On Leaping Over The Moon

Thomas Traherne (ca. 1660) Although Thomas Traherne wrote in the 17th century, much of his work was not recovered and published until the 20th cen tury. In 1910 a group of poems labeled "The Burney sequence" was published as Poems of Felicity, and it included the often-anthologized "On Leaping over the Moon." That poem conveys Traherne's traditional sense of wonder in celebration of God's creation.

Two childhood anecdotes inform the poem, as Tra-herne describes his brother leaping over a stream in which the moon's reflection appeared and incorporates his brother's remark that the moon once followed him as he walked to town. From the poem's title a reader may anticipate Traherne's contrast of earth and sky. Traherne also employs imagery of space and location to unify his praise of, and gratitude toward, God for erasing the necessity to distinguish between high and low, up and down, as his brother enjoys transcendence of earthly bondage. In addition critics note Traherne used as a source a quotation from the work Christian Ethics, 445, quoting Hermetica, 11 (2): "A Discourse of Mind," also a source for other of his work. In that discourse the speaker tells his audience that all they need do is bid their soul to travel about the universe, and it will comply. The emphasis on faith as superior to human imagination remains strong, as the speaker begins by noting that

I saw new worlds beneath the water lie, New people; yea, another sky, And sun, which seen by day Might things more clear display. (1-4)

The poem's honest and solemn tone reflects the naivete of a child who considers such trivial occurrences as jumping a stream and noting what he sees there of utmost importance. Some critics mention the poem's lack of irony as a defect, noting that lack causes it to hold little reader interest. others disagree, arguing that the speaker's literal attitude allows Traherne to touch the sublime through acceptance of God's power. Those who praise the poem note its balance and unity, as in lines 7-10, which balance lines 1-4. They follow the two transition lines, "Just such another / of late my brother":

Did in his travel see, and saw by night,

A much more strange and wondrous sight:


Nor could the world exhibit such another, So great a sight, but in a brother.

Traherne establishes an idea of an alternate universe and then supports that idea with the example of his brother's experience. This pattern of a four-line introduction, a two-line transition, and a four-line conclusion, or comment on the first four lines, appears in each of the seven 10-line stanzas.

The speaker next stresses the fact that one can find in simple observation of God's creation greater wonders than in any stories fabricated by man. His brother seemed still on earth yet ascended to heaven, as "Up in the skies / His body flies," by means of an "open, visible, yet magic, sort." Once in heaven the young boy goes "tripping o'er the King's highway," soaring without wing over a "pearly river," which he crossed without an oar. He does not trust "Icarian wing," a reference to Icarus of mythology, who wore wings fashioned of wax by his father. The wings melted when Icarus flew too close to the sun, and he plunged to the earth and his death. By contrast the speaker's brother does not drop "through that thin element / Into a fathomless descent" but instead overcomes the danger, and "as he leapt, with joy related soon / How happy he o'erleapt the moon."

Traherne expresses his vision of God and man, the creator and the created, as one being, reflecting his belief that God is manifested everywhere in the world. Nature gives to the observant man an illumination available also through study of the cosmos. Such natural creations offer a pathway to knowledge. The poet does warn that

Through a long dismal precipice,

Sinks to the deep abyss where Satan crawls

Where horrid death and Despair lies.

Those who open their minds to their surroundings, like the speaker's brother, will avoid this fate. Those who remain in the fallen state caused by sin will spend eternity after death in hell. Sharing in his brother's experience helps open Traherne's own consciousness, as made clear in his final four lines:

Thus did he yield me in the shady night A wonderous and instructive light, Which taught me that under our feet there is, As o'er our heads, a place of bliss.

In using the adjective shady, Traherne not only emphasizes a lack of light or illumination but may reference the mythological term shade, a label for the state of those who descended into Hades after death. Traherne closes with emphasis on the fact that God has informed nature, which informs those humans who choose to observe and learn.

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