Tribute to Denise Inge & Her Work on Thomas Traherne, Part I

In 2003, I was first introduced to Denise Inge through her book, Thomas Traherne: Poetry and Prose, which had been published in 2002. As with many long-time lovers of Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations, I was thrilled to discover this scholar and teacher who clearly knew Traherne as well as anyone. Denise not only had done her doctorate on Traherne, but she was one of the people who helped to announce the new Traherne Lambeth manuscripts to the world. Of course, Denise became a powerful force in making many of the new Traherne writings available to the general public. Furthermore, she understood how those writings complemented and naturally comingled with the Traherne writings that had been available throughout the 20th century.

While visiting the Traherne Festival in Credenhill (Herefordshire, U.K.) for the first time in 2004, I heard much more about Denise from fellow Traherne enthusiasts like A.M. Allchin and Richard Birt. In 2005, I had the privilege and delight to meet Denise in person on my 2nd return to the Traherne Festival. As one of the foremost Traherne scholars in the world, she was personable, gracious and generous, and of course remarkably well-spoken on all things related to Traherne. We spoke about the hope of Traherne’s writings becoming more readily available in as many legitimate ways as possible to as many people as possible. I even had the delight of hearing her husband, John Inge, Bishop or Worcester, preach at the Hereford Cathedral that weekend.

Sadly, Denise died this last April after a year-long battle with cancer. It is a huge loss for thousands of people who were touched by Denise’s life in a plethora of ways. I have appreciated two written remembrances of her: one from her brother, Fr. Dwight Longenecker (Longenecker remembrance) and the other by her husband, John Inge (Bishop Inge remembrance).

This is the first of a 2-part tribute to Denise, but one of the key purposes of the Surprised by Traherne blog is to point people to the writings of Traherne scholars and Traherne enthusiasts like Denise. I will be quoting frequently from her books and articles.

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Who was Thomas Traherne?

Our understanding of Thomas Traherne’s life and contribution is growing as his works continue to be discovered and studied. In brief, Traherne was a 17th century English philosopher, poet, priest, and theologian. A.M. Allchin observed that “The quality which strikes everyone who comes across the famous passages of Traherne’s poetic prose is their joy and delight in God’s creation.” His most famous works were not discovered until the end of the 19th century and he was best known throughout the 20th century for his prose work, Centuries of Meditations, and secondarily for Christian Ethics. Many more of his works were discovered in the latter half of the 20th century and continue to be published.

Some excellent biographical resources concerning Traherne are available on the Web . The Wikipedia entry is very accurate and thorough: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Traherne. And the wonderful site published by the Traherne Association in the UK (www.thomastraherneassociation.org) has a helpful Traherne biography along with other resources: http://www.thomastraherneassociation.org/who_was_traherne.php.

Denise Inge, probably the leading Traherne scholar in the last 30 years, continued to flesh out the details of Traherne’s life and thinking from his many newly discovered works that she helped to make available to the public. Her book, Happiness and Holiness, is the best available survey of his background and writings.

A.M. (Donald) Allchin, one of the most generous and enthusiastic authorities on Traherne up until his death in 2010, summarized in his Landscapes of Glory: Daily Readings with Thomas Traherne:

We know very little for certain about the outward facts of Traherne’s life. He was born in 1637 in or near Hereford, the son of a shoemaker. His parents seem to have died while he was still young. In 1653 at the age of fifteen he became a student at Brasenose College in Oxford, taking his degree in 1656. In the following year he was appointed rector of the parish of Credenhill four miles north-west of Hereford. In 1660, on the restoration of the monarchy and of the episcopal order in the Church of England, Traherne was ordained and reappointed to Credenhill.

Sometime towards the end of the 1660s he became private chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman, a prominent figure at the court of King Charles II, and it was at his house at Teddington that Traherne died in the autumn of 1674 at the age of thirty-seven.

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Why the title, “Surprised by Traherne”

I need to begin this blog by explaining why I titled it, “Surprised by Traherne.” The answer will flesh itself out through what I hope will be many entries to follow. But, in brief, there are at least three reasons for this title:

(1)    The first is that C. S. Lewis, of course, titled his autobiography Surprised by Joy, and the writings of Thomas Traherne (the 17th century poet, philosopher, priest, and theologian) clearly brought great joy to C. S. Lewis throughout his life. I believe that Traherne even played at least a minor role in Lewis’s conversion. I look forward to writing more about this later.

(2)    The second reason is that the history of how Traherne’s numerous writings found their way into publication is full of surprises. Almost all of his works were not published until hundreds of years after his death, and most of them came within a hair’s breadth of being burned or otherwise destroyed before publication.

(3)    The third reason is that the reading of Traherne’s joyful and wise writings has evoked a surprising sense of joy in myself and many others. It was a joy which had, until that time, been dormant or unrealized. I hope that this blog about Thomas Traherne may lead to many more such surprises.

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