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.
One reader has written to me in response to the Traherne poems I have been offering on this blog. He noted that
“‘Eden’ seems to be a first look around upon emergence from the womb; ‘Innocence’ seems to be next, the start of infancy, “A little Adam in a sphere.” But I’m a bit anxious about the approaching toddlerhood: When does the stain of original sin soil his pristine diaper? Or – that sounds flippant.”
Flippant it may be, but perhaps if we were a bit more nimble, a bit more limber, then we would be able to recognize the value of precisely why we need to be flipped such that we reflexively jump to filip back at Traherne in turn. Our world is topsy-turvy, and no Christian who drinks the cup of Scripture to its dregs can deny it. Original sin is our origin. But in the beginning it was not so.
This past week while teaching a class on John Donne to some college students I slipped in a couple of poems including Traherne’s “The Salutation.” Upon telling the students that one or two of the poems was not like the others they immediately knew Traherne from Donne. Donne was writing “kinky poems about God” to quote a student. Traherne was equally interested in the body, but had a tenderness about him. He appreciates the body. Nowhere are our hearts battered, knocked, overthrown, broken, blown, burned or imprisoned. Neither, of course, are they ravished. Donne has his charms, undoubtedly. But there is a reason beyond his poetic skills which causes us to return to him. We, like the Lewis’ characters that struggle to believe in grace who I discussed in my introduction to “Eden”, are rather fond of our kinks. Perhaps you could say we are like toddlers obstinately playing with pocket toys in the back seat of the car because we cannot imagine what our parents mean by inviting us to go inside to a birthday party and new and wondrous gifts.
Here, in “The Salutation,” Traherne once again takes up the theme of the womb and of children. But ask: is he really interested in the children? To our knowledge he had none of his own. His interest, rather, is scientific–not in the dusty rationalist sense of that word, but in the queenly style of theology. The study of the ongoing embodiment of the existence of the children is the study of the created order–the created world as a whole!
In this, Traherne and Donne get closer to one another than in many other places. In “The Good-Morrow” Donne writes:
And now good-morrow to our waking souls, Which watch not one another out of fear; For love, all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere. Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone, Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown, Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.”
Compare to the below lines:
New burnished joys, Which yellow gold and pearls excel! Such sacred treasures are the limbs in boys, In which a soul doth dwell; Their organizèd joints and azure veins More wealth include than all the world contains.”
There’s a poetical insight offered to us which is hard to come to terms with, and none of us holds it as a truth for long. We pass by too many people each day. Or, at least I do, city dweller that I am. But even simply in my work I ping off of dozens, probably hundreds, of individual souls each day. “Can you check on the process we put in place last week? Please no salt on that, thanks. I need this by the end of the workday. Did you remember to get your jacket from class? Don’t forget tomorrow we’re having the Hamills over for dinner and we need a 32oz can of San Marzano tomatoes from the store, please put it on the list…” and on and on and on the mad rush goes. If Aristotle is right that we know ourselves to the extent that we know others–and I am not convinced he is entirely wrong–then we must confess the paucity of most of our human connections reveals an ugly self-ignorance, perhaps even some self-loathing.
We are blessed and lucky humans who can name, even on one hand, people we love. If we do it right we can come to see our spouse as something approaching what they really are. More likely we start to see our kids this way. We see in them—no, not in them, beyond and through them. We see they are agentic and created living images of the one true God who brought them into being because He longed to be with them. We see what they want in life, and how they may just go about getting it, we see the world as it is to them. Plato attempted to gain this insight for us by teaching us about Man as the micro-cosmos. I don’t know if the eyes are the windows into the soul or not. But I have come to know that when I interact with a human I am interacting with a whole world, an inner continent of unmapped territory. No one can live like this all the time. But taking the moments we have with one another to pause, breathe, and give thanks for one another and for the God that brought us all here–that’s all we have, really.
That same reader I quoted in the opening, above, ended his email by adding, “It’s sweet and beautiful stuff he writes.” I could not agree more.
by Thomas Traherne
These little limbs,
These eyes and hands which here I find,
These rosy cheeks wherewith my life begins,
Where have ye been? behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my speaking tongue?
When silent I
So many thousand, thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
How could I smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.
I that so long
Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear or tongue
To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Beneath the skies on such a ground to meet.
New burnished joys,
Which yellow gold and pearls excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs in boys,
In which a soul doth dwell;
Their organizèd joints and azure veins
More wealth include than all the world contains.
From dust I rise,
And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes,
A gift from God I take.
The earth, the seas, the light, the day, the skies,
The sun and stars are mine if those I prize.
Long time before
I in my mother’s womb was born,
A God, preparing, did this glorious store,
The world, for me adorn.
Into this Eden so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come His son and heir.
A stranger here
Strange things doth meet, strange glories see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
Strange all and new to me;
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.
*Image Credit: Unsplash