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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

VI. Caroline Divines

§ 2. Thomas Traherne; Centuries of Meditations

The nearest parallel, in the English literature of the time, to the Sancta Sophia of Baker is the Centuries of Meditations of Thomas Traherne; yet Traherne, above all things, is an Anglican. His residence at the university in times of puritan dominance did not give him any tincture of Calvinism. He set himself to supply a private friend (as it appears) with thoughts for divine contemplation, in his Centuries of Meditations, a book which had the strange fortune to remain in manuscript for nearly two hundred and fifty years. What strikes the reader most, after the spiritual intensity of this remarkable volume, is the wide scope of the writer’s survey. All heaven and earth he takes for the province of the pious soul, and the breadth of his conception of true religion is reflected in the richness of his style. From a book long undiscovered and still little known, it may be well to quote a passage which illustrates the freedom of the Anglican school to which Traherne belonged no less than the characteristic manner of his own English writing.

  • You never [he says] enjoy the world aright.… Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world. Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels: till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world. Till you more feel it than your private estate, and are more present in the hemisphere, considering the glories and the beauties there, than in your own house: till you remember how lately you were made, and how wonderful it was when you came into it: and more rejoice in the palace of your glory, than if it had been made but to-day morning.
  • Fancy and insight are the masters of Traherne’s imagination. From a well-stored mind, and an experience of men and things beyond that of his cloistered contemporaries, and equally remote from the jarring contentions of school and camp, from controversies about predestination or militia, he looks upon the hidden things of the soul, and, in them, he sees the image of the glory and love of God. The style is that of a poet who is also a master of prose; and there is no monotony in the richness of meditation after meditation on the eternal theme of the goodness and the splendour of God. Traherne is markedly the product of his age, in its ardour of expansion. He rivals Jeremy Taylor in richness of imagery, but has not Taylor’s learning. He even suggests the style of the poet of two centuries later who brought into his prose the ardour of his poetry, Algernon Charles Swinburne.