See the possibilities? Thomas Traherne’s ‘Shadows in the Water’

japanese anenomes.JPG
Japanese anenomes, white hydraganea and couchgrass, 6 August

I’ve been reading Thomas Traherne’s poem ‘Shadows in the Water’ for a few days: search ‘Traherne’ and you’ll find the posts. Here’s the poem – always worth re-reading aloud to get into the flow;

I’m adding numbers to the stanzas, for easy of reference.

Shadows in the water

1

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.

 

2

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.

3

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.

4

’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.

5

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.

6

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.

7

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.

8

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.

9

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?

10

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.

and had got to  this point in stanza 4:

Strange….

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

As I reread this morning I was arrested by the opening of stanza 3 which I’d passed over rather quickly the first time round;

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go

It was ‘drowned’ that struck me – partly because yesterday I’d been thinking of the oddness of this world being vulnerable to a thirsty ox, and thinking of  in almost sci fi way about ways to move between worlds or modes. That thoughts developed after I’d read ‘drowned’ yesterday and I didn’t go back to  this word – but now with the odd thought firmly established in my mind, as I reread, ‘drowned’  is a clue.

A clue to what? To the strange point of  view Traherne is inhabiting – where he can see two worlds, he’s in a virtual doorway. Looked at from one point of view (this world) the people  he can see are drowning. Looked at from  inside the puddle-world they are not drowning they are ‘freely moving to and fro’.

If I was reading this in a group I’d want to open up a conversation about what we all know about different worlds, different possible worlds, and whether we ever sense them.  I’d be looking for an example.  Time and chance  offer the easiest examples, perhaps. You meet an old boyfriend after twenty years in some unexpected situation, there he is, selling you a new car, working as an ambulance driver, the police detective who comes about your burglary, at a school reunion/  Possible lives – what if we had stayed together? – open up. You look at them briefly. Most likely the possible closes down.

Another example? You were injured in an accident when you went on a VSO project, you lost a hand. Wouldn’t the moment of choosing to go on that adventure keep replaying? Possible lives where you chose something else?  How close are those worlds?

Of course, these examples  are linked by choices, and Traherne’s are not – his are wild and unpredictable  glitches in the universe.  Have you ever  experienced anything like that? Sometimes landscape seems to open up other ways of seeing – for me, very big landscapes – the Lake District, the Bay of Kotor, the Pembroke Coast seem to offer intimations of  the world in a different mode – rather like  in the Coventry Patmore poem last week.

But Traherne’s vision is odder than that. That’s what  I love about Traherne. It’s all very strange for him.

So in stanza 3 Traherne sees that double vision, and in stanza 4 he comments the strangeness of his own (our own) position, ‘strange’ he says ;

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

The experience seems increasingly about vision – I am just noticing all the words that are about seeing, a list which begins early on with the word ‘seeming’; which contains ‘seeing’ ; it’s Traherne’s eyes which are initially tricked by the experience (stanza 2) in stanza 3, ‘saw’, stanza 4 ‘see’, stanza 5 ‘saw’ ‘seen’, stanza 6 ‘view’, stanza 8 ‘see’ ‘see’ and ‘seemed’, stanza 9 ‘look’ ‘eyes’, stanza 10 ‘image’ ‘view’.

Here is something we can see but not enter, not touch, not talk or otherwise communicate with and yet the seeing is strong;

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.

‘Antipodes’ is a great word to have here ; it means ‘having the feet opposite’ and signifies usually  in English, Australia and New Zealand – the opposite sides of the earth.  These were places people once couldn’t imagine. In flat earth days it would have been impossible that there could be another side to the planet.  butthat thinking about possibility grew outmoded – we found ‘the antipodes’ and learned  more about our planet.

What is the child who plays in this puddle learning ? (Thinking of Emerson asking what does the wave teach the fisherman).  The child is learning that things can look very different – that there are other worlds, other beings…that we can’t communicate with them in the usual ways – because

though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between

How important is this ‘film’, this thin but apparently impermeable barrier? And is it a metaphor for something else? I’m not sure yet, so I read on into stanza 6;

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.

This joining at the feet, this mirroring, seems very important now.  This is the place of the film and yet it is also the place of view – not a doorway, as I thought earlier, but a window which opens a view –  yes, a view of a phantom, yet ’tis a world indeed’. The repetition of the joining point, the keeping coming back to it ‘where people’s feet against ours go’.

Now I come to  stanza 7 which I’ve found  most hard to understand when I’ve been reading through;

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.

Does Traherne look up at this point? He has been (remembering) looking down at the world in the puddle, but suddenly now he’s talking about ‘the air’, ‘heavens’. The puddle world wasn’t so much a metaphor as a clue to possibility: there may be such worlds in other  places and look up! there’s all that space up there. Given what we have just seen in the puddle, is it possible that there are worlds, lands;

Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;

And beyond the land, may there be creatures, my yet unknown friends, (walking foot to foot with us?)

Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

Host is often a word for angels – the heavenly host – and if they are there – we may not know what they are doing, we will not understand their ‘great and glorious ends’, just as there is no communication between the people in the reversed world of the puddle. Now we come to stanza 8 where Traherne makes his leap of thought explicit:

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.

 

But that’s it for today – will read  this stanza tomorrow. But look at the skies today, look up.

One thought on “See the possibilities? Thomas Traherne’s ‘Shadows in the Water’

  1. A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A., R.A. August 6, 2017 / 12:37 pm

    Hi Jane,

    This seems to me about someone on the outside looking in and wanting to be taken in and belong, but not being able to break down the barriers to this other world space reality.

    Stanza 1 ” which afterwards we come to know.”

    Stanza 2 “I fancied other feet, come mine to touch and meet.’

    Stanza 3 “In spacious regions seemed to go as freely moving to and fro:”

    Stanza 4 “we other worlds should see, yet not admitted be;”

    Stanza 5 ” I called them oft, but called in vain;

    Stanza 6 ” where people’s feet against ours go,”

    Stanza 7 “where many numerous hosts……… Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.”

    Or it could be the ” grass is always greener” thing.

    But l think it’s definitely about change or wanting change, and opening up new opportunities.

    PS. Re. ” Moving freely to and fro”. I wish I could “copy and paste to and fro” on this flipping phone, by the time I’ve typed the relevant passage from the text of the poem/ story, I’ve forgotten what I was thinking about!

    Question. Would that be a,
    Major minor inconvenience,
    Or a,
    Minor major inconvenience?

    Nevermind, say la vee.

    Currently reading:
    The Oxford English Dictionary: online version.
    ( It’s really good, tho I still like my Shorter OED hardback version).

    TTFN

    PPS. Really good poem.

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