Monday, April 18, 2016

Henry Vaughan as Hermeticist in Thalia Rediviva/Hermetical Poetry (2)

Henry Vaughan was born with his twin brother Thomas, in Newton, Wales, in 1621. The two were entwined and celebrated in dedicatory verses as Castor and Pollux, possibly identical twins. Both were Christian, Anglican, and Christian Hermeticists. Thomas, under the pseudonym of Eugenius Philalethes, became a writer of alchemical tracts and Henry a metaphysical poet. 

Of the five books of poetry written by Henry Vaughan, Silex Scintillans I and II are the most significant. Thalia Redivivia (1678), to pick up the title's pastoral echoes, is the over-blown flower among Vaughan's work. The poetry of this volume has lost its immediacy and sense of questing. Even so, there are a few intriguing works, notably "The Importunate Fortune" which shows that Henry Vaughan was well-versed, like Thomas, in the Hermetic tradition. Hermetical readings of Henry Vaughan have tended to focus on the significance of light, identifying alchemical sources as Vaughan's belief in light's potency. But the sources could just as easily be biblical. The complex unity of Christianity and Hermeticism is shown in Vaughan's fascination with dew. Such imagery glances at a pun on Ddu, the Welsh for God, and the imagery of The Psalms and Deuteronomy. As a poet of infancy and origins, Vaughan never forgets that the dew of the psalmists is a symbol of youth. As a poet, he is always mindful that the symbolic words of Moses fell as dew from God. But his worship of dew also recollects the alchemists collecting dew on early morning cotton sheets and then wringing out the moisture of life for experiments. Christianity and Hermeticism are infused. 

                               (Splendor Solis, Trismosin, mid C16)

In "The Importunate Fortune", Vaughan does much more than allude to his Hermetical knowledge: it is a farewell demonstration of Hermetic Christianity and Christian Cabalism. The poem begins as a meditation on Fortune:

                           Thus, Fortune, the great World thy period is;
                           Nature and you are Parallels in this.
                           (ll.17-18).

Vaughan's early works, with their materialistic pleasures and Cavalier fripperies, are to be renounced in favour of the heavenly. The world is made to "tempt" human life with "dirty Ore" and offer wealth rather than the golden Son of Heaven: "thy riches make my Soul so poor" (l.29). There is nothing too unusual about the line of argument offered by Vaughan until line 53 when the shedding of life's filth becomes a mimetic descent/ascent through the Tree of Life:

                   But these are mean; the Archtype I can see,
                   And humbly touch the hem of Majestie.
                   The power of my Soul is such, I can
                   Expire, and so analyse all that's man.
                   First my dull Clay I give unto the Earth,
                   Our common Mother, which gives all their birth.
                   My growing Faculties I send as soon
                   Whence first I took them, to the humid Moon.
                   All Subtilties and every cunning Art
                   To witty Mercury I do impart.
                   Those fond Affections which made me a slave
                   To handsome Faces, Venus thou shalt have.
                   And saucy Pride (if there was ought in me,)
                   Sol, I return it to thy Royalty.
                   My daring Rashness and Presumptions be
                   To Mars himself an equal Legacy.
                   My ill-plac'd Avarice (sure 'tis but small;)
                   Jove, to thy Flames I do bequeath it all.
                   And my false Magic, which I did believe,
                   And mystic Lyes to Saturn I do give.
                   My dark Imaginations rest you there,
                   This is your grave and Superstitious Sphaere.

In the green world of Thalia, Vaughan roots the alchemist's tree of knowledge. The "Archtype" that Vaughan sees as the aim places the end in the beginning, a sign of the mystical ouroboros, and draws upon his brother's work Anima Magica Abscondita which discusses The Archetype/God on page 112.
 

                   (Ouroboros, end in the beginning, from Alciati's emblems)

The planets listed by Vaughan do not follow the cosmological order of the day: they rather follow the order of a central Hermetic text-- Agrippa's three books on natural magic. In Occult Philosophy, Book III, Chapter X, Agrippa presents this planetary order in relation to the cabalistic spheres of life: Malkuth/Earth ("our common mother"); Yesod/Moon; Hod/Mercury; Netzach/Venus; Tiphareth/Sun; Geburah/Mars; Chesed/Jupiter ("Jove") and Binah/Saturn. Rather beautifully and paradoxically, as the reading eye falls down the page so the mind follows Vaughan's ascension through the heavenly spheres-- contrary motions are inseparable in one sublime metaphysical image. Vaughan's "The Importunate Fortune" is a variation on Matthew 19:23: it is impossible for a rich man to enter the gates of Heaven; an exploration of the paradox that poverty makes a person rich in other ways; and in its central phase a purgation of the soul and ridding of ballast so as poetic creation may fly to its Creator.

No comments: