Reading Traherne’s Centuries with Bertram Dobell

Bertram Dobell was born 200 years after Thomas Traherne, but Traherne’s greatest literary contribution would not have made its way into the hands of the general public except through Dobell. Dobell’s life is a classic Victorian story that exemplifies the universal power of great literature available to all people regardless of profession or social status. Dobell was the first publisher of Traherne’s poetry and Centuries of Meditations in the early 20th century and he played a critical role in the discovery of, and literary detective work on, Traherne’s manuscripts at the end of the 19th century.

In order to properly position Dobell in the context of Traherne’s Centuries, I feel it is worthwhile to include the following account of the discovery and publication of Centuries as eloquently told by the great Columbia University professor and literary scholar, Gilbert Highet:

Towards the close of the last century, in 1897, a book lover was turning over the dirty, neglected, and usually worthless volumes on a street bookstall in London. These institutions scarcely exist in the United States; they are far below the level of regular second-hand bookshops, and they are not even so ambitious as the stalls along the Seine in Paris; usually they are barrows or shacks containing old volumes of sermons, obsolete guidebooks, much-used school and college texts, ancient volumes of hand-written poems or diaries. If a book stays on one of these rickety wooden counters for a few months without being sold, it is usually disposed of as waste paper, pulped, and forgotten. Still, one can sometimes find curious and potentially valuable things among all the trash. The English book lover did. His name was Brooke. He was a specialist in religious poetry, and he came upon two volumes of religious lyrics written by hand, poems which he had never seen or heard of, and which (being unknown to him although he was an expert) had apparently never been published. The handwriting looked like the script of the seventeenth century. Brooke bought the volumes for the equivalent of a few cents, and read them carefully.

He found that they were full of delightful poems by one of the happiest of men, a religious mystic who (unlike most mystics) loved both God and the world, who, in sincere and energetic stanzas, expressed the rapture of being alive, and who, enjoying his life on this earth, enjoyed his link with God as son to father. ‘How like an Angel,’ cried the poet, in the same words as Hamlet but with a far holier continuation:

How like an Angel came I down!
How Bright are all Things here!
When first among his Works I did appear
O how their GLORY me did Crown!
The World resembled his Eternitie,
In which my Soul did Walk;
And evry Thing that I did see,
Did with me talk.

That is the beginning of a noble poem in which the unknown author spoke with infectious delight of his vision of this world as the reflection of God’s home illuminated by God’s love. But who was he, and why had his poems remained unknown for over two centuries?

Brooke guessed that he was the Welsh physician and mystical writer, Henry Vaughan. He passed the poems to an eminent critic, who was convinced that they were Vaughan’s. However, before they could be published under Vaughan’s name, the critic died, and the manuscript was sold to a bibliophile called Bertram Dobell. (Dobell was an intense lover of books. Born in poverty, he worked as a delivery boy, collected old books from the bookstalls with his scanty savings, set up as a book dealer himself, and eventually became not only a critic but something of a poet.) Dobell, after reading the poems with eager enthusiasm, decided that they could not be by Henry Vaughan. Their subjects and metrical patterns were often the same as Vaughan’s, but they were warmer than his calm, meditative lyrics, they accepted and welcomed where Vaughan was apt to criticize and even to doubt. Vaughan, as a medical man, shrank from excitement; this poet was an enthusiast. Who was the real author? Surely he had published something during his lifetime. There must be some poetry or prose issued in the time of King Charles II or thereabouts, which bore his name.

Brooke now remembered that, some time before, he had discovered in the British Museum a little old book of religious poems with a title almost as large as itself, A Serious and Patheticall (i.e. emotional) Contemplation of the Mercies of God, in Several Most Devout and Sublime Thanksgivings for the Same, and that the poems in it looked like some of those by the unknown author. Dobell read them, and agreed. But the book in the British Museum had no author’s name, either. (In case this surprises you, remember that devoutly religious authors sometimes wish to remain anonymous: prostrate at the feet of God, they feel too humble to give their own private name to their songs of praise and of ecstasy.)

Still, there was one clue. The preface to the Devout and Sublime Thanksgivings said that they had been written by the private chaplain of a well-known statesman of King Charles II’s time, Sir Orlando Bridgman. A contemporary book of gossip and backstairs history (Anthony a Wood’s biographical dictionary, Athenae Oxonienses) identified the private chaplain. He was called Thomas Traherne, and he was quite unknown to fame, except that he had published two religious books in prose: a polemic work called Roman Forgeries, and a moral treatise called Christian Ethics. Brooke and Dobell now got Christian Ethics and read it. In it they found an unusual little poem praising the infinite power of God for having made things finite in size although not therefore finite in value. The same poem, with a few variations in phrasing, appeared in one of the manuscript volumes. Therefore the poems without the name were the work of Thomas Traherne; as such they were published by Bertram Dobell in 1903, and most recently in a sumptuous two-volume Oxford edition by H. M. Margoliouth.

(The Powers of Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 53-56)

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