Alchemy in John Donne and Ben Johnson
October 25, 2010 Leave a comment
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Next to William Shakespeare, John Donne (1572-1631) and Ben Johnson (1572-1637) represent the English Renaissance’s top literary luminaries. While notable for its broad and renowned corpus from such divines, this era is also known for being the transitional period from the older, hermetic view of a unified totality worldview to a newer, demythologized cosmos, beginning with figures like Sir Frances Bacon. In the ancient and medieval western mind considered generally, the world was governed by a series of celestial spheres, rising in gradations to the highest, purest sphere of heaven itself, where the source of being, God, subsisted.
This chain of being was a common feature of the older Platonic, Aristotelian and Ptolemaic systems, which over time accrued aspects of Christian mysticism, Jewish cabala and ancient gnosticism, consequently blending with Arabic ideas of “Al-Chemi,” coalescing in the western mind in thought of Renaissance theologians like Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, Paracelsus and Cornelius Agrippa. These thinkers in turn influenced the literary works of Donne and Johnson in a profound way, which are on the cusp of the Baconian Revolution, yet still retain the older cosmological and hermetic views. In this paper, I will analyze and compare Donne’s “Love’s Alchemy” and Johnson’s “XI: Epode,” considering the occult and alchemical usage in each.
Donne’s “Love’s Alchemy” is one of his most well-known, yet without an understanding of the alchemical theories of the time, the poem would be difficult to decipher. The poem will present the alchemist’s desire to produce the “philosopher’s stone,” the ever-elusive “elixir of life” or “quintessence.” Before analyzing the poem, it is important to see that Donne was most certainly familiar with alchemy in its mystical form, and references figures such as Paracelsus. Donne references Paracelsus in his Letters as well as in the Sermons. Donne writes as follows: “…And after, (not much before our time) men perceiving that all effects in Physick could not be derived from these beggerly properties of the Elements, and that therefore they were driven often to that miserable refuge of specifique form, and of antipathy and sympathy, we see the world hath been turned upon new principles where were attributed to Paracels, but (indeed) too much to his honor.” Later, Simpson quotes him as writing in his sermons: “…we embrace the Rule Medicorum theoria expeientia est [in margin, ‘Paracels’]. Simpson also qualifies this by considering the somewhat satirical views Donne had toward Paracelsus in Ignatius and His Conclave. Be that as it may, the theories presented by Paracelsus regarding the main themes of alchemical theory and the refining and transmutation process.
“Love’s Alchemy” was published in 1633 in Poems, and makes direct reference to the alchemical art. Donne’s poem begins:
Some that have digged deeper love’s mine than I,
Say, where his centric happiness doth lie.
I have loved, and got, and told,
But should I love, get, tell, till I were old,
I should not find that hidden mystery.
From the outset, we find a reference to the metallurgical and mining arts for which Paracelsus was partly famous. Donne, after referencing the “centrique happiness” within a Ptolemaic system where man’s world is center of all things, continues that even he were to continue to have his full of the delights of love in this life, he would never be able to find out the full scope of “that mystery.” What is this mystery? It is both love itself, presumably between man and woman, as well as the alchemist’s “mummy,” or philosopher’s stone.
The first stanza continues, making direct reference to the alchemist’s “elixir:”
Oh! ’tis imposture all;
And as no chemic yet the elixir got,
But glorifies his pregnant pot,
If by the way to him befall
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal,
So lovers dream a rich and long delight,
But get a winter-seeming summer’s night.
Donne references the “chemic’s elixir.” The doctrine of a perfect substance or quintessence is the central doctrine of the alchemists, and is the same thing as the “mummy” or balsam of life, or pure gold, purported to give immortality. Joseph Mazzeo explains this as derived directly from the hermetic tradition, wherein a “tria prima” of the “metals” mercury, sulphur and salt are directly connected with man, who is a tripartite microcosm of the universe as a whole, the macrocosm. Critic Lawrence Babb also explains these ideas as common in the era, owing to the idea that man was a little image of the universe as a whole, connected as well to the idea of the 4 humors, and the doctrine of correspondences.
The seeking out of the totality of love, as if it were a rational thing, or as if we should find the rational male principle will be found to be a vain and futile enterprise. The alchemist seeks out the mysterious elixir of life, but has not yet got it, though his “pregnant pot” (referencing the alchemist’s famed alembic, wherein his transmutation process occurs) may perchance give him some odoriferous thing or some medicine. In the same way that the alchemist knows not what he may get, but embarks on a fantastical experiment seeking the philosopher’s stone, two lovers likewise do not know what may come—indeed, possibly a pregnancy. The “glorified pot” for the lovers is the pregnancy, or new life that resulted from the orgasmic dissolution, and for the alchemist, the glorified pot is the production of the quintessence.
The alembic of the alchemist is an image of the female womb or of the couples together, constituting a fulfilled whole, as we shall see. The lovers naïvely dream of mere sexual bliss and romance, yet instead find pregnancy and the baleful duties which follow, illustrated in the oxy-moron of a “winter-seeming summer’s night.” In the same way, the foolhardy alchemist may seek to transmute metals into gold for reasons of petty greed, and be thus a “dreamer.” Winter, of course, is the time of death and coldness, whereas summer is the time of the sun, the fire of the cosmos. Alchemical notions arise here, as well, as the process of finding the philosopher’s stone, like the lovers, involves a long, arduous process of transmutation from calcinations to projection, wherein we find the “quintessence.”
Donne continues in the second stanza to challenge the reader to understand what he will face in love, comparing it with the chances that one takes in employing an alchemist to transmute baser metals into gold. There is a great possibility he is a con artist, and will in fact produce only a “vain bubble’s shadow”:
Our ease, our thrift, our honour, and our day,
Shall we for this vain bubble’s shadow pay?
Ends love in this, that my man
Can be as happy as I can, if he can
Endure the short scorn of a bridegroom’s play?
That loving wretch that swears,
‘Tis not the bodies marry, but the minds,
Which he in her angelic finds,
Would swear as justly, that he hears,
In that day’s rude hoarse minstrelsy, the spheres.
Hope not for mind in women; at their best,
Sweetness and wit they are, but mummy, possess’d.
The reader is challenged to undertake love and pay the risk, as long as heed is taken. Donne would have us know that we can be as happy as he if we understand that the game of evasion, the elusive chase, must first occur where the bridegroom must endure the scorn, realizing that the feminine principle will never yield the masculine energies. The loving wretch (man) must not seek in woman the qualities generally associated with the masculine, and proclaim that he has taken her as mate because of her mind or personality, presuming that in woman he will find angelic intellect.
The wretch swearing is a reference to the marriage vow, bound in heaven, as well as on earth, and the day of his marriage, he believes he hears heaven itself singing directly from the celestial spheres. However, Donne tells us the contrary is true: Hope not for mind in women, since at their best, they are “mummy possess’d.” This can be read as simple misogyny, but also as something deeper. Rather than a purely derisive view of woman identified with the demonic, Donne instead is telling us that nature has ordained that men and women are two halves of a whole.
The alchemist has learned this in his desire for transmutation, which ends in unification and transcendence. The active male principle, embodied in the semen and the sun, must be brought into harmony with the feminine, embodied in passivity and Nature. Together, the two produce the synthesis—the new life, the phoenix, and this constitutes true wisdom, as the alchemist art, for Donne, informs the lovers not to expect what is out of accord with Paracelsus’ nature. It is woman herself who is possessed with half of what is necessary to reach the philosopher’s stone. The dialectic of nature is transcended in the union of opposites, giving rise to the phoenix, were there is a return to the prima material of the pure, natural, Edenic state. Paracelsus wrote in his catechism:
Q. What must be added to this fire so as to accentuate its capacity for incineration in the feminine species?
A. On account of its extreme dryness it requires to be moistened.
Q. Explain to me these three species of fires.
A. The natural fire is the masculine fire, or the chief agent; the unnatural is the feminine, which is the dissolvent of Nature, nourishing a white smoke, and assuming that form. This smoke is quickly dissipated, unless much care be exercised, and it is almost incombustible, though by philosophical sublimation it becomes corporeal and resplendent. The contra-natural fire is that which disintegrates compounds and has the power to unbind what has’ been bound very closely by Nature.
What is the name which is applied by Philosophers to the Matter during this period? A, It is called their Physical Chaos, and it is, in fact, the true First Matter, a name which can hardly be applied before the conjunction of the male–which is sulphur–with the female–which is silver.
Ben Johnson’s “XI: Epode” was published in 1616 in a work called The Forest, which is volume II of Epigrams. Although in more well-known plays like ‘The Alchemist” it is clear that Johnson mocked the art of alchemy, portraying it as a ruse of charlatans, his poetry, like Donne’s, is pregnant with alchemical and hermetic imagery. “XI: Epode” is listed under “forest,” letting us know for these truths, like the setting for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we must leave behind the open, transparent world of the city. We must look into the dark, canopied realm of the forest, where there are secret, occult truths. Alchemy, at the time, was the highest of the secret truths, where the true initiate was participating in the Opus Magnum—the “Great Work” of the ages. Johnson, like Donne, is no stranger to this milieu. The epode begins as follows:
Not to know vice at all, and keep true state,
Is virtue and not fate:
Next to that virtue, is to know vice well,
And her black spite expel,
Which to effect (since no breast is so sure,
Or safe, but she’ll procure
Some way of entrance) we must plant a guard
Of thoughts to watch, and ward
At the eye and ear, the ports unto the mind,
That no strange, or unkind
Object arrive there, but the heart, our spy,
Give knowledge instantly,
To wakeful reason, our affections’ king:
Who, in th’ examining,
Will quickly taste the treason, and commit
Close, the close cause of it.
Johnson tells us that virtue is not something arising from noble birth, but rather from the practice of virtue, and this would have been a somewhat revolutionary notion for the time. The path of virtue is not one determined fate, but of the exercise of willpower in following the good. Vice, like black spite, must be expelled, and here we see our first clear alchemical imagery. In the ancient Greek alchemical text Physika kai Mystika (of nature and hidden things), the alchemical process is divided four ways, the first of which is nigredo, or the blackening. This signifies the purification for the alchemist, and for Johnson, the purification from vice. We must place a guard over our hearts and senses, as these are gateways to the mind (common medieval imagery), to avoid our senses being captive to vice through earthly delights, echoing Adam’s fall. Reason rules the passion like a king, hearkening to Plato’s famous imagery from Phaedrus.
‘Tis the securest policy we have,
To make our sense our slave.
But this true course is not embraced by many:
By many! scarce by any.
For either our affections do rebel,
Or else the sentinel,
That should ring larum to the heart, doth sleep;
Or some great thought doth keep
Back the intelligence, and falsely swears,
They are base, and idle fears
Whereof the loyal conscience so complains,
Thus, by these subtle trains,
Do several passions invade the mind,
And strike our reason blind,
Of which usurping rank, some have thought love
The first; as prone to move
Most frequent tumults, horrors, and unrests,
In our enflamed breasts:
But this doth from the cloud of error grow,
Which thus we over-blow.
Not many embrace the narrow path of mastering the senses and passions and making them slaves to reason. In fact, hardly any do, and exist in a kind of perpetual sleep which keeps them from peering into the true nature of reality, as is the province of the alchemical magus. Man allows what he thinks to be great and noble thoughts to cloud his reasoning, and by these “subtle trains,” passions invade the mind and true intelligence is held back. This usurped hierarchy is the source of many of man’s toils and troubles, because he falsely believes he operates for love, yet are mere passions. The idea that the path of the alchemist must be one of virtue resulting purification was intimately bound up with the art. Cornelius Agrippa, famed magus of the time, explained the necessity of virtue in connection with the art of the hermeticist in his well-known Three Books of Occult Philosophy:
Seeing there is a three-fold World, Elementary, Celestial, and Intellectual, and every inferior is governed by its superior, and received the influence of the virtues thereof, so that the very original, and chief Worker of all doth by Angels, the Heavens, Stars, Elements, Animals, Plants, Metals, and Stones convey from himself the virtues of his Omnipotency upon us, for whose service he made, and created all these things: Wise men conceive it no way irrational that it should be possible for us to ascend by the same degrees through each World, to the same very original World itself, the Maker of all things, and first Cause, from whence all things are, and proceed; and also to enjoy not only these virtues, which are already in the more excellent kind of things, but also besides these, to draw new virtues from above. Hence it is that they seek after the virtues of the Elementary world, through the help of Physick and Natural Philosophy in the various mixtions of Natural things, then of the Celestial world in the Rays, and influences thereof, according to the rules of Astrologers, and the doctrines of Mathematicians, joining the Celestial virtues to the former: Moreover, they ratify and confirm all these with the powers of divers Intelligencies, through the sacred Ceremonies of Religions.
The thing they here call Love, is blind desire,
Arm’d with bow, shafts, and fire ;
Inconstant, like the sea, of whence ’tis born,
Rough, swelling, like a storm :
With whom who sails, rides on the surge of fear,
And boils, as if he were
In a continual tempest. Now, true love
No such effects doth prove;
That is an essence far more gentle, fine,
Pure, perfect, nay divine;
It is a golden chain let down from heaven,
Whose links are bright and even,
That falls like sleep on lovers, and combines
The soft, and sweetest minds
In equal knots: this bears no brands, nor darts,
To murder different hearts,
But in a calm, and god-like unity,
The individual not in control of his passions is like a turbulent sea, tossed to and fro, a perpetual storm, wherein the fomes of sin lead him away from reason and virtue, causing him to be subject to fear. True love is not subject to passionate frenzy, but governed by reason and is like the golden chain, or the pure quintessence. Paracelsus explains of this gold:
“Q. How many species of gold are distinguished by the Philosophers?
A. Three sorts:–Astral Gold, Elementary Gold, and Vulgar Gold.
Q. What is astral gold?
A. Astral Gold has its centre in the sun, which communicates it by its rays to all inferior beings. It is an igneous substance, which receives a continual emanation of solar corpuscles that penetrate all things sentient, vegetable, and mineral.”
This pure spirit or essence falls on lovers united, using similar imagery to Donne’s poem, achieving a true union of opposites, like that of the divine nature of God, which is beyond all binary dualities. It is also free from the murderous darts of passion, which the allurements of the senses continually hurl.
O, who is he, that, in this peace, enjoys
The elixir of all joys?
A form more fresh than are the Eden bowers,
And lasting as her flowers:
Richer than Time, and as time’s virtue rare
Sober, as saddest care;
A fixed thought, an eye untaught to glance :
Who, blest with such high chance
Would, at suggestion of a steep desire,
Cast himself from the spire
Of all his happiness? But soft: I hear
Some vicious fool draw near,
That cries, we dream, and swears there’s no such thing,
As this chaste love we sing.
Direct reference is made to the elixir, or quintessential goal of the alchemists. The form in which Johnson is concerned is purer even than that of Eden, since Adam and Eve in Eden were still in a mutable state, subject to the potentiality of change and loss of bliss, and therefore their experiencing of the elixir of life was still only partial. Johnson is after the true, unsullied physic. Johnson references the all-seeing eye, the ancient Egyptian symbol for the divine providence and for the omniscient Deity, the Supreme Being, whose Spirit is intimately connected to, and sometimes identified with, the quintessence. Johnson characterizes any detractor as a fool, upholding the idea that the goal of the alchemists, the Magnum Opus, the great work of restoring harmony is no idle dream, chaste love of which to sing.
Peace, Luxury, thou art like one of those
Who, being at sea, suppose,
Because they move, the continent doth so.
No, Vice, we let thee know,
Though thy wild thoughts with sparrows’ wings do fly,
Turtles can chastly die;
And yet (in this t’ express ourselves more clear)
We do not number here
Such spirits as are only continent,
Because lust’s means are spent:
Or those, who doubt the common mouth of fame,
And for their place and name,
Cannot so safely sin: their chastity
Is mere necessity.
For the man dominated by his passions, having his reason clouded, peace and luxury are his gods, and while he may feel he is the center of the universe, he is in fact as stupid as those who do not understand optical illusions. Johnson makes clear that he is not speaking of those who may refrain from sex because of some providential situation or out of some necessity. That is not the true recipient of the participation in the quintessential elixir of life. Rather, those individuals are deceived as well, and have sought only themselves.
Nor mean we those, whom vows and conscience
Have fill’d with abstinence:
Though we acknowledge, who can so abstain,
Makes a most blessed gain.
He that for love of goodness hateth ill,
Is more crown-worthy still,
Than he, which for sin’s penalty forbears ;
His heart sins, though he fears.
But we propose a person like our Dove,
Graced with a Phoenix’ love ;
A beauty of that clear and sparkling light,
Would make a day of night,
And turn the blackest sorrows to bright joys ;
Whose odorous breath destroys
All taste of bitterness, and makes the air
As sweet as she is fair.
Here we have a reference to the vows of monasticism within Roman Catholicism, which was steadily being replaced in Johnson and Donne’s day, as England transitioned into a state church. Johnson makes clear he is not primarily interested in the medieval Roman ideas of celibacy and purity, though that is a noble power, if one is able to attain it. His concern is virtue, fulfilled in one who is like the Dove, and image of the Spirit (from Christ’s baptism), as well as a symbol of the quintessence. There is then a curious reference to the Phoenix’s love. The phoenix is, as with done, a symbol of resurrection, regeneration and the achieving of the philosopher’s stone. Paracelsus writes:
Q. Of what species of gold is the Stone of the Philosophers ?
A. It is of the second species, as being the most pure portion of all the metallic elements after its purification, when it is termed living philosophical gold. A perfect equilibrium and equality of the four elements enter into the Physical Stone, and four things are indispensable for the accomplishment of the work, namely, composition, allocation, mixture, and union, which, once performed according to the rules of art, will beget the lawful Son of the Sun, and the Phoenix which eternally rises out of its own ashes.
The man who is virtuous will be like the phoenix: he will participate in resurrection and achieve the end of the Great Work. He has passed through the black and sorrowful stage, or the nigredo phase, as we saw earlier, and has achieved apotheosis.
A body so harmoniously composed,
As if nature disclosed
All her best symmetry in that one feature!
O, so divine a creature,
Who could be false to? Chiefly, when he knows
How only she bestows
The wealthy treasure of her love on him;
Making his fortune swim
In the full flood of her admired perfection?
What savage, brute affection,
Would not be fearful to offend a dame
Of this excelling frame?
Much more a noble, and right generous mind,
To virtuous moods inclined
That knows the weight of guilt; he will refrain
From thoughts of such a strain,
And to his sense object this sentence ever,
“Man may securely sin, but safely never.”
The philosopher’s stone is the end of the work, and constitutes perfect harmony and reconciliation of what was previously in discord and turbulence, like the passions. Paracelsus explains that the soul of the world, or the anima mundi, this same quintessence, was originally one, broken in twain in the fall into the male and female principles (two “chaoses”). Then, through the transmutation, reunited to universal harmony, where the “Elixir is grown” and the distillation process has purged every tragedy in Love’s alembic.
The poem ends with a warning that the end of virtue is something inexplicable and is one and the same with the goal of the alchemist’s process. The goal is the union of opposites—the opposites of male and female being principles implanted within nature that, due to the doctrine of correspondences, also correlates with the calcinations and purification process of the alchemist in his lab, and ultimately with the great work of the Supreme God in His creation, to bring it from imperfection into the harmony of pure spirit, the quintessence. John Donne used his poem to show that marriage is an image of this same union, insofar as the male principle must duly seek out what is properly accorded the feminine principle by God. From there, we see the ultimate goal of the alchemist—eternal union of seemingly disparate and separate tensions and dualities.
For Johnson, the goal of the poem is the same, and somewhat akin to the goal of the alchemist: true interpretation of the governing cosmological forces and correspondences. Johnson’s intention focus is the individual’s practice of virtue and union with the anima mundi, or quintessence. While Donne and Johnson are on the brink of the modern scientific revolution, they were, in the main, still men of the old world. They relied on the hermetic ideas, even as they at times scoffed at them. Those ideas—particularly the quintessential spirit, the philosopher’s stone and goal of all alchemy, wherein union is achieved, traces itself back through Renaissance thinkers to the ancient world, and notably Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, it was Plato who wrote:
God placed water and air in the mean between fire and earth, and made them to have the same proportion so far as was possible (as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth); and thus he bound and put together a visible and tangible heaven. And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonized by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship; and having been reconciled to itself, it was indissoluble by the hand of any other than the framer.
Now God did not make the soul after the body, although we are speaking of them in this order; for having brought them together he would never have allowed that the elder should be ruled by the younger; but this is a random manner of speaking which we have, because somehow we ourselves too are very much under the dominion of chance. Whereas he made the soul in origin and excellence prior to and older than the body, to be the ruler and mistress, of whom the body was to be the subject. And he made her out of the following elements and on this wise: Out of the indivisible and unchangeable, and also out of that which is divisible and has to do with material bodies, he compounded a third and intermediate kind of essence, partaking of the nature of the same and of the other, and this compound he placed accordingly in a mean between the indivisible, and the divisible and material.
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 Bacon, Frances. “Idols of the Mind” in Frances Bacon: The Essays. New York, NY: Penguin Books (1985), 277-285.
 Agrippa, Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications (2006). 8-9. Allen, Don Cameron. The Star Crossed Renaissance: The Quarrel About Astrology and Its Influence in England. New York: Octagon Books (1941), 152-155. Hale, John. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. New York, NY: Atheneum (1994), 206-209. Roob, Alexander. Alchemy and Mysticism. Los Angeles, CA. Taschen (2006), 12-20. Yates, Dame Frances. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment New York, NY: Routledge (1972), 70-71.
 Paracelsus, “Alchemical Catechism,” in The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus. Sioux Falls, SD: NuVision Publications (2009), 22-23.
 Simpson, Evelyn. A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne. London, UK: Oxford University Press (1962), 126-127.
 Ibid., 126.
 Ibid., 127.
 Babb, Lawrence. “Love’s Alchemy” in Seventeenth Century British Poetry 1603-1660. Eds. John P. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York, NY: W.W. Norton (2006), 32-33.
 Murray, W.A. “Donne and Paracelsus: An Essay in Interpretation,” The Review of English Studies Vol. 25, No. 98 (1949), 116.
 Paracelsus, “Alchemical Catechism,” 22-23.
 Mazzeo, Joseph. “Notes on Donne’s Alchemical Imagery,” Isis Vol. 48, No. 2 (1957), 105.
 Babb, Lawrence. “The Physiology and Psychology of the Renaissance.” Seventeenth Century British Poetry 1603-1660. Eds. John P. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2006. 749-764.
 Levine, Jay Arnold. “The Dissolution” Donne’s Twofold Elegy,” ELH, Vol.28, No. 4 (1961), 301-315.
 Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism,26-28.
 Murray, “Donne and Paracelsus: An Essay in Interpretation.,” 119-121.
 Ibid., 120-121.
 Paracelsus, “Alchemical Catechism,” 23-29.
 Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism, 111-112.
 Roob, Alchemy and Mysticism, 30.
 Agrippa. Three Books of Occult Philosophy, 3.
 Paracelsus, “Alchemical Catechism,” 22.
 Ibid., 23.
 Murray, “Donne and Paracelsus: An Essay in Interpretation.,” 122.