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A Disabling Gaze: Recovering Early Modern Disability Perspectives
with Thomas Traherne’s Poems of Felicity.

by Dr. Katey E. Roden, Gonzaga University

(June 2017 Issue / PDF)

The story of how the original manuscripts from poet and writer Thomas Traherne (c. 1637-1674) came to be discovered, misattributed, and then rediscovered over a period of a hundred years sounds an awful lot like scholarly lore, but students find this provenance narrative exciting, and this sense of discovery is essential to engaging students in the vital work of recovering disability narratives in early modern literature. 

In his lifetime, Thomas Traherne’s professional reputation was scant, with only one of his scholarly works published during his life and a posthumous collection of poetry organized and heavily edited by his brother Philip.  At the tail-end of the seventeenth century Traherne’s literary standing was on track to mirror the relative obscurity he experienced in life. This all changed in the winter of 1896-7, when W.T. Brooke purchased a folio volume of poems and commonplaces and another manuscript entitled Centuries of Meditation from a London bookstall. Originally believed to be the work of the poet Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), it was not until the manuscripts fell into Bertram E. Dobbell’s capable hands that their true author, Thomas Traherne, was “discovered.” Dobbell published The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne (1903) and Centuries (1908), which led to further archival work and the eventual identification and publication of Poems of Felicity (1910), which had been housed in the British Museum (Stanley 5-6). From that point onward, Traherne manuscripts continued to surface, the most dramatic of which was the 1967 recovery of a manuscript pulled from a pile of burning rubbish in Lancashire. The already scorched manuscript was later identified in 1981 as Traherne’s encyclopedic collection of prose, Commentaries on Heaven. Most recently, in 1996-7, two more manuscripts came to light: “The Ceremonial Law,” which had been housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library since 1958, and a substantial volume of prose discovered in Lambeth Palace Library (Smith par. 19).1  The 1996-7 discovery, exactly one hundred years after the first manuscripts emerged, has produced something of a charmed aura around Thomas Traherne, and for those who delve into his devotional poetry, maybe even a sense of mystic predestination. 

When learning about early modern poetry, students are often surprised to see such recent discovery dates for Traherne’s canon. Perhaps these dates challenge their preconceived notion that there is nothing new when reading such old texts. In fact, the last time I taught Traherne’s poetry and shared the story of his discovery, one of my students punctuated my introductory remarks by declaring, “I can’t believe that some of his writing was discovered the year I was born—he’s, like, as old as I am!”  While my student’s claim is less than accurate, his wonderful sense of discovery imbues what can otherwise seem like enigmatic devotional poetry with a useful sense of adventure.  Inviting students to engage in a process of discovery when encountering early modern poetry is always a worthwhile first step. Thomas Traherne’s devotional poetry, however, presents more than just an opportunity for students to discover an exciting metaphor or provocative political reference. Traherne’s poetry provides a rich occasion for students to recover early modern perspectives on disability and in doing so discover the prevalence of ableist points of view in both the early modern era and our own world. 

Reading for and through a disability lens presents a fresh new set of questions to interrogate the relation between body, spirit, and subjective self-fashioning that has been the subject of much criticism on early modern devotional verse, a genre whose popularity in the period demands attention in undergraduate classes treating early modern literature. Thomas Traherne’s collection of devotional verse Poems of Felicity (pub. 1910) provides abundant opportunities for students to mine religious verse for early modern conceptions of the relation between material and immaterial elements of the self, and also debate how bodily disability might unsettle these constructions of spirituality and selfhood.2  As a great deal of scholarship has noted, the eye plays an important role not only in Thomas Traherne’s poetic representation of selfhood, but also in his rendering of God, the soul, and the relationship between God and mankind.3  Having students approach Traherne’s canon with an eye towards his figuration of sightedness offers a productive framework to discuss how exactly Traherne envisions the relationship between bodily and spiritual abilities.  In the poem “Sight,” for example, Traherne invites readers to consider how sightedness is essential to self knowledge.4  Traherne writes:

Mine Infant-Ey   
[…]  
Did make me see  
Two Sights in me,  
Three Eys adorn’d my Face:  
Two Luminaries in my Flesh  
Did me refresh;  
But one did lurk within,  
Beneath my Skin,  
That was of greater Worth than both the other;  
For those were Twins; but this had ne’r a Brother.  (ll. 1-12)5

In this description of self-examination, sightedness appears paramount to the speaker’s sense of selfhood, as he explicitly juxtaposes the fleshly physical eyes against the immaterial, spiritual eye of the soul. Traherne’s simple syntax and diction make the speaker’s argument that the immaterial, internal spiritual eye is superior to simple sensory perception easy for students to identify. 

Once students have gained some confidence in dissecting Traherne’s verse with “Sight,” they can approach more complicated representations of body and soul relations that ultimately serve to underscore Traherne’s ableist poetics. “My Spirit” is a particularly good accompaniment to “Sight,” as it begins with a pun that conceptually links the two poems around themes of bodily ability and selfhood.  Traherne’s speaker begins with a dramatic pronouncement:

My Naked Simple Life was I.   
That Act so Strongly Shind   
Upon the Earth, the Sea, the Skie,   
It was the Substance of My Mind.   
The Sence it self was I (1.1-5).

In this depiction, Traherne’s ability to know himself and understand God’s creative force in his life is entirely dependent upon a particular bodily sense: sight.  Sightedness enables Traherne’s speaker to craft an “I” that is fully understood and also fully in line with God’s love, a love that manifests in His creative activity, which in turn provides a wealth of material delights for Traherne to feast his eyes upon.  As the poem continues, Traherne’s investment in sightedness becomes even more apparent when his subject-speaker gestures beyond his own sightedness toward the importance of divine sight.

The speaker’s ability to “see” himself for what he truly is (eye/I) relies entirely upon God also seeing him.  This reflexive exchange is accommodated by the poem itself, wherein Traherne’s speaker declares his spirit “all Ey, all Act, all Sight” (2.12), an entity “more Voluble then Light” (2.15).  The speaker’s soul may be all capacity, all perception, but if it is voluble, it is also the object of a readily moving eye (OED 2b).  Traherne’s comparison between his soul and light that becomes even more apparent when it comes into contact with matter, and then takes on the image of that which it enlightens, confirms A. Leigh De Neef’s claim that Traherne’s “entire poetic is predicated upon a spectacular objectification, a fashioning of a self to-be-seen for the Other who is conceived of having a desire to see” (116).  In Traherne’s rendering, God’s choice to gaze upon his speaker is confirmation of His desire for a reciprocal gaze, which in turn registers the speaker’s desire for God. Traherne’s eye/I formulation is thus premised on the presumed correlation between seeing and knowing—that when God sees into human souls, He knows what they truly desire, and when humans see their desire for and communion with God they come to greater knowledge of self.  

In the process of unpacking these rich lines, and with a little help from The Oxford English Dictionary, an undergraduate class can easily identify the eye/I conceit that drives much of the subjective self-fashioning at the heart of Traherne’s devotional poetics.  Students are familiar with the formulation that seeing is knowing because they use this verbiage all the time.  I often reinforce this semantic exchange in the course of their analysis by asking students what figurative language they see, which almost always prompts an explanation of how the metaphors, smiles, and imagery operate. When I ask what they see they inevitably tell me what they know, and when I point this intuitive transposition out a moment of discovery takes shape.  The complicated landscape of Traherne’s devotional poetics falls away and students see the poet and sometimes even the genre of devotional poetry anew. Traherne may be an early modern poet writing about spiritual subjectivity from a wildly different perspective than the average undergraduate student today, but when teachers draw attention to the role of the body in these contexts, students can approach the poem from the perspective of embodied persons.  When this occurs, it is not a far leap for students to also see that Traherne is writing from the position of an embodied person, actively trying to explain an aspect of the self/spirit through the metaphorics of sight. 

Establishing this essential connection to Traherne’s perspective of the self is crucial to assisting students in the vital work of recovering and bringing to the fore early modern perspectives on disability.  Traherne’s reliance on sightedness, after all, emerges from an ableist position, which is not lost on students once they key in on the relationship between sight and knowledge Traherne develops. If they recognize sightedness as essential to Traherne’s subjective self-fashioning, then students are primed to encounter his poem “Dumnesse” with a more critical eye, as I prompt them to consider the speaker’s relationship to bodily abilities like seeing, speaking, and hearing.  Like many of Traherne’s poems, “Dumnesse” longingly reaches back to a childlike state of purity:

Man was born to Meditat on Things,   
And to Contemplat the Eternal Springs  
Of God and Nature, Glory, Bliss and Pleasure;   
That Life and Love might be his Heavenly Treasure:  
And therefore Speechless made at first, that he  
Might in himself profoundly Busied be:  
And not vent out, before he hath t’ake in   
Those Antidots that guard his Soul from Sin.  
Wise Nature made him Deaf too, that he might   
Not be disturbd, while he doth take Delight   
In inward Things, nor be depravd with Tongues,  
Nor Injurd by the Errors and the Wrongs  
That Mortal Words convey.  For Sin and Death  
Are most infused by accursed Breath,  
That flowing from Corrupted Intrails, bear  
Those hidden Plagues which Souls may justly fear.  (ll. 1-16, original emphasis)

Traherne’s intense desire to remove himself from both an oral and aural world issues forth a fantasy of isolation contingent upon disabling the speaker’s ability to both perceive and create language.  When the speaker is removed from this disabled yet secure space, communication with other people proves a destabilizing and even contaminating prospect.  Traherne portrays language itself as fallen: the product of a corrupting “Living Vehicle of Wind” (l. 25) that leaves the speaker’s mind “infected” (l. 26) by the “Mixture” (l. 28).  Such pejorative phrasing leads students to quickly identify that in this poem, Traherne’s speaker is literally all sight.  For Traherne, external modes of communication generate contagion, a contagion that registers in and on the penetrable early modern body.  By figuring himself as both deaf and mute, and thus isolated from the sinfulness of the world, Traherne’s speaker turns inward to find “total and unbounded connection with the divine, producing in turn assertions of unpermeated self possession” (Mintz 9).  This sense of self-possession, however, is, as Susannah Mintz notes, built entirely upon the absolute reality of Traherne’s sightedness: “Only by being able to look (and not simply to imagine, understand, or intellectualize) does the subject-speaker of Traherne’s poems make his expansive claims of possession and joyfulness” (Mintz 4).6  In the isolation produced by his “Dumnesse,” Traherne’s spiritual bliss is utterly dependent upon his “Non-Intelligence of Human Words” (l. 21). However, the blissful isolation Traherne envisions is the daily experience of a disabled person who can neither speak nor hear.  In this manner, Traherne fetishizes disability as only an able-bodied person can.  His rendering of divine isolation in “Dumnesse” thus confirms his ableist poetics and Suzannah Mintz’s assertion that Traherne’s poetry is primarily interested in “demarcate[ing] the boundaries of the normal body” (18).

Early modern mind body relations and the genre of devotional poetry can seem impenetrable for many undergraduate students, but approaching these important texts and contexts through the lens of Disability Studies provides an avenue in.  Thomas Traherne’s poetry offers an access point to meaningful classroom discussions surrounding the role disabled people and images of disability play in Literature.  Indeed, Traherne’s manipulation of disabled states invites serious inquiry into the privileges afforded to able-bodied individuals both in the early modern world and also today.  By interrogating the ways in which Traherne fashions a subject/speaker who constructs his entire spiritual identity around the sightedness necessary to stare at a God who lovingly stares back at him while also shutting down all of the other bodily senses that might obstruct such an exchange, Traherne reveals the extent to which ableist perspectives undergird the formation of both faith and subject identities in early modern poetry.

The collective force of this series of poems leads to an important classroom discovery: early modern notions about disability are rife with contradiction.  Is Traherne celebrating disability as a desirable state?  Or, does his eye/I formulation of self-knowledge suggest that lacking sight leaves the visually impaired out of God’s good graces and also missing the ability to truly know the self?  His rendering of mind body relations invite debate over how early moderns viewed disability. Thankfully, providing historical context offers even richer opportunities for discovery and recovery of the early modern disability perspectives located in Traherne’s poetics.

Aristotle’s categorization of any corporeal excess or deficiency under the term “monstrosity” did a great deal to escalate contemporary language surrounding disability and skew perceptions of the disabled toward the negative.  In Aristotle’s rendering, any body that deviates from the common course of nature (whether by birth, disease, or accident) ought to be considered monstrous, as “Monstrosities belong to the class of things contrary to nature, not any and every kind of nature, but Nature in her usual operations” (qtd. in Schildrick 11).7  In this summation, Aristotle applies the category of the monstrous to anything that deviates from the natural course, and in doing so clearly identifies the physically different as unnatural and improper.  This figuration of the disabled as monster is expanded upon in the Christian tradition, which also draws attention to the exceptional and uncommon nature of the disabled.  In this tradition, however, “disability denotes an unusual relationship with God” and the disabled are considered in binary terms where “the person with disabilities is either divinely blessed or damned” (Eiseland “Barriers” 218).  Biblical evidence for both of these interpretations abounds.  The holiness codes in Leviticus, for example, link physical disability with sinfulness and uncleanliness so much so that the disabled are barred access to the holiest spaces within the temple.8  This portrayal of the disabled within the godly community is revised in the New Testament as Christ’s healing of the sick and disabled is celebrated.  In John 9:1-3, for example, when his disciples ask if a blind man’s disability is the result of his or his parents’ sins, Jesus replies: “Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”  In this Gospel story, blindness is made admirable as it enables a demonstration of God’s power and suggests an association between disability, forgiveness, and healing.  However, in John 5:5-16, Jesus heals a man unable to walk and later, when he encounters that same man in temple, tells him “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.” In this Gospel story, Christ seems to affirm a connection between disability and sin, even suggesting that disability is a just punishment for sin.  The relationship between suffering, sin, forgiveness, and healing is further complicated by St. Paul’s emphasis on virtuous acceptance of suffering as a crucial sign of internal grace.  In Paul’s model, and also through his own experience, the saint is purified through the crucible of physical impairment and affliction.  Such stark representations leave very little opportunity for consideration beyond the archetypes of saint or devil and inevitably leave disabled individuals with only peripheral access to the religious community.

Early moderns inherited both the Aristotelian and Christian traditions, and in the flux of reformation and revolution early moderns actively read physically different bodies as supranatural signifiers of God’s social, political, or religious commentary (Shildrick 12).  When framed through this context, this set of poems by Thomas Traherne open up a host of fruitful classroom discussions addressing early modern devotion, subjectivity, dis/ability, mind body relations, and also the lived reality of disabled persons today.  Given the legacy of interpreting disability as a sign of divine exceptionality, as either an indication of grace or damnation, it comes as no surprise to students to learn that disabled people “have been isolated, incarcerated, observed, written about, operated on, instructed, implanted, regulated, treated, institutionalized, and controlled to a degree probably unequal to that experienced by any other minority group” (Davis “Introduction” xv).9  Reading Thomas Traherne’s ableist figuration of disability without any reference to disability as a lived reality invites students to genuinely consider how early modern constructions of identity, race, ability, class, and gender categories might persist in our own world. 

Works Cited

Albrecht, Gary L., Katherine Seelman, and Michael Bury, eds.  The Handbook of Disability Studies.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001.  Print.

Clements, A. L.  The Mystical Poetry of Thomas Traherne.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969.  Print.

Davis, Lennard J., ed.  The Disability Studies Reader. 4th ed.  New York: Routledge, 2013.  Print.

De Neef, A. Leigh.  Traherne in Dialogue: Heidegger, Lacan, and Derrida.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988.  Print.

Eiesland, Nancy.  “Encountering the Disabled God.”  PMLA 120.2 (2005): 584-86.  Print.

Mintz, Suzannah.  “Strange Bodies: Thomas Traherne’s Disabled Subject.” In Re- Reading Thomas Traherne: A Collection of New Critical Essays.  Ed. Jacob Blevins.  Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies Vol. 325.  Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2007. 1-20.  Print.

Ridlon, Harold G.  “The Function of the ‘Infant–Ey’ in Traherne’s Poetry,” SP 61 (1964): 627-39.  Print.

Sherrington, Alison J.  Mystical Symbolism in the Poetry of Thomas Traherne.  St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1970.  Print.

Shildrick, Margrit.  Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self.  London: Sage, 2002.  Print.

Smith, Julia J.  “Traherne, Thomas (c. 1637-16674).”  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.  Online edn., May 2010.  25 April 2016.

Stewart, Stanley.  The Expanded Voice: The Art of Thomas Traherne.  San Marino, CA:  Huntington Library Press, 1970.  Print. 

“voluble, adj. 2b”  Oxford English Dictionary Online.  2017.  Oxford University Press. 5 June  2014.  <http://www.oed.com>. 

Wade, Gladys, ed.  The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne. London: P.J. & A.E. Dobell, 1932. Print.

Notes

[1] For biographical information on Thomas Traherne see: Stanley Stewart, The Expanded Voice: The Art of Thomas Traherne (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1970) and Julia J. Smith, “Traherne, Thomas (c. 1637-16674),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford UP, 2004, online edn, May 2010). 

[2] The collection that makes up Poems of Felicity exists in two manuscripts: the Burney MS and the Dobbell MS. The Burney MS appears to have been the copy from which the poet’s brother, Philip, was working to prepare for publication after Thomas’s death; the editorial license with which Philip altered and rearranged the poems, however, have led me, whenever possible, to refer to the Dobbell MS, which appears to be free from Philip’s rather heavy hand. Although a side-by-side comparison of the MSS can be a useful classroom exercise.
[3] The importance of eye imagery to Traherne has been a touchstone for Traherne scholarship following the publication of the following foundational studies on Traherne’s imagery: Harold G. Ridlon, “The Function of the ‘Infant–Ey’ in Traherne’s Poetry,” SP 61 (1964): 627-39; A. L. Clements, The Mystical Poetry of Thomas Traherne, (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969); and Alison J. Sherrington, Mystical Symbolism in the Poetry of Thomas Traherne (St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1970).

[4] “Sight” appears in the Burney MS and not in the Dobell MS.

[5] This and all subsequent references to Traherne’s poetry are taken from The Poetical Works of Thomas Traherne, Ed. Gladys Wade (London: P.J. & A.E. Dobell, 1932).

[6] In “Strange Bodies: Thomas Traherne’s Disabled Subject” Mintz very usefully applies the language and lens of Disability Studies to Traherne’s metaphoric imaging of himself as deaf, mute, and blind.  Ultimately, Mintz argues that Traherne’s entire poetic self-representation derives from an “ableist” position that appropriates the language of disability without addressing the social and material circumstances of the disabled.  As a result, the disabled body becomes a foil to Traherne’s ideal and felicitous body, and this relationship serves only to “reinforce problematic stereotypes by underwriting the hegemony of an idealized, ‘natural,’ wonderinspiring physical form that strives for order against the vagaries of embodiment” (Mintz 20).   

[7] For the original source see: Aristotle, Generatione Animalium, 767b, 5-10.

[8] Leviticus 21:17-26: “Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God.  For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous.  Or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded.  Or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken.”

[9] For a more detailed treatment of the various theoretical approaches in the field of Disability Studies see Gary L. Albrecht, Katherine Seelman, and Michael Bury, eds., The Handbook of Disability Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001), especially Chapter 5, “Theorizing Disability” 123-141.

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