Masquing/Un-Masquing: Lambeth MS. 1360 and a Reconsideration of Traherne’s 'Curious' Visual Language
Re-Reading Thomas Traherne: A Collection of New Critical Essays
In the one hundred years since the first publication of Traherne's poetry, discoveries of new Traherne manuscripts have reached the status of scholarly folk legend: pulled from fires; bargain-hunted from bookstalls; sleuthed out of piles of uncatalogued library materials. Even so, the late Jeremy Maule's remarkable detective work in identifying Lambeth Palace MS. 1360 as a new, substantial Traherne discovery places him in the pantheon of "scholar detectives." Though the manuscript actually contains five separate volumes, the catalogue of the manuscripts in the Lambeth Palace Library describes it as "Three Theological Treatises" (two of the works are untitled). This description, along with the initial title (though not the first work) in the manuscript, beginning A sober view of Dr. Twisse's his Considerations [. . .], suggests why the manuscript had gone unidentified for hundreds of years, and attests to Maule's patience and perseverance. Its language is far from that typifying Traherne's clean visual diction in Poems of Felicity and Centuries of Meditation. However, the titles and descriptions of two subsequent works -- Seeds of Eternity or the Nature of the Soul in which Everlasting Powers are Prepared and The Kingdom of God -- are rendered in familiar language to readers of Traherne. Once Maule evaluated the manuscript, in other words, the identity of the author was unquestionable. Indeed, in these works Traherne combines poetry with prose, as he does in Christian Ethicks and elsewhere, and in all five works Traherne both characterizes as well as advances topics he addresses in his well-known poems and Centuries: Felicity, "Heavenly perspective," the goodness of the world, and eternity. In addition to embellishing Traherne's signature styles and subjects, these five volumes also help to unravel several inter-related questions hovering over ever reading of Traherne: why do we know so little about his life, and why does Traherne affect a style that renounces the particular? By drawing comparisons between Traherne's visual theory in the new work to that in his work that we know well, I will show that Traherne's engagement with the visual culture that defines the seventeenth-century Jacobean and Caroline courts forms a central structural element of his ideal Christian world. Not only does his language combine several theories of perspectival vision, but, as I will show here, it also draws specifically upon the court masque, the most public embodiment of perspectival theory in seventeenth-century England, and the least likely of visual genres for Traherne to embrace.
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