April 14, 2014
If I told you that Thomas Traherne, the subject of a new recording by modern folk polemicists Sproatly Smith all but overshadows the music itself, you could, with some justification, accuse me of damning the work with faint praise. If that were so, then we’d have to step outside and settle our differences with sleeves rolled-up and some very hard staring.
Thomas Traherne is a new piece of work from Hereford’s curators of the English character, and they successfully bring this elusive historical personality to three-dimensional life. If this album were a book then Traherne would step out of its pages and sit down to tea with you in your modest country garden.
Thomas Traherne was an (allegedly) obscure metaphysical poet, clergyman, theologian and religious writer who lived through the English Civil War and the subsequent Restoration period. Traherne was relatively unknown as a poet in his lifetime, and most of his work appeared in print two hundred years after his death.Despite repeated “rediscoveries” of his gentle-minded work, much of his poetry remains unpublished. He speaks to us here through the unlikely ether of digital media, yet the Sproatlys remove any sense of incongruity by allowing Traherne’s words to infuse the songs. Traherne’s poems aren’t so much set to music as allowed to wander through it.
This is most evident on Meditations and Walking/Hereford Octaves. The former is a calm eulogy to the overwhelming marvel of experiencing a oneness with the nature and the physical world around you. These pieces explore levels of contemplation we feel we have to fight for, all the while reminiscing about the bygone bucolic charms of faded Olde England. Yet Traherne’s words were all but overwhelmed by the music of war, and it’s perhaps little wonder that he temporarily lost his faith along the way. It’s a conflict of the mind noted by the observant Sproatly Smith in the discordant Apostasy.
It’s often been said that little is known about Traherne’s life, but if that’s the case then it hasn’t stopped a steady stream of literary assessment, critical evaluation, academic examination and even celebration.
“In the middle of the 17th Century, there walked the muddy lanes of Herefordshire and the cobbled streets of London, a man who had found the secret of happiness. He lived through a period of bitterest, most brutal warfare and a period of corrupt and disillusioned peace. He saw the war and the peace at close quarters. He suffered as only the sensitive can. He did not win his felicity easily. Like the merchantman seeking goodly pearls or the seeker for hidden treasure in a field, he paid the full price. But he achieved his pearl, his treasure. He became one of the most radiantly, most infectiously happy mortals this earth has known.”, so spoke biographer Gladys Wade of her subject Thomas Traherne.
Moreover, Traherne’s poetry had been set to song long before this exposition by Sproatly Smith. In 1939, the noted clarinetist and pastoral torchbearer Gerald Finzi (below) composed a cantata for solo voice and string orchestra entitled Dies natalis (Op. 8) of which four movements are settings of writings by Thomas Traherne. The work was not performed until 1946 in a karmic twist of fate that saw war and brutality once more suffocate beauty and art.Thomas Traherne – the album – could easily be interpreted as an (already) archetypal 21st Century aural biopic, full of ambience, atmosphere and subliminal suggestion. Hell, there are even some really nice songs in there. I prefer to meet it as an introduction to a thinker and a poet with the kind of reasonable and gentle voice that is all too often drowned out by the barking dogs of cynicism and expedient argument.
Traherne is fascinating because we can have a sense of him through his words and concur with his longing for sensible peace. Sproatly Smith offer a sound garden in which to conjure up our own vision of him. In so doing they paint, for me at least, a vivid portrait of a soul who perceived God in Nature, and the essence of Nature in his vision of God.
I am fond of Sproatly Smith, and it’s developing into something more than a mere soft spot. Their suggestions are often oblique and their folk-framed music is frequently filtered through an obfuscating electronic gauze. Nevertheless, they always have something apposite to say about the English condition with music that lulls you unwittingly into unspoken agreement.
Michael S. Clark