This passage from ‘Centuries of Meditation’ by the English poet and mystic Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) has become famous, though Traherne’s work didn’t attract much notice till the twentieth century. I like it, but I think there is a temptation for writers to project back on to themselves as children more poetic sensibility than they actually had at the time, and wonder if this is not such a case. In my experience small children tend to be of a fairly practical turn of mind, and Hardy comes nearer the mark when he says, in a poem recalling his own childhood, ‘Everything glowed with a gleam/Yet we were looking away!’. I well remember a walk in a spring wood with my own small daughter when she was two. ‘I know’, I said, taking out my notebook and pencil. ‘Let’s sit on this log and you tell Daddy what interesting things you can see and he’ll write them down in his book’. She obligingly sat down and thought. I waited expectantly, trying to imagine myself into her world of unsullied perception. What would it be? Something about the dance of the light on the leaves, the bluebells stretching away all round us under the beech trees? Eventually she delivered. ‘Beth can see pencil!’, she said.
‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things: The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; But all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places. Eternity was manifest in the Light of the Day, and something infinite behind everything appeared which talked with my expectation and moved my desire. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven. The streets were mine, the temple was mine, the people were mine, their clothes and gold and silver were mine, as much as their sparkling eyes, fair skins and ruddy faces. The skies were mine, and so were the sun and moon and stars, and all the World was mine; and I the only spectator and enjoyer of it. I knew no churlish proprieties, nor bounds, nor divisions: but all proprieties* and divisions were mine: all treasures and the possessors of them. So that with much ado I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world. Which now I unlearn, and become, as it were, a little child again that I may enter into the Kingdom of God’.
* ‘proprieties’ here has its older meaning of ‘properties’.
“Beth can see pencil!’,” – how enlightening! Maybe she is storing up all she sees for when the pencil is hers to wield. Thank you sharing this Traherne piece – I think it peters out a bit after such a magnificent opening but still…