Tuesday, August 07, 2007

He wanted to believe: Elias Ashmole edits poems of alchemy

When the virtuoso Elias Ashmole got married for the second time, to the older but wealthier Lady Mainwaring, it was so as to “be enabled to live to my selfe & Studies, without being forced to take paines for a livelyhood in the world”. Thus tenured, and without any teaching or examining to interrupt, he devoted himself to abstruse research. He was a student of alchemy, astrologer, collector, student of heraldry, and was the first known Englishman known inducted into the Masons.

I am lost in the wondrous lumber contained in his Theatrum chemicum Britannicum· Containing severall poeticall pieces of our famous English philosophers, who have written the hermetique mysteries in their owne ancient language. / Faithfully collected into one volume, with annotations thereon (1652).

As the title indicates, it is an anthology of poems about alchemy, including Chaucer’s ‘The Canon Yeoman’s Tale’, generously included by the all-believing editor for its exposure of fraudulence. Ashmole contributes a rhapsodic introduction. In this first extract, he is talking about the variety of philosopher’s stones. I didn’t know there were quite many varieties, all of which increase perfection in value or knowledge:

“And first, of the Minerall Stone, the which is wrought up to the degree onely that hath the power of Transmuting and Imperfect Earthy Matter into its utmost degree of Perfection; that is, to convert the basest of Metalls into perfect Gold and Silver; Flints into all manner of Precious Stones…

…Next, to come to the Vegitable, magicall, and Angelicall Stones …

By the Vegitable may be perfectly known the Nature of Man, Beasts, Foules, Fishes, together with all kinds of Trees, Plants, Flowers &c, and how to make them Grow, Flourish & bear Fruit; how to encrease them in Colour and Smell, and when and where we please …

By the Magicall or Prospective Stone it is possible to discover any Person in what part of the World soever, although never so secretly conealed or hid; in Chambers, Closets, or Cavernes of the Earth: For there it makes a strict Inquisition … Nay more, It enables Man to understand the Language of the Creatures, as the Chirping of Birds, Lowing of Beasts &c

Lastly, as touching the Angelicall Stone, it is so subtill… that it can neither be seene, felt, or weighed; but Tasted only … It hath a Divine Power, Celestiall, and Invisible, above the rest; and endowes the possessor with Divine Gifts. It affords the Apparition of Angells, and gives the power of conversing with them, by Dreams and Revelations: nor dare any Evill Spirit approach the Place where it lodgeth.”

Besides his Prolegomena to the alchemical texts, Ashmole provides a set of explanatory notes, which also allow him to expatiate on his enthusiasms. He had some of John Dee’s manuscripts, delivered to him after being found in a secret compartment in a piece of furniture that had once belonged to Dee. The following is a very famous anecdote about a reputed projection of precious from base metal. I have seen it strangely transmuted into an account of Kelly turning part of a shovel into gold. But here it is in an authentic 17th century form, with suitably mystical provenance for the ‘Elixir’:

“ 'Tis generally reported that Doctor Dee, and Sir Edward Kelly were so strangely fortunate, as to find a very large quantity of the Elixir in some part of the Ruines of Glastenbury-Abbey, which was so incredibly Rich in virtue (being one upon 272330) that they lost much in making Projection, by way of Trialls; before they found out the true height of the Medicine.

And no sooner were they Masters of this Treasure, then they resolved to Travell into Forraigne Parts … And whether they found it at Glastenbury (as is aforesaid) or howsoever else they came by it, 'tis certain they had it: for at Trebona in Bohemia (whither they were come to dwell) Sir Edward Kelley made Projection with one small graine thereof (in proportion no bigger then the least graine of sand) upon one Ounce and a Quarter of Common Mercury, and it produced almost an ounce of most pure Gold … for a nearer and later Testimony, I have received it from a credible Person, that one Broomfield and Alexander Roberts, told him they had often seen Sir Ed: Kelly make Projection, and in particular upon a piece of Metall cut out of a Warming pan, and without Sir Edwards touching or handling it, or melting the Metall (onely warming it in the Fire) the Elixir being put thereon, it was Transmuted into pure Silver: The Warming-pan and this piece of it, was sent to Queen Elizabeth by her Embassador who then lay at Prague, that by fitting the Piece whence it was cut out, it might exactly appear to be once part of that Warming-pan. The aforesaid Person hath likewise seen in the hands of one Master Frye and Scroope, Ringes of Sir Edward Kellyes Gold, the fashion of which was onely Gold Wyre, twisted thrice about the Finger: and of these fashioned Rings, he gave away, to the value of 4000l. at the Marriage of one of his Servant Maides. This was highly Generous, but to say truth he was openly Profuse, beyond the modest Limits of a Sober Philosopher.”

My illustration comes from the anthology, which Ashmole had richly illustrated. In one of his notes he reports his engraver begging everyone's pardon "for giving the Gryphons hinder feete, those cloven ones of a hogge, instead of the ungued pawes of a Lion" during Ashmole's absence from the press, for our author cared deeply about getting all these imaginary things exactly right.

1 comment:

Sceopellen said...

You may wish to have a look at this blog, although the article on Elias Ashmole is focussed on horticulture and herbalism:


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