Thomas Traherne and the “Infant-Ey”

Credit: pam fray

     You never Enjoy the World aright, till you see how a Sand Exhibiteth the Wisdom and Power of God.

Thomas Traherne (d. 1674) was a country priest from Hereford, largely unknown in his own time. He lived a simple life, publishing only one book, and that anonymously. After his death, his reputation for saintliness led to the propagation of some of his many private devotional writings. But it was not until the 1890s that the now-famous Centuries of Meditations manuscript was discovered in a London bookstall and identified as his.

The third and best-known of these centuries takes up the theme of childhood. Traherne narrates his own appearance onto the stage of the world, from the first glimmer of illumination in the womb through the joyous visions of infancy—and then a time of “Apostasy,” after which he had to rediscover through reason what in childhood he received by intuition. Anticipating the Romantics, Traherne described childhood as a prelapsarian state. The innocence of the child manifests chiefly as true valuation: the child enjoys the whole natural world as his inheritance and knows nothing of the legalisms and fetishes of adulthood. For Traherne, the whole creation, light and air, wind and cloud, tree and mountain, are true wealth, poured out abundantly by Providence. To recognize this, we must truly see things for what they are. In one of his poems, Traherne referred to such “pure and virgin apprehensions“ as the “Infant-Ey.” It may only be got by innocence or grace.

Unfortunately, a vision got by innocence disappears with innocence. If the narrative here is not to be taken as mere parable, this was as true for Traherne as it was for anyone else. “They did impose upon me,” Traherne remembered, teaching him to substitute the “riches of invention” for the “riches of Nature” in his esteem. He learned by imitation to desire pennies and fancy toys, “little vanities,” to think of things in terms of property and ownership, to follow fashion; such “barbarous inventions” of civilization are “grubs and worms in men’s heads” that “eat out all their happiness.” Before Traherne’s eyes, the world became a “comfortless wilderness.” He came to be discontented with his material poverty, baffled by churches, burdened by schooling. Relief only came when he was alone with his thoughts and with Nature, or when he was reading about faraway places or distant times. As he grew older, he initiated serious study of the Bible and philosophical questioning, and he began to experience a change in perspective.

The narrative continues to university. Traherne, now perceiving the love of God all around him, threw himself into studies with enthusiasm. “I saw that there were things in this world of which I never dreamed; glorious secrets, and glorious persons past imagination. There I saw that Logic, Ethics, Physics, Metaphysics, Geometry, Astronomy, Poesy, Medicine, Grammar, Music, Rhetoric all kinds of Arts, Trades, and Mechanisms that adorned the world pertained to felicity; at least there I saw those things, which afterwards I knew to pertain unto it: and was delighted in it. There I saw into the nature of the Sea, the Heavens, the Sun, the Moon and Stars, the Elements, Minerals, and Vegetables. All which appeared like the King’s Daughter, all glorious within; and those things which my nurses, and parents, should have talked of there were taught unto me.” His only complaint was that none of his teachers explained the purpose of all this knowledge. Many of his classmates pursued these things for worldly advancement. Yet Traherne completed his studies with a resolution to shun urban society and all its honors, and to live on a meager income in the countryside. He got his wish, and worked to reacquire his “Infant-Ey” in part by contact with nature and deep reading in the Psalms.

Traherne urged his reader to pray devoutly for the restoration of this gift. To become a little child as Christ commanded, Traherne believed, means not merely to trust God with childlike simplicity and assurance, but to attain that detachment from the world’s concerns—“ambitions, trades, luxuries, inordinate affections, casual and accidental riches”—that distinguishes children.

Training the Infant-Ey

Clearly, Traherne’s story poses a challenge for teachers. As James Baldwin recognized, teachers serve as civilizers, working to adapt children to the habits and values of their society’s adult life. Acquiring these habits and values becomes a necessary condition for what society deems “success.” But like Baldwin, Traherne implicitly makes our position as teachers problematic: what if these habits and values are destructive of what Traherne calls real wealth rather than productive of it? Are we deceiving ourselves when we think we are opening eyes? Are we actually putting on blinders, teaching children to forget their true inheritance and embrace stupid grown-up obsessions?

These questions seem of particular poignancy in a society like ours. We are deluged in “riches of invention” and circumscribe the “riches of Nature” to designated reserves. We have forgotten that the only wealth is life. The evidence is all around us. Even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, this author has seen the confessions of exhausted healthcare workers greeted with statements like, “If you don’t like your job, you should stop complaining and get another one.” Teachers will not be strangers to similar rebukes, which seem to follow any attempt to improve the conditions of their labor. Mammon sanctifies the dictates of the market by narrowing the imagination: it ceases to be conceivable that real wealth goes far beyond the price tag (as Thoreau said of the maples of Concord, “they are worth all and more than they have cost”) and may exist altogether outside of it. The logic of Mammon decrees that self-interest is self-justifying, and so anyone who willingly subordinates their private interests to some greater good is a culpable fool. The logic of Mammon sees any failure to exploit the gifts of earth as deadweight loss. The learning of Mammon’s values is an education for passive, atomized consumption.

Most of us teachers are probably guilty of excessive deference to adult vanities. We cannot hope our students will be free of the poison if we ourselves are unwilling to take the emetic. Unfortunately, we encourage the sickness systemically, in many subtle ways, with the games and reward systems we craft. Is it any wonder so many of our students struggle with depression, either when they struggle to achieve such meaningless tokens as we offer them, or when having earned these tokens they recognize their true meaninglessness?

This is not entirely our fault. Hopefully, we all believe in the intrinsic value of the subject we teach. But even if our view of education and its aims is as lofty as Traherne’s, we must somehow convince the mass of students already shaped by worldly value systems that our subject is worth their investment. This tends to lead to utilitarian justifications that threaten the joys of learning; it is left to a few particularly keen or fortunate students to stumble into the true virtue of study by themselves. False valuation is a net few of us, teachers or students, can entirely escape. But Traherne held out hope for us that the “Infant-Ey” is not lost forever—it can be recovered, if in degrees. One of his intentions was to show us that sacrifice of the vanities is no sacrifice at all; it is simply making room for better and happier things. We only need to recognize this, whether through the dark night of suffering or the joys of contemplation.

The root of Traherne’s own realization was that “it did not so much concern us what objects were before us, as with what eyes we beheld them, with what affections we esteemed them, and what apprehensions we had about them. All men see the same objects, but do not equally understand them. Intelligence is the tongue that discerns and tastes them, Knowledge is the Light of Heaven, Love is the Wisdom and Glory of God, Life extended to all objects is the sense that enjoys them. So that Knowledge, Life, and Love are the very means of all enjoyment, which above all things we must seek for and labour after.” The state of the faculties is critical for the revelation of true value and meaning.

William Blake, who appears to have had no direct knowledge of Traherne’s writings, wrote in at times almost identical terms. In one letter, he declared: “I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.”

So also John Ruskin: “The real majesty of the appearance of [a] thing to us depends upon the degree to which we ourselves possess the power of understanding it—that penetrating, possession-taking power of the imagination, the very life of man considered as a seeing creature.”

For all these thinkers, Nature is herself the wellspring of true vision, shaping and filling the imagination with apprehensions of the good. It may be proper and necessary to teach our students about the world of affairs, but we dare not let them confuse it for the real world, the creation given by God that literally sustains us body and soul. All human arts must be directed back to the real world, and ultimately, as Traherne believed, to its divine source, our true happiness. Many of us have become convinced no such happiness exists, and this drives us back to ersatz pleasures and numbing agents. The universe appears opaque to our dim eyes, and we descry mere surface, no more real than the amiable and plastic surfaces of our own invention.

To unbelief of this kind, there is only one cure. Spiritual childhood is the gate to wonder. As George MacDonald declared in his exegesis of Matthew 18, “childhood is the deepest heart of humanity—its divine heart.” Spiritual childhood is not ignorance or gullibility, but innocence of vision and purity of imagination, a capacity for apprehension of truth born of the detachment of the childlike soul. Young children possess in abundance that primitive sympathy that is a necessary condition of all knowledge; regrettably, most of them lose it rapidly, and too many adults identify this loss with maturation. But wisdom and innocence are not ultimately incompatible. If we are to heal the distortions in our own souls and learn to value rightly, and to pass on such discernment to our students, we must attain the “Infant-Ey” again.

    Can you take too much joy in your Father’s works? He is Himself in everything. Some things are little on the outside, and rough and common, but I remember the time when the dust of the streets were as pleasing as Gold to my infant eyes, and now they are more precious to the eye of reason.

The services of things and their excellencies are spiritual: being objects not of the eye, but of the mind: and you more spiritual by how much more you esteem them. Pigs eat acorns, but neither consider the sun that gave them life, nor the influences of the heavens by which they were nourished, nor the very root of the tree from whence they came. This being the work of Angels, who in a wide and clear light see even the sea that gave them moisture: And feed upon that acorn spiritually while they know the ends for which it was created, and feast upon all these as upon a World of Joys within it: while to ignorant swine that eat the shell, it is an empty husk of no taste nor delightful savour.

You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth the wisdom and power of God: And prize in everything the service which they do you, by manifesting His glory and goodness to your Soul, far more than the visible beauty on their surface, or the material services they can do your body. Wine by its moisture quencheth my thirst, whether I consider it or no: but to see it flowing from His love who gave it unto man, quencheth the thirst even of the Holy Angels. To consider it, is to drink it spiritually. To rejoice in its diffusion is to be of a public mind. And to take pleasure in all the benefits it doth to all is Heavenly, for so they do in Heaven. To do so, is to be divine and good, and to imitate our Infinite and Eternal Father.

Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys: having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels. The bride of a monarch, in her husband’s chamber, hath too such causes of delight as you.

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.

Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world. Till you more feel it than your private estate, and are more present in the hemisphere, considering the glories and the beauties there, than in your own house: Till you remember how lately you were made, and how wonderful it was when you came into it: and more rejoice in the palace of your glory, than if it had been made but to-day morning.

Centuries of Meditations 1.25-30

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