Monday, October 10, 2005

"The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it"

Twenty-two years ago, I was happily immured in research for a PhD at Durham university, my theme "Music as a metaphor for the human relationship with the Divine in seventeenth century English poetry" (Catchy little title, that; it should have become a best-seller!). I had a blissful time grubbing about in sources obvious and obscure but my funding ran out after just one year, so I never wrote up. However, along the way I spent a fair bit of time enjoying the works of Thomas Traherne, mystic, whom the Church remembers today (along with Paulinus of York...a missionary bishop, but not, as far as I know, half as good a writer). So home I came from the Office this morning, and found these two delights, the first a piece of wonderfully poetic prose, from his Centuries of Mediations, and the second a poem from the Poems of Felicity.

"The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold. The gates were at first the end of the world, the green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me; their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal cherubims! And the young men glittering and sparkling angels and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the streets, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die. But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the light of the day, and something infinite behind everything appeared: which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver was mine, as much their sparkling eyes, fair skins, and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the world was mine, and I the only specatator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds nor divisions; but all proprieties and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted; and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which I now unlearn, and become as it were a little child again, that I may enter into the Kingdom of God."

and this one of his Poems of Felicity

News from a foreign country came,
As if my treasures and my joys lay there;
So much it did my heart inflame,
'Twas wont to call my soul into mine ear;
Which thither went to meet
Th' approaching sweet,
And on the threshold stood
To entertain the secret good;
It hover'd there
As if 'twould leave mine ear,
And was so eager to embrace
Th' expected tidings as they came,
That it could change its dwelling place
To meet the voice of fame.

As if new tidings were the things
Which did comprise my wished unknown treasure,
Or else did bear them on their wings,
With so much joy they came, with so much pleasure,
My soul stood at the gate
To recreate
Itself with bliss, and woo
Its speedier approach; a fuller view
It fain would take,
Yet journeys back would make
Unto my heart, as if 'twould fain
Go out to meet, yet stay within,
Fitting a place to entertain
And bring the tidings in.
What sacred instinct did inspire
My soul in childhood with an hope so strong?
What secret force mov'd my desire
T' expect my joys beyond the seas, so young?
Felicity I knew
Was out of view;
And being left alone,
I thought all happiness was gone
From earth; for this
I long'd for absent bliss,
Deeming that sure beyond the seas,
Or else in something near at hand
Which I knew not, since nought did please
I knew, my bliss did stand.

But little did the infant dream
That all the treasures of the world were by,
And that himself was so the cream
And crown of all which round about did lie.
Yet thus it was! The gem,
The diadem,
The ring enclosing all
That stood upon this earthen ball;
The heav'nly eye,
Much wider than the sky,
Wherein they all included were;
The love, the soul, that was the king
Made to possess them, did appear
A very little thing.

From what I can recall (I finally threw out my notes when we moved last year, as the research topic had long since been taken up and completed by someone with better funds and/or self-discipline) Traherne's writings were lost till the mid nineteenth clearly he didn't influence the Romantic poets directly, though they were singing the same song across the years. I think, though, I'll go out for a walk now and try to keep my eyes open for the infinite beauty reflected in a golden autumn day...the weather forecast for the rest of the week is distinctly dubious.


Gordon said...

Heh something in common - unwritten PhD's!!

Anna said...

Am I reading too speedily, or does the last stanza of that poem call to mind Julian's "quantity of a hazelnut"?

Thanks for these reflections, Kathryn.