Saturday, January 20, 2007

Thomas Traherne wants to be God's Boy

If you know the works of Thomas Traherne, then you will know that he wanted to go either to heaven, or back to his early childhood - and that these were pretty much one and the same. Even the 17th century thought his piety a bit much (‘you have said it over and over’). Here in this poem Traherne, a life-long celibate by choice, is working himself up on the subject of ‘Love’:


O nectar! O delicious stream!

O ravishing and only pleasure! Where

Shall such another theme

Inspire my tongue with joys, or please mine ear?

Abridgement of delights!

And queen of sights!

O mine of rarities! O kingdom wide!

O more! O cause of all! O glorious bride!

O God! O bride of God! O king!

O soul and crown of everything!

So far, so (characteristically) ecstatic: this was a man who was disappointed to find that at Oxford University, “There was never a Tutor that did professely Teach Felicity”, and set about remedying that deficiency by a life-long realisation of devout happiness. The Dobell manuscript has those ambiguous 17th century question/exclamation marks: I have put question marks into the poem, just to aid the sense:


Did not I covet to behold

Some endless monarch, that did always live

In palaces of gold,

Willing all kingdoms, realms, and crowns to give

Unto my soul? Whose love

A spring might prove

Of endless glories, honours, friendships, pleasures,

Joys, praises, beauties, and celestial treasures?

Lo, now I see there’s such a King,

The fountainhead of everything!

There’s little politics in Traherne, his sole excitement is with the heavenly king. This is where the poem started to catch my eye, in its sudden burst of mythological reference:


Did my ambition ever dream

Of such a Lord, of such a love? Did I

Expect so sweet a stream

As this at any time? Could any eye

Believe it? Why, all power

Is used here

Joys down from Heaven on my head to shower,

And Jove beyond the fiction doth appear

Once more in golden rain to come

To Danae’s pleasing fruitful womb.

Once started, Traherne doesn’t stop. The final stanza is the real eye-opener:

His Ganymede! His life! His joy!

Or He comes down to me, or takes me up

That I might be His boy,

And fill, and taste, and give, and drink the cup.

But these (tho great) are all

Too short and small,

Too weak and feeble pictures to express

The true mysterious depths of blessedness.

I am His image, and His friend.

His son, bride, glory, temple, end.

One can see that Ganymede might work as an image of being carried away by the divine. Malcolm Bull says this tradition stems from an emblem book by Alciati, I find it in English in R. B’s Choice Emblems, Divine and Moral, 1684, with these verses appended to the emblem:

THE Forty fourth Emblem Illustrated.

Take wing my soul, and mount up higher,
For Earth fulfils not my desire.

When Ganymed, himself was purifying,
Great Jupiter, his naked beauty spying,
Sent forth his Eagle (from below to take him)
A blest Inhabitant in Heav'n to make him:
And there (as Poets feigned) he doth still,
To Jove, and other God heads, Nectar fill.

Though this be but a Fable, of their feigning,
The Moral is a Real truth, pertaining
To ev’ry one (which harbours a desire
Above the Starry Circles, to aspire.)

By Ganymed the Soul is understood,
That’s washed in the Purifying flood
Of sacred Baptism (which doth make her seem
Both pure and beautiful, in God’s esteem.)
The Aegle means that Heav’nly Contemplation,
Which, after Washings of Regeneration,
Lifts up the Mind, from things that earthly be,
To view those Objects, which Faith’s Eyes do see.
The Nectar, which is filled out, and given
To all the blest Inhabitants of Heaven,
Are those Delights, which (Christ hath said) they have,
When some Repentant Soul begins to leave
Her foulness; by renewing of her birth,
And slighting all the Pleasures of the Earth.
I ask not, Lord, those Blessings to receive,
Which any Man hath pow’r to take, or give;
Nor what this World affords; for I contemn
Her Favours; and have seen the best of them;
Nay, Heav’n it self, will unsufficient be,
Unless Thou also give Thy self to me.

My puzzlement is about how they managed to fence off in their minds the other, and more obvious take on Ganymede, which I illustrate from Henry Peacham’s emblem book, where Ganymede ‘the foule Sodomitan’ becomes the type of all crimes ‘abhorr’d of God and man’: incest, witchcraft, murder, and forgery. Quite how Ganymede got to be flying on a cock – well, let’s not go there.

When, as a teenager, I heard the Incredible String Band do ‘Douglas Traherne Harding’, I fear that even then I knew (O reward of bookishness!) the meditation by Thomas Traherne which they were incorporating. It isn’t to be found on , and my copy of the album is long ago lost or given away.

I see that Jorn Barger, the cessation of whose Robot Wisdom blog I regret, was a fan. Grotesquely, a snatch of the song is available to download as a ringtone.


Jorn said...


DrRoy said...

Apologies to Jorn Barger: I grew accustomed to such a daily cascade of links, that the diminution of that flow (and, when I glanced in at robotwisdom, the same link at the top), that I mistook an easing off for a sabbatical. Robotwisdom, eclectic and pointed at once, was always one of my jumping off points in browsing, keeping me in touch with a level of political awareness that I felt ashamed to feel I was otherwise gradually losing.
On the other hand, a slight thrill in being visited, even in rebuke, by such a distinguished 'netizen', a true polymath. Jorn's work on James Joyce alone is jaw-droppingly inclusive: genuinely valuable web-based content.