The Poetics of Alchemical Engagement: The Allegorical Journey to God in Ripley and Norton after Chaucer
Khoury, Marcelle, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, English, University of Virginia
Baker, Peter, English, University of Virginia
Braden, Gordon, English, University of Virginia
Hart, Kevin, Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Both fifteenth-century alchemical poets, George Ripley and Thomas Norton, perceived themselves to be “Chaucerian” in far deeper ways than has been recognized. They perceived their own work, like Chaucer’s, to join author, reader and pilgrim on an essentially hermeneutical journey to Wisdom, and shared with him a deep concern with the human condition of fragmentation and infinite deferral, which they understood Chaucer to relegate to the interpreter’s confinement within the natural (sensible and semantic) mode of perception. They likewise perceived themselves to share with him the Boethian belief that this condition can and should be overcome through the hermeneutical pilgrim’s “hevy[ng] up the heved,” or “heav[ing] up the head,” and “entencioun” to ryght “heye thinges” (Boece V, m. 4.35-37), ultimately beyond the entire ontological structure of the Cosmos. The “Philosopher’s Stone” was an expression of the resultant entity. Like Chaucer, they consciously sought to harmonize with the Christian faith the natural philosophy that was absorbed into Western Europe through the Late Medieval translation movement. Rather than focusing on their weaknesses and failures, I seek first to understand and appreciate what each of them tried to do. The features they perceive themselves to share with Chaucer can bring attention to structures and meanings in Chaucer that have so far eluded scholars, and can therefore provide new tools for future studies on Chaucer.
The first and introductory chapter presents a general picture of the problem that the “Philosopher’s Stone” fundamentally sought to address. I argue that late medieval Christian thinkers, including Chaucer, were deeply concerned with the problem of fragmentation and deferral that temporal infinity presented since the Pre-Socratic natural philosophers. They were deeply concerned with what it was that made entitihood, personhood, or meaning possible within a matrix of infinite temporality and absolute relativity. They proposed the Incarnation as the agency through which the contemplative or hermeneutical pilgrim could constitute his being into an indestructible whole. Ripley and Norton belonged to that same quest, and framed it as a quest for the “Philosopher’s Stone” which “For of this world . . . is called the sement” (Compound, V.20.1).
The second chapter argues that Ripley textualizes the alchemical operation. He shifts the alchemist’s search for the “seeds” of the divine act of creation hidden in the matter of Nature, to a hermeneutical search into the matter of his own text. He hides these seeds in his Compound—which is also his Stone—and teaches his reader to recuperate them through a hermeneutical exercise in which the reader learns to epistemologically “separate” the matter of the text, into its ontological parts and to similarly re-“conjoin” them. Ripley contrasts this epistemological activity of the genuine alchemical philosopher and artist to that of the false “philosophers” who “separate” and re-“conjoin” their matter merely sensibly and semantically, and whom Ripley treats with “Chaucerian” satire. By means of this hermeneutical process, Ripley guides his reader to intellectually enact and internalize the entire ontological structure of the universe, exceed it, pass through death and into a deified and resurrected Philosopher’s Stone, microcosm, and embodiment of the Compound itself, jointly ‘created’ by the author, reader, God and nature.
The third chapter explores some of the similarities and differences between the two late medieval contemplative journeys to Wisdom and union with God, the Christian and the alchemical as they are represented by Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum and Ripley’s Compound of Alchemy respectively. I argue that Ripley’s alchemical journey exhibits a shift towards the reification of language and the human mind.
In the fourth chapter I demonstrate Thomas Norton’s similar “Chaucerian” concern with the human condition of deferral, and similar relegation of this condition to the confinement of the individual’s mind within the natural and spatio-temporal mode of perception. I argue that Norton presents his “Ordinall” as a healing unifier which lifts the reader’s intentionality towards divine truth, and helps him to turn his mind into a microcosmic opus that aligns all the operations contributing to human being—in both their Ancient and Christian trajectories—into a single trajectory. These operations include the labor of the human artist, the cycles of nature, the life of the English body-politic, the sacred History of Creation from beginning to end, and the Church liturgy centered on the Incarnation or the “leap” of the Word as the agency that makes possible one’s temporal yet transformative journey to microcosmic existence.
In the fifth chapter I shift attention to the Ancient Greek philosophical roots of alchemy and explore them, especially the Pre-Socratic problematization of infinity and the consequent search for indestructible entitihood, in order to build an understanding of the cyclical trajectory of exitus and reditus from and back to a cosmic “One,” which underlies the alchemical operation, and consequently an understanding of the conflicts Norton had to overcome in order to combine the Ancient trajectory with the Christian one. I argue that Norton was aware of and concerned about the radical differences between these two trajectories, the former of “generation” and the latter of “creation.” Whether or not he was successful, Norton, I argue, tried to fit the former cosmic trajectory within the latter and wider one which contained the cosmos between a beginning ontologically prior to it and an end similarly beyond it.
PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Medieval literature, middle ages, Chaucer, George Ripley, Thomas Norton, fifteenth century, alchemy, alchemical poets, poetics, interpretation, hermeneutics, hermeneutical journey, Geoffrey Chaucer, fourteenth century, 14th c., Thomas Aquainas, St. Bonaventure, Ripley Scroll, St. Augustine, Philosopher's Stone, Chaucerian, English Literature, Compound of Alchemy, Ordinal of Alchemy, Ordinall, Codex Marcianus, infinity, Bonaventura, Summa Theologica, Summa Theologia, Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, Journey of the Mind into God, twelve gates, Duodecim portae, Petrarch, Petrarca, Clerk's Tale, Canon's Yeoman's Tale, Plato, Aristotle, Metaphysics, Arnold of Villanova, Arnald de Villanova, Arnaldus de Villanova, Arnold of the Newe Toun, Rosarie, Rosarium Philosophorum, Rosarius Philosophorum, Confessions, presocratic philosophers, Parmenides, Heraclitus, 15th c., Ancient Greek, Isis, Amnael, Wisdom, book of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Sirach, O Antiphons, O Sapientia, ouroboros, Avicenna, seeds, vestigia, vestiges, traces, prima materia, alchemical, natural philosophy, Ripley's Wheel, Boethius, Boece, Consolation of Philosophy, knitting, Allegory, allegorical, Lucis Creator optime, St. Gregory, alteration, generation, creation, poetic agency, second intention, imitation, transubstantiation, Eucharist, Christ, Christian, Incarnation, leap of Wisdom, the Word, God's Word, evil, matter, hyle, Anthropos, King Henry IV, Henry 4, transmutation, transformation, occult literature, prosopn, trinity, sqaring of the circle, Aristotle's tree, four elements, epistemological, epistemology, Being, operation of knowledge, modes of knowledge, Turba Philosophorum, opposites, liminal, liminal boundaries, privation, Zeno, Zeno's arrow, potentiality and actuality, action, Pythagorean, Pre-Socratics, magnesia, root, apeiron, Mercury, Hermes, Hermetic, Testament, Testamentum, chain of being, microcosm, macrocosm, symbol, natural magic, Chrisciani, Urszula Szulakowska, creation from nothing, creation out of nothing, operations of nature, natural cycle, vernacular poetry, Horace, finitude, mortal, Rita Copeland, Allegory and Allegoresis, allegoresis, gnosticism, gnostic, Stephen Melville, Chain of love, relativity, narrative, circular narrative, Primum Mobile, pleno and vacuo, infinitely divisible, infinte divisibility, formal criticism, intentionality, Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale, Man of Law's Prologue, death, Seneca, fifty eighth epistle, Ad Lucilium epistulae morales, river po, concept of history, Walter and Grizelda, Grizildis,, the languag of alchemy, alchemical symbols, ignotum per ignocius, dragon, the green dragon, sulphur and mercury, sulfur and mercury, pryvetee, privitie, putrifaction,, donum dei, textualization of the alchemical operation, textualization,, self-refelxive, self-reflexivity, Supreme Allegory, living allegory, hermeneutical circularity, personification, integument, integumentum, kernel, John Dee, Edward Kelley, Michael Maier,, collaborative, collaborate, Ripley's Castle, golden mean, the mean between opposites, Spiritus and Anima, Sun and Moon, action and passion,, Hermes Bird, ornament, Barbara Obrist, bidirectional,, Hermes Trismegistus, Opus and “Childe”,, alchemical marriage, “consubstantiall,”, consubstantial
The first and introductory chapter presents a general picture of the problem that the “Philosopher’s Stone” fundamentally sought to address. I argue that late medieval Christian thinkers, including Chaucer, were deeply concerned with the problem of fragmentation and deferral that temporal infinity presented since the Pre-Socratic natural philosophers. They were deeply concerned with what it was that made entitihood, personhood, or meaning possible within a matrix of infinite temporality and relativity. They proposed the Incarnation as the agency through which the contemplative or hermeneutical pilgrim could constitute his being into an indestructible whole. Ripley and Norton belonged to that same quest, and framed it as a quest for the “Philosopher’s Stone” which “For of this world . . . is called the sement” (Compound, V.20.1).
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)