Reading Traherne’s Centuries with H. M. Margoliouth

In 1958, a significant publishing event occurred in the history of Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations and his Poems. At this time, fifty years after Dobell’s modernized edition of Traherne’s text introduced the world to Traherne’s unique voice, Oxford University Press published H. M. Margoliouth’s critical, scholarly edition of Traherne’s Centuries and Poems. Dobell would always be the person who put Traherne on the map and made him accessible, but Margoliouth began to build authoritatively around that cornerstone.

Margoliouth’s Introduction, Notes, and Text are invaluable to any student of Traherne who wants to drill down deeper into his Centuries and Poems. Margoliouth’s 33-page introduction positions Traherne’s Centuries in a precise context and provides a reliable, if technical, introduction to Traherne and his writings that had been discovered up until 1958.

His edition of Centuries is accurate, complete, and faithful to the original manuscript. Margoliouth explains in the Introduction, “In the present edition Traherne’s spelling, capitalization, and punctuation are retained. The numerous changes he made in his text are recorded in the notes, which also aim at giving as many references as possible.”

In the beginning of his Notes on the Centuries, following the complete text, Margoliouth dedicates two pages to explaining his ‘Transcription of the Text.’ He clarifies Traherne’s approach to capitalization, punctuation, and spelling, and even acknowledges that it’s not the kind of text that a 17th century publisher would have produced:

“This edition is, of course, not one which any seventeenth-century publisher would have produced. Such a publisher would, in the main, have introduced his own spelling and punctuation. He would have produced a book more readable in some respects than an attempt to reproduce the author’s manuscript literatim (except for appreviations) and punctuatim.” (p. 233)

So, what value can Margoliouth’s edition have over or alongside of Dobell’s edition for a general reader. Professor Louis Martz provides one answer to this question in The Paradise Within: Studies in Vaughan, Traherne, and Milton (New Haven and London: Yale University Press: 1964):

“Margoliouth’s transcription, quoted throughout this study, (Thomas Traherne, Centuries, Poems, and Thanksgivings, ed. H. M. Margoliouth, 2 vols. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1958) preserves the irregularities of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation found in Traherne’s manuscript; the effect may at first seem strange, but the irregularities gradually produce a significant impression related to the style and meaning of the work: the effect that one is watching and participating in the natural, intimate action of the meditative mind.”

Margoliouth’s critical edition of Centuries of Meditation will always be an important foundational resource, even as many other editions flow from the powerful experience that other readers have with Traherne’s writing in their own context.

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