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About this poet

In 1637, Thomas Traherne, the son of a shoemaker, was born in Hereford, England. He received his education from the University of Oxford and was ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1660. Traherne first served in a parish near Credenhill and later became the chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

In his lifetime, Traherne published only one work, Roman Forgeries (1673), and very little else is known of his biography. Christian Ethicks, his most important prose work, was published posthumously in 1675. His Thanksgivings appeared anonymously in 1699 as A Serious and Patheticall Contemplation of the Mercies of God. Traherne is often considered as the last of the Metaphysical poets, which included such major figures as John Donne, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughn.

The majority of Traherne's poetry remained unknown until 1896, when two of his manuscripts were discovered by chance in a London bookstall. Poetical Works was first published in 1903; it was followed in 1908 by Centuries of Mediations. In 1910, a manuscript found in the British Museum was published as Traherne's Poems of Felicity. More of his work continued to come to light over the course of the twentieth century. As late as 1967 a poetry manuscript attributed to Traherne was discovered on fire in a refuse dump near Lancashire by a man in search of spare auto parts. The manuscript was published as Commentaries of Heaven: The Poems in 1989. Much of his work to this date remains unpublished.

Traherne's great theme is the visionary innocence of childhood, and in this respect he has been compared with William Blake and Walt Whitman. His style, too, bears resemblance to these authors in its incantatory rush, repetitions, and disregard for the rules of standard English. His poems, such as the often-anthologized "Shadows in the Water," suggest that adults have lost the joy of childhood, and with it an understanding of the divine nature of creation. In his writing, Traherne sought to reclaim this joy in the world. Thomas Traherne died on September 27, 1674 and was buried in Teddington under the reading desk in the church where he had served.

Shadows in the Water

Thomas Traherne, 1637 - 1674
In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
	That doth instruct the mind
	In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

Thus did I by the water's brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
	I fancied other feet
	Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
	In bright and open space
	I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

'Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk:
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
	We other worlds should see,
	Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
	I plainly saw by these
	A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

By walking men's reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, 'tis a world indeed;
	Where skies beneath us shine,
	And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people's feet against ours go.

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
	Where many numerous hosts
	In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
	I my companions see
	In you another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
	Are lofty heavens hurled
	'Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples' distant lives?

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
	Some unknown joys there be
	Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

This poem is in the public domain.

Thomas Traherne

Born in 1637, Thomas Traherne is often considered as the last of the Metaphysical poets