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. Read more of this post