Today, February 9th 2023, marks The Davenant Press’s publication of The Shining Human Creature, the first volume in a new edition of Christian Ethics by Thomas Traherne, edited and modernized by yours truly. And, on this momentous day, there is one question you are all asking: who on earth is Thomas Traherne?
Despite being praised by the likes of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Sayers, and possessing a prose style C. S. Lewis called “almost the most beautiful…in English,” Thomas Traherne(1636/37–1674)–poet, pastor, and theologian–was virtually unknown in his own lifetime.
The story of how this came to be requires some telling. It marks him out from other luminaries who are published in the Library of Early English Protestantism; figures like Richard Hooker and John Davenant loomed large in their day. Their works formed the backbone of the curriculum taught to the great and the good for over a century after their deaths, and if they are forgotten now, that is only among the general populace; learned men still know of their lives and works.
Traherne’s story is different. He composed a mere two volumes for publication in his lifetime. The first, Roman Forgeries (1673), is a polemical tract covering the various documents regarding the first 420 years of the Church’s history, opposing the papal claims and exposing the ways in which various forged documents were used to support the papacy throughout history. The second book is that which you hold in your hand, Christian Ethicks: or divine Morality, opening the Way to Blessedness, by the Rules of Virtue and Reason (1675). This text was written at the request of his patron Sir Orlando Bridgeman (1606–74), a great statesman of whom there will be more to say shortly. Bridgeman never had a chance to read the finished text as he died before the writing was complete, in June of 1674, and Ethicks was finished and sent to the publishers early in that fall. Traherne at that time was ailing, and died shortly thereafter with the text still yet unpublished. It was published the following year in 1675. A book with no living patron and no living author, whose transmission depended upon the small readership of Roman Forgeries, was not likely to be widely read, and so it was not. Few read Traherne in his day and fewer remembered him after. History seemed to have closed on this man who died young and in obscurity.
And there the story might have ended. Traherne fell into the Great River, Time, and vanished. His papers, which he had deeded to his brother Philip, sank in with him. They passed out of knowledge and legend for two hundred years; and even the parts of Traherne’s history recounted here were known only to a few, and even they could discover no more. But thankfully, I can carry on the story.
Long after, indeed not very long ago, there lived a man named William T. Brooke (1848–1917), who, on what was likely a winter day in 1897, while perusing the papers of the bookbarrow at Farringdon Road in London, came across some manuscripts which, if not purchased, were shortly to be destroyed. Upon leafing through them he was stunned. These, he thought, must be some lost work of a brilliant man, perhaps the Welsh metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan (1621–95). Brooke bought the manuscript which he then sold to his friend Dr. Alexander Grosart (1827–99), whom he convinced of his idea of their being of Vaughan’s authorship. Together they intended to publish it. However, yet another untimely end interposed; Dr. Grosart died before he and Brooke could bring the text to print. This proved fortuitous.
Before Dr. Grosart’s death, Brooke had spoken of his extraordinary find to another bookseller, Bertram Dobell (1842–1914). Dobell bought the late Dr. Grosart’s library and studied with great care the manuscript that Brooke had re-discovered. The result of this closer study was Dobell’s conviction that Vaughan could not have produced this text. Dobell brought this theory back to Brooke, which triggered in Brooke a memory that he had once edited a volume titled A Serious and Pathetical Contemplation of the Mercies of God, and that this volume had contained a poem similar to some of the poetry found in this mystery manuscript. Returning to that source, they uncovered the name “Lord Keeper Bridgeman” as the patron of the author in a preface to the reader explaining who its anonymous author was. Upon further investigation they came to realize that this eminent man was known to have funded one Thomas Traherne’s Christian Ethicks. Upon looking inside Christian Ethicks, Brooke and Dobell found a portion of the same poem in both the mystery manuscript and in A Serious and Pathetical Contemplation of the Mercies of God and in Christian Ethicks. The key fit the lock, and the puzzle was solved.
The manuscripts were the work of Thomas Traherne, and we know them as the devotional prose poem Centuries of Meditation, as well as other previously unpublished and unknown poetry. Both Centuries of Meditation and his poetry began to see light of day in 1903. Since then, these two nearly-lost pieces of his writing have become undisputedly his most famous works, and their publication (and the Indiana-Jones-esque nature of their rediscovery) has led to a whole cottage industry of Traherne republications and scholarship. This has, however, tended to focus attention away from the only two texts which were intended for publication during Traherne’s lifetime: Roman Forgeries and Christian Ethicks. More could be said about the various other texts now believed or argued to have been Traherne’s, or of those manuscripts which are of more recent discovery. In the former category we can include anonymously published seventeenth-century documents such as the Hexameron; in the latter, documents which keep turning up and may be Traherne’s—this has happened as recently as 1997 when the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., published a manuscript they attributed to Traherne entitled The Ceremonial Law. The disputes over the authorship of many texts is complicated by the fact that Traherne had mastered multiple styles of handwriting, and so there is no one hand which is decisively his. Intriguingly, he is one of only two poets of the seventeenth century whose poetry we have extant in their own hand, the other being John Milton (1608–74). The story will continue, no doubt, but it is the purpose of this volume to bring us back to the source. The good news about the twentieth-century revival of Thomas Traherne is that we can now discern more of the man himself as a result of over a hundred years of scholarship.
As we have noted, it is to Traherne’s obscurity in his own time that we owe the great fogginess that still hangs over him. When interest in him was renewed, at first there was confusion about almost all of the facts of his life. Where was he born? When? To what family? How was he educated and how did he make his living? These and other questions have vexed scholars who encounter him and want to know more, but as time passes and more documents turn up, the story has come somewhat into focus. We can say almost for a certainty that he was born in Herefordshire, likely in the year 1637. It was the reign of King Charles I (r. 1625–49), and those who know this period of English history know that young Thomas was born into turbulent times. His formative years were lived first in the midst of the English Civil War (1642–51), then under Oliver Cromwell’s regime as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1653–58). As a young man in the midst of such turmoil, he went up to Brasenose College, Oxford, probably about age fifteen. He studied there and finished his baccalaureate degree in 1656 before receiving a Master of Arts in 1661, and then a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1669. Modern Americans are unfamiliar with the Oxford system whereby the B.A. “matriculates” into an M.A. a few years after graduation, sometimes requiring a seated test. Why he went back for the B.D. after the M.A. was awarded is unclear since it seems he was already a practicing minister. Suffice it to say he was dedicated to learning. Of Oxford he says he was educated “at universities in Beautiful Streets and Famous Colleges.” Between these degrees, in the time of the Protectorate, he received a nonepiscopal ordination at Credenhill, likely near his hometown in Herefordshire, where he served a congregation. There is sufficient confusion around this that it warrants a moment of consideration: was Traherne a Puritan? Or was he secretly carrying on the practices of the established church? The truth is we do not know and doubtless never will, but it is clear in any case that he was not cut from the cloth of martyrs. After the Restoration in 1660 he received an episcopal ordination, and once more at Credenhill, to serve now as a decidedly episcopalian minister. We don’t know how often he was actually present at Credenhill versus Oxford, given the level of pastoral work he was involved in on the one hand and the level of study he was involved in at Oxford on the other. Further, his double-ordination is likely to raise questions among some readers as to his theopolitical opportunism. It is my thesis that such a switch is a sign of at least two things beyond a mere changing of tack with the winds of history. First, the doctrinal distance between Puritans and the established Church of England of that era was less significant than it is now commonly assumed to be. In fact the distinction is the stuff of hairsplitting to the point of verging on nonsense, as there were plenty of “Puritan” Episcopalians, and one of the questions around Traherne involves precisely whether this category describes him. Second, Traherne reads as the kind of man who has too many other interests in mind, such as the care of souls and the transmission of the truth, to be bothered overmuch with the nattering of bishops and potentates. As he put it, he was called “to teach immortal Souls the way to Heaven, to sanctify his Sabbaths, to instruct them in the love of a glorious Saviour.” It seems clear that in his mind, the path to such work was available to Puritans as well as to those within the episcopalian order. In 1669 he became the chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, who at that time was Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal, and thus Traherne likely moved at that point to London with him. Traherne served his patron while also serving as the minister of St Mary’s Church in Teddington. He died on October 10, 1674 in the home of his patron, with few enough possessions that he could dictate his will on his deathbed. He was buried without fanfare and without a gravestone under the reading desk of St Mary’s where he had been serving. He was likely just thirty-eight years old. He was read and commented on only sparsely by the next generation of scholars of divinity. By the eighteenth century, he was ignored. His death, merely a month and a half before his better known peer, John Milton, was unnoticed.
As should be clear, in the gradual recovery of Traherne’s legacy over the past century, wisdom has been justified by her children. The recovery of Traherne’s poetry (some of which we are publishing with brief reflections on the Ad Fontes website to celebrate our new publication) and his devotional works have been a boon to the Church in recent days. His Christian Ethics, however, has remained an old treasure which scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven have yet to bring out. With the publication of The Shining Human Creature, we at The Davenant Institute hope that is about to change.
What did God intend man to be? What will man be when restored by grace? How can this vision drive our thoughts, actions, and–most importantly–our loves?
In the wake of the Reformation, Christians all over continental Europe sought to take such theoretical questions and pair them to the practical. In the wake of the gains made by the Protestant movement, they asked a question posed by all great Christian thinkers before them: what does it mean for man to live as one restored in Christ?
Into this conversation comes Thomas Traherne, to cast a vision of the “shining human creature,” the truly virtuous man, and the God who made and loves him. His writing demonstrates how philosophy can befriend poetics, how the intellect can be at home with the imagination of the heart, and how virtue ethics can be transposed into a truly Christian key.
In our new modernization—complete with a new introduction—we hope readers can delight in this poetic and masterful seventeenth century text without stumbling over arcane language.
Despite the man-centredness of modernity, the fact is we live in a misanthropic time. Man’s attempt to ascend to the heavens has lead him to contempt of himself in his limits. This is not a Christian conception of man. We are Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve–yes a shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth, but also honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar.
This is what Traherne seeks to reclaim in this first part of his ethics–man in the image of God, as he once was and, in Christ, will be again. In his own words: “If it is true that God is love, he will show it in our beings by making us great and excellent creatures.”
The Shining Human Creature: Christian Ethics Vol. 1 is available now from The Davenant Press. Purchase here. This post is an adapted extract from the book’s introduction.
Colin Redemer (Ph.D. candidate, University of Aberdeen) is Vice-President of the Davenant Institute and the Provost of Davenant Hall, Poetry Editor and podcast co-host for Ad Fontes, as well as a professor at St. Mary’s College, California. He also regularly lectures in Philosophy at Davenant Hall, including ongoing cycles in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Follow him on Twitter @REDEMTHETIMES.
C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, Dec 23, 1941, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 3 vols. (London: HarperOne, 2004), 2:504. ↑
I should add “that we know of.” I shall cover both unpublished works by Traherne and published works of which Traherne may be the author below. ↑
It should be noted that, while this is a virulent anti–Roman Catholic text, its existence began out of a conversation between Traherne and a Roman Catholic in the Bodleian Library, as he says in the introduction to the work. It is this author’s hope that sharp disputation does not exclude friendship. ↑
I will say more about the contents of this second book below. ↑
It is likely known only to God precisely when this took place. Secondary sources offer dates that range from 1895 (see Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne, ed. Gladys Wade (London: P.J. & A.E. Dobell, 1932)), to specifically April 1897 (see the website of the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450–1700, accessed Jan 12 2023, https://celm-ms.org.uk/introductions/TraherneThomas.html#), to the more epistemologically modest claim of 1896–1897 (see, for example, Denise Inge’s Wanting Like A God: Desire and Freedom in the Works of Thomas Traherne (London: SCM Press, 2009) and also The Oxford Traherne website, accessed Feb 24, 2022, https://oxfordtraherne.org/trahernes-manuscripts/). ↑
For a likely more accurate manuscript transmission history see the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450–1700, https://celm-ms.org.uk/introductions/TraherneThomas.html. Some of the claims (e.g., that both manuscripts were found in one day and one place) are disputed. ↑
The speculation that it was a work by Vaughan was high praise indeed. Vaughan, a Welshman, was a physician poet, a tradition stretching from Ctesias and St. Luke to innumerable contemporaries. Like Traherne he, too, would find far greater fame after his death than in his life, but unlike Traherne he had some works which were widely praised in his lifetime. Notable among these is his Silex Scintillans, or “the sparking flint,” in which, after a near death experience, Vaughan turns his poetic vocation to the subject of God and the human longing for God and life with him. Vaughan is generally considered to be a member of the “Metaphysical Poets,” a name given not entirely in praise by Samuel Johnson to John Donne and a few others. More recent scholars classify not only Vaughan as a member of this group, but Traherne as well. So in the end the speculation was not far from the mark and the Metaphysical Poets are recommended to you for deeper study of the mental world of our author. ↑
The farcical nature of the story grows in that Dr. Grosart, we now know, owned the manuscript he bought off of Brooke back in 1870. How he lost it (and whether, upon purchasing it for a second time in 1896, he recognized it) we do not know. See celm-ms.org.uk/repositories/bodleian-eng-poet-a.html. ↑
As I have said, Traherne was virtually unknown and so it is not clear how they came to find out that Bridgeman was Traherne’s patron. I assume, though, that by researching Bridgeman, who was a public figure, some record which I cannot uncover surfaced referencing Traherne, possibly the dedication of Roman Forgeries to Bridgeman. ↑
For fuller treatment and for the reference on the manuscript transmission story see Gladys Wade, Thomas Traherne (New York: Octagon Books, 1969), 3–11. Wade takes creative liberties in the telling and was working with 1940s source materials. See my previous footnotes for more information. ↑
A printed edition of the Folger manuscript of this work can be found in Thomas Traherne, The Works of Thomas Traherne, 7 vols. (Rochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2014), vol. 6, 195-242. ↑
Thomas Sluberski, A Mind in Frame (Cleveland: Lincoln Library Press, 2008), 52. ↑
In 1637 Archbishop Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury appointed by Charles I, tried to impose the Book of Common Prayer on the Scots, considered by many to be a precursor to the Civil War. ↑
The records of Traherne’s education in Athenae Oxonienses are less than ideal. Scholars disagree on whether he had to sit for an exam for his M.A. or not. He indisputably continued his studies long after the expectations of his profession and class required. ↑
Sluberski, Mind in Frame, 28. ↑
Sluberski, Mind in Frame, 16–17. Sluberski describes Traherne’s nonepiscopal ordination as “his Puritan presentation to the living at Credenhill,” which required recommendations. Those he received were from seven clergymen, “some of whom were leading Puritans in Herefordshire.” And in a footnote Sluberski implies this may indicate Traherne’s ambivalence towards the established church. Denise Inge claims there were only six clergy who recommended Traherne but notes that five of them were so staunchly Puritan that they were rejected from their livings after the 1660 restoration. Traherne was Puritan enough not to raise their suspicions. This text also contrasts Traherne with his friend Susanna Hopton, whose anti-Puritan sentiment led her to convert to the Roman church for the years of the Protectorate. Denise Inge, Thomas Traherne: Poetry and Prose (London: SPCK, 2002), xiv–xxv. Gladys Wade adds that Traherne’s education at Oxford was in Brasenose “one of the most thoroughly Puritan” colleges overseen by the just and tolerant Puritan Dr. Greenwood. Wade speculates further that Traherne “probably took the oaths and performed the religious exercises exacted of him by Puritan authority without the slightest feeling that any principles were at stake.” Gladys Wade, Thomas Traherne (New York: Octagon Books, 1969), 49–50. ↑
Sluberski, Mind in Frame, 28. ↑
Joseph Foster, “Traherne, Thomas,” Alumni Oxonienses 1500–1714: The Members of the University of Oxford, Their Parentage, Birthplace, and Year of Birth, with a Record of Their Degrees (Oxford and London: Parker & Co., 1892), accessed online here: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/alumni-oxon/1500-1714/pp1501-1528. ↑
Fuller treatment of his death can be found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed Feb 24 2022, https://www.oxforddnb.com/display/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-38074?rskey=2wKNWV&result=1. This web source draws from Bodl. Oxf., MS Wood F 45, fol. 40. ↑
*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons