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Discovering Poetry: Thomas Traherne’s life lessons

19 August 2013

10:40 AM

19 August 2013

10:40 AM

From ‘Wonder’, by Thomas Traherne

How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among his works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown?
The world resembled his eternity
In which my soul did walk;
And every thing that I did see
Did with me talk.

The skies in their magnificence
The lively, lovely air;
Oh how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The stars did entertain my sense
And all the works of GOD so bright and pure,
So rich and great did seem,
As if they ever must endure
In my esteem.

A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all his glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all SPIRIT. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know,
But ‘twas divine.

My favourite word in these stanzas is ‘entertain’ in the line ‘The stars did entertain my sense’. What might it mean? A film can ‘entertain’ us when we watch it, but we also ‘entertain’ a guest when they visit us. I think there’s something very beguiling about the idea that the stars might entertain our senses in this way, that they might extend hospitality to our capacities to see, to touch, to hear, taste, and feel.

Together these faculties form what we might call the aesthetic side of our nature. One way of thinking about the way we experience the world would be to say that these give us the ability to feel pain and pleasure, to recognise harmony and discord, but not to make sense of things. That belongs to reason. Animals and babies, who are without language, access the world solely through their senses. This is the half of us that Traherne’s stars cherish, as a mother cherishes her child or a cow her calf. A contemporary of Traherne’s (called Richard Allestree) wrote that a Christian man aspires to be more than an animal and values ‘delights which may entertain his reason, not his sense’. Traherne disagrees. His description of a sensual being, cherished by an hospitable universe, promises a happy way of being in the world which does not include reason. Is this life closer to the stars? Closer to God? How can the world bring us to that point?

Traherne’s universe is a strange one. Hospitable stars would make us feel at home. They would act like people, or even like supernatural beings. As brightnesses in the heavens taking care of us, I find it hard not to associate them with angels. In the Old Testament, Lot welcomed two angels into his house. He fed them, gave them somewhere to sleep, defended them from harm, and in return they warned him to flee Sodom before it was destroyed. Traherne’s speaker seems to identify with both roles in this story. He says he came down to earth ‘like an angel’ but his sense is entertained by the stars, not by men. Whilst he feels that he was born into a world where he is welcomed like Lot’s angels, he is also the type of thing which needs protecting by those same angels.

This indeterminacy is a hint about how the cherished soul becomes a guest in the world. Perception seems to be the key. The account of the world contained in the poem’s description is full of the language of appearance. The world ‘resembled’ God’s eternity. It ‘did seem’ rich and great. I came down ‘like’ an angel. What’s more, the seas of life were ‘like wine’. Is this, then, a case of intoxication? Something like it, perhaps – although words like mood, disposition, or faith might be more charitable ways of describing the phenomenon. Traherne feels cherished because he sees the universe as something which can love.

Does this reliance on perception mean that the poem is unreliable? Well, perhaps we would be unwise to approach it as a description of what the world is really like. Hospitable stars have no place in our astronomy; love no place in our physics. But what if we read it as a description of a way of living in the world? A flawed one, certainly. The next stanza is about the way ‘harsh objects’ like ‘oppression, tears and cries’ were ‘concealed’ from this person who felt so loved by the stars. This, too, is a part of this sort of faith.

Difficulty noticing the sufferings of others should trouble us. We should weigh it against the pleasures of being the angels’ darling. I think, to some degree, it’s up to us to try and make those judgments when we read a poem like this. Traherne is giving us something to think about. We would be unwise to approach his suggestion in a take-it-or-leave-it mood. Like most things in life, it is probably neither perfect nor worthless. It’s best thought of as a challenge. Are you happy in the world? Do the stars cherish you? Think about what you have to lose, what you have to gain. Should you change your life?

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