To the renaissance poet, alchemy had many faces – whether it be satirised with comic effect, as in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist - or in John Donne’s poetry it might provide a path to spiritual transformation through a complex exercise in alchemical allusion and wordplay. The text is coded to make it either comically incomprehensible jargon, or to encourage one to endeavour for meaning and intellect, a necessary function of spiritual development. However, that is not to say that Donne only utilised alchemy for the purpose for spiritual transformation – he too satirised alchemy and many of the poems might be considered intellectual exercises as appreciably as a spiritual treatise.
In order to explore this let's focus on two of Donne’s poems, examining the function of the corresponding alchemical imagery by which Donne seeks to spiritually enlighten and elevate the disposed reader.
Given the modern reader’s inability to fully comprehend renaissance alchemy, it is necessarily difficult for us to decode all alchemical imagery and meaning. As Edgar Hill Duncan points out, the tradition of alchemical satire is ‘quite different with those figures which make use of particulars of alchemical theory or practice, where the alchemical concepts serve to express outright as metaphors or to intensify as similes the thought-content of the lines. In each of these instances the value of the concept for Donne lies in its aptness for illustrating, explaining, or intensifying the idea which it embodies or to which it is juxtaposed.’
At best we can interpret or decipher Donne’s alchemical imagery against the context of his overall meaning within a poem, and against the ‘mass of beliefs known as alchemy’ which can be ‘fairly transferred from its logical connection with that science to body forth or explain a concept in another real of though or knowledge which is the poet’s subject.’ In other words, against these constraints it is still possible to draw the parallels between the imagery, the standard definitions of alchemical metaphor, the conventional definitions of Christian metaphor and Donne’s overall poetic intention.
Within this context, the theme of rebirth and resurrection is apparent in A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day, and The Resurrection, imperfect. Here, in the manner of many other Renaissance schools of thought, alchemy has been appropriated for a Christian purpose, for the student educated in both classical, Christian and alchemical thought.
Donne matches the alchemical process of putrefaction which results in new life, with the Christian parallel; that of the resurrection of Christ. However, clearly these poems operate on many levels and there are other themes. In S. Lucies Day is also the theme of Nature, with the notion that all things have a time and a season. Frank Kermode suggests that S. Lucies Day is ‘incomprehensible’ without an understanding of alchemy, but I disagree. Although there are undoubtedly references to alchemy and alchemical equipment, given the above, at a more basic level the poem can operate as a verse on Nature, on the inevitability of death, and on the inexorable manner in which time moves forward, creating anew, and with Christian teaching one might divine resurrection and rebirth, leading to human resurrection and the hope of an afterlife.
This is particularly apparent in ‘the next world, that is, at the next Spring’ which brings together the themes of Christianity and Nature. However, I do accept that knowledge of alchemy enriches the reader with a third, equally regenerative reading, particularly in the following lines where Donne states:
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new Alchimie.
For his love did expresses
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and leane emptiness
He ruine’d mee, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.
Here Donne plays on the reversal of the usual creation process in alchemy.
In Resurrection, Imperfect , Donne represents the resurrection of Christ. The first half of the poem can be deciphered without knowledge of alchemy, with references to the Crucifixion, to the solar eclipse, to the resurrection of Christ and the Ascension. Halfway through, the poem takes on the distinct language of alchemy. Donne likens Christ to a mineral or gold, and the process of the resurrection to the process of transmutation in alchemy itself:
For these three daies become a mineral;
Hee was all gold when he lay downe, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make even sinfull flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous pietie
Thought, that a Soule might discerne and see
Goe from a body, ’at this sepulcher been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly though this body a soule,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.
Edgar Hill Duncan has a particularly interesting analysis of the poem in his essay, ‘Donne’s Alchemical Figures’, in which he states that: ‘[Donne] expounds the death and resurrection of Christ in terms of the alchemical death and resurrection of gold. Dying is a necessary preliminary to alchemical revivification, a dying which reduces to original elements.’ Here it is essential from an alchemical interpretation of the resurrection that the body of Christ undergo some form of decay in order to facilitate transformation – it is not enough for Christ to simply ascend to heaven. This is partly because before transformation can occur, purification must have taken place, both in Christian and alchemical terms. The decay of Christ forms part of this purification process, and this spiritual cleansing is required of Christians also.
In Darke Hieroglyphicks Linden states that ‘the death-resurrection motif inherent in alchemical theory is central to the conceit.’ He goes on to say that ‘“Resurrection, imperfect” relies on alchemy to convey Christian views of death, resurrection, and salvation… Christ is represented as the transmuting agent who, through his death, acquired the potency to purify the baser bodies that he chooses to touch’.
In both poems alchemy serves to add depth to the existing Christian interpretation of re-birth. Resurrection is really a spiritual belief; it is not tangible and relies exclusively on the beliefs of the individual. In adopting what was at the time a scientific approach, in the sense that alchemy was not considered arcane, or a pseudo-science, Donne might have offered some ‘scientific proof’ that the resurrection and afterlife were possible in reality as well as spirit. By citing alchemical examples Donne is able not only to contrast natural processes with conceptual ones, he is also able to code that message to give it some form of secrecy, requiring an effort to translate it. Only the devout and pure Christian in this sense can ‘decode’ the message in the poems and find spiritual renewal.
Alchemical imagery here serves to provide example, comparison, metaphor and both the code and cipher. The prize is not the conventional interpretation of the Philosopher’s Stone, but man’s soul transfigured by Divine Grace. Perhaps here the concept of the elixir, or balsam familiar in many alchemical texts might not be interpreted as the Balsam of the Elements or the Quintessence, but the spiritual quintessence of divine inspiration through the Holy Spirit.
Abraham, L., A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery: Introduction, pp xv-xxii, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001)
Abraham, L., Marvell and Alchemy, (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1990)
Donne, John, The Complete English Poems, ed. C. A. Patrides, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991)
Duncan, E. H., ‘Donne’s Alchemical Figures’ in English Literary History 9, (1942), pp 257-85
Hayes, T. W., ‘Alchemical Imagery in John Donne’s “A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day”’ in Ambix 23 (1976), pp 55-62
Linden, S. J., Darke Hieroglyphicks, (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1996)
Mazzeo, J. A., Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Studies:, Notes On John Donne’s Alchemical Imagery, pp 60-89, (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1964)
Roberts, G., The Mirror of Alchemy, (London: The British Library, 1994)
Sadler, L. V., ‘Relations between Alchemy and Poetics in the Renaissance and Seventeenth Century, with Special Glances at Donne and Milton’ in Ambix 23 (1976), pp 69-76
Walker, J. M., ‘John Donne’s “The Extasie” as an Alchemical Process’ in English Language Notes 20 (1982), pp 1-8
Warlick, M. E., ‘The Domestic Alchemist: Women as Housewives in Alchemical Emblem’ in Glasgow Emblem Studies, Vol. 3, 1998