Thomas Traherne was born the son of a Hereford shoemaker, in about 1636. Thomas had a good education and entered Brasenose College at Oxford University from 1652, achieving an M.A. in arts and divinity in 1661. In the meantime, he was admitted in 1657 to the rectory of Credenhill, near Hereford and was ordained in 1660. After being a parish priest for ten years, he became, from 1667, the private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, on his appointment as Lord Keeper of the Seals of Charles II. Evidence in parish records and the reports of churchwardens suggest that even after this appointment Traherne spent the majority of his time in the parish: Traherne was described by his churchwarden in 1673 as being “continually resident amongst us”. He was, according to his wardens, “a good and Godlie man, well Learned …a good Preacher…a very devout liver”. After seven years in this service, Traherne died in his patron’s house at Teddington, near Hampton court, and was buried on 10 October, 1674, in the church there.
Thomas was one of the English Metaphysical poets and yet, in his lifetime, only one of his works was ever printed.
His works have been textually corrupted and even attributed to others. He entrusted manuscripts of his Thanksgivings and Six days of creation to close friend Susanna Hopton, only to have her mistaken as their author when she submitted them for publication 25 years after his death. His brother Philip held on to Traherne’s Poems of felicity even longer, revising the poems at length.
In 1896 a manuscript of his poetry and prose was discovered in a London bookstall and subsequently was published as Poems (1903) and Centuries of meditations (1908). These manuscripts were nearly attributed to Henry Vaughan. Through the persistence of the publisher Bertram Dobell the poems were revealed to be the Traherne’s work. Shortly afterwards, another manuscript was found in the Burney Collection at the British Library. This manuscript contained more of Traherne’s poems, some of which were in the Dobell manuscript but all of these poems were in Philip Traherne’s handwriting.
In 1964 the Select meditations, a book of meditations, like the Centuries, grouped in hundreds, was discovered, although this was not published until 1997. In 1981 Commentries of heaven, an unfinished encyclopedia of theology was identified in Toronto. In 1997, almost a hundred years after the first unpublished manuscripts were discovered in London, two more major discoveries occurred. The first was The ceremonial law at the Folger Museum in Washington DC; the second was the Lambeth Palace manuscript at the Lambeth Palace Library in London. The ceremonial law is an unfinished epic poem on the first books of the Old Testament. The Lambeth manuscript is a huge find containing four and a fragmentary fifth mainly prose works: Inducements to retiredness, A sober view of Dr Twisse, Seeds of eternity, The kingdom of God and Love. Much of his work remains unpublished in manuscript form.
Thomas Traherne’s contribution to literature includes a depiction of childhood experiences not known in the literature of that time. His elders struggled to teach Thomas to prize “things” but eventually succeeded. He had to unlearn this as an adult and decided that Man could do God no greater homage than to delight in His creation:
“Our blessedness to see
Is even to the Deity
A Beatific Vision! He attains
His Ends while we enjoy. In us He reigns.”
His writings express an ardent, childlike love of God and a firm belief in man’s relation to the divine. Traherne remembered the innocence of childhood, and insisted that he “must become a child again”:
“Long time before
I in my mother’s womb was born,
A God preparing did this glorious store
The world for me adorn.
Into His Eden so divine and fair,
So wide and bright, I come His son and heir.”
Thomas was a lover of good company but he remained single throughout his life. He was a man of deep prayer and led a simple, devout and caring life. He lived simply himself and gave generously. He is a recorded benefactor of Brasenose College, reputedly gave to those in need, and left five houses to the poor of Hereford – the Almshouses that once stood on Widemarsh Street.