Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Alchemy of Return.

We go, says Eliot in Four Quartets, “Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.” (Burnt Norton, 13-14), yet that journey forwards is really a journey backwards through memory to that first place: Eden. As Milton saw it, that sacred place where grew “Flowers of all hue, and without thorn the rose”. (Paradise Lost, IV, 256). Life is always a double-movement in which turnings involve re-turnings, until time brings moments of personal meaning, that glowing point in which seconds are humanised, and thorny time is stripped of its spines.

Eliot’s image is, as well known, Christianised. The crossing of Time and Timelessness is the incarnation of eternal Christ in the temporal body. And salvation, dis-embodiment is its counter-point. But the image that Eliot draws upon reaches beyond Christianity, it touches the archetypal, as does the shamanic and the hermetic. In a 5000 year old celebration of the Tree of Knowledge, from Sumaria, the branches reach upwards and forwards towards endings as the “root of white crystal” stretches deep into the earth and towards the beginnings of everything.

One of the finest expressions of this theme in mystical literature, has to be Henry Vaughan’s “The Retreat” (1650). Vaughan was a Welsh Catholic. His twin brother, Thomas Vaughan/Eugenius Philalathes, was an alchemist. In “The Retreat”, which is about spiritual retirement and return, the Christian and the Hermetic flow into one another almost as if they reflect the bonding between the two men. (The psychic bonding of twinship as regards these two brothers is beautifully discussed by the novelist Stevie Davies in her book for Seren Press, Henry Vaughan). At the opening of his poem, Vaughan begins with a wonderful phrase for childhood, “angel infancy”. It is a beginning which shines, even before the child grows up to have “white, celestial thought”, by which he means white/gwyn, blessed. Vaughan was aware of the whole tradition of conversations with winged beings, be they messengers in the Bible or winged-spirits in Hermeticism. And for him, childhood was its root, for he implies that even the silent child without language (infant=without word) was already twinned (hyphenated) with angels and so able to converse with them. Though fallen, the Eden-child still communions with Raphael. The child came into childhood in touch with his angelic origins, knowing as it were, the language of the Spirit. The structure of Vaughan’s poem is very simple. It begins with reflection, stretches beyond birth, man’s first race, then begins to grow up through mankind’s “second race”. The Vaughan-child delights in the natural world and begins to reach forward towards the " shadows of eternity”. At this point, the poem goes into retreat, moving from the dangers done through speech backwards and towards the point of birth once more and “shoots of everlastingness”. As a flower, he feels the end in the beginning.

This repeated mythology of return, ranging forth and back, to go forth again, would have been no surprise to Thomas Vaughan. Alchemy is all about cycles, where ends become beginnings, the ouroboric circle where the mouth of the snake eats its tail.

Indeed, alchemy had a central theme which was the birth of the divine child. Out of chaos came youth, which grew towards age and corruption, which then had to revert to a young and innocent state once more.

Vaughan’s meditation on childhood, is written in two parts. The first part depicts a human picture. But in the second part, a more literary picture appears. It is the equivalent of reading one alchemical woodcut and then a second. The first has been transformed into something else. It resembles, but is of a different nature. Now, as Vaughan longs “to travel back” along the “ancient track”, his vision extends through the Bible. The reader is taken in reverse through a biblical/spiritual journey to Pisgah, where Moses in old age saw the City of Palms, the original and eternal Heavenly City. Then moving through the Hermetic world of the Phaedo where the soul staggers, the reader is taken through “forward”, “love”, “backward,” move” until the twinned rhymes “love” and “move” identify this return as a desired regression. Fittingly, the final word in the poem is “return”, so the poem finishes on the page, in time, but offers “return” as a reflection on timelessness. The Vaughan-adult regresses to the Vaughan-child to finish with an innocent truth: all is reflection and return: “What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning” (Little Gidding). Why asks Vaughan, are we so eager to run away from our enchanted childhood?


Id it is said...

Do we really run away? Can one ever run away from time, whether past present or future? Now whether that's a blessing...

On that note:
"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,...
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present" Burnt Norton

I'm afraid I haven't read Vaughan (though now I will), but his focus on childhood and adulthood that you mention reminds me so much of Blakes Songs of Innocence and Experience.

eshuneutics said...

Sadly, Vaughan gets overlooked. He is a metaphysical, yet in Donne's shadow. He is a deeply Christian poet, but in Herbert's shade. And as a nature poet, the Romantics rather stole his thunder. "Time often runs away with us" is probably my own personal conclusion. This piece on Vaughan came about because there are continual statements in that UK press that children, socially, are safe no more and childhood has to be surrendered to protect them.

Zee Jai said...

Andrew - tried getting in touch at your Poetry hermetic email ages ago, but it was sent back. Please get in touch. Zio