To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Outside & Subterranean Poetry (65): Thomas Rawlin, An Alchemical Poem: “A Magicall Ænigma”

[The following is yet another excerpt from Barbaric Vast & Wild: A Gathering of Outside & Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present, edited with commentaries by myself & John Bloomberg-Rissman, and published by Black Widow Press as the fifth volume of Poems for the Millennium.  Earlier excerpts have been posted on Poems and Poetics over the last several years, referring to the work as “a mini-anthology in progress,” but the completed book will now appear as a 450 page assemblage to join the other volumes in the Poems for the Millennium series. (J.R.)]

Thomas Rawlin (England/Latin, fl. 1611)
an alchemical poem: “A Magicall Ænigma”

All Things from One, and to One.
In the Center Truth, in the Circumference Vanity.

A Magicall Ænigma.

The omnipotent God in the rotten Mass
(as it were in a Chaos) to be despised,
To us Mortalls has left all things,
Yet they in the Nature of Things are but one.
It is a Mass of Dust, a despicable Thing;
A Fire, an Aquosity; a most amiable Fountain;
It is neither a Stout Captain, nor invincible;
When it is not drawn out of its Cradle.
It is an old Man; it is an Infant; the Lord of all;
It is the red Servant, contrary to the King;
It is the green Lyon; something more sublime
Than the King, or Subjects; but fugitive.
It flys, and attracts; the Virgin obeyeth not,
Unless the Father provoke her with Many Goads;
Then she follows, and much demands
A Husbands company, with whom she cohabits.
She is covered and impregnated with the Embrace,
A clear Water is evacuated out of her Heart
With Blood, wherewith she is raised up
Now dying as it were, and is recreated.
Things bright and clear being so obtained
The King and Queen being begot togeathere
Being put presently in the Secret Prison,
Feed them with heavenly Dew; not Watry things.
Being Dead at length, the Spirit flys away
Washes and purifys the Soul and the Body
Then a more intense Fire allway perpetuats
With a cold Fire; it volatilizes not.
Now no Errour follows in the Work,
Burn all with a very strong Fire,
Bring out at length the Blood, the Soul
After the White King: Then thrice imbibe.
(The King being thus known) the Body is the Soul,
And fixt, and permanent, although like Wax;
The Colour is not an Accident; but a Substance
Reigning in all, with the highest Glory.

Glory to God alone, the three-one.


source: Transcribed from The British Library MS. Sloane 3643. This work was printed in Latin at the end of Thomas Rawlin, Admonitio de Pseudochymicis, seu Alphabetarium Philosophicum (“A warning to the false Chymists or the Philosophical Alphabet”), 1611.

As I thought of these things, I drew aside the curtains and looked out into the darkness, and it seemed to my troubled fancy that all those little points of light filling the sky were the furnaces of innumerable divine alchemists, who labour continually, turning lead into gold, weariness into ecstasy, bodies into souls, the darkness into God; and at their perfect labour my mortality grew heavy, and I cried out, as so many dreamers and men of letters in our age have cried, for the birth of that elaborate spiritual beauty which could alone uplift souls weighted with so many dreams.”
(W.B. Yeats, from “Rosa Alchemica”, 1897)

(1) It’s dreams of this kind – of an occulted practice & poesis – that have continued to attract poets & others up to the very present.  As a form of languaging coincident with poetry, the appeal of alchemy & other forms of what would become “the occult” shows up in the works & thoughts of many disbelievers as well as those who have bought into its chemico-magico-spiritual efficacy. Outside the frame of normative religion & with a claim over the physical world like that of the science which succeeded it, the alchemical tradition or traditions go back several millennia both in Europe & in Asia, their openness to public viewing varying vastly over time.         
               However commonly understood alchemical language might (or might not) have been, by the time of the Enlightenment alchemy’s prestige had sunk to the point that for the modern reader its language has become as mysterious & “outsided”/occulted as canting language, say, and though it continues to be studied, it has become the property of everyone from scientists to depth psychologists (e.g., Jung), to those who “use it as a source of philosophical and esoteric ideas, to support the particular belief system to which they have attached themselves. Thus they use alchemical ideas and symbolism as part of their interest in Kabbalah, or Tarot cards, or some esoteric or magical system.” (From “What exactly is alchemy?” at
               As a form of poesis, however, the alchemist’s signs & symbols have remained a persistent resource & an inducement for poets & artists over a wide range of newly emerging isms & individual encounters. 

 (2) Writes Diane di Prima as a major late practitioner: “Today we stand again at the brink of a new age. Science has failed us, as the Church failed the man of Paracelsus' day. ... To be born again, to make the world anew, will be no easy task. We shall have increasingly to have recourse to the wisdom of other times, to the philosophies of the East, to the mystics and masters of the ‘occult,’ to those adepts for whom there was no dualism, for whom spirit and matter, man and cosmos, were one. ... [Alchemy] deals with the question, which is still the question, the real millennial question: how to make paradise on earth. How to transform the matter universe so that the spirit, which has fallen into matter finally, like yeast in bread, fills everything.” (From “Paracelsus: An Appreciation” in R. Grossinger, The Alchemical Tradition in the Late Twentieth Century, 1970) 
               And again: “Alchemical literature admits us into a magical universe of rich and bizarre imagery and sudden insights – dimensional shifts – but it is a universe in which we feel the need for some kind of map. In our century, this problem has often been solved by flattening the material: reductively reading the texts as either spiritual allegory, or a primitive form of ‘science.’ But, in a correspondent cosmos, the process that is creative of soul is also creative of galaxies    there is no need to reduce alchemy to psychology or chemistry.”  (From a proposal for four lectures on “The Language of Alchemy”)

(3) Or H.D, from a still earlier generation:

Hermes Trismegistus
is patron of alchemists;

his province is thought,
inventive, artful and curious;

his metal is quicksilver,
his clients, orators, thieves and poets;

steal then, O orator,
plunder, O poet,

take what the old-church
found in Mithra’s tomb,

candle and script and bell,
take what the new-church spat upon

and broke and shattered;
collect the fragments of the splintered glass

and of your fire and breath,
melt down and integrate,

re-invoke, re-create
opal, onyx, obsidian,

now scattered in the shards
men tread upon.

(from Tribute to the Angels, 1, 1945, later published as part 2 of Trilogy, New Directions, 1973)

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