A Universe-bending proposition from Thomas Traherne

black fuschia.JPG
Climbing black fuschia in the rain, back garden, 7 August

I am continuing to read the Thomas Traherne poem ‘Shadows in the Water’ : 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.

Yesterday I’d got as far as stanza 8, and that’s where I’m picking up today:

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.

Here Traherne looks more closely –  ‘through the chink’ –  at the people in the other world of the puddle/window. These are people who ‘stand upon the brink’,  at the very edge of our world. Traherne asks about particularities – what faces do these people have? And then the surprise realisation:

I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

There’s a strong slide of meaning, possible meaning slipping into possible meaning, in the syntax of these lines – who is seeing what, where? The slippage is compounded by the rhymes: I, my, see, me, we.

I my companions see
In you, another me.

I just don’t know who ‘my companions’ are here – the people under the water?  Or the people alongside me in this world? Yes, it’s that latter: it means  ‘I and my companions see’. The syntax (the ways the words, punctuation, lines are arranged)  is so clever here: the more you look the more you can’t tell what you are seeing, as if the puddle has ripples in it which break up the  reflection into lots of parts, yet they are all still essentially ‘I’, ‘my companions’, ‘you’, ‘me’.

Finally we get to a resting place where the water, the vision, clams and we see clearly:

Our second selves these shadows be.

And now, in stanza 9, having achieved a moment of calm, Traherne flings a new, dizzying question into the pool:

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?

Now Traherne unleashes a stream of questions which can’t be answered: it’s as if the walls of the universe have fallen away. How far does this go? What does that unendingness mean? ‘What secret borders on those ends?’  When Traherne asks ‘Are lofty heavens hurled/ ’bout your inferior world’  it is as if he in free-fall, not knowing which way is up. Is there an ‘up’ in this place we look down into? If  there are reflections in that other world, what do they reflect? Are they ‘the representatives/ Of other peoples’ distant lives?’

I’m remembering something Doris Lessing wrote in her ‘Remarks’ at the beginning of The Sirian Experiments.

It has been said that everything man is capable of imagining has its counterpart somewhere else, in a different level of reality.

Traherne loves to inhabit this place between fixed points – the place where those different levels of reality meet, or touch, and  he is not all scared, but childlike, full of wonder at the  far-reachingness of  his own possible thought, or experience.

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.

He puts the question, ‘what can it mean?’ squarely and without fear. What can it mean that  ‘I do the image view, In other selves’? – It means ‘unknown joys’ await him.

The idea of the ‘thin skin’ between this world and another pleases him – he wants to be ‘admitted in.’ You get the feeling that is what he has wanted all along – to dive in, to go there…there is a fascination with the world reflected in the puddle, and with the thoughts that then grow from that experience

There’s nothing in the poem about  heaven, Christianity, any sort of expounding of doctrine, though Traherne was a priest.  If there was only this poem in existence Traherne would seem to me a true Romantic –  though he lived way before ‘Romanticism’ emerged as a movement, and  was unknown to Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets, because his work was unknown and unpublished until into the twentieth century.

Why do I say Romantic? Because he apprehends the world through his feelings and tries to think from there. Because he has a naive, childlike belief in those first feelings, which I’m glad to celebrate. Because ‘God’ doesn’t seem to come with human thinking attached, but rather as a direct and ordinary experience – the limilessness of God in a puddle.

And that’s what this poem is, isn’t it?  A small thing happens – child looks in puddle, see other  people there, other sky. From that experience comes this echoing hall of mirrors universe/time/space bending proposition which is about the thin barriers between states of being,  between life and death, this earth and heaven, whatever that is – this is what Wordsworth, a hundred years or so  later will call an of immortality’.

Read about Thomas Traherne here.