A Thirsty Ox Connecting Thomas Traherne to Terry Pratchett?

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Post-admin aromatherapy: sweetpeas and other flowers scenting my desk, 5 August

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I started reading Shadows in the Water by Thomas Traherne – a longish poem which I’ll be reading for a  few sessions.  Need it this morning because I did a bit of admin before starting my Daily Reading Practice, something I never normally do, and it has got me into a very bad temper. Passwords, timed outs, and verifications –  hours of it. You all know how irritating that is. and it is a sunny morning and I want to get gardening.  So – deep breath. Read.

Shadows in the water

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

Yesterday I’d only got as far as stanza one, so picking up where I left off…Traherne is about to tell us about a childhood error, a mistake due to what he explains as believing a ‘seeming’ rather than seeing a true ‘view’.

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

Have you ever seen this ? In a powerfully clear puddle of water on a strongly lit day – the blue of sky reflected, the sense of another world opening up at your feet? It is the great height (or depth) of those ‘lofty, spacious’ skies that provide the ‘seeming’. The verb is ‘abused’ –  a strong word. But is there an older less dangerous meaning?  Ab + used  – used wrongly?  No used up…(from the online etymological dictionary: early 15c., “to misuse, misapply” (power, money, etc.), from Old French abuser “deceive, abuse, misuse” (14c.), from Vulgar Latin *abusare, from Latin abusus “an abusing; a using up,” )

In the first stanza, this kind of mistake is called ‘sweet’, and is seen as having a true intention behind it – ‘mistake though false, intending true’, therefore an error of no bad intent which may ‘instruct the mind’.  All this makes me think I can’t take that ‘abused’ too strongly.  The experience is what it seems – a child, playing by puddle, imagining another world. Provoked or tricked into imagining but with no bad intent.

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

Hard to tell whether these are totally imaginary people or reflections of real people, like Traherne himself, near the puddle. I’m going with imaginary, because he used the word ‘fancied’ – and there’s a connection between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’ (fantasy). But the opening line – ‘people drowned’ is  worrying – is this about a kind of margin between this word and the other. If we have our head in this word,  then those upside down in the puddle must be drowned. but if that world is the real world then they are ‘with another heaven crowned.’

I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;

I notice that we get the word ‘spacious’ again in this stanza ( ‘the lofty spacious skies’ feature in the previous). Somehow this word is key to the experience – the  largeness of the sky, and of the reflected sky, giving Traherne a sense of  vast room, which somehow makes me think about room for other things, things we haven’t yet imagined or thought.

It’s rather like that line in Paradise Lost  when Satan feels the roominess of hell and gloats as he sees Adam and Eve for the first time

Hell shall unfold,
To entertain you two, her widest Gates,
And send forth all her Kings; there will be room,
Not like these narrow limits, to receive
Your numerous offspring;

Room, space, as potential. As Thomas Traherne watches (or remembers watching) this world gets more real – the people  no longer seemed drowned, they seem close-up and very particular ;

I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

But there is a gap,  which Traherne calls ‘a watery chink’.  I’m thinking about doorways, margins, cross-over points. He can see these people very closely but he can’t hear them, he’s not in the same world as them:

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

Great to imagine the thirsty beast who might close this chink with the practical necessity of drinking! Suddenly every thing seems very odd,  very sci-fi, very unstable. Worlds open up at your feet,  but a  thirsty ox can close them down – it’s like something from  Terry Pratchett! And  things are stranger still, Traherne continues:

We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

I’m breathing normally now and have got over my admin tensions…and what’s left of my Daily Practice time is up, because the sun may no last all morning and the gardening must begin. More of this tomorrow.

One thought on “A Thirsty Ox Connecting Thomas Traherne to Terry Pratchett?

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