the puritan are potent archetypes. The puritan upholds the work ethic and the will to give up pleasure, scourging the soul for flaws. In the cavalier we have the individualist, more attuned to the passing moment and in greater touch with his desires.” How could we not recommend them, the Cavaliers, standing as they did in opposition to positivism, Puritanism, and privatization—forces that threaten to destroy our world—at the precise moment when those forces first emerged? Often dismissed for lacking seriousness, for their enthusiasm for sport and drink, for their indulgence, foppery, and libertinism, could we not identify such values as precisely those that should be valorized? Could we not see in their celebration of fairs, feasts, festivals, flora, and fauna a denunciation of work, industry, commerce, and all the rest of the alienated soullessness that now threatens us with ecological collapse?
Now is the precise moment to consider the earliest body of eco-poems ever penned—at the moment when the Anthropocene dawned. There is as much of Extinction Rebellion in Cavalier poetry as there is royalism. In embracing nature, they rejected the Puritanism that threatens our world, and in the process, what emerged was a powerful aesthetic of “Anarchopastoralism.” Schmidt writes that a “long time must pass before an anachronism is released back into time,” but if ever there was a moment to embrace the radical ecopoetics of the Cavaliers and their Anarchopastoralism, it’s in our current warm winter of the late Anthropocene. Too often dismissed by the ruthless individualists of modernism as embarrassing throwbacks engaged in Medieval affectations, the Cavaliers actually offered a complex meditation on the relationship of humanity to nature, and how the violation of the later compels the same for the former.
What the modernists saw as so rightly evocative in metaphysical poetry—the abstraction, the ingenuity, the philosophical sophistication—is arguably the foundation of the very alienation that has so easily separated us from nature; an inadvertent capitulation to the inhuman perspective that treats both people and the environment as mere commodities. This is not to blame the metaphysicals—that would be absurd, and I’m too much in love with the verse of Donne and Herbert to ever countenance such a thing. Besides, I may argue that the Cavaliers are more than just charming, but it’d be a hard claim to count Lovelace the poetic equal of Donne. What the metaphysical poets did accomplish, however, is a certain achievement of abstraction; a product of the age that allowed for mechanistic metaphors for human anatomy, where the French philosopher Rene Descartes could argue contra all experience that animals are simply little machines. Such a perspective is one that hasn’t unsurprisingly pushed us deeper into the Anthropocene.
To court reductionism once again, it’s the Puritanism that’s so dangerous in the metaphysicals, but we might yet be saved by the paganism in the Cavaliers; we may yet find our proper relationship to what Herrick called the “civil wilderness.” Stubbs writes that the “puritan is more dominant in recent times, present in the astonishing intellectual and physical achievements of the modern era—achieved at crushing human cost.” Might we not find room for the Cavalier then? For theirs is a theology that Starkman described as “under the influences of Neo-Platonism,” a “sensibility…well on its way to secular transcendentalism,” where nature “is divine.”
Perhaps the most crucial, if most subtle, difference between the metaphysicals and the Cavaliers is in their approach towards time, mutability, finality, and death. With a touch of critical eccentricity, I claim that for the metaphysicals their approach to the hereafter is one of memento mori, but for that of the Cavalier it’s carpe diem. The first refers to the approach that asks a penitent to forever remember while they are alive that one day, they shall be dead; the second is the exhortation that because you’ll shall be dead one day, you must “Seize the day” in the present. Memento mori is the aesthetic of spoiled fruit and time-glasses depicted in Dutch vanitas paintings; it’s the winged skull on a Puritan’s grave. Carpe diem, by contrast, is the drained wine-glass, the chicken bone cleared of meat. Not necessarily mutually exclusive positions, but as aesthetics they differ by giving the metaphysicals a gloss of piety, prayer, and death-obsession; the Cavaliers one of a lusty embrace of the moment. Carpe diem is the convention that allows Herrick to implore virgins to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, /Old Time is still a-flying;/And this same flower that smiles today/To-morrow will be dying.”
While often simply read as an injunction to live life to the fullest, Stubbs correctly notes how this poem from Herrick’s 1648 Hesperides is “almost an austere lyric.” For lacking the apparent sobriety of memento mori, poems read as carpe diem are counter-intuitively more severe. Without claiming that any of the poets across both traditions were anything other than (mostly) orthodox Christians, the differences between a memento mori and a carpe diem perspective are crucial. While it would seem that the later would encourage us to live a life that could be wasteful, the opposite is actually true. Without the consolations of eternity, we are to make our lives as fit as possible while we’re actually living them, for when “now to the abyss I pass” (as Marvell wrote in 1651), any continued action becomes an impossibility.
What the ecopoetics of the Cavaliers offer us, in this era where (to repurpose a lyric of Carew), “the winters [are] gone, the earth hath lost/Her snow-whited robes, and now no more the frost/Candies the grasse, or casts an ycie creame/Vpon the silver Lake, or Chyrstall streame,” is a type of wisdom. Memento mori may ask us to reflect on the singularity of our own death, yet such a view presupposes a passing moment separating this life from the next, an entrance into eternity where all may be reconciled, all may be answered, all may be saved. But we can’t wait for such a moment of enlightenment, or for saviors other than ourselves to provide entrance into the next scene. Carpe diem, contrary to its reputation, does not necessarily hold such a naive faith. What “Gather ye rosebuds” reminds us of is not just our own mortality, but that of Arcadia as well. It’s an elegy for a dying world. The Cavalier intuits that the garden is not a symbol for anything higher; the garden is all that we have—and it’s good enough. Now our task is to preserve it.
“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