This past Christmas, a long-time family friend and fellow bibliophile and anglophile, Katherine Brown, gifted me with Ronald Blythe’s Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year. She and I took a 17th century literature class together at University of Maryland way back in the spring of 1986, and she later gave me suggestions for my contemporary edition of Centuries of Meditations in 2002. So, she guessed that Blythe’s references to Traherne, along with his brilliant descriptions of the English countryside, would strike a chord. She guessed right!
On pages 131-132, Mr. Blythe describes his participation in a Traherne Festival organized by Richard Birt in Credenhill, Herefordshire in the ‘90’s. My family and I participated in similar Traherne Festivals in 2004 and 2005, but I could never describe it so elegantly. He gave words to the memory of this extraordinary event near the Welsh border. Here is his description in full:
“C.S. Lewis once described Traherne’s Centuries as ‘almost the most beautiful thing in English literature’. Certainly, this marvelous book comes very near to being the happiest thing in English Christianity. After my lecture at the Traherne Festival a young man, who was about the same age as the poet when he wrote Centuries, stood up to ask, simply, ‘how could he?’ How could he be so joyfully affirmative when he must have witnessed Civil War horrors of Bosnian ghastliness? Well, how could he? I had no answer. We were in Credenhill church on the eve of Trinity Sunday, a place which with Little Gidding and Bemerton is part of a wonderful triune Anglican ‘intelligence’. The church stands high up above the Wye and it was filled with those who, like myself, require their saints to be wordsmiths. The forging of Centuries, and the priest-poet’s other writings, was certainly miraculous. Thomas Traherne was hungry, ravenous, for joy, but for fame he appeared to have no appetite at all. He begs all kinds of questions. How, for instance, could such a glorious writer be content to write for just one pair of eyes – those of a Mrs. Hopton, who had temporarily slipped into popery, and who had to be reconfirmed in Anglicanism via his ecstatic and unique language? But then we haven’t much to go on in this direction. My young questioner hazarded that celebrated passages such as ‘The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat’ was in effect an elegy on the lovely Hereford of Traherne’s childhood which the bloody fighting and mayhem of the 1640s had ruined.
“I felt overwhelmed to be reading Traherne’s writings in the church where his voice had sounded. Mine and the other scholars’ papers failed to explain him. Nor could we bring him to the real attention of those listening to us, for his is that form of happiness which travels at the speed of light, and is well on its way in a single spoken sentence from his work. When Richard Birt inspired these Trinity gatherings at Credenhill five years ago, his purpose was partly to re-establish the claims of happiness and delight as being a necessary aspect of the Christian experience. Traherne’s is the ultimate apology for such claims.
“Outside, thin skeins of summer rain blurred the Black Mountains. The park trees were drenched and shadowy, and the steep path up which Traherne climbed to his matins was wet and glittering. ‘When I came into the Country, and being seated among silent Trees, and had all my Time in my own Hands, I resolved to spend it all, whatever it cost me, in Search of Happiness.’ He did not have to search far.”
From Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year, Ronald Blythe, First Published by Viking, 1997.