Music of the Week — March 18, 2007
Music of the Week — March 4, 2007

Sunday Night Journal — March 18, 2007

Som Great Thing: Discovering Traherne

When the encounter with a single sentence sends you looking for more of a writer’s work, it must be a pretty striking sentence. And naturally you wonder if his other work is going to live up to the hopes produced by the one sample. My Lenten reading involves just such an investigation. The writer is Thomas Traherne, my judgement as of now is so far, so good, indeed very good, and the sentence is this one:

You never Enjoy the World aright, till the Sea it self floweth in your veins, till you are Clothed with the Heavens, and Crowned with the Stars.

Actually the sentence goes on for a while, but this stands alone well enough, and is the fragment I heard back in 1969 It occurs in a song called “Douglas Traherne Harding” by the Incredible String Band, an eccentric and eclectic band which, if any musicians ever did, deserved to be called “hippie.” They were too eccentric for most people’s taste, but those who liked them liked them a great deal (and I for one still do). They borrowed styles and instruments from all manner of times and places, throwing them all into a kaleidoscopic mix. Lyrically they specialized in a sort of free-ranging poetic mysticism which meant a lot to me back then, as did this song in particular. It spoke of something paradoxically unattainable and yet still to be hoped for. It gave me a powerful taste of what C.S. Lewis called “joy,” although I’ve never thought that the best word for it. One of the brightest memories I have from that dark time is of standing on a strip of sand in the salt marshes at St. Mark’s near Tallahassee, with the water lapping at my feet and the late golden sunlight all around, and that song running through my head.

Eclectic and new-agey, probably gnostic, as they were, the String Band maintained a respect for Christianity, and the song also contained a reference to that rather striking figure from Luke 11:34, “when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light” (it’s much more pedestrian, of course, in recent translations). And I think they helped prepare the ground for my return to Christianity after I had thrown it over in my teens.

I didn’t learn until many years later that the author of that sentence was a man whose name I knew only as that of a minor 17th-century poet. And it was only a year or two ago that I bought this book, a selection of his religious writings, and only this Lent that I’ve begun to read it. So far this year Lent has been remarkably busy and unreflective, so I haven’t read as much as I’d intended. But I’ve already found passages to which I am certain I will return again and again for as long as I’m able, like this one (I’m preserving the non-standard spelling of the book, which I’m glad the editor chose to do):

We lov we know not what: and therefore every Thing allures us. As Iron at a Distance is drawn by the Loadstone, there being some Invisible Communications between them: So is there in us a World of Lov to somwhat, tho we know not what in the World that should be. There are Invisible Ways of Conveyance, by which som great Thing doth touch our Souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel your self Drawn with the Expectation and Desire of som Great Thing?

I think he’s a writer who will prove very important to me, or perhaps I should say more important than I’d realized, since he had already exercised a definite influence. I can’t compare this edition with others, as it’s the only one I’ve seen, but this one is very fine, and includes a fascinating introductory essay. It seems that much of Traherne’s work was lost for two hundred years, and began to be recovered only at the end of the 19th century. One manuscript was snatched from a burning pile of rubbish in the 1960s, another discovered in 1997. Providential, at least, I’d say.



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