Symbolic and Platonic Usage of the Mirror in Ben Johnson and George Herbert
December 8, 2010 2 Comments
By: Jay (c) copyright, all rights reserved.
The significance of the mirror as an actual object and its usage a symbolic metaphor in literature is found in several English Renaissance era poems. The view of the mirror following upon the Renaissance and its philosophical progenitors, however, continued to have its somewhat mystical connotations in writers. Viewed in the ancient world as a kind of quasi-magical object, a portal to another world, and a kind of picture the mind itself, in the Renaissance it retained this association through its conceptual usage in the Platonic tradition. This paper will focus on analyzing the different usages of the mirror in poems by Ben Johnson and George Herbert.
Poet and playwright Ben Johnson (1572-1637) utilizes a fascinating portrayal of the mirror in his poem “XIII Epistle to Lady Katherine Aubigny” from the collection The Forest, published around 1616. Johnson lived in the house of Lady Aubigny, her husband Lord Aubigny being a patron of Johnson’s. In the “XIII Epistle,” Johnson turns the mirror into an image of the poem itself. The poem is lengthy, so the following will be the relevant sections. He writes in praise of Lady Katherine:
|Yourself but told unto yourself, and see
In my character what your features be,
You will not from the paper slightly pass:
No lady, but at some time loves her glass.
And this shall be no false one, but as much
Remov’d, as you from need to have it such.
Look then, and see your self — I will not say
|Your beauty, for you see that every day;
And so do many more: all which can call
It perfect, proper, pure, and natural,
Not taken up o’ the doctors, but as well
As I, can say and see it doth excel;
That asks but to be censured by the eyes:
And in those outward forms, all fools are wise.
Johnson describes the “self” as the subject of the poem, and that just as a mirror presents the self to a person, so his poem itself will become a mirror. However, for Johnson, as a mirror is useful for presenting the outward form of the body, his poem will be a mirror for the real form of Lady Katherine, which is her virtue. Already we have somewhat Platonic notions, which will become clearer as we move on, and which were in vogue in the Renaissance writers’ rediscovery of the classical Greek tradition, especially the Platonic and Neo-platonic corpus.
Just as Lady Aubigny would look into a mirror to see her bodily features, Johnson invites her to look into his words and characters on paper to see her virtues. Every woman at some time has a fancy for her mirror, Johnson says, but visual appearances can deceive. Johnson promises that in his written mirror, truth will be told and her prowess extolled. Extending the Platonism, it is with the shifting, changing, and constant flux world of outer forms that the common and vulgar persons are captivated by, and thus lacking in refinement and virtue. The true forms are not found in the world, but in the ideal—the virtues practiced in conformity to God’s will. Indeed, it is the true form which can only be called “perfect, proper, pure and natural.” The outward forms are censured by the eyes and the inner practice of virtue is where true beauty is found. This also expresses a major theme in Johnson’s works—that of the primacy of the practice of virtue as the source of human worth, over against mere heredity and status of upper class nobility.
|Nor that your beauty wanted not a dower,
Do I reflect. Some alderman has power,
Or cozening farmer of the customs, so
|To advance his doubtful issue, and o’erflow
A prince’s fortune: these are gifts of chance,
And raise not virtue; they may vice enhance.
My mirror is more subtle, clear, refined,
And takes and gives the beauties of the mind;
Though it reject not those of fortune: such
As blood, and match. Wherein, how more than much
Are you engaged to your happy fate,
For such a lot! that mixt you with a state
Of so great title, birth, but virtue most,
|Without which all the rest were sounds, or lost.|
It is not that Lady Aubigny lacks outward beauty; on the contrary, she has it, and Johnson is willing to extol this, too. What is interesting in this line is the usage of reflection. Johnson may be referring to the mirrored conceptions of her in his poem when he says “Do I reflect,” or he may in fact be referring to his own process of mental reflection. He may also be saying that he himself does not reflect the physical beauty or virtue of Lady Aubigny, and this would fit well with his claim earlier that virtue itself is the true form. It can thus be read as a statement of personal mental reflection, the poem’s mirror imagery, or a platitude wherein Johnson humbles himself before this courtly patroness.
Johnson continues that chance brings wealth and status, and these things must not be gloried in. Indeed, they may in fact enhance vice as opposed to the furtherance of the practice of the good. Johnson’s mirror, here meaning not just the poem itself, but also the mind, is more subtle, clear and refined. Twice now he has apparently linked the mind and it’s ideals to the imagery of the mirror. This is a peculiar conception, but fits perfectly with the views of prominent thinkers contemporary with Johnson in regard to the mind’s relation to the natural world. Particularly, two influential contemporary figures used this same imagery: Sir Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. Yale philosophy of religion professor Louis Dupre comments on this idea of mind as mirror as follows in Bacon, who holds the mind is a Platonic mirror, but rather than seeing the ideals, reflects the natural world:
In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty has appropriately compared such knowing through representation to reflecting reality in the mirror of the mind. Plato had first applied the mirror metaphor to the processing of knowing but in the opposite sense: the mind understands itself only by contemplating its image as reflected by the true reality of the ideas. In the twelfth century nature begins to appear as the glass in which the human mind sees God and occasionally also itself reflected….Bacon writes: ‘God has framed the mind of man as a glass capable of the image of the universal world, joying to receive the signature thereof as the eye of its light.
Johnson appears to be operating within this milieu where the mirror is connected to the mind, and by extension the ideal realm, and Platonism. The focus is on the “beauty of the mind,” he writes. The lines have fallen in a good way for Lady Aubigny, inasmuch as she has worldly wealth, beauty and status, as well as a participation in the ideals of virtue. Virtue, it is again crucial to note, is the vivifying principle—without it, all would be empty sounds. In other words, in a philosophical sense, if she lakes virtue as an actual form, nominalism would be the case.
This again matches up with a concurrent philosophical debate of the time, centering around the older, Platonic notion of essences and forms being association with objects, as opposed to the new philosophy gaining precedence in this area with rise of the scientific method as laid out in Bacon’s treatise on the idols, which amounts to nominalism, where words are simply tokens of things, not signs of actual essences.
Dupre comments on Descartes’ philosophy and influence, who also viewed the mind as a mirror, yet taking a more Platonic approach than Bacon’s empirical stance, hearkening back to a more Platonic view:
For Descartes the truth of nature becomes established in the mind’s reconstruction of it. The mind thereby functions as the mirror in whose reflection truth originates….for Descartes, there is no mirror beyond the mind…Descartes held that the mirror also reflects itself.
Johnson brilliantly takes this same type of Platonic mirroring, and makes his poem a mirror as well.
The conclusion of the poem, following a long list of Katherine’s virtues is also instructive. Johnson proclaims:
|Unto himself, by being so dear to you.
This makes, that your affections still be new,
And that your souls conspire, as they were gone
|Each into other, and had now made one.
Live that one still! And as long years do pass,
Madam, be bold to use this truest glass;
Wherein your form you still the same shall find;
Because nor it can change, nor such a mind.
The two disparate souls must unite in body and become one in spirit. Marriage is this chaste, sacred bond, where two go into each other and become one, referencing the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. The Christian view is laid out here, too, from the Pauline epistle to the Ephesians, chapter 5, where the union of male and female is compared to the mystical union of Christ and His Church in the “spiritual” or ideal realm. Johnson reminds Katherine that the “truest glass” or mirror is the ideal or eternal view, whereas the fleshly union is only an image or picture. Images in the mind’s mirror constantly change, as well as images in an actual mirror. But for Johnson and the Platonic tradition, the ideal realm suffers from no variation or shadow of turning. It is in keeping in mind the ideals and virtues that she will remember her “true form,” as opposed to her earthly, bodily form. Furthermore, as with Plato, there is some notion of a lesser perfection found in multiplicity, as opposed to the perfect unity of the monad. Johnson is urging Katherine to remember that the unity with her husband is the path to participation in the unity of the eternal, ideal realm.
Poet George Herbert (1593-1633) was roughly contemporary with Johnson, and has the same curious usage of the mirror. In his alchemical poem, “The Elixir,” Herbert has a fascination reference to the “looking glass,” or mirror, as an occult gazing tool. However, Herbert places it within a Christian context, as opposed to a purely magical and occultic device. He writes:
Teach me my God and King
In all things Thee to see
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
Not rudely as a beast
To run into an action:
But still to make Thee prepossesed
And give it his perfection.
A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye:
Or it he pleaseth, through it pass
And then the heav’n espy.
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean
Which with his tincture (for Thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean. 
Herbert proclaims that devotion must be total. The world must not be seen as a thing existing on its own and for itself. It must be viewed as a window to God. In all things God must be seen and acknowledged, inasmuch as everything has its origin and subsistence in God, as well as its telos. The animal kingdom, that of beasts, is unaware of its maker and the inner meaning of the world it inhabits. Herbert pleads with God to make him cognizant of this, and to operate in harmony with the higher principles of virtue and the ideals of heaven, as opposed to the passions of the baser nature in man. In so doing, imperfection can be brought to perfection—the process of the alchemist in his lab, bringing baser metals through putrefaction and purgation to pure gold. Here, God is the alchemist, and Herbert his prima materia.
A man that looks on glass, or into a crystal ball, or a scrying stone, was involved in the practice of staring and focusing his attention and will with great effort in order to peer into the next realm; the realm of heaven or that of the dead. The world, just as above with Johnson, Bacon and Descartes, is this mirror, and must be contemplated as a window to heaven, as one might view icons in a church or stained glass windows. This could also be a possible reference to court magus to Elizabeth and original “007,” Dr. John Dee himself, who had a famous “mirror” by which he claimed to contact all manner of angels and dead spirits. John Dee also had an elaborate cosmology and angelology that relied heavily on the Platonic and Neo-Platonic traditions. Herbert turns this tradition into an invocation to God to make his eye like that of the scrying practitioner in focusing his gaze to interpreting the world according to God and the heavenly, ideal meaning. By so doing, we partake of the life of God and are ourselves transmuted into the famed philosopher’s stone.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws
Makes that and th’action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
The devout follower of God can understand that everything is made by God, and thus has its higher, essential and eternal meaning. This being the case, the mundane aspects of life take on a deeper, more mystical meaning. Sweeping a room is raised to the status of a divine action, a purified and refined powder, just as the alchemist seeks. When once a man is touched by God in this way and has his eyes opened to view the world in God’s mirror, he is transfigured and deified. The alchemist’s fabled philosopher’s stone is the man who has had his eye fixed on the true meaning of the world that is not found in the shadows of constant change and variance, but in the eternal divine forms.
For Ben Johnson and for George Herbert, one sees the continuance of the somewhat superstitious and occultic usage of the mirror as a symbolic metaphor in their poems. For Johnson, it was an image of the mind and his own poem, extolling the virtues of Lady Aubigny. For Herbert, it was the imagery of the magus and alchemist’s magic mirror, turned to the use of a metaphor for his own desire to see in this world heaven and God’s ideal meaning. Both writers, though precisely on the cusp of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, continued the use of the mirror as a Platonic and mystical symbol.
Bacon, Frances. “Idols of the Mind” in Frances Bacon: The Essays. New York, NY: Penguin Books (1985).
The British Museum. “Dr. Dee’s Mirror.” (Accessed December 7, 2010) Available from: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/d/dr_dees_mirror.aspx; Internet.
Dupre, Louis. Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutic of Nature and Culture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (1993).
Hale, John. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. New York, NY: Atheneum (1994).
Herbert, George. “The Elixir.” Seventeenth Century British Poetry 1603-1660. Eds. John P. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York, NY: W.W. Norton (2006).
Johnson, Ben. “XIII: Epistle to Lady Katherine Aubigny.” Seventeenth Century British Poetry 1603-1660. Eds. John P. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York, NY: W.W. Norton (2006).
Yates, Dame Frances. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment New York, NY: Routledge (1972).
 Johnson, Ben. “XIII: Epistle to Lady Katherine Aubigny.” Seventeenth Century British Poetry 1603-1660. Eds. John P. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2006. 115.
 Hale, John. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance. New York, NY: Atheneum, 1994. 136-7, 206-7.
 Johnson, “Epistle,” 116.
 Dupre, Louis. Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutic of Nature and Culture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (1993), 79.
 Bacon, Frances. “Idols of the Mind” in Frances Bacon: The Essays. New York, NY: Penguin Books (1985), 277-285.
 Dupre, Passage, 80.
 Johnson, “Epistle,” 117-118.
 Herbert, George. “The Elixir.” Seventeenth Century British Poetry 1603-1660. Eds. John P. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2006, 287.
 The British Museum. “Dr. Dee’s Mirror.” (Accessed December 7, 2010) Available from: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/d/dr_dees_mirror.aspx; Internet.
 Yates, Dame Frances. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment New York, NY: Routledge (1972), xii-xiii.
 Herbert, “The Elixir.” 287.