Darke Hierogliphicks

Darke Hierogliphicks: Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration

Copyright Date: 1996
Edition: 1
Pages: 384
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    Darke Hierogliphicks
    Book Description:

    The literary influence of alchemy and hermeticism in the work of most medieval and early modern authors has been overlooked. Stanton Linden now provides the first comprehensive examination of this influence on English literature from the late Middle Ages through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Drawing extensively on alchemical allusions as well as on the practical and theoretical background of the art and its pictorial tradition, Linden demonstrates the pervasiveness of interest in alchemy during this three-hundred-year period. Most writers -- including Langland, Gower, Barclay, Eramus, Sidney, Greene, Lyly, and Shakespeare -- were familiar with alchemy, and references to it appear in a wide range of genres. Yet the purposes it served in literature from Chaucer through Jonson were narrowly satirical. In literature of the seventeenth century, especially in the poetry of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Milton, the functions of alchemy changed. Focusing on Bacon, Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Milton -- in addition to Jonson and Butler -- Linden demonstrates the emergence of new attitudes and innovative themes, motifs, images, and ideas. The use of alchemy to suggest spiritual growth and change, purification, regeneration, and millenarian ideas reflected important new emphases in alchemical, medical, and occultist writing. This new tradition did not continue, however, and Butler's return to satire was contextualized in the antagonism of the Royal Society and religious Latitudinarians to philosophical enthusiasm and the occult. Butler, like Shadwell and Swift, expanded the range of satirical victims to include experimental scientists as well as occult charlatans. The literary uses of alchemy thus reveal the changing intellectual milieus of three centuries.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5017-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    In broadest terms, this book investigates the influence of alchemy in English literature of the late Middle Ages and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through detailed study of references and allusions that occur in the literary works produced during this three-hundred-year period. That this historical era, which marked the height of interest in alchemy and related forms of occult and hermetic thought, should also be the one in which English literature emerged from the confines of insularity and foreign domination to attain, in the reigns of Elizabeth, James I, and their successors a period of its greatest genius and brilliance,...

  6. I “A Clew and a Labyrinth”: Backgrounds, Definitions, and Preliminaries
    (pp. 6-36)

    The task of defining alchemy, of indicating its major types and varied interests is formidable, sufficient, certainly, to challenge not only modern scholars of the subject but the early alchemists themselves. Fortunately, my concern in this book does not require undue attention to questions of historical definition or to those of type and classification; nonetheless, some consideration of these problems is appropriate at the outset if only to prepare the reader for the diverse conceptions of alchemy and the variety of alchemical ideas and images that the literature of the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and seventeenth century presents. This...

  7. II “CONCLUDEN EVEREMOORE AMYS”: Chaucer and the Medieval Heritage of Alchemical Satire
    (pp. 37-61)

    As has been shown, the commonly accepted medieval and Renaissance worldview, those ideas and assumptions that were held concerning the universe, God, and man, also constituted the supportive framework upon which alchemical theory and practice depended. Commanding the authoritative weight ascribed to “traditional” thought ascending from antiquity, the theory of the four elements and theprima materia, the macrocosm-microcosm idea with its intricate system of correspondences and theanima mundi, and the sulphur-mercury explanation of the generation of metals, was, as much medieval and sixteenth-century literature shows, a matter of comfortable belief although not impervious to doubt. This sense of...

  8. III Posers and Impostors: Sixteenth-Century Alchemical Satire
    (pp. 62-103)

    From Chaucer, the Renaissance inherited two very different traditions of alchemical thought and expression that approximate the two types developed within theCanon’s Yeoman’s PrologueandTale:the sacred and the profane. The latter, which is the subject of this chapter, is the satirical tradition that is expressed in popular literature written throughout the sixteenth century and beyond. The former, derived from the final lines of thepars secunda, is the esoteric, holy type of alchemy that is “so lief and deere” to Christ and is his to reveal or conceal. Of this type, Elias Ashmole stated that “he that...

  9. IV The Reformation of Vulcan: Francis Bacon and Alchemy
    (pp. 104-117)

    Evidence presented thus far has shown that English writers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were familiar with alchemy, were aware of its literary potential, and came to use it extensively, the frequency of its appearance increasing with the passing of time and the proliferation of printed books. Thus, for the author of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, alchemy was a “current” topic: knowledge about its theoretical and practical aspects could be gained from a variety of manuscript and printed sources, both ancient and modern, Continental and English. Along with astrology and natural magic, it was also the...

  10. V “Abstract riddles of our stone”: Ben Jonson and the Drama of Alchemy
    (pp. 118-153)

    If, after examining the thoughts of Francis Bacon on alchemy’s need for rehabilitation, English readers of the early seventeenth century still possessed doubts about the art’s debased condition, these could immediately have been dispelled through attendance at performances of Ben Jonson’sThe AlchemistandMercury Vindicated from the Alchemists at Court. First presented in 1610 and early 1616 respectively, these two works, city comedy and courtly masque, public theater and private entertainment, constitute the most brilliant, incisive, and perpetually engaging adaptations of alchemical materials that had yet been written. They are direct descendants of theCanon’s Yeoman’s Tale, Erasmus’s alchemical...

  11. VI “A true religious Alchimy”: The Poetry of Donne and Herbert
    (pp. 154-192)

    The year 1633, which saw publication of the collectedPoemsof John Donne and George Herbert’sThe Temple, marks a turning point in this study of alchemy in literature of the Middle Ages and early modern period. As heirs to a tradition of popular literature that had, during the course of more than two of its most brilliant and formative centuries, drawn often on alchemical subject matter and ideas, it is only natural to expect Donne and Herbert to be aware of its literary potential. And owing to the fact that these borrowings—from the time of Chaucer on—had...

  12. VII “THAT GREAT & GENERALL REFINING DAY”: Alchemy, Allegory, and Eschatology in the Seventeenth Century
    (pp. 193-223)

    Neither the weight of a two-hundred year tradition of alchemical satire, nor Bacon’s attempts to reform alchemy’s experimental methods, nor the dramatic triumphs of Ben Jonson were sufficient to cause seventeenth-century writers to abandon the use of alchemical ideas and images. Similarly, the complex of scientific, religious, and social forces that gives this century its revolutionary, antiauthoritarian, “modern” character—although ostensibly antagonistic to the art’s theory and practice—was unable to dispel the fond hope of alchemical success or dissipate the exotic jargon, arcane symbolism, and recondite allegory in which such aspirations were usually expressed. On the contrary, with the...

  13. VIII “Under vailes, and Hieroglyphicall Covertures”: Alchemy in the Poetry of Vaughan and Milton
    (pp. 224-259)

    Among poets of the mid-seventeenth century, the subjects and modes that we have noted in contemporary alchemical writing—religious allegory, mystical and millenarian tendencies, a lessening interest in transmutation of metals paralleled by increasing iatrochemical concerns—are best seen in the poetry of Henry Vaughan. More than any other poet of this period, Vaughan’s work has been investigated from the perspective of the hermetic and alchemical influences it is thought to reflect. In fact, along with the question of Herbert’s influence and the nature of Vaughan’s mysticism, hermeticism has been among the most interesting and rewarding approaches to the poems...

  14. IX “Teutonick Chimericall extravagancies”: Alchemy, Poetry, and the Restoration Revolt against Enthusiasm
    (pp. 260-293)

    The spagyric, philosophical, and religious emphases that mark much alchemical and hermetic writing in the middle years of the seventeenth century and are also present in the poetic references of Vaughan and Milton were soon to be countered by powerful forces operating in the post-Restoration intellectual milieu. Thus the New Science and Rationalism were finally to accomplish what three centuries of alchemical satire were unable to perform. It is a curious fact that even as increasing numbers of occult books were published following 1660—evidence that a significant audience still existed—the general atmosphere for the reception of these works...

  15. X Cauda Pavonis
    (pp. 294-297)

    In 1667, the publication year of the first edition ofParadise Lostand some three hundred years after Chaucer began writingThe Canterbury Tales, Thomas Sprat devoted a generous paragraph to the topic of “Chymists” (not “Alchemists”) in hisHistory of the Royal Society. The term itself had been introduced only in the latter part of the sixteenth century and steadily gained currency throughout the next. Sprat remarks on the numerousness of these “philosophers” and on their ability to achieve “great productions, and alterations” by means of fire; he then turns to ways of classifying and evaluating them:

    The next...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 298-343)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 344-360)
  18. Index
    (pp. 361-373)