To coincide with the Davenant Press’s publication of The Shining Human Creature: Christian Ethics Vol. 1 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.
“Innocence” is a poem which continues in the theme of fae (or, as we referred to it in our last post, fairy tale).
Tolkien said in “On Fairy-Stories” that, in humans, the power of the logos is such as to allow us the ability to abstract “green” from grass, and “hot” from the sun, and “hard” from rocks such that we are capable of thinking the hard grass, or the green sun, or the soft red rocks.
Here we can see that power displayed by Traherne as he forces us to mentally build out what “summer in December” would mean. And of course, many of our mental image-ings turn out to be real. There are in fact soft red rocks which flow like water, and(in some viewing conditions) green suns, and bamboo is a grass hard enough to be used for caning! So too the antipodes offer summer in December. Much more of what we can imagine may turn out to be real in ways we don’t expect.
But the earthly reality (or not) of these things is not what matters to Tolkien or to Traherne’s readers. Rather we are supposed to encounter such strangeness and notice the contingent nature of the reality we live inside of. We are supposed to reach out and touch the walls of the dungeon we find ourselves in. The noticing of the dungeon is the first step in any escape attempt. We must get out of the dark so that our souls can be “full of light.”
The mystical orientation of this poetry is intentional. Traherne might not look like a mystic with his Oxford education and his 17th century outfit, but mystics are just as possible in a London tea room as they are in the Egyptian desert. In fact we’d do best if we imagine Traherne at tea welcoming us into the room with him. “If you want,” Traherene gestures you over to sit across from him, “if you want you don’t have to remain where you are, as you are…” He holds up his hands as one by one the fingers begin to glow with the inner luminance of a newly born fire on the end of a candle stick “…if you want you can become all flame.”
– Colin Chan Redemer, Poetry Editor
by Thomas Traherne
But that which most I wonder at, which most
I did esteem my bliss, which most I boast,
And ever shall enjoy, is that within
I felt no stain, nor spot of sin.
No darkness then did overshade,
But all within was pure and bright,
No guilt did crush, nor fear invade
But all my soul was full of light.
A joyful sense and purity
Is all I can remember;
The very night to me was bright,
’Twas summer in December.
A serious meditation did employ
My soul within, which taken up with joy
Did seem no outward thing to note, but fly
All objects that do feed the eye.
While it those very objects did
Admire, and prize, and praise, and love,
Which in their glory most are hid,
Which presence only doth remove.
Their constant daily presence I
Rejoicing at, did see;
And that which takes them from the eye
Of others, offer’d them to me.
No inward inclination did I feel
To avarice or pride: my soul did kneel
In admiration all the day. No lust, nor strife,
Polluted then my infant life.
No fraud nor anger in me mov’d,
No malice, jealousy, or spite;
All that I saw I truly lov’d.
Contentment only and delight
Were in my soul. O Heav’n! what bliss
Did I enjoy and feel!
What powerful delight did this
Inspire! for this I daily kneel.
Whether it be that nature is so pure,
And custom only vicious; or that sure
God did by miracle the guilt remove,
And make my soul to feel his love
So early: or that ’twas one day,
Wherein this happiness I found;
Whose strength and brightness so do ray,
That still it seems me to surround;
What ere it is, it is a light
So endless unto me
That I a world of true delight
Did then and to this day do see.
That prospect was the gate of Heav’n, that day
The ancient light of Eden did convey
Into my soul: I was an Adam there
A little Adam in a sphere
Of joys! O there my ravish’d sense
Was entertain’d in Paradise,
And had a sight of innocence
Which was beyond all bound and price.
An antepast of Heaven sure!
I on the earth did reign;
Within, without me, all was pure;
I must become a child again.