Let me start the conclusion to this chapter with apologies for the long delay - spring is always busy and this year has been slightly complicated by medical concerns. I plan to be more prompt hereafter!
This piece began with a quotation from a work I was reading (and continue to read): Thomas Traherne’s small book, Centuries. A timeless work, written in the seventeenth century but not published until the early twentieth century, one of its meditations rang a bell for me about a silent confrontation I had had with a person from the world I had left behind:
When things are ours in their proper places, nothing is needful but prizing to enjoy them. God therefore hath made it infinitely easy to enjoy, by making everything ours, and us able so easily to prize them. Everything is ours that serves us in its place. The Sun serves us as much as is possible, and more than we could imagine. The Clouds and Stars minister unto us, the World surrounds us with beauty, the Air refresheth us, the Sea revives the Earth and us. The Earth itself is better than gold because it produceth fruits and flowers.... Thomas Traherne (died 1674), Centuries of Meditations, I.14.
Standing at the door to the paddock on an August evening at milking time, waiting for the cows to come down from the orchard pasture, I found myself recalling an afternoon visit a few days before, a visit to a former colleague from the University I left many years ago. As I waited, a Hayden quartet flowed quietly past me from the radio in the barn and the black silhouettes of the trees at the edge of the field added emphasis to the luminosity of a sky that as yet held only a half-moon and bright Jupiter,
It has been 20 years since my wife and I and our five children had moved to this small farm, far from the bustle and stir of academic life. I had hardly known Professor A---, who was summering nearby, even though we were members of the same department. His field and mine were widely different and the size of the department meant that we were really only slightly more than strangers to each other. Since those days he had risen to a full Professorship and had become an eminent figure in his field, while I had left the University and was, except for a few close friends there, as if I had never existed. On the few occasions when I had gone back to see old friends or, once, to attend a conference, I had been painfully aware that having left for my own reasons I was an unknown quantity and rather an embarrassment even among former colleagues who were in the same field.
The brief visit several days previously had put me in touch for a moment with that grand university world again and its incomprehension of all that is not part of its world. His question, in the course of conversation, as to what we grew on our farm, was polite but dismissive and I had wondered ever since how I should have answered it.
As I stood there at the barn door waiting for the cows, thinking of things I could have said, Thomas Traherne and the passage I had just copied out in the afternoon floated into my memory.
Traherne spent his early life in the English county of Hereford, on the Welsh border, the son of a poor Welsh shoemaker. Yet, thanks to the aid of wealthier relatives, Traherne went up to Oxford and after graduating returned to Hereford as an Anglican priest. His quiet life was disturbed only briefly when he was called to London to act as Chaplain to a Hereford nobleman who was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. From that time until the end of his life he was the vicar of Teddington, a small village near to Hampton Court, not far from London. He died there, at age 37, leaving behind the sum of five pounds, some clothing and a few books.
The work called in modern editions Centuries of Meditations was an untitled series of short reflections, in groups of 100 (hence "centuries"), which he wrote down in a notebook to send to a friend, Mrs. Susanna Hopkins, in Herefordshire. Never published, the notebook was discovered by chance in a bookseller's bin in the nineteenth century and passed through several hands before coming into the possession of Bertram Dobell, a London publisher, who brought out the first edition in 1908, two hundred years and more after the writer's death. It is one of the great spiritual classics in our language.
As I stood there at the door to the paddock it came to me how right Traherne was, how much there is to prize in the world that bears us up and wraps us round with wonders, when we allow the things around us to be "in their proper places," not trying to make them, by forcing them to our will, to be something they are not - or, rather, to make them, by the persuasiveness of our interpretation of them, to seem as if they are ours, as if they belong to us.
Looking about me in the silvery evening, waiting for the cows, I found no words of my devising, no Answer, definitive and for all time, that a Professor of Literature would have to respond to. Rather, the answer came to me from everything around me: "Here we are. We are your answer. Be still. Attend. Listen, and watch."
I had reason to rejoice, and to give thanks. The years spent raising our children, the struggles and hard times as well as the good times, had been full and rich, if not in monetary terms or in reputation. A light breeze barely whispered in the woods across the paddock as I leaned against the door of the barn and heard the rich harmonies of the music from the radio and absorbed, without words, without, even, conscious effort, all the common, ordinary glory of an August evening there, in that place, at that moment in time.
And among all the impressions which came crowding in I remembered the field below the road, the field which had been in immanent danger of growing up in brush, the field which thanks to a neighbour had been limed and plowed and seeded. What had been weedy pasture was now bare earth, the earth Traherne speaks of, "better than gold because it produceth fruits and flowers."
As the cows came hurrying toward the barn I turned away and went back in, to see them to their places and shut their stanchions. For a few moments all was bustle until both cows had their noses in their grain buckets and I had pulled up the stool beside our milking cow and started to squeeze some milk into a dish for the cats.
Peace be with you, Professor. I'll follow Thomas Traherne. Though I did not know it when I left the University, his Centuries might well have been a guidepost on that other, more ancient, yet perennial, way: ...the way to become rich and blessed is ... to approach more near, or to see more clearly with the eye of our understanding, the beauties and glories of the whole world: and to have communion with the Deity in the riches of God and Nature.
27 August 1996