Thomas Traherne



Traherne's Poems of Felicity, ed. H.I. Bell (Oxford, 1910)


Thomas Traherne, Commentaries of Heaven: The Poems, ed. D.D.C. Chambers (Salzburg, 1989)

Dobell (1903)

Thomas Traherne, Poetical Works, Now First Published from the Original Manuscripts, ed. Bertram Dobell (London, 1903)

Dobell (1908)

Centuries of Meditation by Thomas Traherne (1636?-1674) Now First Printed from the Author's Manuscript, ed. Bertram Dobell (London, 1908)


Thomas Traherne, Centuries, Poems and Thanksgivings, ed. H.M. Margoliouth, 2 vols (Oxford, 1958)


Thomas Traherne, Poems, Centuries and Three Thanksgivings, ed. Anne Ridler (London, 1966)


The Works of Thomas Traherne, ed. Jan Ross, 3 vols [of 9 eventually] (Cambridge, 2005-9)


For a variety of reasons Thomas Traherne is one of the most interesting British authors represented in the present catalogue. Not only is his work known by what, in the seventeenth century, is an almost unprecedented number of original, chiefly autograph, manuscripts, but the circumstances in which those previously unpublished manuscripts have come to light since the 1890s constitute what is often described as ‘one of the romances of English literature’. At the same time, the role in which Traherne was introduced to the world by his first editors has virtually defined his literary persona ever since, a situation which more recent, and no less significant, manuscript discoveries are still in the process of rectifying.

The Traherne Manuscripts

In so far as he was known at all before the twentieth century, Thomas Traherne was author of the elaborate anti-Catholic polemic Roman Forgeries (London, 1673) and of the posthumously published Christian Ethicks (London, 1675), both prose works, the second also containing a few poems. As is well known, Traherne leapt to relative fame only with the subsequently proclaimed discovery in 1896-7 of the unascribed ‘Dobell Folio’ and ‘Centuries of Meditation’ by William T. Brooke, whence they came into the possession of the indefatigable literary scholar Alexander Grosart (who supported Brooke's not unreasonable suggestion that they were written by Henry Vaughan). They were then acquired (via the Farringdon Road bookseller Charles Higham, who purchased the bulk of Grosart's library) by the bookseller and publisher Bertram Dobell, whose detective work established their true authorship (see notably his account in his 1903 edition, pp. lxxxiv-xc). It is one of the legends of bookselling that Brooke discovered the two manuscripts in London on a street-barrow in the Farringdon Road. In fact, as Hilton Kelliher discovered from an account written by Brooke c.October 1910, and now in the Bodleian (MS Dobell c. 56, ff. 54r-8r), Brooke coincidentally picked up the two manuscripts on different occasions in April 1897 in two different places: one of them (it is not clear which) in the Farringdon Road, the other in Whitechapel. The circumstances of discovery, whatever their precise details, become only more astonishing with the realisation, also brought to light by Kelliher, that at least one of them had passed through London auction rooms half a century earlier and already once been owned by Grosart himself (who also, coincidentally and unwittingly, owned yet another Traherne manuscript: the ‘Church's Year-Book’).

Following Dobell's discoveries, yet other Traherne manuscripts came to light. Besides identifying as Traherne's the anonymous and posthumously published A Serious and Pathetical Contemplation of the Mercies of God (London, 1699), Dobell himself acquired the ‘Church's Year-Book’ at the Grosart sale in 1899, and his son, decades later in 1935, the ‘Early Notebook’, both of which are now in the Bodleian along with his first two discoveries. The early 1900s also saw the identification of two Traherne manuscripts among the Burney Manuscripts in the British Library: namely, the ‘Poems of Felicity’, entirely in the hand of Thomas Traherne's brother, Philip, which was identified by H.I. Bell, and the ‘Ficino Notebook’, which Bell also recorded without at first realising that it too belonged to the poet (he interpreted the inscription ‘Ex libris Tho Traherne’ as being by Philip Traherne's son Thomas).

The serendipity nature of all this is compounded by the circumstances of the most recent major discoveries. The autograph ‘Commentaries of Heaven’ was rescued c.1967 from a burning rubbish tip outside Manchester when already partly scorched. Following its identification as Traherne's in 1981, and subsequent sale in New York in 1984, it came to light that in 1844 and 1854 the manuscript had passed through the same London salerooms as the ‘Dobell Folio’.

Obfuscation about provenance and true identity also bedevilled the discovery of ‘Select Meditations’. When offered for sale as an anonymous devotional manuscript by a Birmingham bookseller in 1964, John Hayward drew it to the attention of James M. Osborn, who recognised its authorship and acquired it for his collection now at Yale. Osborn was in no doubt that the manuscript (which survives in a very mutilated state) was the work of Traherne. He also assumed that it was written in Traherne's own hand. (See James M. Osborn, ‘A New Traherne Manuscript’, TLS (8 October 1964), p. 928). Plans for publication by Louis L. Martz were subsequently staggered, however, when the late P. J. Croft (after seeing photocopies of two pages of the manuscript and later scanning a microfilm) privately advised Oxford University Press that, in his opinion, the manuscript was not in Traherne's own hand and therefore could not with certainty be ascribed to him. This led to the somewhat misleading report by Douglas Chambers in the correspondence columns of the TLS (26 March 1982), p. 355, that ‘there are now severe doubts about the genuineness of this MS’, a report confuted by Louis L. Martz in the TLS (23 April 1982), p. 463. In fact, as Julia Smith has been able to show conclusively, not only is the ‘Select Meditations’ demonstrably a work by Thomas Traherne (even containing one poem published in his Christian Ethicks: see TrT 38), but the manuscript was personally supervised by him. The predominant hand is not his, but that of an otherwise unknown amanuensis (who occasionally omits words he could not read in his copy-text and makes the kind of errors associated with a scribe rather than the author). Nevertheless, close scrutiny reveals that there are times when Traherne himself takes the pen, adding a whole eight-line meditation at one point, and several lines on at least three other occasions, as well as inserting a few other words. The identity of this interpolating hand is not in question: it is absolutely consistent with Traherne's hand as seen in the other recorded manuscripts, even down to such characteristic forms as his peculiar ampersand and capital A.

Yet more discoveries were made in the late 1990s. In 1997 Laetitia Yeandle recognised Traherne's hand, and literary style, in a devotional manuscript entitled The Ceremonial Law, which had been in the Folger Shakespeare Library for decades. Then three years later a similar discovery was made by Jeremy Maule, who recognised as Traherne's a volume of devotional works in Lambeth Palace Library. It would be no surprise if yet more Traherne manuscripts surfaced in due course.

For convenient reference, the major Traherne manuscripts, which are described more fully in the entries below, are listed here (with the delta numbers originally supplied in IELM, II.i):

Bodleian, MS Eng. poet. c. 42. (‘Dobell Folio’: *TrT Δ 1).

Bodleian, MS Eng. th. e. 50. (‘Centuries of Meditation’: *TrT Δ 2).

Bodleian, MS Eng. th. e. 51. (‘Church's Year-Book’: *TrT Δ 3).

Bodleian, MS Lat. misc. f. 45. (‘Early Notebook’: *TrT Δ 4).

British Library, Add. MS 63054. (‘Commentaries of Heaven’: *TrT Δ 5).

British Library, Burney MS 126. (‘Ficino Notebook’: *TrT Δ 6).

British Library, Burney MS 392. (‘Poems of Felicity’: TrT Δ 7).

Yale, Osborn MS b 308. (‘Select Meditations’: *TrT Δ 8).

Folger, MS V.a.70. (‘The Ceremonial Law’).

Lambeth Palace Library, MS 1360. (‘Lambeth MS’).

The Editing of Traherne's Works

Dobell's first edition of Traherne, Poetical Works, Now First Published from the Original Manuscripts (London, 1903), based on the Dobell Folio and the Centuries of Meditation, established Traherne first and foremost as a poet, and it is as a poet that Traherne is generally known to this day. Although Dobell subsequently edited the Centuries of Meditation in its entirety (1908) — and honourable mention must also be made of H.I. Bell's complete edition of the Poems of Felicity in 1910, which yet further reinforced Traherne's status as a poet — Dobell effectively encouraged editors to treat Traherne manuscripts as virtually rough source material for the quarrying of poems — as if they were self-contained gems almost accidentally embedded in baser matter — to the neglect of the prose in which they occur. A manifestation of this tendency is D. D. C. Chambers's edition of the poems in Commentaries of Heaven in 1989. A useful and conscientious interim publication, it is not without its irony, considering how relatively facile most of the verse in this particular manuscript is and how much more distinguished the great mass of the prose is. Even the generous selection of prose from Centuries of Meditations in the Penguin edition of Traherne's Select Poems and Prose, ed. Alan Bradford (London, 1991), [pp. 185-315], is incorporated ostensibly but ‘to amplify the context of the poems’ (p. xv)

Traherne is, in fact, one of the classic authors whose texts should be edited according to manuscript, rather than according to individual ‘work’ as traditionally defined by editors. This point holds granted the distinction there is between carefully arranged collections of Traherne's work and more miscellaneous notebooks, and even granted the duplication of a relatively few poems (or versions thereof) in more than one manuscript. Bertram Dobell himself chose to point out in 1903 (pp lxxiii-lxxiv) that ‘there is a picturesqueness, a beauty, and a life about the manuscripts which is lost in the cold regularity of type’. The manuscript is ‘the work’; other assumptions are but modern editorial interpretations. This point has had some acceptance: witness Ross's edition and Cedric Brown and Tomohiko Koshi's article ‘Editing the Remains of Thomas Traherne’, Review of English Studies, NS 57 (November 2006), 766-82.

For convenient reference the present Catalogue bows to traditional editorial practice by including entries below, under ‘Verse’, for each individual poem found in the manuscripts and edited variously in Dobell, Bell, Margoliouth, Ridler, Chambers, and Ross. It should be noted that it is not always certain exactly what constitutes an individual poem, in cases where there are different ‘parts’ numbered ‘I’, ‘II’ or ‘III’. Editors have not agreed, for instance, whether Bells is or is not two separate poems (TrT 110), while Chambers has commented: ‘Both “Affairs” and “Affections”, for example, have poems in which the parts are different or separate but obviously connected. In some cases, as in “Ages” and “Attendance”, it is quite obvious, either from the prosody or the theme, that the poems are separate entities’. Alan Bradford, for his part, observes in his Penguin edition (p. xvi): ‘As long as the poems in each set are printed together, it makes little practical difference whether we regard them as two-part poems, as separate poems that happen to have the same title, or even as innovative “double poems”’. Although these are problems of editors' own making, cross-referencing is supplied below when necessary for the sake of clarity.

The Canon

The canon of Traherne's verse itself presents no difficulties with the possible exception of the entries in his miscellaneous ‘Early Notebook’. Margoliouth (II, 204-11) edited twelve sets of verse from this manuscript, five of them bearing the distinguishing and evidently proprietary initials ‘T. T.’, and attributed them to Traherne. Anne Ridler (in ‘Traherne: Some Wrong Attributions’, Review of English Studies, NS 18 (1967), 48-9) pointed out that five of the poems not bearing Traherne's initials (including, incidentally, the one Maroliouth illustrated in facsimile as frontispiece to his Volume II) were actually extracts from poems by Francis Quarles and William Austin. One of the remaining poems lacking initials, ‘Yee that Towers so much prize’ (*TrT 233), a translation from Seneca, bears revisions suggesting that it is Traherne's original working draft, leaving as uncertain only an incomplete or unfinished Epitaphium (*TrT 138), which Ridler decided to omit from her edition.

These are not the only poems copied into the ‘Early Notebook’, a manuscript which was clearly used by both Thomas and his brother Philip. On page 201 Thomas Traherne has copied, for instance, Strode's well-known lyric ‘I saw fair Chloris walke alone’ (StW 778), with, on the facing page (p. 200), a Latin version of it, ‘Aspexi vacua spatiantem Clhoria arena’. It would be entirely in the nature of notebooks of this kind if someone else's poem were copied precisely so that the compiler could add his own Latin translation (compare, for instance, Strode's copies of poems by Corbett together with his own translations in his autograph notebook). What may be a similar instance occurs on pages 202-3, where, as noted above, anonymous verses beginning ‘Lett whose will in Icie state’ are faced by a Latin version beginning ‘Stet quicunq[ue] volet poteris’, both in Thomas Traherne's hand.

One other possible addition to the canon, an apparently unpublished Latin elegy on the death of Edward Gale, of King's College, Cambridge, ascribed to ‘T. Traheron’, is given an entry below (*TrT 233.5), but its authorship is open to investigation.


As for Traherne's prose, it is not entirely clear whether any of the miscellaneous other extracts and translations in the ‘Early Notebook’ are actually of his authorship. The likelihood is that they are works by others, gathered by Traherne or his brother for their own interest in the usual manner of a commonplace book. Editors have also had to decide whether the few devotional items appended to the ‘Select Meditations’ are by Traherne. The likelihood seems to be that they are, except perhaps for ‘A Prayer for Ash Wednesday’ and ‘A Meditation’, which are added on pages 229-32 in the unidentified cursive hand. A number of substantial prose works in the Lambeth MS, evidently by Traherne, have accordingly been added to the canon in Ross (TrT 234-238).

Letters and Documents

With one brief exception (*TrT 246), no letters by Traherne are known to survive. However, further examples of his handwriting — which, among other things, confirm the identification of those autograph manuscripts noted above — are to be found among the records of the parish of Credenhill (within the Deanery of Weobley), near Hereford, to which Traherne was appointed rector in 1657 (although he does not appear to have taken up residency until after 1661). These records are now all preserved in the Herefordshire Record Office. A few of the relevant items are discussed in Margoliouth, I, xxv, and — purporting to correct this account — in Lynn Sauls, ‘Traherne's Hand in the Credenhill Records’, The Library, 5th Ser. 24 (1969), 50. Further relevant items have come to light since 1969 through the diligent searches of Elizabeth Bladon and Susan Hubbard.

Those Credenhill parish documents which appear to bear Traherne's hand are duly given entries below (TrT 239-250).

By way of a caveat, it should be noted that one of Traherne's churchwardens, George Gwillim, had a hand remarkably similar to Traherne's, so that it might seriously be considered whether the Bishops Transcripts for 1662, 1663 and 1664 (TrT 240-242) might not be written by Gwillim on Traherne's behalf. Nevertheless, the balance of probability (given the presence of such distinctive features as Traherne's majuscule A and T and his ye forms) is that these are in Traherne's hand. There is no difficulty in distinguishing his hand from those of his other churchwardens (such as William Browne, Thomas Hill, William Payne and James Browne) in subsequent records. Traherne's shaky ‘signature’ (‘Tho Trahern Rector’) on the Bishops Transcript for 1667, prepared on 14 April 1668, has all the appearance of being ‘drawn’ in imitation of Traherne's signature on his behalf (and with uncharacteristic spelling), while the name ‘Tho Treherne’ on the Bishops Transcript for 1666 is evidently in the hand of the churchwarden William Browne. The surviving Bishops Transcripts for other years up to 1674, as well as the relevant pages in the extant Parish Register for 1671-1753, are written entirely by churchwardens.

One other example of Traherne's autograph signature is currently known. On 19 February 1673/4 he signed as witness (‘Tho. Traherne’) the will of his patron, Sir Orlando Bridgeman (1606?-74), former Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, whose chaplain Traherne had become and to whom Roman Forgeries (1673) is dedicated: (see *TrT 251)

Traherne's own will, bequeathing, among other things, ‘All my books…to my brother Phillip’, was noncupative and survives as a posthumous memorandum (TrT 252-253).


Some miscellaneous documentation relating to Traherne is of biographical interest. Margoliouth (I, xxiii-xxxii) records various other ‘Materials for Traherne's Biography’, chiefly in academic and ecclesiastical sources, to which may be added information (including references to unpublished theses on Traherne) supplied in Richard Jordan, ‘Thomas Traherne: Notes on His Biography’, N&Q, 225 (August 1980), 341-5. In addition, a Weobley Deanery Citation of 21 January 166[8]/9 includes the name of Thomas Traherne among those called to court (Herefordshire Record Office, Registrars Files 1669/208). Furthermore, in a minute [of 12 February 1670/1 or 1671/2], listing ‘The names of those ministers in Weobly deanery that have not made their collections to ye briefes for ye redemption of captives in Turkey’ (a cause perhaps not especially close to the hearts of the good people of Herefordshire, though of some possible interest to Traherne because of his brother's connection with that country), ‘Tho: Trehearne Rect: of Credenhill’ is named among those who have ‘not paid’ (Herefordshire Record Office, Registrars Files 1671/7). Important new information clarifying the Traherne family's relationship with the devotional writer Susanna Hopton (née Harvey, 1627-1709) has also been presented in Julia J. Smith, ‘Susanna Hopton: A Biographical Account’, N&Q, 236 (June 1991), 165-72.

Other relevant documentation concerns Thomas's younger brother, Philip Traherne (1640-1723), who, from 1664 onwards, appears to have spelled his name ‘Traheron’. He served in the 1670s as chaplain to the Levant Company, and in 1670 married Susanna Hopton's niece, Susanna Blount. Philip, whose hand occurs in no fewer than four of the surviving Traherne manuscripts (the ‘Dobell Folio’, ‘Church's Year-Book’, ‘Early Notebook’, and ‘Poems of Felicity’), took pains over the preservation of at least some of his brother's works, and he took steps to prepare them for publication (see the first and last of these manuscripts, especially the latter, which was copied out and editorially prepared entirely by Philip). The task of distinguishing between Thomas's original work and Philip's editorial revisions and emendations has, indeed, been one of the principal problems facing his modern editors (Alan Bradford, in his Penguin edition, p. xiii, has even gone so far as to define the editor's task in treating texts handled by Philip Traherne as ‘largely a matter of damage control’).

Various other surviving letters and documents bear witness to Philip's handwriting, including autograph letters by him in the Bodleian (MSS Tanner 28, f. 311r; Tanner 129, ff. 55r, 73r [to William Sancroft, 14 January 1680/1, 7 June 1681, 29 December 1688]), and the British Library (Add. MS 22910, ff. 519r, 524r-5r [to John Covell, 3 May and 25 July 1701, the latter reproduced in facsimile in Bell, after p. xxxii], and Harley MS 3784, f. 179r [to William Sancroft, 23 May 1664]). The British Library also possesses (as Burney MS 24) Philip's rough copy of the collation he made of the Codex Ephesinus (a twelfth-century manuscript of the Greek Gospels which Philip brought back from Smyrna in 1675) with the Oxford Greek Testament. This retained copy was presumably acquired later by Charles Burney at the same time as the ‘Ficino Notebook’ and ‘Poems of Felicity’. The Codex Ephesinus itself, together with Philip's fair copy of his collation, was presented by him on 4 March 1679/80 to Lambeth Palace, where it still remains (MSS 528, 528b).

Further records of Philip and his family, including autograph subscriptions by him, in the British Library, National Archives, Kew, Guildhall Library, Herefordshire Record Office, and Dorset History Centre are discussed in Julia Smith's important article ‘Thomas and Philip Traherne’, N&Q, 231 (March 1986), 25-30, which, incidentally, throws light on the provenance of some of the Traherne manuscripts noted above. This article supplements the notable accounts of Philip Traherne given in Bell, pp. ix-xx, and in Margoliouth, I, xxxiii-xxxiv, as well as in Jordan, loc. cit.

Philip Traherne's own exemplum of his brother's printed Roman Forgeries (London, 1673), bearing on the flyleaf the inscription (probably in another hand) ‘Phillip Traheron BD 1723’ and in the main text various annotations in Philip's hand, is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library (65058).

Papers of Bertram Dobell, relating in part to his Traherne discoveries, are now preserved in the Bodleian, as mentioned above. They include (MS Dobell d. 11) the draft of his introduction to his edition of Traherne (1903).

Peter Beal