To coincide with the Davenant Press’s publication of Made Like the Maker: Christian Ethics Vol. 2 in a new modernization by Colin Chan Redemer, we are publishing a number of Traherne’s poems with brief accompanying thoughts from Colin. You can order the book here.
Thomas Traherne’s poem “News” is about something we should already know. And yet it is also about something we have yet to fully understand. It asks us to stand, wait, listen. Unlike some of his other poems, which are accused of romantic, constructive imaginings of a sinless world, this one is more liminal. It is a poem which opens by admitting that our treasures lie not in our own soul or in the place we call home, nor even in our own country. Rather, whatever joy we can get in this life is far, far away. The tension produced by our longing for that which we most desire, yet from which we are absent, is itself the theme of this poem. The desire to see, to hold and to be with the joy of one’s heart is something all travelers know. The return from weeks on the road to your own gate and your own front steps. To the door one can remember years ago painting just the shade of blue you picked out. Fumbling with the keys that have been jingling in your pocket for days, unused, selecting the right one to unlock the latch and smell a dinner you have eaten with relish many times before, and seeing there your favorite threadbare chair, well worn but more loved for it, before the fire; the children and spouse thrill at your return.
Of course in real life the scene doesn’t end there. The kids have needs and the spouse is frazzled, having managed the home in your absence, and needs immediate help washing the dishes. But Traherne here asks us to pause before all of this unfolds. Think about the day before the return home. Just when homesickness has begun to pique one’s interests. Perhaps the best depiction of this experience is the image of Mole from The Wind and the Willows who, after weeks living with Rat, one day on a hike catches a whiff of the scent of his old and humble hole. His nose twitches. He is immediately transfixed and wave after wave of memories flood over him. He wants to return. But sadly his journey is not over and his traveling companion has not received the same call, because he has not experienced the joys of Mole’s home. What is a Mole to do? How could Rat ever be moved to taste in the air the sweetness of Mole’s forsaken home?
Well the answer Traherne lands on is precisely the one on which the Scriptures land. Rat must have faith in the destination and trust in his guide, but to do that he must first hear. Just as Mole had to listen for the signs of his hole, so too Rat must listen to Mole, the witness of the signs, and trust him. This is the way that “secret goods” are always transmitted from person to person. From martyr to mere man. But to believe the message is to end up precisely where Traherne’s poem starts again: seeing That there is a person for whom the truth is because they are, who shows up at the center of everything, even though they are the destination we all aim for, no matter how far afield we go we find them there. And in that person alone the longings for home that rest in each human heart find their fulfillment. The question remains: Traherne, like Mole, has caught the scent of our heavenly home. Will you listen and follow?
by Thomas Traherne
News from a foreign country came, As if my treasures and my joys lay there; So much it did my heart inflame, ’T was wont to call my soul into mine ear; Which thither went to meet Th’ approaching sweet, And on the threshold stood To entertain the secret good; It hover’d there As if ’t would leave mine ear, And was so eager to embrace Th’ expected tidings as they came, That it could change its dwelling place To meet the voice of fame. As if new tidings were the things Which did comprise my wished unknown treasure, Or else did bear them on their wings, With so much joy they came, with so much pleasure, My soul stood at the gate To recreate Itself with bliss, and woo Its speedier approach; a fuller view It fain would take, Yet journeys back would make Unto my heart, as if ’t would fain Go out to meet, yet stay within, Fitting a place to entertain And bring the tidings in. What sacred instinct did inspire My soul in childhood with an hope so strong? What secret force mov’d my desire T’ expect my joys beyond the seas, so young? Felicity I knew Was out of view; And being left alone, I thought all happiness was gone From earth; for this I long’d for absent bliss, Deeming that sure beyond the seas, Or else in something near at hand Which I knew not, since nought did please I knew, my bliss did stand. But little did the infant dream That all the treasures of the world were by, And that himself was so the cream And crown of all which round about did lie. Yet thus it was! The gem, The diadem, The ring enclosing all That stood upon this earthen ball; The heav’nly eye, Much wider than the sky, Wherein they all included were; The love, the soul, that was the king Made to possess them, did appear A very little thing.