An introduction to the life of a curious poet
It’s not often that a poet only achieves real renown after his death: Gerard Manley Hopkins is one such example, with much of his poetry only seeing publication nearly thirty years after his death. But in terms of having the longest wait for your posthumous reputation to begin, the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-74) may take first prize. In this post we offer a very short biography of Traherne, paying particular attention to the interesting aspects of his life – what little we know of Traherne’s life for certain – and the curious fate of his poetry.
The scant facts we know for sure about Thomas Traherne’s life can be succinctly compacted into a single-paragraph biography covering the main details. Traherne was born in Herefordshire, England in 1637, the son of a shoemaker. His father appears to have died when Thomas was quite young, and he and his brother were raised by a relative, Philip Traherne, an innkeeper and mayor of Hereford. Thomas Traherne went on to study at Brasenose College, Oxford, and then became rector of Credenhill in Herefordshire in 1657.
He was ordained as a priest in 1660, and a year later gained his MA; in 1669 he received his Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.). He later became chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, who was lord keeper of the Great Seal, and for the last few years of his life Traherne lived in London. He died of smallpox in September 1674, when he was in his late thirties.
Traherne’s manuscripts belonged to the Skipps family of Ledbury, Herefordshire, until 1888 – for over two centuries, in other words, following Traherne’s death. But in 1896–97, a chance find at a street bookstall by a man named William T. Brooke led to the discovery of two manuscript volumes containing Traherne’s manuscripts, including his poems. The books were about to be thrown out by their owner, but Brooke salvaged them from oblivion. If he hadn’t done so, the name Thomas Traherne might still be largely unknown outside academic circles, and his poetic work remain lost forever. Unfortunately, the manuscripts didn’t contain Traherne’s name, and it took some further detective work before the poems could comfortably be ascribed to Traherne himself (at first they were assumed to be the work of another seventeenth-century poet, Henry Vaughan, and were very nearly published as part of Vaughan’s collected works). It was Bertram Dobell who identified Traherne as the author. So, a poet who had died in 1674 when King Charles II was on the English throne only really achieved any fame as a poet in the first decade of the twentieth century, just a decade or so before the Victorian poet Hopkins achieved his (delayed) reputation. The delayed publication of Hopkins’s poetry is the blink of an eye by comparison. Much of Traherne’s prose writing remains unpublished to this day.
Only one work by Traherne appeared during his lifetime, and it was a work of prose scholarship: Roman Forgeries, which appeared in 1673, a year before his untimely death. It is his poetry which earned him a belated reputation, however. Yet it is not quite true that after his death nobody knew that Traherne had written poetry. Samuel Johnson (1709-84) mentioned Traherne in the same breath as the Metaphysical Poets. Yet Johnson knew more about English literature than most other eighteenth-century men, as his Dictionary attests, and it seems that he was in the minority in knowing something of Traherne’s (then lost) verse. In the twentieth century, after his poetry was discovered, he gained the admiration of numerous writers, including C. S. Lewis, who called Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations ‘almost the most beautiful book in English’. Traherne’s poetry celebrates the glory and goodness of God and Christianity – his is overall a positive and hopeful outlook. If you’re after a good starting place for his poetry, we recommend ‘Shadows in the Water’, about gazing at the reflection in a puddle and spying ‘Som other World’ there. Probably written in the early 1670s, it was not published until 1910.
We hope you’ve found this very short biography of Thomas Traherne useful. If you’d like to learn more about Traherne’s life, you can discover more details here.
Image: Thomas Traherne stained glass window, via Wikimedia Commons.