The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 7)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

In this series of blog posts, I’m tracing the Western Esoteric traditions through history, with special attention paid to the contribution of these traditions to the work of Carl Jung.

Jung’s work in alchemy is key to the development of his psychology and his writings on alchemy filled more than three volume of The Collected Works.[1]

Alchemical texts are notoriously difficult and often filled with lush imagery (Sun and Moon headed human figures, Kings, Queens, copulation, hermaphrodites, Mercuries, wolves, lions, birds and dragons in recurrent shades of green, black, white, and red) which is less than illuminating to newcomers or, perhaps, even downright purposefully misleading. 

Likewise, it is less than clear that all alchemical texts even attempt to interpret this imagery in the same way and for the same reasons. Finally, although spiritual alchemy was the focus of some alchemists, this was not always the case and indeed, there is much evidence that Jung, himself, was not so interested in the spiritual elements of the practice.

In many ways, Jung considered Paracelsus, the founder of depth psychology. But his own work was built on that of several earlier 19th and 20th century psychoanalysts, most notably Herbert Silberer, with whom Jung regularly corresponded. Silberer had worked extensively on ideas relating the symbols and processes of alchemy to the processes of psychoanalysis, and the building of a new ego through alchemical symbolism by freeing it from its old ties.

In Memories Dreams and Reflections, Jung comments that he found ‘the experiences of the alchemists were, in a sense, my experiences and their world was my world’. He added that ‘only after I had familiarised myself with alchemy did I realise that the unconscious is a process’. This led him to the central concept of his psychology, the ‘process of individuation’, which in keeping with the thinking of Paracelsus, was a process during which a person gains a sense of his or her wholeness in opposition to the diversity of his or her instincts.

Also, like Paracelsus, Jung concluded there were four elements in man’s functional design: (2) feeling, (2), thought, (3), intuition, and (4) sensation. These were joined together by sexual drive, or the libido.

Jung argued that alchemy was a kind of collective conscious dream and that the Philosopher Stone was a symbol for the Self (and in its own way, perhaps also a symbol for Jesus Christ, Crucified). Indeed, Jung argued that Christianity (focused on the dichotomy of good vs. evil) was so fundamentally incapable of dealing with psychological processes, that alchemy (the collective dream) had developed to compensate that. It’s important to remember that for Jung, the Self is not the ego (i.e., the conscious mind as it comprises the thoughts, memories, and emotions of which a person is aware), but instead, always lays just outside consciousness. This means the only way to get in touch with Self is tangentially, through dreams that are full of symbolism, which, not surprisingly, can be interpreted with help from alchemy. 

Further, not unlike Paracelsus, Jung concluded that the way to health was through increased inclusiveness, perhaps through ‘true knowledge’, a reflection of unity (to ‘know yourself’ is to ‘know God’ and all of creation). Indeed, Jung did emphasise that some aspects of alchemical practice such as imaginal workings or even praying to God could further the process of individuation. 

Finally, like Paracelsus and Western occultists before him, in helping men to work toward individuation – achieving wholeness in a world fraught with dichotomy, Jung believed that psychology offered man a tool to perfect that which Nature (and by implication, God) had left imperfect, but in this sense for Jung, ‘perfection’ was meant to mean ‘wholeness’.  As Paracelsus and prior esoteric occultists like the Renaissance man, Marsilio Ficino, had concluded, Jung also believed that in essence, health comes as the result of being as celestial as possible (so above, so below). Let us not forget that Jung, himself, was like Ficino, an accomplished astrologer, who used astrology extensively to better know himself.

(to be continued)

[1] For this blog post, many thanks to John Marshall and his paper Jung, Alchemy and History: A Critical Exposition of Jung’s Theory of Alchemy (2002).

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 6)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: A Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

In this series of blog posts, I’m tracing the Western Esoteric traditions through history, with special attention paid to the contribution of these traditions to the work of Carl Jung.

As with the rest of the western esoteric traditions, alchemy originated in Egypt but quickly fell in line with Hermetic tradition absorbing the four elements of Aristotelian tradition. This allowed one element to transmute into another based on the attribute they shared in common. 

Jabir, a pioneering 8th century Arab alchemist, proposed a theory whereby all metals were all were composed of two elements: sulphur and mercury (Mercury equals Hermes equals Hermetic tradition). Not surprisingly, the Emerald Tablet again comes into play – “so as above, so as below”. Therefore, by transmuting and transforming metals, you could transform yourself. 

The prize of all alchemical work was the philosopher’s stone which outwardly turned base metal into gold and inwardly turned the baseness inherent in man (having fallen from the Garden of Eden) into the state divine grace.

Enter Paracelsus in the 16th century. His alchemical work inspired a new and ‘radical’ approach to science – experimentation and observation. His ideas spread as he travelled extensively throughout Europe during which time he enlisted as an army surgeon (i.e., the wars in Venice, Holland, Denmark). This allowed him to add to his new bow of medical arrows, the traditional medicinal practises of the herbalists, gypsies, and magicians he encountered along the way. Understandably, however, his new approach didn’t endear him to those whose interests lay in maintaining the status quo and so it wasn’t until 1526 when Paracelsus arrived in Strasburg that he flourished in influential humanistic circles of Protestant reformers there and also in Basle.

In his work Paragranum (1529-1530), Paracelsus argued that medicine should be naturally based, and this included it should be influenced by astronomy and alchemy. His major work, Opus Paramirum (1531), brought alchemical ideas as well as the work of Galen into the wider medical community.[1] There were four elements inherent in man’s functional design and each one controlled on of four functions (1) the processes of digestion and nutrition,(2)  the sexuality and reproduction functions of women, (3) diseases caused by “tartar” (stone), and (4) psychic phenomenon illnesses arising from the imagination.

Alchemy played heavily into all the work of Paracelsus. As far as he was concerned, making gold wasn’t the point. Instead, man should be perfecting what nature had left imperfect and, in this regard, he was inspired by the Renaissance Neoplatonic ideas of the unity of heaven and earth. In this endeavour, logic and rational thought were rejected in favour of “true  knowledge”, a reflection of that unity . In other words, to ‘know yourself’ is to ‘know God’ – and in this regard direct experience was essential. Partake in the fullness of the universe using all your senses and pay attention to everything that you see and hear. At that time, the prevailing idea was that the everything universe was full of ‘spirit’ and so this was easier to accomplish for Paracelsus and his colleagues then it might be for us today. 

In turn this led to medical reforms that put homoeopathy in the frontline. The belief was that sickness was the result of being out of balance with celestial influences and that alchemy was absolutely essential to help restore that balance.

(to be continued)

[1] Along Empedocles, Hippocrates, Galen developed humoural theory based on the ancient and medieval physiology and medicine. It’s all to do with the four block or ‘roots’ of the material world that manifest in certain humours and their related temperaments:

FireHot/dryYellow BileCholeric
EarthCold/dryBlack BileMelancholic

Humoural theory had a significant effect of Early Modern Drama, as for example, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive at Court in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Hamlet comments (regarding the theatrical entertainments to be performed) that ‘the Humorous Man shall end his part in peace’ (2.2, 320). By ‘humorous’ Hamlet cannot mean ‘amusing’, ‘comic’, or ‘funny’ (OED A 4) ) for according to the OED that meaning came first into use in 1652, approximately fifty years after Hamlet was written. Instead, Hamlet is referring to humoural theory.

The Western Esoteric Traditions (Part 1)

My summer reading: The Western Esoteric Traditions: a Historical Introduction by Nicholas Goodrick – Clarke (Oxford University Press – 2008).

Western esoteric traditions have roots in religious thinking reaching far back into the Hellenistic era and before. In the Renaissance, ancient texts thought forever lost were rediscovered. This led to a revival of an interest in and the practice of magic, astrology, alchemy, and the Kabbalah. After the Reformation, this continues with the development of theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and for me, most importantly the analytical psychology of Carl Jung.

As Dr Liz Greene makes clear in her scholarly study, The Astrological World of Jung’s Libre Novus: Daimon’s, Gods, and the Planetary Journey (Routledge, 2018), Jung used ritual magic and astrology in his own personal work which underlaid much of his psychological theories.

Jung’s most important spiritual guide in this work was known to him as Philemon, a Saturnian figure with Aquarian leanings (Saturn being the planetary ruler of Aquarius), who was not only a wise man but also a magician (in the sense of the tarot trump, The Magician). Interestingly, Philemon was also a gardener, who quietly cultivated tulips in his own garden as might any pensioner. Not only did Philemon guide Jung along his own spiritual journey in much the same way as did Virgil with Dante, but he also provided Jung with a much needed sense of spiritual meaning. 

Jung’s work with magic and astrology demonstrates not only is there a place for esoteric traditions in modern science but also, if we are to become all that we as men and women can be, an important link must be made between irrationalism and progressive rationalism. Indeed many Great Western thinkers such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard have also expressed grave concerns about where progressive rationalism might take the human race.

As I hope to make clear in my blog posts over the next few months, a solid understand of western esoteric tradition is essential for anyone involved with an/ or interested in working with visions, apparitions, and even angels.

Indeed, it is the view of Dr Liz Greene (expressed in a series of lectures given in 2017 regarding Jung’s Liber Novus) that the current popularity of guardian angels is a substitute religious pursuit. As organised religion becomes less popular people become ever more desperate to find meaning and purpose in their lives, something that transcends the boundaries of their personal Egos.

But I hope this book will also give me more insight into the subjects and ideas that I addressed during my pursuit of my MA in Study of Religious and Mystical Experience at the University of Kent at Canterbury. Because first and foremost, according to Goodrick-Clarke, behind any work involving western esotericism lies a spiritual experience.

(to be continued)

The Daemon of Carl Jung

In Plato’s Republic(The Myth of Ur), souls cue up to choose their next life and are assigned a daemon – an overseer for that life. In classic astrology, daemon could be determined using one’s natal chart and as the result, it was incumbent upon the individual to establish contact with (or invoke) his or her daemon. In many respects, this was exactly what Jung was doing whilst writing and illustrating the Red Book, which he considered to the ‘prima materia’ for his life’s work.

Daemon can be understood as fate – but not fate in the sense that it comes from outside us. Instead, daemon is our personal unconscious pushing through the creative impulse to encourage us to accomplish that which we are meant to do. Naturally, you may choose to reject or ignore Daemon (or your fate) but there is a price to be paid. Equally, following Daemon (either eagerly or begrudgingly) does not guarantee you an easy ride.

Carl Jung had Aquarius rising. This means that Saturn, the ruler of Aquarius was his daemon, or at least it was in his eyes although not all astrologers (classical or modern) might agree.

When it comes to daemon, it isn’t so much that Saturn the planet was running the show but instead the symbolism surrounding Saturn. According to the 3rd century Neo-Platonist, Iamblichus, symbols are the footprints of the gods, wondrous tokens sent down from above. In this sense, a symbol can never be a man-made design. Symbols pre-exist and hence carry energy that exerts power over us not unlike Jung’s archetypes.


Jung believed it was vital that he understand his daemon – no, more than that – he was determined to establish a personal relationship with his daemon and it is highly likely this was accomplished through magical ritual.

To that end, the Red Book, Jung communicates with several different Saturnian figures (Elijah, The Old Scholar, The Anchorite, The Librarian, and the Professor) that culminate with Philemon (whose name, Jung always wrote in Greek, most probably for magical reasons).

Several key points are of significant interest regarding these Saturnian figures and as ought to be expected in many respects they are all deeply paradoxical.

  • The Saturnian figures in Red Book are all associated with rocks and stones – imperishable – belonging to and of the earth – present in the beginning of time on earth and presumably present at the end. It is not surprising that this stone/rock motif comes up often in Jung’s writings. He had been fascinated with them since youth.
  • Jung’s Saturnian images are all old men – SENEX – they are also thinkers –seekers of wisdom (as opposed to knowledge). Philosophers. They are magicians, too. This is in keeping with the writings of Marsilio Ficino, a 15thcentury Italian scholar who appears to have heavily influenced Jung’s work.
  • All Jung’s Saturnian images are recluses and sad. These are in keeping with traditional associations with Saturn.
  • Several of Jung’s Saturnian images are associated with religion and more specifically, religious experience. Not all of them are complimentary or supportive of religion. Indeed, Philemon is always shown as lame and this might well be suggesting a connection with the devil. Philemon, after all, did always have a serpent hanging around.
  • Philemon was also connected with Mercury, the hermetic figure and the philosopher stone. Hermes Trismegistus, who controlled both the sun and the moon was semi-divine and he is, in essential ways, very much like Philemon (who was also a magician – possessing his own grimoire). This highlights the importance of the ancient art of alchemy. Saturn is lead, the metal of transformation and redemption.

In The Astrological World of Jung’s Liber Novus, Dr Liz Greene suggests that because Philemon drew together Saturnian ideas and images from a number of ancient disciplines and cosmologies, he allowed Jung to build a workable bridge between the pagan and Christian aspects of his own world view.

Those  of us who are interested in similarly understanding the complexity of our own daemon, or chosen ‘fate’, might be well-advised to perform similar invocations and explorations. Dr Greene reminds us that during that difficult period in Jung’s life, his work with Philemon and predecessors gave Jung a connecting thread of meaning that helped him to understand his situation. Likewise, we may also turn to our daemons for help when things get tough.

Never forget, however, that working with daemons is not for the faint of heart. Jung’s daughter reported that things ‘went bump in the dark’ in the house when Jung was working with Philemon – things that we might well call supernatural.

Hidden Dangers of The Hero’s (mythological) Journey

This weekend, I was privileged to participate in an academic conference, The Talking Sky, hosted by the University of Wales and The Sophia Centre. The purpose of the conference was to explore the cultural aspects of diverse myths inspired by the heavens.

Whilst many important points were made, one surfaced time and time again – i.e. although we are fascinated with the sun (ever-popular Celtic fire festivals come to mind), we also fear it and for good reason. Although a source of life, the sun is also deadly dangerous. Myths such as that of Phaethon, son of the Greek solar deity, Helios, who was killed when he foolishly drove his chariot too close to the sun, illustrate this.

** Equally dangerous, perhaps, is our cultural preoccupation with empowerment of the (solar) self? **

320px-Heroesjourney.svgConsider the work of Joseph Campbell and his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which explores the culturally recurring mythical motif of the hero’s journey. Not only was this motif popularised by films like Star Wars, but it also forms much of the basis of Jungian psychology, the centre-piece of which is ‘individuation’, or the transformational process whereby the (lunar) unconscious is melded into the (solar) consciousness to achieve an integrated personality and (alchemical) psychological growth.images

As Liz Greene acknowledges (The Luminaries), the hero’s journey is a solar process wherein the individual actively and  consciously  drives to develop his worldly goals. Having studied with Liz, I’ve never questioned the value of using this motif in my astrological work; it ticks all the boxes necessary for survival in western culture. But apparently, the well-respected psychologist, James Hillman, has questioned this and, it would seem, with good reason.

Hillman argues that not only is (1) Jungian ‘individuation’ a ‘developmental fantasy’ but also that (2) the solar focus of the hero’s journey is dangerously reductionist. In his book, The Soul’s Code, Hillman promotes what he considers to be the healthier, more holistic (pluralistic) ‘soul-making’ to be our psychological aim. Not only is this in keeping with the cosmology of the ancient Greeks, who saw numen, or the divine, in everything, but also in line with Platonic ideals (Myth of Er), which still underlie so much of western culture.

Arguably, as the speaker at the conference pointed out, contemporary natal (psychological) astrology does not look solely at solar functions. We leave that to the popular Sun Sign columns in magazines and newspapers, which, as another speaker at the conference has suggested, have become a myth in their own right.

images-2Whilst I agree that responsible astrologers do honour the entire natal chart (along with its multitude of inherent mythologies), I acknowledge that Hillman makes valid points which ought not to be ignored. As I’m about to embark on a new career as a ‘coach’ (utilizing astrology), I worry about the stated goal of contemporary coaching – i.e. empowerment of the individual. If, as a coach, what I will be empowering is solely the client’s solar self (or ego), then if Hillman is right I will be doing him or her a huge (reductionist) disservice. However, since that is what it would seem that most coaching clients want, how do I dare to offer them otherwise?

Once I’ve commenced my coaching studies at the University of Cambridge in this autumn, I hope to be in a better position to address these concerns. Watch this space, I suppose.

Love’s Alchemy & the Alchemical Marriage

MercuryIn alchemy, the female mercurial principle symbolises the mutable aspect of natural processes, their fluidity and changeability.

Hence ‘he/she’ (Mercury is oft pictured as hermaphrodite) is known to alchemists as the White Queen.

According to Johannis de Monte Raphim (Deutsches Theatrum Chemicum, Nuremberg, 1728):

“The process laboratory-workers wanted to rule him (Mercurius) and force him into (the) process. But he constantly escapes, and if one thinks about him, he turns into thoughts, and if one passes judgment upon him, he is judgment itself.”

Mercury is prized by alchemists because, as the result of ‘his/her’ own divided nature, ‘he/she’ unites opposites. Keeping in mind that the alchemical process is all about separation, purification, and reunification, we begin to grasp the benefits of Mercury. Keeping in mind that Mercury is poisonous however, we can also begin to understand how (as Johannis de Monte Raphim warns us) it might all go terribly wrong.

Mercury = psychopomp = guide between the unconscious and the conscious.

The aim of the alchemical game is to bring up all the dross and impurities (as shown by your natal chart) to the surface (consciousness) so that you can deal with them. How else will you be able to assemble them, purified, back together again?

For example, the heroine of Love’s Alchemy, Judith Shakespeare, has a Mars/Saturn conjunction in the 12th house in Scorpio.

Mars/Saturn contacts are dangerously flammable:

Mars = passionalchemical symbols

Saturn = fear & inadequacy

Whilst her Mars/ Saturn contact operates unconsciously, Judith’s long-term personal relationships will be disastrous. Initially she is highly passionate (Mars). But as her Saturn kicks in (as it must with any form of commitment), she becomes increasingly cold toward her lover and potentially even violent.

Enter Mercury to facilitate the active dialogue and transference which is at the base of all therapeutic work.

With Mercury, Judith’s Saturn can help Mars become more considered and less impatient whilst her Mars can help her Saturn achieve his carefully conceived plans. It’s fairly obvious then that if Judith is to be successful in her alchemical transformation, she must find someone in whom she can confidently confide.

She and I are both hopeful that someone will be Master Francis, the character who is meant to play the King to her Queen.

Because Mercury, or the White Queen, is so fluid, she needs an active force to define and shapes her – this force is the male principle of sulphur known to alchemists as the Red King.White Queen

The union of Red King and White Queen is often called the alchemical marriage. In illustrations, it is depicted as courtship and sex. Sometimes they are garbed, as if just starting to be brought together, offering each other flowers. Sometimes they are naked, preparing for consummation of their marriage that will eventually lead to an allegorical offspring, that all important elixir, the Philosopher’s Stone.

Does Judith want to find the Philosopher’s Stone?

You bet!!

Will she be successful?

That remains to be seen.

Love’s Alchemy & the Golden Age of Saturn

imagesThe Babylonians believed Saturn, or Kronos, to be the ghost of a dead sun and hence the oldest spirit in the heavens. Saturn is thus considered the place where ‘created matter’ first manifests; it symbolises the laws defining and delimiting material manifestation.

The alchemist’s journey is focused on breaching these laws – or passing through the so-called ‘serpent’s circle’ of Saturn – in order to break through transient time and return to the Golden Age of eternal youth and divine benevolence.

In ancient lore, references to this Golden Age are numerous.

Hesiod tells of:

A golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Kronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil: miserable age rested not on them . . . The fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things. . . .

Similarly writes Ovid in the sixth book of his Metamorphoses:

In the beginning was the Golden Age, when men of their own accord, without threat of punishment, without laws, maintained good faith and did what was right. . . . The earth itself, without compulsion, untouched by the hoe, unfurrowed by any share, produced all things spontaneously. . . . It was a season of everlasting spring.

The messenger of Saturn is the black crow. It symbolises the beginning of the ‘Black Phase’ of alchemical transformation, or Nigredo, the period when light gives way to crow

It is in this darkness that we find the fertile soil of new birth. Indeed, the word Saturn comes from the Latin – serere – meaning to sow or plant. Because Saturn marks the boundary between personal and transpersonal (cosmic) powers, it is the alchemists most important planet being equated with both the beginning and end of the Great Work.

Psychologically, Saturn forces acceptance of the limitations of human mortality. Paradoxically, we are unable commit to life until we can face ‘who’ and ‘what’ we really are rather than that which we’d like to imagine. This in turn bring us to the threshold of whole new phase of life, or octave (Saturn being the 7th ring and hence transgressing it ushers in the next octave); each phase or octave leaving further behind the gross material of bodily incarnation in favour of the more subtle matter of our spirituality.

pitagorat1Astrologically, it is with Saturn transits/progressions (especially Saturn returns) that we often commence the ‘Black Phase’. Inevitably this is easier for those with Saturn in the air and fire signs (Gemini, Leo, Aries, Sagittarius, Libra, and Aquarius) for these individuals are more able to keep the ‘faith’ that in the end, everything will be OK.

However for those like my heroine, Judith Shakespeare, who have Saturn in earth signs (Virgo, Taurus, and Capricorn) or water signs (Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio) the Black Phase is much harder because these individuals are too close – too emotionally wedded – to their EGO needs and desires that are being swept away.

Love’s Alchemy – Stage I – The Purification process or Calcinatio

Alchmey‘So as above then as below’ is a basic tenet of all occult work.

That inherently there is both good and bad in all things created is a tenet underlying the work of alchemists and Jungian psychologists alike.

Put these two tenets together, and you get an incredibly elegant step-by-step formula on how to create ‘gold’ from your unperfected self.

The heroine, Judith Shakespeare, of my new novel, Love’s Alchemy, has long been interested in both psychology and alchemy. Whilst still a teenager, she’d concluded that it was possible to change, perfect, and redeem  Picture 1herself by marrying psychology with alchemy through astrology.

Jung (himself a competent astrologer) believed that the ‘great work’ or magnum opus of alchemists was akin to the process he coined as individuation – whereby one deliberately works against the natural order of things to create the ‘Self’, an internal structure that will provide a ‘feeling of standing on solid ground, on a patch of inner eternity which even physical death cannot touch.’

The alchemists start with the elusive ‘first matter’, or Prima Materia in Latin. This is the most confusing concept in alchemy and even alchemists find it difficult to define it. Luckily, however, in regards to astrology determining the Prima Materia is easy; it’s your birth chart ! Like alchemists with their Prima Materia, your goal is to take each piece of your natal chart apart such that it can be purified, transformed, and reunited again into a perfect whole.

The first part of the process commences with the ‘Black Phase’ or Nigredo and the first stage of Nigredo is known as calcinatio.

Calcinatio is a fiery, burning process governed by Aries/Mars during which the dross is burned off to purify rather like the process during which diamonds are formed.

Psychologically, this is accomplished by frustrating your natural desires and passions (i.e. deliberating frustrating your EGO) so that you no longer are able to get your own way). It was never going to be easy to recognise (much less eliminate) your childish beliefs that everything wrong in your life is the fault of someone else.

As you become increasingly unable to blame others (i.e. project your own frustrations outside yourself) and are forced to look inside for the answers, you are literally stewed in your own ‘juices’ – frustrated and trapped – until the fire that lit your anger burns itself out.

alchemy lab 7Hence this stage in the alchemical process is often depicted as wolves with their paws cut off (instincts frustrated), serpents devouring themselves, lions eating suns, or the King being boiled alive

Needless to say this is a dark time of life and is often characterized by feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and depression – as you finally give up your egoistic struggle and slow down long enough to take that all important look inside.

Judith addresses The Black Phase or Nigredo in the first few chapters of Love’s Alchemy when because her Mars is so strong (with Scorpio rising, Mars is her chart ruler which is then also found in the zodiac sign of Scorpio which it rules by sign and triplicity), she finds herself more trouble than she’s ever known.

Like I said, this never was going to be easy.

Change as the Result of Time in the Secular Poetry of John Donne

love's alchemyOne of the perennial philosophies asserts that only in eternity (i.e. God, Plato’s forms, Aristotelian essences) can constancy be found. All else is subject to mutability, change as the result of time (Gale, 66). In Book Eleven of his Confessions, St Augustine questioned time in relation to God (the stable Truth) and His creation of the temporal world. He concluded that time – past, present and future – could be nothing more than a conscious act of human representation (Gale, 68). Whether or not this is true, I suggest that at least in his secular poetry, John Donne shows a particular interest in time and shrewdly manipulates his own representations of it in order to explore and express his ideas about constancy and mutability in a variety of thought-provoking ways.

In A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Donne uses time to help his speaker come to grips with a difficult situation. ‘Tis the year’s midnight’ – the winter solstice – when the ‘sun is spent’ and the world’s ‘whole sap is sunk’. Someone important to the speaker, likely a lover or former lover (suggested by the speaker’s address to ‘other lovers’), has died. It is indeed a dark time. Yet the cycle of death is now complete – ‘this time to the Goat is run’ – (i.e. at the winter solstice, the sun enters Capricorn, ‘The Goat’, in order to die and be reborn). Because ‘spring’ is connected through rhyme with ‘thing’ (‘I am every dead thing’), there is hope of regeneration not only for the sun but for the speaker as well. In turn, this will ‘fetch new lust’ (the goat being associated with the genitals and the union of male and female powers, Fontana, 91). The desolate speaker takes solace from the next (‘summer’) solstice – ‘let me prepare towards her’ (emphasis added) for after ‘midnight’ comes the new day. With this, Donne has effectively reset the clock and put the difficult situation into new perspective.

Texts unfold in time; by necessity they have a beginning, middle, and end and their temporality is heightened when are framed by time. The Sun Rising is framed by the time it takes for the sun to rise. The speaker, in bed with his lover (the speaker refers to the lover as ‘she’ and himself as a ‘prince’ so is quite likely to be male), mockingly questions whether it is also ‘to thy (sun’s) motions lovers’ seasons (must) run.’ He then suggests that if this is what the sun ‘shouldst think’, then the sun is wrong. If the speaker so desires, ‘I could eclipse and cloud’ ‘thy beams’ ‘with a wink’. But he does not so desire and in the final stanza abandons his derisory threats to welcome the sun because its job is ‘to warm the world’ and the world ‘All here in one bed lay’.

Why the change of heart? Perhaps it only the speaker’s attempt to come to grips with the reality that the sun will rise regardless of what he fantasizes. Or maybe the allusion to ‘alchemy’ takes us in an altogether different direction – pointing past the false gold of temporal ‘honours’ and ‘wealth’ to something much more valuable.

Frames draw attention to that which they are framing. Frames objectify the framed and define its relationship to its surroundings adding status and value (Jacobs, 18). How better to add status and value to a sexual relationship than through allusions (‘that’s done in warming us’) to the alchemical process of warming the alembic (two connected vessels, OED n 1) and all it might imply. According to Mark Booth (342), at its heart alchemy is a spiritual exercise intended to transform man’s selfish, sexual desires into living, spiritual desires which in turn allows the Phoenix, bird of resurrection and immortality, to rise.

In The Canonization, the speaker actually suggests that he and his lover might ‘die’ (through organism?) and ‘rise’ like the ‘phoenix’ from the ‘greatest ashes’ beyond the ‘half-acre tombs’ and be reborn (the ‘phoenix riddle’). According to Booth, (342), alchemists are fascinated with love because they know that the heart is an organ of perception. Adepts at alchemical transformation have made a conscious decision to see the world through the eyes of love which in turns leads to an immortality of sorts (Booth, 343).

The speaker in The Anniversary elaborates. Although everyone and everything (‘kings’, ‘honours’, beauties’) grows older with time (the passing of ‘the sun itself’), ‘our love’ ‘no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday.’ To this end, the speaker encourages us to ‘love nobly’ and by doing so ‘add again/Years and years and years’ to achieve the ‘second of our reign’. The message seems that with proper application, through ‘love’, we can propel ourselves past time to a place where as ‘souls’, ‘nothing (else) dwells but love’.

Might this really be achieved? Donne seems to suggest not. In Love’s Alchemy, the speaker makes clear that those who ‘have deeper digged love’s mine’ do hope to achieve the ‘hidden mystery’ – the ‘elixir’ – indefinitely prolonging their lives (OED n 2 a). Realistically they have little hope of accomplishing this. For although most ‘lovers dream a rich and long delight’, what they get is a ‘winter-seeming summer’s night’ (short and cold life).

In The Flea, Donne uses time to effect desired change. ‘(C)loistered’ in bed with his lover, the frustrated speaker does everything possible to convince her to lose her ‘maidenhead’. When a flea ‘sucks’ them both, he hatches a cunning plan. ‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this’, he commences. For ‘in this flea, our two bloods mingled be.’ Doubtless knowing his lover will kill the (now doomed) flea, the speaker ratchets up the pressure by asserting that ‘this flea is you and I’ and if you kill it, you will be ‘killing three’. When his lover inevitably kills the flea (her ‘purpled’ nail marks the moment), the speaker launches into the final phase of his argument: if she had not feared that killing the flea would be a ‘sacrilege’ as he had suggested, then might her loss of ‘honour’ (and maidenhead) be equally a ‘false fear’?

The lapse between the flea’s initial ‘suck(ing)’ and its demise cannot have been more than a couple of minutes; time is pushed fast-forward on a wave of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter/pentameter culminating in a couplet marking the end of each of three distinct phases of the poem that function like acts in a play. As readers, we cannot help sensing that in this dynamic, dramatic flow of time, the speaker has seized upon the perfect moment to force his lover’s hand.

Donne also uses time to express vexation. In Song the speaker urges an unidentified other to ‘Ride ten thousand days and nights’ until ‘age snow white hairs on thee’ and then report back whether there ‘lives’ (anywhere) ‘a woman true, and fair’. The sheer length of the time proposed (along with other impossible tasks like ‘catch a falling star’) suggests an exasperated speaker who believes what he asks (yet, still he asks) is an impossibility. Vexation is further suggested by the speaker’s request virtually springing from the stressed first syllable in each of three commanding/demanding lines; ‘Go’, ‘Tell’, Teach’; the four beat sing-song nature of these lines is mocking. Even if by some wild chance ‘such a pilgrimage’ were successful, there is still time for it all to go wrong: ‘Though she were true, when you met her’, she will have turned ‘false’ by the time the speaker meets her. The speaker foresees no remedy for -‘Yet she/Will be’ – with the two beat couplet pounding home the un-deniability of the assertion.

At first blush, this poem seems trite, flippant. Those sing-song lines and hyperbole do their job. Yet ‘Tell me, where all past years are,’ suggests the speaker is not simply vexed but deeply troubled especially in conjunction with asking how he is to ‘keep off envy’s stinging’? Ouch. If the speaker’s flippancy is meant to insulate him from re-experiencing past hurts, however, then in refusing to change his mind-set he is actually perpetuating them. Constancy is not always a good thing.

In Woman’s Constancy, Donne takes a fresh approach with a (rather insincere) seventeenth century rendition of the twentieth century hit song ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (The Shirelles). Here Donne’s speaker develops his (the speaker is likely male complaining about ‘woman’s constancy) concerns that having ‘loved me one whole day’, his lover might forget all about him ‘tomorrow’. Even worse, she might choose to ‘antedate’ (assign an earlier date, OED v 2) some ‘new made vow’ in effect voiding her ‘lovers’ contract’. The reference to contract law (Donne was trained in law) is a neat twist because a contract requires reciprocity, a meeting of the minds. In suggesting that their ‘lovers’ contract’ may be invalid, the speaker legitimately gives room for his own inconstancy (‘for by tomorrow, I may think so too’). I suggest that it is just possible that he ‘abstained’ from forcing her to honour her ‘oath’ in a ‘dispute’ because he liked her ‘new vows’ as much if not better than she.

Finally, Donne highlights perhaps his most intriguing ideas about mutability and constancy in The Computation. That speaker counts up an amazingly long 2,400 years (100 for each hour) since an unidentified (and notably absent) listener has ‘gone away’. The speaker suggests that his is not a ‘long life’ however (even though it seems rather long plodding along in unrelenting iambic pentameter) but more of a metaphysical impasse: he thinks that in being ‘dead, he or she may now be immortal (presumably in the sense of not being subject to death, OED adj A a).  This apparent oxymoron invites the reader to dig deeper. What might it mean to be both ‘dead’ and ‘immortal’ at the same time? What might it mean to be a ‘ghost(s)’ that cannot die? Perhaps Donne is expressing the same sad sentiment as in Song where past pain persists (or seems to persist) into eternity making him forever feel like a ‘ghost – a mere shadow of his former self (OED n 10 a). Or Donne might have meant a ‘ghost’ with regard to the spirit (OED n 6) to which Donne might have assigned religious significance – perhaps even addressing his own schism with the Catholic Church. But regardless whether this poem is about a secular or religious relationship (or both), it bodes ill – for the speaker’s ‘Tears drowned one hundred’ of those amazingly long years and his or her ‘sighs blew out’ a good many more.

In summary, Donne uses various representations of time in his secular poetry to explore and express his ideas about constancy and mutability. While on the surface it may appear that he is a proponent of constancy, his speakers often lamenting how others are so inconstant and false, I would argue that on the whole Donne favours change. Without change, the speaker in A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day would be caught in a vicious cycle. Without change, the frustrated lover in The Flea would be caught in a sexual stalemate. In The Sun Rising his speaker seems to suggest that through alchemical change, immortality is a real possibly. Although this idea is glorified in The Canonization and The Anniversary, in Love’s Alchemy Donne suggests that realistically chances of success in this endeavour are for the most part grim. In Woman’s Constancy, Donne suggests that love is like a contract and that in trying to change the terms of said contract retroactively one may unwittingly provide the other party with a way out. Finally, in The Computation Donne explores what it may be like to be trapped in a situation feeling bereft as a ghost yet unable to die/escape the situation. Contrary to what many might believe, constancy (and/or eternity) as protrayed by Donne may not always be a good thing.





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