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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #14 Thomas Traherne

Updated: Apr 15

We are continuing our series on clergymen poets with a poet named Thomas Traherne. Most likely you’ve never heard of him and you might want to say his name a few times so that you remember it: Tray–HAIRN. It seems as if the only well-known fact about Traherne today is that he is not well known. He was rather obscure in his own day, too. His works went unpublished until the early 20h century—more than two centuries after he wrote them.

Unlike many literary men, Traherne was not born into the privileged classes. He was, in fact, the son of a cobbler, or shoemaker. But he received a good education, and eventually went to Brasenose College, Oxford. There he stayed for nine years receiving religious instruction to become a clergyman in the Church of England. Life as a student there was not easy. A typical day included waking up for before dawn to attend mass at daybreak and eating a meager fare for breakfast. Students then would study and listen to lectures until the midday meal at 11 am. More study followed until dinnertime, then prayers at 5 p.m. Finally the students would be instructed yet more before they retired for bed at 10 p.m. It gets me tired just thinking about it.

Traherne received his degree and later became a minister at Teddington and private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal to Charles II. What is the great seal? A great seal is used for important papers. The impression of the seal is made on wax figures which is attached with a fancy ribbon to the papers. The papers could be a treaty with another country or some decree which the monarch has made. In essence, the seal says, “These papers are official; they are approved by the king (or queen).” The Keeper of the Great Seal is someone who has the responsibility of making sure that the Great Seal is not lost. A rather cushy job—unless you lose it.

Traherne’s is noted today both for his religious prose works, which are said to have influenced notables such as C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia series) and Dorothy Sayers (author of detective novels and a sort of classical education guru whose work “The Lost Tools of Education” has inspired a return to the trivium. He is considered a metaphysical poet, along with Henry Vaughan, John Donne and George Herbert. A sample of his poetry follows. The poem’s simple language and sentences are very different from the most famous of the metaphysical poets, such as Donne. Most younger students find Donne very difficult to understand. This is not true of Traherne. His style reminds us of the simplicity of William Wordsworth.

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