Thomas Traherne

Thomas Traherne (c. 1636-1674) is someone I have only just discovered, through the cantata for high solo voice and string orchestra by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) Dies Natalis. This piece, completed in 1939, which I only today received from Boosey & Hawkes, is a setting of some poems of this amazing man – The RaptureWonder, The Salutation and an extract from the prose Centuries of Meditations. The common theme of these beautiful pieces is the sense of wonder and elation of a newborn child finding himself born into a world of such beauty. Dies natalis is also the Latin term for the day of a saint’s death, since the experience of dying for a just person must be something like this. The text and further explanation of the music can be found here in Dies Natalis. What a lovely theme for the coming Christmas, with the allusion to the pre-existence of the divine λόγος who finds himself born into this world! These poems are of such theological depth that we are made to think of Walt Whitman who wrote on the sea and much more, and particularly William Blake. There is a mystical aspiration that evokes the Gnosticism of the ancient Alexandrian school. Romanticism finds itself anticipated by more than a hundred years.

You can read an introduction to Thomas Traherne, which needs no summary. He was a priest of the Church of England at the time of the Restoration.

This is the text of The Salutation from Dies Natalis, as much inspired by Bach as original Finzi, which I would myself like to sing. In the meantime, here it is sung by the great English tenor Philip Langridge (1939-2010).

These little limbs, these eyes and hands which here I find,
This panting heart wherewith my life begins;
Where have ye been? Behind what curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my new-made tongue?

When silent I, so many thousand, thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie, how could I smiles, or tears,
Or lips, or hands, or eyes, or ears perceive?
Welcome, ye treasures which I now receive.

From dust I rise and out of nothing now awake,
These brighter regions which salute my eyes,
A gift from God I take, the earth, the seas, the light, the lofty skies,
The sun and stars are mine: if these I prize.

A stranger here, strange things doth meet, strange glory see,
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
Strange, all, and new to me: But that they mine should be who nothing was,
That strangest is of all; yet brought to pass.

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