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  • Transposing World HarmonyDonne's Creation Poetics in the Context of a Medieval Tradition
  • Sarah Powrie

Cosmology and poetry share a long history of mutual association. Each celebrates the mystery of the creative process, whether this be natural generation or artistic creation, and each summons the power of myth to probe and conceal the mystery behind the mythographic veil. In his Glosses on Timaeus, the twelfth-century commentator William of Conches explains how the order of nature's operations is secretly signified in the mythical god Pan. The name "Pan" signifies "all" as William notes, and just as the etymology of the god's name reveals that he signifies "all things" in the universe, so too the imaginary tableau of Pan making music on his pipes represents the perfect proportions ordering the heavenly spheres. William interprets Pan's desire for the nymph Syringa as representing nature's desire for concord and harmony among the elements. Pan/Nature desires Syringa/Concord in part for her beauty and in part for the fecundity that her beauty promises. Pan's pipes celebrate the tempered harmony that sustains and perpetuates life within the universe. Without concord, William notes, disorder and discord among the elements would arise, and the world would certainly dissolve.1

William's glosses reveal how closely aesthetics and cosmology can inform each other. His perfectly proportioned world system both reflects the medieval preference for order and proportion and demonstrates the period's appropriation of Neoplatonic natural theory. The cosmological system described in the Neoplatonic sources of the late ancient [End Page 212] period presented a carefully crafted cosmos with humanity featuring as an integral part of that system. The medieval period learned of this cosmology from Calcidius's translation of and commentary on Plato's Timaeus, which introduced the micro-macrocosm analogy and articulated the structural affinities linking the human figure and the world. Augustine's De Genesi ad Litteram baptized the mathematical architecture of the Neoplatonic cosmos by reaffirming that "God made everything in measure, number and weight" within the six days of biblical creation.2 In his De Institutione Musica, Boethius described the world order in musical terms. The orderly motions of the planetary rotations, of seasonal changes, and of the four elements together expressed a common musica mundana. A similar harmony united the soul and body in the microcosm. Like the Timaeus, Boethius's tract illustrates a symmetry between human and cosmos that reaffirms a purposefully crafted, coherent world system.

The impact of the Copernican hypothesis on these mythologies of nature has been of perennial interest to early modern scholars. The rupturing of the Ptolemaic cosmology and the religious turmoil of the Reformation both signaled that the medieval universe, with an astral system centered upon the earth and a religious society centered upon Rome, was already becoming a historical artifact. The Copernican thesis threatened the Timaean universe of structural affinities. If the world system is heliocentric, as Copernicus claimed, then humanity is peripheral, perhaps even irrelevant, to the larger universe. If the world system is made of undifferentiated infinite space, then divine immanence is extracted from creation and jettisoned into outer space, leaving a vacuum of infinite regress. Yet, even while the new science called all into doubt, early modern thinkers continued to speculate about hidden harmonies and symbolic patterns within the architecture of the universe. Johannes Kepler never waned in his admiration of the Timaeus, and when his own observations of the heavens contradicted the Pythagorean proportions, he simply redesigned the harmonies to accord with those observations.3 Sharing Kepler's interest in Neoplatonic cosmology, Robert [End Page 213] Fludd devised a complex network of correspondences between microcosm and macrocosm in a four-volume encyclopedia, Utriusque cosmi historia.4 Using diagrams of the human figure and the Ptolemaic universe, he mapped parallels between the soul's powers and the celestial spheres. Thus, the Neoplatonic cosmos and its celestial harmonies were not silenced by the new science but rather transposed to accord with early modern fascinations.

The scholarship investigating the early modern response to Neoplatonic cosmology has stressed either its continuity with late ancient and medieval sources or its singularity in rejecting and demythologizing this tradition.5 In...


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