Close reading explores 17th-century poet

By Camille Furst
News Assistant

A poet ahead of his time, Thomas Traherne was a pioneer in 17th century British lyric poetry. He dared to write about what others would not, to give a voice to what others would only whisper about and change the way people interpreted poetry. As cataclystic as his work may seem, Traherne left only a light footprint in the pathway of progressive poetry.  

Graham dissects Traherne’s references to gender fluidity. (Meagan McDowell / Photo Editor)

The faculty of the English department hosted a poetry reading on Oct. 2, from 12:30 – 1:50 p.m. in the Physics Building Room 101 to discuss Traherne (1637-1674). Little is known about the poet, other than what can be salvaged from the written works he left behind, but his poetry was greatly influenced by topics like sexuality and gender fluidity, which were often considered taboo during his lifetime.

Jean Graham, associate chair of the English department, held the lecture after recently publishing her essay, “High Delights That Satisfy All Appetites: Thomas Traherne And Gender.” The paper discusses the recurring theme of homosexuality and gender fluidity not only in Traherne’s poem “Love,” a poem she cited during the lecture, but in other works of his as well.

She was inspired to write her article and hold the poetry reading after analyzing some of Traherne’s work. “Love,” particularly intrigued her — while she saw themes of homosexuality and gender fluidity in his piece, she was surprised to learn that her interpretation was not one that was shared by many others.

“When I started researching it I found that … very few people — fewer than five — had written about the poem as a homosexual love poem.”

Graham asked audience members if they have heard the name Thomas Traherne before. Out of the audience of approximately 40 people, only the three other faculty members raised their hands.

“There are not currently a lot of records kept about Traherne,” Graham said. “(He) is not your most commonly read poet. I’m actually not expecting many of you to have read a poem by him.”

Despite an almost nonexistent reputation, Traherne wrote about rare subjects of conversation at the time, including gender fluidity.

“Women cannot attend university or become clergy, men cannot care for small children, and, legally, married women are non-persons,” Graham said of the time period in which Traherne lived. “Most people would say that (these poems are) unusual.”

Graham then explained that despite various forms of oppression against women in the pre-modern era, gender fluidity still existed to a certain extent. She presented a treatise from 1860 that prohibited cross-dressing in any form. However, since women were not allowed to act in plays, men cross-dressed and played female roles.

“I am His image and His friend, His son, bride, glory, temple, end,” Traherne’s poem “Love” reads.

By having the speaker characterize himself as both a son and a bride toward God, Traherne began a conversation on gender fluidity.

Poetry at the time was described as metaphysical, where metaphors, imagery and harsh expression were favored writing techniques. Traherne used those techniques to talk about issues that were forbidden at the time.

Poets like Traherne “want people to pay attention, they don’t want to be forgotten,” Graham said. “For Traherne to be forgotten is unusual for a metaphysical poet.”