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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 5, février 1997

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005734ar

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Article

'Ethereal Chemicals': Alchemy and the Romantic Imagination

Maureen B. Roberts

University of Adelaide


1

The introspective, radically symbolic and mythic language of hermetic philosophy of all ages, as well as its affirmation of a meaningful correspondence between mind and Nature, puts it - alongside Romanticism and the Platonic tradition - within a mode of thought and perception which draws its creative inspiration from a perennial substratum of innate archetypal ideas. Western alchemy, which flourished in Europe through to the end of the Renaissance, gradually faded into obscurity during the eighteenth century as a result of its incompatibility with the hypostasis of reason that characterised the spirit of "enlightenment." Romanticism, then, as a metarational reaction to empiricism, entails a reconnection to the archetypal realm and a corresponding reactivation of alchemical themes and symbols.

2

It was through understanding the significance of alchemical symbolism that Jung came to formulate his central concept of individuation. In two of his most important works, Psychology and Alchemy and Mysterium Coniunctionis, Jung turned his attention almost exclusively to the study of the psychology of alchemy. In the alchemical search for the Philosophers' Stone Jung saw a direct parallel to the quest for the divine inner centre of the self. As base metals are gradually transmuted into gold, the ultimate unity and perfection, so unconscious processes manifesting themselves as archetypal images and symbols are transformed into the psychological equivalent of gold or the Stone, the undivided self. Thus the symbolism of the alchemical process represents a centralising and unifying instinct which culminates in the production of the self as a new centre of totality. [1]

3

There is certainly evidence in alchemical literature that the alchemists were aware of the ultimately psychic nature of their procedures, as is evidenced by the sixteenth century Paracelsist Gerhard Dorn's injunction to: "Transform yourselves into living philosophical Stones!" [2] Hermes Trismegistus, the semi-mythical founder of Near-Eastern and Western alchemy, proclaims from the start that the alchemical "work is with you and amongst you; in that it is to be found within you and is enduring." [3] Mircea Eliade similarly agrees that the alchemists were seeking their own transmutation through the perfection of their materials. [4]

4

The union of self and Nature is fundamental to both the alchemical and Romantic imaginative quests. The Renaissance alchemist Paracelsus - one of Blake's mentors - anticipated the Romantic correspondence between objective and subjective reality: "Everything external in nature points to something internal," [5] he writes, therein encapsulating the philosophical basis of alchemical practice - the essential correspondence between the synthetic principles of Nature and the inner impulse toward integration and wholeness. Alchemy is grounded in Nature such that Nature and human nature are to be "conjoined, brought together, and estimated one by the other." [6] The alchemist "brings forth what is latent in Nature" such that alchemy is "the true and sublime Art of Nature herself." [7] The ultimate goal of the alchemical process, the Philosophers' Stone, as an anticipated totality represents the paradoxical harmony of contradictory forces resolved into the uniting symbol.

5

The quest for unity or wholeness central to both alchemy and Romanticism thus replaces the moralism of a redemption grounded in reasoned theological belief systems. In Romanticism and alchemy redemption is, in other words, displaced from the rational by a reassertion of an innate capacity to redeem oneself through the attainment of wholeness. This averment of self-perfection is, then, an instance of the "de-moralisation" of the religious quest, which characterises the subjection of the self to the morally neutral archetypal realm.

6

The goal of the alchemical procedure is healing self-knowledge; [8] the extracted quintessence, equated with gold and the Stone as the final principle of truth, is a panacea. [9] Through the therapeutic power of alchemy wholeness is attained, the dissociation between the opposites healed, and the integration of the personality correspondingly achieved. [10] This redemptive aspect of alchemy is stressed by Paracelsus, who as a physician recognises the basic cause of disease to be a disturbance in the equilibrium of forces which exist as pairs of opposites. [11] One is reminded here of the medieval designation of "dis-ease" or imbalance as "passion" - an apt term in consideration of the Romantic, sometimes anguished self-awareness of the tension between the opposites. The origin of the word "spagyric," referring to the medicine derived from alchemy, appropriately derives from the Greek words for "divide" and "unite," reflecting the basic alchemical function of the imaginative self. [12]

7

Since the internal is reflected in the external of Nature, the alchemists' modification of matter is the attempted perfecting of Nature as well as the self. As it is for the Romantic poets, Nature to the alchemists is hierophantic, being not merely "alive," but also possessing a sacred dimension extractable as the "subtle" aspect of its material reality. The redemptive process as a perfecting power thus operates in Romanticism on two levels: as the imaginative extraction of the divine dimension of the self and Nature, and through the cathartic potential of suffering, which moves passionately away from dis-ease toward a state of harmony in which individual and universal wholeness is realised.

8

In accord with the phylogenic law of consciousness through which unconscious projections are progressively withdrawn, Romanticism represents an evolutionary advance in that the projective aspect of alchemy is relatively absent. Instead of being outwardly projected onto matter, the alchemical archetypes are experienced in Romanticism within the imagination. Thus although the associated patterns and symbols remain similar, they are experienced with an alteration of consciousness by being more consciously related to the individual self.

9

Of primary significance in medieval alchemical philosophy is the imagination, which is understood as the "real and literal power to create images," as opposed to "phantasia," which merely plays with its objects. The imagination, in contrast, is to "be guided wholly by nature," and as an "authentic feat of . . . ideation," aims not to spin "groundless fantasies," but rather to "grasp the inner facts and portray them in images true to their nature." Furthermore, the imagination is integral to the formation of the Philosophers' Stone. [13]

10

If we compare Coleridge's view of the imagination with its original alchemical function the correspondence is striking. In Biographia Literaria Coleridge distinguishes between the passively perceptive "primary" imagination, and the creatively active, or "secondary" poetic imagination, which: "dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify." [14] The distinction which Coleridge goes on to make between the creative imagination and "fancy," which "has no other counters to play with, but fixities and definities," is similar to that made between the imagination and "phantasia" of the medieval alchemists. Clearly "fancy," in that it is "modified by that empirical phenomenon of the will," operates solely within the realm of consciousness, which is free only to select, but cannot know the paradoxical invenire - the creative discovery of the transformation archetypes which are activated through the confrontation of conscious and unconscious. Coleridge therefore describes the secondary imagination as "co-existing with the conscious will"; clearly he does not equate it with consciousness. In the unconscious, opposites exist in an identified state. The imagination symbolically images the contents of the unconscious in that, as Coleridge puts it: "Symbols give rise to forgotten truths about my inner nature." [15] The symbolic language of the imagination thus arises from its transconscious basis which gives rise to an image as a concretely perceptible expression of an inner experience.

11

The alchemical procedure as symbolic of the process of psychic integration is neatly summed up by the phrase which echoes Coleridge's definition: solve et coagula, "dissolve and coagulate." [16] Through the ongoing process of the separation and synthesis of opposites the imagination idealises and unifies the opposites into the ultimate symbol of the self, the Stone, which surfaces in Romantic poetry in numerous guises, including the phoenix, gold, diamond orb, square stone and various four-fold symbols of unity. The alchemical procedure was therefore in Jung's words "a work of reconciliation between apparently incompatible opposites," [17] a statement which complements Coleridge's definition of the poetic imagination. Here the role of the alchemist as mediator of the transformation of matter is transposed into that of the poet, who:

diffuses a tone, and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first put in action by the will and understanding . . . reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant properties. . . . [18]

Note again how Coleridge stresses the relative autonomy of the synthetic process which, though integrated into consciousness through the will, remains ultimately self-moved through the innate drive toward wholeness.

12

The union of opposites is, as Jung never tires of stressing, a process transcending consciousness, [19] the pairs of opposites constituting the phenomenology of the self, the paradoxical totality of the psyche. The imagination in both Romanticism and alchemy represents transformation processes symbolically: just as the Stone unites the opposites, so through the imagination the self assimilates the conceptual dualities of experience. Alchemy is thus, in Yeats' words, "the gradual distillation of the contents of the soul. . . ." [20]

13

In the same way as the alchemists understood the imagination to be "guided wholly by nature," so the Romantic poet "subordinates art to nature" in that the archetypes activated through the creative imagination embody instincts common to both Nature and mind. With this basic intuition Keats declares, therefore, that "if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all." [21] Significantly, Coleridge follows his last mentioned definition of the imagination with the overtly alchemical poem of John Davies, quoted (in part) earlier. The opening stanza, appropriated by Coleridge to the poetic imagination, stresses a transforming "sublimation," which as an integral aspect of synthesis is necessary in order to achieve the paradoxical union of irreconcilables:

Doubtless this could not be, but that she turns

Bodies to spirit by sublimation strange,

As fire converts to fire the things it burns,

As we our food into our nature change.

Transformation into spirit, the "sublimation" of the body, chemically corresponds to evaporation, which psychologically corresponds to the integration of an unconscious content, [22] a principle which sheds some light on the alchemical significance of Keats' emphasis upon the intensity of the creative process. In a letter written in December, 1817, shortly after the completion of Endymion, Keats declares that the "excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth." [23] "Disagreeables," then, correspond to unpleasant, dark, or impure alchemical states which through the unifying perception generated by the holism of great art are reconciled in a unity that to Keats is synonymous with Beauty and Truth.

14

It is noteworthy that during the writing of Endymion Keats makes his most alchemistic statements concerning the metamorphic potential of the imagination. In a letter of May, 1817, while Keats was working on Book One, he writes to his friend Benjamin Haydon concerning "looking upon the Sun the Moon the Stars, the Earth and its contents as materials to form greater things - that is to say ethereal things. . . ." [24] Nature thus becomes - as for the alchemists - the raw material or primal substance from which the ethereal, or quintessential, is extracted. Indeed, symbolic synonyms for the alchemical primal substance or materia prima include the moon, the earth, and its elemental constituents. [25]

15

In a letter of November, 1817, before completing the first draft of Endymion, Keats displays a remarkably intuitive understanding of the equivalence of the creative self to its symbolic parallel, the Philosophers' Stone. He writes to Benjamin Bailey "of one thing that has pressed upon me lately . . . and that is this truth - Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral Intellect - but they have not any individuality, any determined Character." [26] Here Keats' understanding extends beyond the identity of the creative genius with the "ethereal Chemical" of the Stone, for he also acknowledges the transforming ability of the ethereal, that is, the notion that it is, as is the paradoxical self, both the goal and mediator of the alchemical process. [27] If we combine the significance of this passage with that of the former letter this insight becomes clearer: the "ethereal Chemical" of the self creates the "ethereal things" which arise from the transformation of both self and Nature. The primal alchemical substance accordingly becomes in the second letter the "Mass of neutral Intellect" in place of natural phenomena. Furthermore, Keats' understanding of the "poetical Character" as having no individuality or determined character corresponds to the Stone as unable to be limited to any one form or substance. [28] Since as the self it is the union of opposites par excellence, it can only be described in paradoxical terms. It is thus - as is the Neoplatonic One - everything and nothing; it has no stable identity, it is the Stone of "invisibility" as well as the ultimate identity - the Stone "that is no stone" in the same way as Keats' self is simultaneously no self. [29]

16

Keats' alchemical intuitions persist in the following year. In the midst of a walking tour in June, a few months after his final revision of Endymion, the poet, inspired by magnificent scenery writes to his brother Tom: "I shall learn poetry here . . . for the abstract endeavour of being able to add a mite to that mass of beauty which is harvested from these grand materials by the finest spirits, and put into ethereal existence for the relish of one's fellows." [30] Here the etherealising ability of the poet resides in the imaginative transmutation of temporal beauty into the quintessential nature of perfected art.

17

Parallel alchemistic insights occur through Shelley and Wordsworth. Wordsworth affirms the autonomous instinct to unify and harmonise when in The Prelude he states:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows

Like harmony in music; there is a dark

Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles

Discordant elements, makes them cling together

In one society. [31]

This spontaneous tendency is in principle an introjection of the alchemical process, through which the prima materia is metaphorically identified with the "dust" of human selfhood and the final unity of the Stone becomes the reconciliation of the discordant diversity of human experience. Here, too, the elemental synthesis into unity is implied.

18

Shelley, like Coleridge, sees the imagination as a harmonising power distinct from reason, operative within, and alchemical in its functional mode. In A Defence of Poetry Shelley describes the imagination as "mind acting upon . . . thoughts so as to colour them with its own light, and composing them, as from elements, other thoughts. . . . The one is . . . the principle of synthesis, and has for its objects those forms which are common to universal nature and existence itself." [32] In Shelley's complex metaphor the entire imaginative process is internalised such that the mind acts alchemically not upon externals, but upon thoughts. Shelley connects through analogy the alchemical synthesis of the elements with its archetypal foundation in the universal "forms" of mind and Nature.

19

The Romantic correlation between "beauty" and "harmony," which parallels the relationship between the self as both a unity and synthesis of opposites, simultaneously corresponds with the Neoplatonic equating of the One with Beauty. The seemingly contradictory views that symmetry is the cause of Beauty - which Plato repeatedly infers in The Republic - and Plotinus' view that Beauty brings about symmetry are in fact complementary. [33] The self as process both brings about harmony and is, as hypothetical ideal, its ultimate goal since it is both the means and the end of the synthetic ascent to the One of Beauty. Beauty is therefore a Romantic ideal of unity in so far as it incorporates a teleological view of the imagination and the self. [34]

20

The central maxim of the alchemists is that art is "the imitation of nature in her mode of operation." [35] To Coleridge, polarity as a dynamic synthesis of opposites is a basic natural law. For while logical opposites are contradictory, polar opposites generate each other since, as Owen Barfield notes, each pole is imaginatively implied in the other. [36] The dynamic polarity of mind and Nature as the essence of the ascent to unity in alchemy, Romanticism, and individuation was probably first formulated as a reconciliation theory by Heraclitus. His poetical affirmation of unity ("all things are one") mirrors Coleridge's view wherein the opposites coexist as a unity and the self is coextensive with Nature in general. [37] Heraclitus' vision of unity in which all opposing principles are reconciled, portrays human experience as the interaction between such opposites as life and death, sleep and waking, mortality and immortality, a dialectic which unfolds the "hidden harmony" that reconciles opposed states within the self and in Nature. [38] This "hidden harmony" is the equivalent of Wordsworth's "dark/Inscrutable workmanship" and Coleridge's synthetic imagination, which direct the immanent sense of movement in Romantic poetry. The Romantic visionary dream, always in the future, is Beauty - the ultimate unity which is sporadically anticipated through holistic symbols of the ideal One.

21

In Plato's Dialogues Truth as Beauty is likewise a coincidentiaoppositorum, which as the God archetype is symbolically identical to the archetype of the self. For as the self is the "centre and circumference" of the psyche, so, according to St Bonaventure, is God, whose "centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere." [39] Coleridge intuitively recognises the experiential equivalence of God and self through writing in his marginalia to Boehme's Aurora that "in the Deity is an absolute Synthesis of opposites." [40]

22

Shelley connects the "beautiful and the good" as the poetical principle of order with poetry itself as the "centre and circumference" of knowledge. [41] The self, in other words, can be distinguished conceptually but not experientially from God. [42] Symbolically it represents the alchemical ideal and the Romantic quest for unity. Furthermore, Shelley goes on to claim that poetry

subdues to union . . . all irreconcilable things. It transmutes all that it touches, and every form . . . is changed by wondrous sympathy to an incarnation of the spirit which it breathes; its secret alchemy turns to potable gold the poisonous waters which flow from death through life; it . . . lays bare the naked and sleeping beauty, which is the spirit of its forms. [43]

This "sleeping beauty," the latent quintessential, is the artistic equivalent of Wordsworth's "life" of things, and Keats' "ethereal" or "essence," which to Shelley is imaginatively extracted as "spirit." [44]

23

The contrast between the dynamic polarities of Romanticism and Heraclitus and the static conceptions characteristic of eighteenth-century empiricism underlies the distinction made by Blake and Coleridge between two kinds of opposites. Coleridge distinguishes between "contraries," which are irreconcilable, logical contradictions and "opposites" that are complementary poles tending toward union. [45] Confusingly, Blake employs the term "contraries" as similar to Coleridge's opposites, while his "negations" parallel Coleridge's contraries. Blake's understanding of the complementarity of dynamic poles underscores the amorality of TheMarriage of Heaven and Hell.

24

At the opening of Book Two of Milton Blake announces: "Contraries are Positives: A Negation is not a Contrary." Blake's "Beulah," which represents preconscious innocence, is therefore "a place where Contrarieties are equally True," [46] for this is the essential condition of the unconscious. It is only when the contraries emerge into consciousness that they present themselves as an opposed dualism. [47] In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake states:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.

From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell. [48]

Further on "Reason" is equated with the "outward circumference of Energy." By replacing a vertical perspective of the psyche in which consciousness is "uppermost" with a concentric perspective in which it is outermost, "Reason" corresponds to the realm of the conscious ego from which operates what Shelley calls in his Defence of Poetry the "calculating principle." [49] The latter is an attitude of willed control of the creative process, whence derive all rational, moral and theological ideologies. Energy, on the other hand, is the psychic energy or "libido," whose "active" nature is grounded in the morally neutral dynamism of the archetypes.

When the ego is severed from the energy of the unconscious, it becomes the passive servant of reason which, as Blake points out in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, then "usurps its place & governs the unwilling." [50] When, however, the instinctive demands of both conscious and unconscious are given equal recognition the centre point of the personality shifts from the ego to the self, the hypothetical midpoint between conscious and unconscious. [51] As a result the self displaces the ego to become the centre of consciousness and the ego is then free to function in its proper role as the integrator of unconscious contents.

25

The fact that polar opposites not only interact but also generate each other is the basis of the reversals of attitude which are conspicuous in Romantic poetry. The catalytic potential of excess is inherent in the process of polarity, as Jung clarifies in Alchemical Studies :

In accordance with the principle of compensation which runs through the whole of nature, every psychic development, whether individual or collective, possesses an optimum which, when exceeded, produces an enantiodromia, that is, turns into its opposite. [52]

In manifesting this principle of enantiodromia, psychic ontogeny thus recapitulates phylogeny, while its relation to personal intensity of feeling is summed up in Blake's Proverb of Hell: "Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps." [53]

26

That the entelechy of self and the teleology of process are given due regard by the Romantic poets illustrates an aspect of Romantic balance in that the unifying ideal is seen as immanent in the real. Alchemy itself conceals a Platonic bias since its focus of concern is toward the production of a unity; rather than seeking the Many in the One, the alchemical goal is the One underlying the Many. Its affinities with Romanticism and Platonism are therefore founded upon the imagination's power to unfold the vision of the One. Coleridge coined the term "esemplastic," meaning "to shape into one" to denote this property of the imagination. [54]

27

Western alchemy's use of the language and symbolism of Platonism renders the rhizomic connection between the two fairly obvious. Undoubtedly the most important symbol connecting alchemy, Platonism and Romanticism is the sphere. In Platonic ontology the ultimate principle of unity, the One of Beauty, is a sphere. The One corresponds to the Jungian self in that as the central principle of unity it is immanent in the archetypes yet cannot be equated with them, just as the One is immanent in the Platonic Forms yet is itself a supraordinate Form. [55] The complex of Forms or archetypes, in other words, exists in an all-pervading archetype, that of the self. The Forms in totality are thus a many in one and one in many, just as the diversity of the psyche is individuated into the One of the self. Empedocles thus affirms that everything in the state of reconciled unity "is held fast in the close obscurity of Harmonia, a rounded Sphere rejoicing in its circular stillness." [56]

28

The derivation of alchemy from Platonism is grounded in the idea of the soul's return to its precarnate state of wholeness. In the same way as the soul descends from Being then rises through the dialectical ascent of becoming into a reclaimed unity, so the Stone through the alchemical ascent emerges from its "imprisonment" in matter as a reconstituted One. Plotinus implies the equivalence of alchemy and Neoplatonism as recollected self-knowledge through the analogy that as gold is degraded by its immersion in the earth, so the immanent beauty of the soul is obscured through its imprisonment in matter. [57] The immanence of the Stone in the prima materia at the beginning of the alchemical procedure symbolises the latency of the self within the unconscious. The conscious realisation of the self as anamnesis is therefore the recovery of a knowledge that is antecedent rather than cumulative; as Plato puts it, we can learn only what we already know, but do not yet know we know. [58] Jung restates the idea in his Letters:

Originally we were all born out of a world of wholeness and in the first years of life are still completely contained in it. There we have all knowledge without knowing it. Later we lose it, and call it progress when we remember it again. [59]

The doctrine of anamnesis thus forms the basis of the Romantic tension between the real (as transformation) and the ideal (as unity), the eternal and the temporal. While the descent from the ideal is analytic and is expressed as the tension of the opposites, the ascent to unity is the integration of the opposites in the uniting idea or symbol.

29

Yeats apprehends the symbolic significance of the sphere as a reconciliation of opposites through stating that "the ultimate reality, symbolised by the Sphere, falls into human consciousness into a series of antinomies." [60] The recurrence of spherical and its derivative domal symbolism in the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats and Coleridge has been amply discussed in G. Wilson Knight's The Starlit Dome (1941). Perhaps the most memorable Romantic dome is the "pleasure-dome" of Coleridge's Kubla Khan - a symbol which, as Coleridge relates in the poem's preface - arose spontaneously from the unconscious in the context of a holistic vision. Significantly, Coleridge's dome is connected with "the sacred river" which runs through "caves measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea," all symbols of the collective unconscious. Furthermore the dome is associated with the synthesis of opposites:

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves;

Where was heard the mingled measure

From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! [61]

Here the dualities of above and below, light and dark, movement and stillness, heat and cold, coexist in the unity generated by the dome. The alchemical Stone, then, is predictably a sphere: the aim of alchemical individuation is the reproduction of a unity, the Original Being, who in Platonic thought was a sphere. [62] Thus the concept of the Original Being represents the goal and anticipation of wholeness. [63]

30

Further elucidation of the nature of the Stone is necessary to an appreciation of the significance of the quest for the feminine, which in Romantic poetry is repeatedly associated or identified with the Moon, silver, water and the emotional state of melancholia. The Stone, like the Original Sphere, is androgynous in that the masculine-feminine duality as the primary pair of opposites symbolises the union of conscious and unconscious. [64] The unconscious of the masculine psyche is feminine and is represented by the archetype of the anima. Masculine consciousness is alchemically equivalent to the Sun or gold, while the unconscious depicts itself as the Moon or silver. [65] The union of masculine (gold) and feminine (silver) in the production of the Stone accordingly symbolises the individuation process. Since in alchemy an initial hermaphroditic state is sublimated until it attains the recollected hermaphroditism of the Stone, so the path of individuation leads to a higher synthesis of conscious and unconscious in the self. The Romantic quest for the feminine - predictably integral to Coleridge's hope for a "re-collection" of the dome in Kubla Khan - is directed toward the archetypal "sacred marriage," or hierosgamos, the central conjunction of the alchemical process.

31

The alchemical marriage spontaneously amplifies into other symbolic dualities. The Romantic alchemical imagination interconnects many dualities which, apart from gold and silver, Sun and Moon, include the alchemical poles of light and dark, heaven and earth, above and below, spirit and matter, cold and hot, active and passive, life and death, mortal and immortal. [66] The hermetic "doctrine of correspondences," in which what is "above" is equivalent to what is "below," is intuitively understood by Keats as equivalent to the human psychic condition. In the same letter in which he allegorises those of "genius" as transforming "ethereal Chemicals" he compares the imagination to "Adam's Dream - he awoke and found it truth." [67] The imagination, in other words, as the archetypal fusion of opposites, transcends both conscious and unconscious, and the dualism of waking and dreaming is accordingly one of the alchemical synonyms of the marriage of conscious and unconscious. [68] Keats goes on to express "a conviction that Imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human Life and its spiritual repetition," whereby "the simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent Working. . . ." [69] The "empyreal reflection" and the imagination, in other words, form a heaven-earth duality corresponding to the "repetition" of psychic life, which in turn is equivalent to the synthesis of opposites through the alchemical process of circulation.

32

The cyclic transformation of the elements leading to the production of the quintessence as synonymous with the Original Being, corresponds to "spiritual repetition" which is the circumambulation of the self enacted by the tension of opposites. In this respect the unconscious moves in a metaphoric spiral round a centre and so achieves a gradual approximation to the self, whose central point is a hypothetical ideal which, like the Stone, is never actually attained. [70] An equivalent idea to that of the self-circling energies of individuation occurs in Plotinus. In the Enneads he claims:

Every soul that knows its history is aware, also, that its movement, unthwarted, is not that of an outgoing line; its natural course may be likened to that in which a circle turns not upon some external but on its own centre, the point to which it owes its rise. The soul's movement will be about its source; to this it will hold, poised intent towards that unity to which all souls should move. . . . [71]

This self-circling process is often depicted as a spider in its web, [72] recalling Keats' analogy of the imagination's self-creation as being like a spider's weaving of its own "beautiful circuiting," [73] which produces uniting symbols.

33

It is toward the experience of a oneness transcending all opposites - within the self, socially, and as the harmony of Nature - that the Romantic quest for unity moves. The elusiveness of the uniting ideal implies on a personal level the longing for the individuated self, as the correspondence between Neoplatonism, alchemy, Romanticism and Jungian individuation suggests. Since the ultimate union of opposites is never arrived at but is nonetheless anticipated through its totality symbolism, the archetypal inner marriage is never fully consummated. This deferral of wholeness surfaces in Romantic poetry as the elusiveness of a perfected union with the feminine. As well it underlies the self-betrayal of idealistic dreaming, such as occurs in Keats' Ode to a Nightingale and The Fall of Hyperion, the inability of the Romantic dream to be "earthed" into reality, and the sense of deception, loss, and disappointment that accompanies the perpetual elusiveness of the ideal.


 

Notes

[1]

C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1970) p. 115.

[2]

Gerhard Dorn, quoted in Jung, Psychology and Alchemy p. 222.

[3]

Hermes Trismesgistus, quoted in Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy, trans. William Stoddart (London: Vincent Stuart and John M. Watkins, 1967) p. 23.

[4]

Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structure of Alchemy, trans. Stephen Corrin (London: U of Chicago Press, 1962) p. 8.

[5]

P. A. T. Paracelsus, Selected Writings, trans. Norman Guterman, ed. Jolande Jacobi (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951) p. 165.

[6]

P. A. T. Paracelsus, The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus, ed. Arthur Edward Waite, 2 vols. (London: James Elliott, 1894) vol. II, p. 151.

[7]

Paracelsus, The Hermetic vol. II, pp. 156-157.

[8]

C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Prtinceton UP, 1970) p. 90.

[9]

Jung, Mysterium pp. 477-488.

[10]

Jung, Mysterium p. 546.

[11]

Paracelsus, Selected p. 323.

[12]

Burckhardt p. 20.

[13]

Jung, Psychology and Alchemy p. 241.

[14]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) vol. I, p. 304.

[15]

Coleridge, quoted in Tom Chetwynd, A Dictionary of Symbols (London: Granada, 1982) p. 390.

[16]

Jung, editorial, Mysterium p. 5.

[17]

Jung, Mysterium p. 554.

[18]

Coleridge, Biographia vol. II, p. 16.

[19]

Jung, Mysterium pp. 6, 381.

[20]

W. B. Yeats, Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (London: Macmillan, 1972) p. 283.

[21]

John Keats, The Collected Letters of John Keats, 1814-21, ed. H. E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1958) vol. I, pp. 238-239; hereafter referred to as Letters.

[22]

Jung, Mysterium p. 238.

[23]

Letters 1:192. Keats sees King Lear as exemplary in this respect and contextually is commenting on a painting by the American painter, Benjamin West. Significantly, Keats' (1818) sonnet "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again" discusses his reading of the play in implicit alchemical terms, that is, as the "fierce dispute" which is finally resolved in the "phoenix" as a symbol of the Philosophers' Stone. William Hazlitt similarly speaks of Macbeth as "a huddling together of fierce extremes." [See The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (London: J. M. Dent, 1932) vol. IV, p. 191].

[24]

Letters 1:143.

[25]

Jung, The Integration of the Personality, trans. Stanley M. Dell (London: Kegan Paul, 1940) p. 239.

[26]

Letters 1:184.

[27]

Jung, Mysterium p. 240.

[28]

Letters 1:386-387.

[29]

Jung, Mysterium vol. VI, p. 436.

[30]

Letters 1:301.

[31]

The Prelude 1850 I, 340-44 [William Wordsworth, The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850), ed. Jonathan Wordsworth (London: Penguin, 1995) p. 55].

[32]

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1977) p. 501.

[33]

Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1969) 6.7.22.

[34]

Coleridge is the most philosophically articulate of the Romantic poets concerning the relation of the One to the Many. In Biographia Literaria vol. II, p. 232 he defines "the Beautiful" as the harmonising principle of Nature which reflects the synthetic power of the imagination. The Beautiful is accordingly

that in which the many, still seen as the many, becomes one. Take a familiar instance . . . the frost on a window-pane has by accident crystallised into a striking resemblance of a tree or a seaweed. With what pleasure we trace the parts, and their relations to each other, and to the whole.

[35]

Burckhardt p. 115.

[36]

Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought (Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 1971) p. 35.

[37]

Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979) p. 14.

[38]

Kahn pp. 21, 23.

[39]

Quoted in Jung, Mysterium p. 47.

[40]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Marginalia, ed. George Whalley and H. J. Jackson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980- ) vol. I, p. 568.

[41]

Shelley p. 503.

[42]

Jung, Mysterium p. 546.

[43]

Shelley p. 503.

[44]

For Paracelsus' equating of spirit, life and essence, which corresponds to the terminology used by all three poets, see Paracelsus, Selected p. 241.

[45]

David Newsome, Two Classes of Men: Platonism and English Romantic Thought (London: John Murray, 1974) p. 45.

[46]

William Blake, The Complete Poems, ed.Alicia Ostriker (London: Penguin, 1977) p. 580.

[47]

Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1968) p. 193.

[48]

Blake p. 181.

[49]

Shelley p. 502.

[50]

Blake p. 182.

[51]

C. G. Jung, commentary, The Secret of the Golden Flower, trans. Richard Wilhelm (London: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1962) p. 124.

[52]

C. G. Jung, Alchemical Studies, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1967) p. 245.

[53]

Blake p. 184.

[54]

Coleridge, Biographia vol. I, p. 158.

[55]

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Volume 1, Greece and Rome: Part 1, 2nd ed., 2 vols (New York: Image Books, 1962) pp. 194, 203.

[56]

W. K. C. Guthrie, The History of Greek Philosophy, 6 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1964) vol. II, p. 169.

[57]

Plotinus 1.6.5.

[58]

Plato, quoted in Kathleen Raine, The Inner Journey of the Poet (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1982) p. 24.

[59]

C. G. Jung, quoted in James Olney, "The Esoteric Flower: Yeats and Jung," Yeats and the Occult , ed. G. M. Harper (London: Macmillan, 1976) pp. 45-46.

[60]

W. B. Yeats, A Vision (New York: Macmillan, 1961) p. 187.

[61]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Poetical Works, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1912) pp. 297-98.

[62]

Jung, Mysterium p. 3.

[63]

Jung, Psychology and Alchemy p. 236.

[64]

Jung, Psychology and Alchemy p. 235.

[65]

C. G. Jung, The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, trans. R. F. C. Hull (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) p. 180.

[66]

Jung, Mysterium p. 3.

[67]

Letters 1:143.

[68]

Jung, Mysterium p. 42.

[69]

Letters 1:185.

[70]

Jung, Psychology and Alchemy p. 291.

[71]

Plotinus 6.9.8.

[72]

Jung, Psychology and Alchemy p. 291.

[73]

Letters 1:231-232.

Auteur : Maureen B. Roberts
Titre : 'Ethereal Chemicals': Alchemy and the Romantic Imagination
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 5, février 1997
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005734ar
DOI : 10.7202/005734ar

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