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Forrest Gander

The Strange Case of Thomas Traherne

This piece is about 10 printed pages long.

Photo of book

A facsimile of the Traherne book with a reproduction of a page of his handwriting.


The Original

In 1967, a passerby yanked a large, leather-bound book of neatly handwritten pages from a burning rubbish heap in England. In 1982, it was authoritatively attributed to that wondrously original 17th century poet Thomas Traherne and identified as his last consuming project. Only recently has it been restored enough to handle. Unpublished still, smelling faintly of smoke and rot, part encyclopedia, part poetry, part visionary exposition, it lies in its own tray in the British Museum not just like a fossil, but very like Hallucinogenia, one of the strangest, never-to-be-see-again creatures discovered in the Burgess Shale. The manuscript’s curious formal structure is the template for the structure of this essay about it. The full title for the work is:

paragraph 2 

The Mysteries of Felicitie
are opened
to be
Objects of Happiness.
Created & Increated
being Alphabeticaly Represented
(as it will appear)
In the Light
Wherin also
For the Satisfaction of Atheists, & the Consolation
of Christians, as well as the Assistance & Encouragement
of Divines: the Transcendent Verities
of the Holy Scriptures, and the
Highest Objects of the Christian Faith are
in a Clear Mirror Exhibited to the Ey of Reason: in their Realitie and Glory


Its Nature

What of this long-lost, multi-genre extravaganza can be translated across the centuries? More than I imagined at first. In fact, if we to look closely at even one poem from Commentaries of Heaven, we’ll find that Traherne’s visionary imagination surprisingly anticipates contemporary phenomenological philosophy, not releasing his work from its 17th century English and Christian contexts, but preparing a curious place for itself in our own moment. Which is to say: its implications still resonate.


Its Subject

What follows is an exemplary poem that appears between paragraphs of prose in a section of the manuscript titled “Spiritual Absence,” under the subheading “The Desolateness of Absence.”


That Man is Poor and Desolate whose Lov
None seeks, no man sollicits, none Doth move,
Whose Brightest Splendors in the Dark do lie
And all his Great affections are thrown by.
Rust covers his Resplendent fancy, Dust
Soyls all his Powers, & his Lov doth rust.
His Wit’s unseen, his Wisdom none admires,
His Souls unsought, his favor none desires.
None vallues his esteem, his sacred tears
No ey doth pitty, Fury no man fears.
His Passions are hung o’er with Cobwebs, and
His greatest virtues idle in Him stand.
His Courage no where is imployd his zeal
No Beauty doth to any Ey reveal.
His Excellencies in a Silent Cave
Are hid; his very Body is his grave.
His faculties are Empty, all his powers
Are Solitary, Withered, Blasted Bowers.
His Wide & great capacity is laid
Aside, his precept is by none Obeyd.
His very Worth’s neglected & Despised,
His very Riches are themselves not prizd.
He is the poor, forlorn and needy man,
That see, do, Prize, Enjoy, Admire at Nothing can;
Whose Goodness cant itself comunicat,
Nor Avarice Enjoy anothers State.
Whose Violent & Endless Lov’s displeased,
Whose Great Ambition is by no man Easd.
Who no Dominion hath, Whom no Mans Ey
Doth Prize, Exalt, Rejoyce in, Magnifie.
Who reigns not always in anothers soul,
Whose Highness nothing can at all Controul.
Who cannot pleas far more the Worlds! & be
A Bliss to others like the Deitie.




Its Distinction

As it is a religious poem, there is something odd here. For one thing, until the last line, there’s not a single reference to God. Instead, the poem focuses on man’s relationship to other men. More precisely, it zooms-in on the relationship of others to a spiritually desolate man.


Absence and Advent

By postponing until the ultimate line any mention of “the Deity,” the poem acts out its desolation. The word God is missing from all sentences but the last because God is missing from the subject’s soul.


The desolate man is conscious only of a world of negatives elaborated in twenty two instances of none, no, nothing, not, and the prefix un. His is a living hell. All “His faculties are empty” and his “great capacity is laid/ Aside”.


But the poem implies that even at the final moment of his life, the man might alter his condition. The words “bliss” and “Deity” in the ultimate line clarify Traherne’s faith in the potential for redemption. Finally, in a wonderful bouleversement, all those grammatical and lexical negatives serve to point dramatically toward their opposites.


It is then, categorically, a poem of Advent. God’s absence drains man’s being of its fullness; without God, he cannot “be/ a bliss”. With the Advent of God, Traherne suggests, man’s desolate consciousness will be transformed. Weirdly enough, the initial experience of desolation may make salvation all the sweeter, for as Traherne notes in the “Instructions” on Absence that follow the poem, “The presence of God is more amiable to us, than it was before the fall. For the consideration of his love in our restitution is an infinite enjoyment: and perhaps truly greater than all the former.”[1]

Moers book image

Photography by Denny Moers


Three centuries after Traherne writes “The Desolateness of Absence,” the phenomenological philosopher Emmanuel Levinas writes that it is “destitution...of absence that constitutes the proximity of God”[2]. For Levinas, too, absence prefigures advent, and “The negation that claims to deny being is still, in its opposition,” involved with being. He iterates, with crescendo: “Negation carries with it the dust of being that it rejects.”[3] For Levinas, as for Traherne, absence and negation presuppose presence and signification.


Torn Awake by the Infinite

Traherne’s poem describes a man asleep, his qualities all subtracted from their potentialities. His affections are “thrown by”, cobwebs hang over his passions, his virtues are idle and his splendors “in the dark do lie.” Only God’s love can re-awaken what Traherne, in another poem, calls his “infant-eye” so that he might contemplate “infinity.”[4]


On a lovely parallel path that also links the infinite to the “infant-eye” of newly awakened vision, Levinas suggests that the idea of the Infinite―the Infinite in us―rouses a consciousness that is not sufficiently awake.[5] He explains, “Love is only possible through the idea of the Infinite, through the Infinite placed in me by the ‘more’ that ravages and wakes up the ‘less.’”[6] Such proposals find ample affinities in Traherne’s “The Desolateness of Absence” which specifically chronicles the ways in which a man is less than what he might be were he awakened by the more of God.



For Levinas, the thinking of human being and the thinking of God’s being are complicated by the potential for God to signify a “beyond of being, or transcendence”.[7] This leads him to reconsider the traditional opposition between ontology and faith and to question whether “being is only a modality of perception”.[8] Traherne, equally concerned with God and with what it means to humanly be, gathers together these core terms in his poem’s last lines. The final rhyme between “be” and “Diety” not only brings the human and Godly into relationship, resolving the poem’s negative skew, but it models that relationship prosodically. The rhyme is, itself, the bliss of the human tuned to the Diety tuned to the human.


Primary Consciousness and Merleau-Ponty

Traherne’s emphatically childlike outlook on “EVRY BEING” in the extraordinary project of his Commentaries of Heaven resonates and finds philosophical rapport in the theories not only of Emmanuel Levinas, but of other 20th century philosophers.


It takes just a small step to connect the Advent of Christ to being, in Traherne’s terms, to “the advent of being to consciousness”[9] which is how Maurice Merleau-Ponty defines the concern of phenomenology. Both writers advocate sweeping transformations of our normative modes of perceptual awareness.


For Traherne, the Biblical injunction to “be born again and become a little child”[10] invigorates his efforts to regain the “wonder” and “amazement” he felt as a child, to cultivate childhood “bliss” into a mature state of awe. Anyone who does so, he believes, will perceive the world to be a paradise, since “Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world, than I when I was a child.”[11] Traherne advocates an “original simplicity,”[12] a condition of awareness that might exist before linguistic and cultural influences “Could breathe into me their infected mind”.[13] Consequently, he observes that “My very ignorance was advantageous.”[14]


Maurice Merleau-Ponty scarcely could have agreed more. He likewise blasted rational thought for its tautologies, arguing that “Intellectualism and empiricism do not give us any account of the human experience of the world....”[15] Like Traherne, he was obsessed with “attentiveness and wonder,”[16] going so far as to claim that the best formulation of the phenomenological reduction[17] was articulated by Husserl’s assistant “when he spoke of ‘wonder’ in the face of the world.”[18] When Merleau-Ponty makes his own case for a primary consciousness, he imagines a state akin to Traherne’s “original simplicity”, a pre-reflective awareness that reveals the “coexistence” or “coincidence” of an embodied subject with the world. It is the world, more specifically the body in the world, that structures perception, Merleau-Ponty insists, and he quotes Cezanne’s boast that the landscape thought itself inside him and that he was its consciousness.[19] Traherne makes a declaration just as bold and intuitive when he writes, “The world was more in me than I in it.”[20]

Samuels image

Detail from Poetry Bridge by Diane Samuels


Flesh and Communion

For both Traherne and Merleau-Ponty, the awakened consciousness makes evident a profound, extensive interpenetration of all beings and things and a consequent breakdown in the distinction between subjectivity and world. What Merleau-Ponty comes to call “the flesh of the world”,[21] Traherne has already described as “An universe enclos’d in skin.”[22] Playing on the homonyms holy and wholly, Traherne avers “That all my mind was wholly everywhere,/ Whate’er it saw, ‘twas ever wholly there.”[23] A few hundred years later, Merleau-Ponty initiates a kind of corollary assertion. He writes, “existence can have no external or contingent attribute. It cannot be anything―spatial, sexual, temporal―without being so in its entirety, without taking up and carrying forward its ‘attributes’ and making them into so many dimensions of its being, with the result that an analysis of any one of them that is at all searching really touches upon subjectivity itself”.[24]


For Traherne, of course, primal vision, what he calls “primitive and innocent clarity,”[25] reveals the glory of God. Although Merleau-Ponty concludes that “the subjectivity that we have run up against does not admit of being called God,”[26] his own notably poetic and sometimes overtly religious language―for instance, he speaks of a communion of perception with the perceived and a primary faith that binds us to the world―draws his work ever closer to Thomas Traherne’s.



Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of “The Desolateness of Absence” is its focus on the social fabric. The subject’s desolation is measured primarily in terms of his relations to other men and women. He is poor because no one else seeks his love. No one values his wit, his wisdom, his tears, his fury, his worth or riches. No one else’s eye prizes, exalts, rejoices in, or magnifies him. His soul has been cut loose from the bonds that would connect it to other human souls. Indeed, he has a subjectivity, but no intersubjectivity. Unrelated, he stands apart.


Yet the poem’s rhymed couplets insist upon relationship, the union of words. If the man’s powers “Are solitary”, the poem’s power to make pairs is not. Bandying sounds back and forth, the rhymes instantiate an attunement, flashes of recognition and affiliation. Even the man’s desolation is structured in terms of relationship. Each of his attributes is matched with its eclipse. The wash of negatives all modify qualities that DO exist. The man has a goodness (even if he can’t communicate it). He has riches, worth, great ambition, and a wide and great capacity, even if they’re frustrated or neglected. His defining characteristics are not essential, but stand in relation to what they might otherwise be.


Both the interactive structure of the poem, its polarities and rhymes, and the content, its descriptive failures of a man set apart from others, would imply that identity must be relational, developing out of a collaborative involvement with others, world, and God. In the parlance of contemporary phenomenologists, such a position is intersubjective. Traherne’s desolate man refuses to recognize the structure that binds him to others and to the world itself. As a solitary individual, he is impoverished, isolated from relationships that give rise to meaning, value, and selfhood. He has become, finally, unrecognizable. If Traherne again seems to have anticipated a phenomenological stance, the ongoing reciprocity called intersubjectivity, he finds precedence in the Bible where Paul preaches to the Romans that we are “members one of another.”[27]


Paul Ricoeur, whose philosophical thought also develops out of phenomenological inquiry, elaborates upon that membership extensively. He notes that “the world has no meaning before the constitution of a common nature.”[28] It is the other, he writes, who “helps me to gather myself together, strengthen myself, and maintain myself in my identity.”[29] In the prose passage prior to “The Desolateness of Absence,” Traherne declares that “A man is not desolate when his body is alone, but when his mind is so too.” It is due to solipsism that the desolate man finds “his powers/ Are solitary” and his “great capacity is laid/ Aside”. Using words very similar to Traherne’s, Ricoeur observes that “It is in connection with the notions of capacity and realization―that is, finally of power and act―that a place is made for lack and, through the mediation of lack, for others.”[30] Toward the end of his investigations in Oneself as Another, Ricoeur draws a conclusion that finds its ideological rhyme in Traherne’s poem. Otherness, he recapitulates, is necessarily “enjoined in the structure of selfhood.”[31] We find our riches, in other words, when we learn to “be/ A bliss to others....”



The great leap into phenomenology comes (through Brentano) with Husserl’s insight that consciousness is always conscious of something; it is object directed. Our relationship with objects is not something inserted between consciousness and the objects. That relationship is consciousness itself. Traherne, once again, seems to have prepared the way. In a subsection from “Spiritual Absence,” Traherne boldly assures his readers that “Spiritual absence.... is an absence of our thoughts from any object whatsoever.”[32] He develops this idea further, claiming that “All objects are sacred treasures, freely given us of God, who loving us infinitely, delighteth that we should be happy. Willingly therefore to be absent from them, implieth the greatest guilt of which nature is capable: ingratitude.... For nothing is more natural, than the union of faculties, which God hath designed to be joined, to their objects.”[33] Traherne’s understanding extends, of course, from his assumption that God is the constant and default object of man’s eye and that every worldly object is revelatory, but his very intuition of intentionality uncannily foreshadows the phenomenologists.



Uncanny too are the affinities between Traherne’s mystical and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological senses of time. Merleau-Ponty is tapping Henri Bergson’s thought, but Traherne is tapping his own ecstatic vein. The soul, Traherne explains, “for being transcendent to time and place is measured by neither.”[34] In another section of Commentaries of Heaven, he asserts that all time exists in the present. The soul, he writes, can experience every historical and Biblical moment “as if all these were this moment in acting.”[35] Merleau-Ponty says virtually the same thing. “What is past or future for me is present in the world,” he writes. And “Past and future exist only too unmistakeably in the world, they exist in the present.”[36] Is it Merleau-Ponty or Traherne who declares “Objective presence is real presence and the best imaginable”[37]? That’s Traherne. And which of them, do you suppose, writes, “Everything, therefore, causes me to revert to the field of presence as the primary experience in which time and its dimensions make their appearance unalloyed, with no intervening distance and with absolute self-evidence”[38]?


End Time

Here, where Traherne demolishes time and his work pops out of its century just in time to be plucked from a burning heap of rubbish; here where we find it has something to offer to a 21st century philosophical dialogue; here in the clear mirror that he holds to the light of glory, it’s time to consider how Traherne’s presence, knotted into the lyric miracle of his writing, might be threaded to our own urgencies. Nor has Traherne stopped writing his way beyond us and into a future that, though it measures nothing, translates everything and so will no doubt find a place for him.


Essay first published in Jubilat (United States)

[1] Thomas Traherne, in COMMENTARIES of Heaven, “Instructions” under subtitle “Absence” (British Museum).

[2] Emmanuel Levinas, On Thinking-of-the-Other: Entre Nous, trans. Michael Smith and Barbara Harshav (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 57.

[3] Emmanuel Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind, trans. Bettina Bergo, (Palo Altol, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 113.

[4] Thomas Traherne, “Sight,” in Selected Poems and Prose, ed. Alan Bradford (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 132.

[5] Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind, 65

[6] Ibid., 67

[7] Ibid., 56

[8] Levinas, On Thinking-of-the-Other: Entre Nous, 68.

[9] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1962), 61.

[10] Traherne, Selected Poems and Prose, “Centuries of Meditations 3.5,” 228.

[11] Traherne, “Third Century, I,” in Selected Poems and Prose, 226.

[12] Traherne, “Eden,” in Ibid., 7.

[13] Traherne, “Dumbness,” in Ibid., 21.

[14] Traherne, “Eden,” in Ibid., 7.

[15] Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 255.

[16] Ibid., xxi.

[17] Husserl’s premise is that it is necessary to bracket off the world in order to study its effects.

[18] Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, xii.

[19] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Sense and Nonsense, trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Patricia Allen Dreyfus (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 17.

[20] Traherne, “Silence,” in Selected Poems and Prose, 25.

[21] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 146.

[22] Traherne, “Fullness,” in Selected Poems and Prose, 29.

[23] Traherne, “My Spirit,” in Ibid., 27.

[24] Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 410.

[25] Traherne, “Centuries 3.7,” in Selected Poems and Prose, 229.

[26] Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 410.

[27] King James Bible, Romans.

[28] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Barney (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 332.

[29] Ibid., 332.

[30] Ibid., 182.

[31] Ibid., 354.

[32] Traherne, “Its Nature” under heading “Spiritual Absence,” in COMMENTARIES of Heaven.

[33] Traherne, “The Evil of it” under heading “Spiritual Absence,” in Ibid.

[34] Traherne, “A Conviction” under heading “Spiritual Absence,” in Ibid.

[35] Traherne, “Its Objects in Particular” under heading “Agents,” in Ibid.

[36] Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 412.

[37] Traherne, “A Conviction” under heading “Spiritual Absence,” in COMMENTARIES of Heaven.

[38] Merelau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 416.

Forrest Gander by Tad Richards

Forrest Gander by Tad Richards

Forrest Gander’s recent books include Eye Against Eye (poems, New Directions) and A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, and Transcendence (essays, Shoemaker and Hoard). Among his translations are No Shelter: Selected Poems of Pura Lopez Colome, and (with Kent Johnson) two books of poetry by Jaime Saenz, most recently The Night (Princeton University Press, 2007). Gander’s translations of Coral Bracho’s selected poems, Firefly Under the Tongue, are forthcoming from New Directions in 2008.

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