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Herbert and the Unveiling of Diana: Stanza Three of "Vanitie" (I) by Stanton J Linden Unlike the works of Donne and Jonson. the poetry of George Herbert tends to reveal a limited and casual acquaintance with alchemy. Scattered references to the art that occur in The Temple are, though precise and effective, usually uncomplex and obviously derived from commonplaces of alchemical thought The Sinner complains, tor example, that in comparison to the "quarries of pil'd vanities" within his heart, the quantity of "quintessence" and "good extract" is distressingly small; Christ's death "calcined" the speaker's heart to dust, but the promise of its transmutation into gold is contained in His resurrection; the Christian's recognition of his obligation to God is both purifying "tincture" and "the famous stone / That turneth all to gold"; and, similarly, the Virgin Mary is figured forth as "the holy mine, whence came the gold, / The great restorative for all decay / In young and old."1 In contrast to such familiar and non-specialized uses of alchemical ideas, the imagery of the third stanza of "Vanitie" (I) appears to be based on an obscure and previously unnoticed figure which nonetheless occurs frequently in seventeenth-century alchemical and medical treatises as well as in works calling for general educational reform: The subtil Chymick can devest And strip the creature naked, till he finde The callow principles within their nest: There he imparts to them his minde, Admitted to their bed-chamber, before They appeare trim and drest To ordinarie suitours at the doore. (lines 15-21; Following the ironic descriptions of the "fleet Astronomer" and "nimble Diver" in stanzas one and two, the "subtil Chymick" is a third instance of man's pride and arrogance in attempting to gain knowledge of and dominion over the object of his inquiry, a pursuit which inevitably leads him away from God and life and toward death (lines 27-28). On this general view of the poem's meaning there is 30 THE UNVEILING OF DIANA critical agreement However, stanza three has posed problems for commentators unaware of the central metaphors alchemical provenance. Mary Ellen Rickey, for one, states that the chymick "is intensified into a bird of prey" in his search for the "naked truth" about the creature 2 And. most recently, Helen Vendler has expressed dissatisfaction over the "appearance of moral neutrality" in the tone of stanzas one and three as contrasted with the harsh reproof given the "ventrous" Diver in stanza two; she asks. "If God may be said to have hidden the pearl on purpose, has he not equally purposefully hidden the motions of the spheres and 'the callow principles within their nest?"3 Examination of sources of the type lively to have provided Herbert with a basis for the chymick image will help confirm — what Vendler suspects but does not establish — that the "neutrality" of tone in stanza three is indeed illusory; furthermore, it will reveal that the portrayal of the chymick is neither avian nor carnivorous in nature In Herbert's time, "chymick" had three closely related meanings: an alchemist, an apothecary or devotee of Paracelsian medicine, or a chemist in approximately the modern sense (see the OED) His "creature' might therefore be regarded as the chemical composition of matter, particularly as it pertains to the secret of transmutation; recipes for mineral cures or universal medicines: or the larger mysteries of nature itself. Although Herbert does not precisely identify the interest of his chymick, he is by all accounts an empiricist, who too confidently bases his knowledge on his own observation and experiment in contrast to the superficial observations of "ordinane suitours" to whom her hidden operations will later appear "trim and drest. the chymick's rigorous empiricism enables him to discover nature's innermost secrets: having gained the privacy of her "bedchamber , the chymick-lover strips the creature of her apparel and proudly imparts his store of mortal wisdom. This unusual figure may well be derived from a remonstrance common in seventeenth-century alchemical literature, according to which adepts boldly consign to failure those who refuse to improve their knowledge through "manuall operation." i.e.. actual laboratory experiment. For example . Herbert's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 30-37
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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