Archive for Metaphysical Poets

The Salutation

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on August 22, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been far too long since I posted a poem by my favourite of the metaphysical poets, Thomas Traherne (who lived from c. 1636 to 1674), so here’s another of his remarkable works, called The Salutation, in which he ponders the deepest questions of existence complete with authentic 17th century spelling…

These little Limbs,
These Eys and Hands which here I find,
This panting Heart wherwith 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 ly,
How could I Smiles, or Tears,
Or Lips, or Hands, or Eys, or Ears perceiv?
Welcom ye Treasures which I now receiv.

I that so long
Was Nothing from Eternity,
Did little think such Joys as Ear and Tongue
To celebrat or see:
Such Sounds to hear, such Hands to feel, such Feet,
Beneath the Skies, on such a Ground to meet.

New burnisht Joys!
Which finest Gold and Pearl excell!
Such sacred Treasures are the Limbs of Boys
In which a Soul doth dwell:
Their organized Joints and azure Veins
More Wealth include than all the World contains.

From Dust I rise
And out of Nothing now awake;
These brighter Regions which salute mine Eys
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 lodg’d 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.


The World

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 28, 2010 by telescoper

The  poet Henry Vaughan was born in Trenewydd (Newton), near Brecon, in Wales, in 1622 and lived most of his life not far from there in the small village of Llansantffraed, where he also practised as a physician. He died in 1695. His twin brother Thomas Vaughan was a noted philosopher (and alchemist), so theirs was clearly an interesting family! Henry Vaughan followed in the footsteps of another famous Welsh metaphysical poet, George Herbert, although literary experts seem to argue about their relative merits, as literary experts are wont to do…

I’ve recently developed a bit of a thing for English (and Welsh) metaphysical poets and have included a few examples on here, partly because they are totally new to me and might therefore be new to people reading this blog, and partly because they often deal with grand themes about the Universe which gives me an excuse to include them on what I sometimes pretend is a science blog.

Like many of his ilk (including Thomas Traherne, who I’ve blogged about before) Henry Vaughan wasn’t particularly celebrated in his lifetime but he was increasingly appreciated after his death;  William Wordsworth acknowledged him as a major influence, for example. Recurring themes in Vaughan’s poems – like those of Wordsworth – are the loss of childhood innocence and a love for Nature. I’ve picked one of his most famous works as an example. It doesn’t have as strong an astronomical connection as some others, but the opening lines are so beautiful I hope you won’t mind!

The World

I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light
All calm as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,
Driven by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world
And all her train were hurled.
The doting Lover in his quaintest strain
Did there complain;
Near him, his lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wit’s sour delights;
With gloves and knots, the silly snares of pleasure;
Yet his dear treasure
All scattered lay, while he his eyes did pour
Upon a flower.

The darksome Statesman hung with weights and woe,
Like a thick midnight fog, moved there so slow
He did nor stay nor go;
Condemning thoughts, like sad eclipses, scowl
Upon his soul,
And clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet digged the mole, and, lest his ways be found,
Worked under ground,
Where he did clutch his prey; but One did see
That policy.
Churches and altars fed him, perjuries
Were gnats and flies;
It rained about him blood and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearful Miser on a heap of rust
Sat pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust;
Yet would not place one piece above, but lives
In fear of thieves.
Thousands there were as frantic as himself,
And hugged each one his pelf.
The downright Epicure placed heaven in sense
And scorned pretence;
While others, slipped into a wide excess,
Said little less;
The weaker sort, slight, trivial wares enslave,
Who think them brave;
And poor despisèd Truth sat counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing and weep, soared up into the Ring;
But most would use no wing.
‘Oh, fools,’ said I, ‘thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots and caves, and hate the day
Because it shows the way,
The way which from this dead and dark abode
Leaps up to God,
A way where you might tread the sun, and be
More bright than he.’
But as I did their madness so discuss,
One whispered thus,
This Ring the Bridegroom did for none provide
But for his Bride.


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.

Upon Nothing

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 15, 2009 by telescoper

I used to live in Wilmot Street in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London. I’d been resident there quite a while before I realised that the street was named after John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, one of the great metaphysical poets, who lived from 1647 to 1680 (although I doubt he ever lived in Bethnal Green).

John Wilmot was a lifelong atheist, bon viveur and generally dissolute individual who famously converted to Christianity on his deathbed, causing much debate about whether he actually meant it.

Much of Wilmot’s literary output is actually quite crude (and often pornographic). However, first published in 1679, Upon Nothing is  certainly among the cleverest of his works and is possibly the most important poem he wrote. It’s clearly a satire  on John Milton‘s Paradise Lost (especially Book II). Starting out with a dig at the vanity of man’s attempts to solve the problem of existence, it moves into a more general lampoon of fashion victims, pompous politicians and self-important persons generally.

Updated by a few hundred years, this poem could equally be applied to the programme of quantum cosmology advocated by, e.g. Alexander Vilenkin which tries to explain the existence of the Universe by quantum tunneling  ex nihilo.  I always have a problem understanding how the equations of quantum mechanics could exist, as it were, in advance of the material they try to describe. I suppose the point is that there’s really no such thing as nothing, but then I’m no metaphysicist…

Upon Nothing

Nothing, thou elder brother even to shade,
That hadst a being ere the world was made,
And (well fixed) art alone of ending not afraid.

Ere time and place were, time and place were not,
When primitive Nothing Something straight begot,
Then all proceeded from the great united—What?

Something, the general attribute of all,
Severed from thee, its sole original,
Into thy boundless self must undistinguished fall.

Yet Something did thy mighty power command,
And from thy fruitful emptiness’s hand,
Snatched men, beasts, birds, fire, air, and land.

Matter, the wickedest offspring of thy race,
By Form assisted, flew from thy embrace,
And rebel Light obscured thy reverend dusky face.

With Form and Matter, Time and Place did join,
Body, thy foe, with these did leagues combine
To spoil thy peaceful realm, and ruin all thy line.

But turncoat Time assists the foe in vain,
And, bribed by thee, assists thy short-lived reign,
And to thy hungry womb drives back thy slaves again.

Though mysteries are barred from laic eyes,
And the Divine alone with warrant pries
Into thy bosom, where thy truth in private lies,

Yet this of thee the wise may freely say,
Thou from the virtuous nothing takest away,
And to be part of thee the wicked wisely pray.

Great Negative, how vainly would the wise
Inquire, define, distinguish, teach, devise?
Didst thou not stand to point their dull philosophies.

Is, or is not, the two great ends of Fate,
And true or false, the subject of debate,
That perfects, or destroys, the vast designs of Fate,

When they have racked the politician’s breast,
Within thy bosom most securely rest,
And, when reduced to thee, are least unsafe and best.

But Nothing, why does Something still permit
That sacred monarchs should at council sit
With persons highly thought at best for nothing fit?

Whist weighty Something modestly abstains
From princes’ coffers, and from statesmen’s brains,
And Nothing there like stately Nothing reigns,

Nothing, who dwellest with fools in grave disguise,
For whom they reverend shapes and forms devise,
Lawn sleeves, and furs, and gowns, when they like thee look wise.

French truth, Dutch prowess, British policy,
Hibernian learning, Scotch civility,
Spaniard’s dispatch, Dane’s wit are mainly seen in thee.

The great man’s gratitude to his best friend,
King’s promises, whore’s vows, towards thee they bend,
Flow swiftly to thee, and in thee never end.

Incidentally, the first use of the word metaphysical to describe the particular “poetic style, characterized by wit, syntactic complexity, and the use of elaborate and intricate schemes of imagery to express abstract ideas and emotional states” was in 1693, by John Dryden who clearly meant it to be pejorative. Those whose philosophical inclination is in the direction of positivism would look down on the more orthodox meaning of the word metaphysical, i.e. meaning “of or relating to the  branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things or reality, including questions about being, substance, time and space, causation, change, and identity”. Dryden, however, was alluding to another meaning, now quite rare but prevalent in the 17th Century, that has something to do with magical or supernatural things beyond the bounds of respectable thought. Thomas More used the word “metaphysical” to attack William Tyndale for translating the Bible into English, for example.

You can find other examples of  metaphysical poetry in the collection I blogged about here.