Archive for Gerald Finzi


Posted in Music, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 27, 2009 by telescoper

Not long ago I put up an item containing a  poem by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Since I’ve been reading a collection which contains poems by another of the metaphysical poets, Thomas Traherne, I thought I’d pick one of his to put up too.

I was also reminded of Traherne’s poetry when John Peacock commented on another recent post because it was he that introduced me to the truly wonderful musical settings of some of Traherne’s poetry made by Gerald Finzi in his cantata Dies Natalis, and pointed me in the direction of the stunning recording of that work made by Wilfred Brown with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Finzi (son of Gerald). Why Finzi –  and especially that work – is not better known is something I’ll never understand. But that’s another story…

The story of Thomas Traherne’s poetry is strange and fascinating. The son of  a cobbler, he was a devoutly religious man who lived most of his short life (1637-1674) in relative obscurity as a clergyman and theologian. He was a prolific writer of both prose and poetry, but very little of his work was published during his lifetime. Vast number of handwritten manuscripts survived his death, however, and many of these remained in the safekeeping of a local family in his native Herefordshire. However, in 1888 the estate of this family was wound up, sold, and the manuscripts became dispersed. Eventually, in 1897, one set of papers was  accidentally discovered in a bookstall. Traherne’s first volume of verse was published in 1903 and a second collection followed in 1908.

When these poems finally found their way into the literary world they were greeted with astonishment as well as deep appreciation and they were widely  influential: TS Eliot was a great admirer of Traherne, as was Dorothy L Sayers. The timing of their publication probably explains why Finzi’s music teacher, Ernest Farrar, suggested them to his young student; Finzi was born in 1901 and Farrar taught him as a young boy before he was called up for service in the First World War and killed in action in 1918.

Over the years further manuscripts  have also come to light – literally, in one case, because in 1967 another lost Traherne manuscript was found, on fire, in a  rubbish dump and rescued in the nick of time.

Traherne is sometimes described as the last metaphysical poet and, indeed, the last poems in the collection I have been reading are by him. However, it seems to me he might equally be described as the first romantic poet. The themes he tackles – love of nature and loss of childhood innocence – and his visionary, rhapsodic style have as much in common with William Blake and, especially, William Wordsworth as they do with better known metaphysical poets such as John Donne.

Traherne’s most famous poem is probably Shadows in the Water, but I decided to pick a relatively obscure one, primarily because it deals with matters close to the concerns of a cosmologist! The central theme is the inadequacy of human thought processes in finding a true description of reality or, if you like, full intercourse with nature. For the poet, this can only be achieved through God. This is the consummation referred to in the title.

He’s particularly good at capturing  how we tend to gloss over difficulties with our conceptual framework and how we invent things to plug the gaps. I particularly like the lines from the fourth verse “Wherein because we no//Object distinctly find or know,//We sundry things invent,//That may our fancy give content.” Dark matter?


The thoughts of men appear
Freely to move within a sphere
Of endless reach; and run
Though in the soul, beyond the sun.
The ground on which they acted be
Is unobserved infinity.

Extended through the sky,
Though here, beyond it far they fly:
Abiding in the mind
An endless liberty they find:
Throughout all spaces can extend,
Nor ever meet or know an end.

They, in their native sphere,
At boundless distances appear:
Eternity can measure;
Its no beginning see with pleasure.
Thus in the mind an endless space
Doth naturally display its face.

Wherein because we no
Object distinctly find or know,
We sundry things invent,
That may our fancy give content;
See points of space beyond the sky,
And in those points see creatures lie;

Spy fishes in the seas,
Conceit them swimming there with ease;
The dolphins and the whales,
Their very fins, their very scales,
As there within the briny deep
Their tails the flowing waters sweep.

Can see the very skies,
As if the same were in our eyes;
The sun, though in the night,
As if it moved within our sight;
One space beyond another still
Discovered; think while ye will.

Which though we don’t descry,
(Much like by night an idle eye,
Not shaded with a lid,
But in a darksome dungeon hid)
At last shall in a glorious day
Be made its objects to display,

And then shall ages be,
Within its wide eternity;
All kingdoms stand
Howe’er remote, yet nigh at hand;
The skies, and what beyond them lie,
Exposed unto every eye.

Nor shall we then invent
Not alter things; but with content
All in their places see,
As doth the glorious deity;
Within the scope of whose great mind,
We all in their true nature find.