Childhood and cultural despair: A theme and variations in seventeenth-century literature

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Henry Vaughan’s Eternal Alchemy

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Mercury has a boiling point of 674.1 degrees Fahrenheit and a freezing point of -37.89 degrees, rendering it the only metal that’s liquid at room temperature. Malleable, fluid, transitory—the element rightly lends itself to the adjective “mercurial,” a paradoxical substance that has the shine of silver and the flow of water, every bit as ambiguous as the Greek god from whom it derives its name. Alchemists were in particular drawn to mercury’s eccentric behavior, as Sam Kean explains in The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, writing that they “considered mercury the most potent and poetic substance in the universe.” Within sequestered granite basements and hidden cross-timbered attics, in cloistered stone monasteries and under the buttresses of university halls, alchemists tried to encounter eternity, and very often their medium of conjuration was mercury. The 13th-century English natural philosopher Roger Bacon writes in Radix Mundi that “our work is hidden… in the body of mercury,” while in the 17th-century the German physician Michael Maier declared in Symbola aurea mensae that “Art makes metals out of… mercury.” Quicksilver which pools like some sort of molten treasure is one of the surprising things of this world. To examine mercury and its undulations is to see time itself moving, when metal appears acted upon by entropy and flux, the disintegration of all that which is solid into pure water. Liquid metal mercury is a metaphysical conceit.

Alchemy has been practiced since antiquity, but the decades before and during the Scientific Revolution were a golden age for the discipline. In England alone there were practitioners like John Dee, Edward Kelley, and Robert Boyle (who was also a chemist proper), and then there was the astrologer and necromancer Isaac Newton, who latter had some renown as a physicist and mathematician.  Such were the marvels of the 17th century, this “age of mysteries!” as described by the Anglo-Welsh poet Henry Vaughan–born 400 years ago tomorrow. He could have had in mind his twin brother, Thomas, among the greatest alchemists of that era, whose “gazing soul would dwell an hour, /And in those weaker glories spy/Some shadows of eternity.” Writing under the name Eugenius Philalethias, Thomas was involved in a project that placed occultism at the center of knowledge, seeing in the manipulation of matter answers to fundamental questions about reality. Though Henry is the more remembered of the two brothers today (though “remembered” is a relative term), the pair were intellectually seamless in their own time, seeing in both poetry and alchemy a common hermetic purpose. Four centuries later, however, and alchemy no longer seems an avenue to eternity. Thomas’s own demise demonstrated a deficiency of those experiments, for despite mercury’s supposed poetic qualities, among its more tangible properties is an extreme toxicity, and when heated in a glass it can be accidentally inhaled, or when handled by an ungloved hand (as alchemists were apt to do) it can be absorbed through the skin. The resultant poisoning has several symptoms, not least of which are muscle spasms, vision and hearing problems, hallucinations, and ultimately death. Such was the fate of Thomas after some mercury got up his nose in that apocalyptic year of 1666, when plague and fire destroyed London.

Despite Thomas being an Anglican vicar removed from his position for “being a common drunkard, a common swearer… a whoremaster” and who would be satirized nearly a century later by Jonathan Swift in A Tale of a Tub as the greatest author of nonsense “ever published in any language,” he was still in pursuit of something very particular and important, though it’s perhaps easy to mock alchemy nearly four centuries later. In works like Anima Magica Abscondita; or A Discourse on the Universal Spirit of Nature and Aula Lucis, or The House of Light, Thomas evidenced a noble and inquisitive spirit about nature, a desire to both “Have thy heart in heaven and thy hands upon the earth,” as he writes in the first of those two volumes. Thomas searched for eternity, a sense of what the fundamental units of existence are, and he rearranged matter and energy until it killed him.

“Their eyes were generally fixed on higher things,” writes Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets, and indeed whether in manipulation of chemicals or words, both Vaughans desired the transcendent, the infinite, the eternal; what Henry called “authentic tidings of invisible things.” This essay is not mainly about Thomas—it’s about Henry, a man who rather than making matter vibrate chose to arrange words, and in abandoning chemicals for poetry came much closer to eternity. Thomas was an alchemist of things and Henry was one of words, but the goal was identical—”a country/Afar beyond the stars,” where things are shining and perfect. This necessarily compels a question—how eternal can any poetic voice ever actually be? Mine is not a query about cultural endurance; I’m not asking for how long will a poet like Vaughan be studied, read, treasured. I’m asking how possible is it for Vaughan—for any poet—to ascend to the perspective of Aeternitas, to strip away past, present, and future, to see all as if one gleaming moment of light, divorced from our origins, our context, our personality, and in that mystical second to truly view existence as if from heaven? And for the purpose of the poet (and the reader), to convey something of this experience in the fallen and imperfect medium of language?

Because he was a man of rare and mystical faith, for whom the higher ecstasies of metaphysical reverence subsumed the lowly doldrums of moralistic preening, it can be easy to overlook that Vaughan—like all of us who are born and die—lived a specific life. The son of minor Welsh gentry (and whose second language was English, often writing “in imitation of Welsh prosody” as the editors of the Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms note), Vaughan was most likely a soldier among the Royalists, brother of the esteemed scholar Thomas (of course), and a physician for his small borderland’s town, until dying in 1695 at the respectable age of 74, the “very last voice contained entirely within what many regards as the great century of English poetry” as Schmidt writes. Vaughan may not be as celebrated as other visionary poets, yet he deserves to be included among William Blake and Emily Dickinson as one of the most immaculate. Such perfection took time.

His earliest “secular” verse is composed of largely middling attempts at aping the Cavalier Poets with their celebrations of leisure and the pastoral, yet sometime around 1650, “Vaughan seems to have experienced a spiritual upheaval more in the nature of a regeneration than of a conversion. He violently rejected secular poetry and turned to devotion,” as Miriam K. Starkman explains in 17th Century English Poetry. This turning of the soul was perhaps initiated by the trauma of the Royalist loss in the English Civil War, the death of his older brother, William, and most of all his discovery of the brilliant metaphysical poet and Anglican theologian George Herbert. But regardless of the reasons, his verse and faith took on a shining, luminescent quality, and his lyrics intimated the quality of burning sparks from hot iron. “Holy writing must strive (by all means) for perfection and true holiness,” Vaughan writes in the preface to his greatest collection, 1655’s Silex Scintillans, “that a door may be opened to him in heaven” (the Latinate title translates to “The Fiery Flint” in keeping with his contention that “Certain divine rays break out of the soul in adversity, like sparks of fire out of the afflicted flint”).

He was, first and foremost, a Christian, and an Anglican one at that, writing his verse during the Puritan Interregnum when his church was abolished, and those of his theological position prohibited from their community and liturgy. In his prose treatise of 1652, The Mount of Olives, or Solitary Devotions, he offers “this my poor Talent to the Church,” now a “distressed Religion” for whom “the solemn and public places of meeting… [are] vilified and shut up.” To these traumas must be added Vaughan’s marginalization in England as a Welshmen, for as Schmidt writes “Wales, [is] his true territory,” indeed so much so that he called himself the “Silurian” after the fearsome Celtic tribe that had once made his birthplace their home. In championing Vaughan, or any poet, as “eternal,” we risk reducing them, of subtracting that which makes them human. Silex Scintillans is consciously written in a manner whereby it can be easy to strip the lyrics of theological particularity, which makes him an easy poet for the heretics among us to champion, and yet Vaughan (ecstatic though he may be) was an orthodox Anglican.

Vaughan’s particular genius is in being able to write from a perspective that seems eternal, for theology may be of man but faith is of God, and he is a poet that understands the difference. The result is a verse that though it was written by an Anglican Welshman in the 17th century, reads (when it’s soaring the highest) as if it came from some place alien, strange, and beautiful. Consider one of his most arresting poems from Silex Scintillans, titled “The World.” Along with John Donne and Dickinson, Vaughan is among the best crafters of first lines in the history of poetry, writing “I saw Eternity the other night, /Like a great ring of pure and endless light.” This is a poem that begins like the Big Bang. A simple trochaic rhyming couplet, its epigraphic minimalism lends itself to the very eternity of which it speaks. To my contemporary ear, there is something oddly colloquial about Vaughan’s phrasing, speaking of seeing “Eternity the other night” like you might mention having run into a friend somewhere, even though what the narrator has experienced is “Time in hours, days, years, /Driv’n by the spheres/Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world/And all her train were hurl’d.”

In its understatement there’s something almost funny about the line, as the casual tone before the enjambment transitions into the sublime cosmicism after the first comma. That’s the other thing—the narrator had this transcendent experience “the other night”—the past tense is crucial. Eternity is possible, but it’s only temporary (at least while we live on earth). Schmidt correctly observes that Vaughan’s lyric “does not sustain intensity throughout, dwindling to deliberate allegory,” though that’s true of any poem which begins with a powerful and memorable line—Donne and Dickinson weren’t ever able to sustain such energy through an entire lyric either. What’s so powerful in “The World” is that this inevitable rhetorical decline is reminiscent of the actual mystical experience itself, whereby that enchanted glow must necessarily be diminished over time. Leah Marcus argues in Childhood and Cultural Despair: A Theme and Variations in Seventeenth-Century Literature that the “dominant mood in Vaughan’s poetry is pessimism, and a sense of deep loss which occasional moments of vision can only partly alleviate.” Such an interpretation is surely correct, for loss marked not only Vaughan’s life, but his mystical experiences as well, where despite his spiritual certainty (and he is not a poet of doubt), transcendence itself must be bounded by space and time, a garden to which we are only sometimes permitted to visit.

Better to describe Vaughan as the poet of eternity deferred, an ecstatic who understands that in a fallen world paradise is only ever momentary. “My Soul, there is a country/Afar beyond the stars,” Vaughan writes in another poem entitled “Peace,” continuing “Where stands a winged sentry… There, above noise and danger/Sweet Peace sits, crown’d with smiles.” He writes with certainty, but not with dogmatism; perhaps assured of his own election, he doesn’t mistake his earthly present for his heavenly future, and that combination of assurance and humility has lent itself to the eternal mode of the lyrics. Note the reference to where perfection can be found, possibly an echo of Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” as well as the cosmological associations of such paradise being located deep within the outer universe. Along with his contemporary Thomas Traherne, Vaughan is one of the great interstellar poets, though such imagery must necessarily be read as allegorical, the mystic translating experience into metaphor. “Private experience is communicated in the language of Anglican Christianity,” observes Schmidt, and such language must forever be contingent, a gesture towards the ineffable but by definition not the ineffable itself. “His achievement,” Schmidt writes, “is to bring the transcendent almost within reach of the senses.”

There are brilliant poets and middling ones, influential and obscure, radical and conservative, but the coterie of those able to look upon eternity with transparent eye and encapsulate their experience in prosody, no matter how relative and subjective, are few. During the Renaissance, Herbert with his “something understood” was one of these poets; Donne with his “little world made cunningly” was another. Among others include Gerard Manley Hopkins and the vision of God’s grandeur “shining from shook foil” in the 19th-century alongside Christina Rossetti who had “no words, no tears.” In the 20th there was Robert Frost (hackneyed though he is misremembered) intoning that “Nature’s green is gold” and Marianne Moore for whom “Mysteries expound mysteries;” Jean Toomer’s “lengthened tournament for flashing gold,” and Denise Levertov who could “Praise/god or the gods, the unknown;” Louise Gluck whose hands are “As empty now as at the first note,” Martin Espada who prays that “every humiliated mouth… fill with the angels of bread,” and Kaveh Akbar who “always hoped that when I died/I would know why.”  Then of course there are aforementioned Dickinson and Blake, frequently John Milton, often Walt Whitman, and most of the time Traherne. Hard to discern a thorough line through the eternal poets, eternal because they seem to have gone to that permanent place and returned with some knowledge. When Schmidt writes that “Vaughan’s chosen territory” was the “area beyond the senses, accessible only to intuition,” I suspect that same description could be made from those on my truncated syllabus.

Henry Vaughan’s poetry demonstrates the difference between eternity and immortality. The latter is the juvenile desire of the alchemists, this intention to transmute base metals to gold, to acquire the philosopher’s stone, to construct homunculi and perhaps live forever. Immortality is understood as being like this life right now, only with more of it. Eternity is something else entirely. Another difference is that immortality isn’t real. Writing in The Mount of Olives, Vaughan describes our lives as a “Wilderness… A darksome, intricate wood full of ambushes and dangers; a forest with spiritual hunter, principalities and powers.” By contrast, eternity is that domain of perfection—it is the gentle buzz of a bee in the stillness of a summer dusk, the scent of magnolia wafting on a breeze, the reflection of moonlight off an unrippling pond. “They are all gone into the world of light! /And I alone sit ling’ring here,” Vaughan writes in another of his perfect opening lines. One of the most poignantly sad sentences in Renaissance poetry. The world weariness is there, the estrangement, the alienation—but the world of light is still real. “I cannot reach it, and my striving eye/Dazzles at it, as at eternity,” he mournfully writes, and yet “we shall gladly sit/Till all be ready.” What faith teaches is that we’re all exiles from that Zion that is eternity, to which we shall one day return. What Vaughan understands is that if we seek eternity, it is now.

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