Renaissance Colloquium

How Poetry Thinks: Abstraction and Phenomenality in the Lyrics of Thomas Traherne
Apr 9, 2024, 4:30 pm6:00 pm



Event Description
Timothy Harrison

This talk will explore two distinctive ways in which lyric poetry can be said to think. First, I will argue that poems think by phenomenalizing concepts, by using mimetic representation to transform abstractions into particulars that appear and, at the same time, reveal how appearance itself is structured. Second, I will argue that poems think by putting these concepts into practice. Attending to the historical and cultural coordinates of both concepts and representational strategies, I will focus on how the 17th-century English poet Thomas Traherne phenomenalizes the concept of apprehension. Traherne's lyrics represent what it is like to be the sort of creature who is capable of apprehending. At the same time, these poems solicit readers to perform the activity they represent. If we human beings are minded in such a way that our first-person perspectives are structured by the capacity to actualize acts of apprehension, then Traherne’s lyric poems teach us what it is like to be apprehenders. In making this argument, I will show how Traherne draws on a long line of thinking about the concept of apprehension: Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Kenelm Digby, and especially Ibn Sina, the medieval Islamicate philosopher known in Latin as Avicenna. Knowingly manipulating this intellectual heritage, Traherne phenomenalizes the concept of apprehension in ways that reveal with striking clarity the conditions requisite for the verbal representation of the first-person perspective.

Timothy Harrison has most recently published Coming To: Consciousness and Natality in Early Modern England (2020), following the history of the modern concept of “consciousness” from the philosophy of René Descartes, the poetry of John Milton, to the ethics in the philosophy of John Locke. Harrison’s work often constructs a literary history of emergent developments in early modern natural philosophy, physics, and medicine, alongside its contemporary poetry. His forthcoming works will reconsider the poetic imagination and mindedness of John Donne, Thomas Traherne with Bidel of Delhi, Ibn Sīnā, and late Milton.

  • Department of English
  • Center for Culture, Society and Religion
  • Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities
  • Committee on Renaissance and Early Modern Studies
  • University Center for Human Values