- The Purple Island and Anatomy in Early Seventeenth-Century Literature, Philosophy, and Theology
Phineas Fletcher's The Purple Island is best known for its use of anatomical dissection as a multileveled trope for positioning the Christian subject in scientific, geopolitical, and redemptive frameworks, and for the unusual prose glosses that accompany Fletcher's anatomical descriptions. The poem, first published in 1633 and presumably written in 1608 (with later revisions) comprises twelve cantos in seven-line stanzas that collectively represent the teleological scheme of Christian redemption. Mitchell's interest is in cantos 2–5, the so-called anatomical cantos, which occupy virtually all of his lengthy analysis.
Mitchell seeks to deconstruct the critical tradition of analyzing the poetical, scientific, and cultural historical features of the poem separately, through specialized disciplinary lenses, and to constitute a new critical paradigm in which these features will be conceived as interdependent. Specifically, he attacks the notion that anatomy was "conceptually and discursively different from poetry" in Fletcher's prepositivist milieu, that is, prior to the ascendancy of the machine metaphor for the body in the mid-seventeenth century. Mitchell argues instead for "the congruity of anatomy with figurality," indeed the impossibility of understanding early modern anatomical discourse without taking into account its conceptual dependence on figurality. Put another way, Mitchell's stated intention is to "explore the anatomical rationality of figurality," that is, a kind of "imaginative rationality" (a key phrase) in which the relationship of text to illustration in books of anatomy is roughly analogous to the relationship of Fletcher's poem to his "threshold figure," the Isle of Man; and in which the relationship of Fletcher the poet to the significations of his trope (as anatomical body, as microchristus) resembles, at least in part, the anatomist's dual relationship to the cadaver as material construction and as temple and image of God. The commonality here is the Christian teleological design that underpins early modern anatomical discourse (including the works of Vesalius), and that serves as the structural principle that sustains Fletcher's complex allegory.
In Mitchell's argument, the teleology that gives purpose to anatomy and to The Purple Island emerges from the tension between two interdependent concepts: [End Page 1044] that of the body "as redeemed from corruption in a stable, closed form like that of a building," that is, the body as structure for the habitation of the soul; and that of the body as "the mortal, corruptible vanitas of Nature and the flesh that is grotesquely open to sensation and tied to the vegetative functions" (476), that is, the body as subject to growth, disease, and death. The tension between the figural metaphors of the vegetative and divinely created body can be seen in early modern anatomical illustrations (several examples are provided in the book); the function of anatomical dissection is to dismember the vegetative body in the very process of dissolution in order to foreshadow, as it were, "its redemptive reintegration into the body of Christ" (474). By replicating a dissection in which the vegetative body is recuperated as microchristus, Fletcher's poem would likewise provide "a poetrically constructed form of ocular evidence" (475) for believing in the divine promise of the resurrection.
However, although Mitchell claims that The Purple Island should be read as "an index to anatomy in Christian literature, natural philosophy, and theology," and even that "the narrative and division of the anatomical cantos mimic a public anatomy lesson" (408), Fletcher's Isle of Man goes well beyond these relationships. What Mitchell calls Fletcher's "creative metaphor" extends the anatomical tropes of vegetation and building to represent man as geocosm and as body politic; moreover, the accretion of analogues allows for interlocking patterns of meaning. For example, the Isle as geopolitical realm "emphasize[s] ideological formations of an emergent nation-state"; in this context, "the organs of the inner ear" correspond to "secret intelligence services" (111). Viewed across the range of the poem, Fletcher's figurative...