Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance



Matthew Bourne is surely one of the most innovative choreographers in the modern dance world. His male-roled Swan Lake (1994) propelled him to international fame and he's continued creating highly original productions which are performed throughout the world ever sinceHis latest production Sleeping Beauty: A Gothic Romance  re-interprets one of the most-established works in the ballet repertoire. Recognising the age in which Sleeping Beauty was first performed, the 1890's, as an era in which beneath a straight-laced exterior there was a fascination with the supernatural involving stories of vampires, fairies and angels along with romantic tales of love enduring beyond the grave, Bourne's ballet fully indulges in Gothic fantasy and spans over a century, from 1891 to the present-day. In his new interpretation of one of ballet's near fossilized works, Bourne breathes new life into a well-worn classic, effectively reclaiming Tchaikovsky's highly danceable, lush and sensual orchestral score with a new interpretation of an old fairy-tale. 

Featuring designs by Olivier Award-winners Lez Brotherston (set and costumes) Paule Constable (lighting) with sound design by Paul Groothuis, the audience's attention is seized from the very opening, with the crying and tantrums of a life-size marionette baby. However, its during a dazzling change of setting to the Edwardian era of picnics and tennis on summer lawns bathed in a golden light, that the evening's brightest star enters. Hannah Vassallo, in the lead role of Aurora, charmed the audience with her innocence and vulnerability. Other memorable highlights include striking Gothic-style make-up for the dancers, the use of angel's wings to identify who among the dancers were among the dead, a hilarious Waltz of the flowers and a stage flooded with a deep, ruby red light at the dénouement of the up-dated fairy-tale. A recorded sound-track also allowed for a variety of sound-effects to create a suitably Gothic atmosphere to the ballet. 

Not wanting to post spoilers for those attending Sadler's Wells, London, where Sleeping Beauty:A Gothic Romance will be performed from December 4th to January 26th 2013, I will just say that Bourne's humour is very much of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't variety, rewarding the attentive viewer with quick-witted and often very funny incidents and gestures. Its worth remembering that modern ballet includes not only innovative dance, and many original dance movements occurred throughout the performance, but also mime and gesture, which in their turn are augmented by costume and scenery; it's the overall combination of these varied factors which modern choreographers such as Bourne fully integrates into his vision of ballet. More than any other production I've ever seen by Bourne's company, there seemed to be a complete harmony and togetherness in the ensemble of dancers. Although on the night several individual dancers shone in performance, none, not even the charming Hannah Vassallo in the lead-role of Aurora, out-shone at the expense of the collective ensemble. 

Remarkably, after the last performance on Saturday, the manager of the Theatre Royal for seventeen years, Peter Wilson came onto the stage. He reminded the evening's audience that the theatre had now hosted no less than three productions by Matthew Bourne - Highland Fling (1995) and Edward Scissorhands (2005) were all first performed at the Theatre Royal before being staged in London.  I too  remember seeing both productions at the Norwich theatre. Although he could not persuade choreographer Matthew Bourne OBE (b. 1960) to come up onto the stage, seizing the moment, Wilson led the audience in giving Bourne and his company New Adventures, now celebrating their 25th anniversary, a standing ovation from an audience which is renowned for its appreciation of dance. 



Here's  a video clip from Matthew Bourne's Highland Fling




Thursday, November 22, 2012

Benjamin Britten


Today is the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and also the birthday of the English composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976).

Throughout next year there will be a multitude of performances and analysis of Britten’s music, including a nation-wide project involving over 75,000 school-children who will be coordinated to sing simultaneously on his birthday. There's even to be a 50 pence coin issued in 2013 with a portrait of Britten on its reverse, such will be the high-profile centenary celebrations of arguably, the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

With its close geographical proximity to Lowestoft, the east coast town where Britten was born, Norwich and its rich musical heritage played no small part in Benjamin Britten’s musical development. The city is home to England's oldest music festival and several early musical compositions by Britten were premièred there.  

Benjamin Britten exhibited all the traits associated with a child prodigy. He had his first piano lessons aged four and began writing music aged five, nurtured by his mother’s amateur talent. Such was young Britten’s musical precocity that he was soon acquiring and studying orchestral scores of major works of classical music. His viola teacher, Audrey Alston who played in the Norwich Quartet, obtained tickets for him to hear the Ravel string quartet in Norwich as well as the Beethoven E minor (opus 59 no. 2) which the ten-year old school-boy described as ‘absolutely ripping’. More importantly, Audrey Alston also chaperoned the budding composer to a concert in October 1924, at the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival, to hear Frank Bridge conducting his orchestral suite The Sea (1911). Britten, aged ten, latter described himself as being ‘knocked sideways’ upon hearing the music of his future teacher and mentor. Audrey Alston subsequently introduced her pupil to Frank Bridge (1879-1941) and the young composer later took lessons from him. Britten's first published work, Sinfonietta (1932) is dedicated to his mentor, Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge (1937) written for string orchestra and the Four Sea Interludes which intersperse the action of the opera Peter Grimes (1945) are compositions which pays homage to his influential music-teacher. 

Like his mentor, Britten rejected the 'Little Englander' perspective of Elgar and Vaughan Williams in favour of mainstream continental influences. Much of Britten's music is a fine equilibrium between the influence of more progressive European composers such as Mahler, Berg, Bartok, and Stravinsky, counter-balanced with the best of the tradition of English music-making, an aesthetic choice which has reaped dividends for his musical legacy. 

Britten’s musical genius developed in 1930 with his A Hymn to the Virgin a choral work composed when convalescing from an illness at Gresham’s Public School in North Norfolk. During his boarding at Gresham's there must also have been occasions when the young school-boy passed through Norwich when returning home to Lowestoft during the school holidays, or visited the city to purchase one of the many 78 r.p.m. shellac discs or orchestral scores which he avidly collected throughout his life. A Hymn to the Virgin was first performed in January 1931 at the church of Saint John's, Lowestoft. Many years later, Britten wrote Hymn to Saint Peter (op.55) for the quincentenary anniversary of the church of Saint Peter Mancroft at Norwich.  C.J.R.Coleman, who had been organist at St. John’s Lowestoft in the 1930's, was by 1955, organist at Saint Peter Mancroft at Norwich. Coleman and his son, with young Benjamin and his father, had made music together during Britten's childhood. Britten held a deep attachment to memories of his youth, and the composition for St.Peter's was, like several others, written in gratitude for early encouragement from his mentors.

With the opportunity to enlist at the Royal School of Music in 1931, Britten’s knowledge of music, through study and attendance at concerts in London developed considerably. Upon completion of his studies at the R.C.M. he was however dissuaded from travelling to Vienna in order to study composition further under the tuition of Alan Berg. However, sometime in 1932 Britten met another composer he also admired, Arnold Schoenberg.  

Britten returned to Norwich to conduct the first performance of his Simple Symphony for string orchestra in 1934. Recycling and re-arranging various juvenile compositions, nearly all of which were written between the young age of nine to twelve, Simple Symphony indulges in youthful humour, heavily hinted in each movement's titles- Boisterous Bouree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Serenade and Frolicsome Finale. It was dedicated to his viola teacher, Audrey Alston. Britten's first fully professional engagement however was in 1936 at the Norwich Festival, where he conducted the première of his song-cycle for soloist and orchestra Our Hunting Fathers. It features a dominant theme in Britten's music, mankind's inhumanity. In the first of Britten's many song-cycles, it is cruelty towards animals and the barbaric blood sport of hunting, as its title suggests, which is strongly condemned. The libretto of Our Hunting Fathers was supplied by the poet W. H. Auden. The work is startling modern, influenced by the lieder of Mahler. 

Britten travelled to America in 1939, however his sojourn in America was short-lived, he soon became home-sick and returned to England in 1942. The sea is a big theme in Britten's music , its featured prominently in Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and Death in Venice, but it was while actually at  at sea, in the cramped conditions of a cabin, avoiding ice-bergs and U-Boats on the way, that  Britten composed A Ceremony of Carols. Written for boy's choir and harp, each of the nine poignant medieval carols besides being technically demanding, has a magical innocence and a winter-like atmosphere rarely  evoked in English music. A Ceremony of Carols was first performed in Norwich during the darkest days of World War II, December 1942. Since its first performance A Ceremony of Carols has become one of the most recorded of all Britten's works and dozens of recordings are currently available of one of his most popular works and continues to be performed at Advent at Saint Peter's, Mancroft, Norwich. 

Britten’s great international success came in 1945 with the opera Peter Grimesa work which brought the composer world-wide fame and which single-handedly re-invented English opera. Peter Grimes is the first of several operas by Britten which explore the theme of the individual who suffers from social prejudice. With his life-long pacifism (he registered as a conscientious objector upon returning to England  from America in 1942) Britten could easily relate to the plight of the outsider who is castigated by society. The central character of Albert Herring, Billy Budd, Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice explores the relationship and conflict between the outsider and society, each in quite different ways.

In addition to his anti-war beliefs, Britten’s open relationship with the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986) his partner for almost forty years, also caused him to be the subject of prejudice (homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967). In reality however, Britten and Pears relationship is a love story which is testimony to love enduring in the face of, at times, intense social prejudice. Britten wrote some of his finest music with the voice of Peter Pears in mind and the musical sensibilities of both Pears and Britten were considerably enhanced in their mutual artistic support to each other. Together they established the world-renowned Aldeburgh music festival, settling permanently in the Suffolk coastal town from 1947 until Britten's death in 1976.

Britten’s association with Norwich continued when he included the ancient, medieval city as a setting of one of the acts of his opera Gloriana. Written as part of the celebrations for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Britten's opera features a visit made by Queen Elizabeth I to the city in 1578. Act Two of Gloriana is set against the back-drop of the the flint-knapped Guildhall at Norwich. Elizabeth I is welcomed by the City Recorder, a masque is performed which she and the Royal court watch. In total six dances, including a Morris dance are performed. Personifications of Time and Concord are among the principle characters in a masque which, accompanied by a chorus of rustic country maids and fishermen, concludes the entertainment with a homage to the Queen.

Biographical details of Britten’s life reveal the fact that there was hardly a single year of his life in which he was not ill, often quite seriously, and towards the end of life, fatally, nor is there hardly a single year in his life in which he did not travel extensively abroad. He often combined a holiday with performing, accompanying his life-time partner Peter Pears in song-recitals on the piano. He visited what was the Soviet Union no less than seven times, becoming a close friend of the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, his wife, the mezzo-soprano Galina Vishnevskaya and the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who once said to him in broken English, ‘You great composer, I little composer’. Rostropovich and Britten's music-making is now legendary and Britten wrote more music for the Russian cellist than any other musician other than Pears. His friendship with Shostakovich was also rather special by all accounts. Shostakovich gave Britten gifts of recordings of his symphonies, while towards the end of his life Britten granted Shostakovich a private view of his work-in-progress score of his last opera Death in Venice, a rare and intimate gesture which he granted to few.

One of Britten’s most distinguished musical admirers wrote in her diary for 1970 -

‘The record of Les Illuminations has arrived and Ruth & I have played it several times, & listened with the greatest joy. There is no sound here except the shushing of the sea & the crying of the seabirds, & this music is exactly right for the atmosphere here of sea & sky & silence. I find it extraordinary moving’. 

Britten’s admirer was Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1900-2002). Although in the 1930's Britten held communist sympathies, in common with many artists in the 1930's, his relationship with the Royal family, in particular with  the Queen Mother developed throughout the decades of 60's and early 70's into a respectful relationship. Britten and Pears not only performed at the Royal Estate of Sandringham in Norfolk, but Britten became the first composer to ever be awarded the honour of Life-Peer. 

Britten was no musical elitist and much of his music is arranged for the ease of amateur performance. While he admitted to no personal liking for pop music he nevertheless kept abreast of the latest developments in English music, stating in 1968 - 

Everything I read about the Beatles gives me pleasure. They have a wit and they have a directness – a freshness of approach which gives me a great pleasure, and I also think they are frightfully funny. 

and a copy of the Beatles long-playing vinyl disc A Hard Day's Night (1964) is listed as once in Britten's vast record collection.

Britten had an innate ear for literary texts to set to music and was one of the 20th century’s most well-read composers. His first opera was based upon the poetry of fellow Suffolk artist, George Crabbe. Other notable literary figures Britten set to music include Rimbaud, Keats, Blake, Shakespeare, Henry James, Herman Melville and W.H.Auden with whom he collaborated on a number of occasions.

Like many school-children I was disinclined from listening to Benjamin Britten’s music after over-exposure to his pedagogic Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. His music struck me as traditional and conservative in nature and there seemed to be more interesting music to discover and explore; my favourite British contemporary music L.P recording as a teenager Michael Tippett's Concerto for Double-string Orchestra (1936) and Symphony no.2 (1953); however in 1973, during what was one of the last rehearsals for a performance of  Britten's Church parable Noyes Fludde as part of what was the Norfolk and Norwich Triennial Festival (now the N&N Festival) a sudden hush fell upon the rehearsal at Saint Andrew's Hall, a surprise visitor had arrived, the composer himself had called to thank all the boys and girls for their hard work rehearsing. The photo at the top of this post is how I remember him. The photo below is of Britten wearing his school cricket blazer and cap, aged circa 13.

I've only covered a brief review of Britten's music up to the international success of his opera Peter Grimes in this post. Rather than waste any more of the reader's time, and far more informative on Britten than words, is my exhortation to seek out and hear Britten's music. A large percentage of it is vocal, choral or operatic, while the themes of the Sea, the social outcast, innocence betrayed and Man's inhumanity to man are often encountered, especially in his operas. The Britten 100 web-page allows the  new listener to the composer's music to select samples by  genre, mood, instrument and tempo. Here's a brief list of Britten's music which I've found rewarding and recommend hearing.

Peter Grimes
Four Sea Interludes
Pasacaglia op.33b
Simple Symphony
Violin Concerto
Piano Concerto
Serenade for horn, strings and tenor
String Quartets 2 and 3
Prince of the Pagodas
A Ceremony of Carols

Books consulted

The Faber Pocket Guide to Britten - John Bridcut pub. Faber & Faber 2010
An accessible book, full of facts, insights and trivia about Britten.
Highly recommended

Benjamin Britten by Michael Oliver pub. Phaidon Press 1996


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne




The Swiss physician and alchemist Paracelsus (1493-1541) has a fascinating yet little explored relationship to the 17th century physician, hermetic philosopher, scientist and literary artist, Sir Thomas Browne.

It’s only relatively recently in the light of modern understanding, notably by scholars such as Carl Jung, Frances Yates and Jean Seznec, that the profound influence of hermetic and esoteric thought upon many scientists, artists and physicians during the Renaissance has been recognized.

Following the early death of the 'German Hermes', as his advocates termed him, the writings of Paracelsus, a conglomerate of practical advice on how to develop new chemicals for medicine, mixed with proto-psychology and mystical theology attracted many followers.  The new Spagyric medicine Paracelsus taught in his short, itinerant life retained a potent influence upon alchemists, early scientists and physicians alike. Indeed, the radical physician has been called- "the precursor of chemical pharmacology and therapeutics and the most original medical thinker of the sixteenth century."[1]

The two favoured professions of would-be alchemist and hermetic philosopher alike were those of priest and physician. These two professions embraced a wide spectrum of the human condition. Daily in contact with suffering and the spiritual man within, the priest and physician often worked in tandem, notably in attendance at the sick-bed. Indeed, the very title of Browne’s Religio Medici, (The Religion of a Doctor) is indicative of the intimate connection between the two vocations. It cannot be under-stated that as devout Christians, both Paracelsus and Browne shared a deep piety and viewed the healing of the sick as a religious duty. In Paracelsus’s own words - ‘Compassion is the physician's teacher’; while in his voluminous theological writings there can be found a theologian as original and free-thinking as his contemporary, Martin Luther.

Thomas Browne in all probability was introduced to Paracelsian literature during his student years when studying medicine either at the university of Padua, Montpelier or Leyden circa 1627-1630. Originally written upon completion of his medical studies, Religio Medici reveals its author as one well-acquainted with the ideas of Paracelsus.

Although objecting that –

‘the singularity of Paracelsus be intolerable reviled all learning before him’,

Browne nevertheless also confesses in Religio Medici to having- 'perus'd the Archidoxis and read the secret Sympathies of things' the Archidoxis being a treatise by Paracelsus on medical cures by means of magical properties attributed to gems and amulets. Likewise, although vehemently refuting Paracelsus' claim to have created a Homunculus, the fabled test-tube human of alchemy, declaring -

'I am not of Paracelsus mind that boldly delivers a receipt to make a man without conjunction' [2] 

Browne nevertheless did believe in the Swiss physician's claim to have performed the alchemical feat of Palingenesis, that is, the revival of a plant from its ashes-

A plant or vegetable consumed to ashes, to a contemplative and school Philosopher seems utterly destroyed and the form to have taken his leave for ever. But to a sensible Artist the forms are not perished, but withdrawn into their incombustible part, where they lie secure from the action of that devouring element. This is made good by experience, which can from the ashes of a plant revive the plant, and from its cinders recall it into stalk and leaves again. [3]

The romantic poet Coleridge, a sympathetic and enthusiastic reader of Browne, rose to his defence, annotating his copy of Religio Medici thus-

'This was, I believe, some lying Boast of Paracelsus, which the good Sir T. Browne has swallowed for a Truth'. [4]

An even greater number of statements on Paracelsus can be found in Browne's encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-1672).  In an early example of scientific journalism, Browne  revised each of the six editions of his best-selling encyclopaedia in his life-time, duly up-dating reports of his 'elaboratory' experiments, for example -

It is not suddenly to be received what Paracelsus affirmeth, that if a Loadstone be anointed with Mercurial oil, or only put into Quicksilver, it omitteth its attraction for ever. For we have found that Loadstones and touched Needles which have laid long time in Quicksilver have not amitted their attraction. And we also find that red hot Needles or wires extinguished in Quicksilver, do yet acquire a verticity according to the Laws of position in extinction.[5]

Although in Pseudodoxia Epidemica  Browne debunks Paracelsus’s fervid quest for the Philosopher’s Stone –

More veniable is a dependence upon the Philosophers stone, potable gold, or any of those Arcana's whereby Paracelsus that died himself at forty seven, gloried that he could make other men immortal.  [6]

when writing on the mythical creature the Phoenix, he reveals himself to be well-acquainted with Paracelsus and esoteric literature in general-

Some have written mystically, as Paracelsus in his Book De Azoth, or De ligno & linea vitæ; and as several Hermetical Philosophers, involving therein the secret of their Elixir, and enigmatically expressing the nature of their great work  [7]

Strong evidence of Browne's own adherence to the goals of alchemy occurs in the so-called 'Alphabetical Table' to Pseudodoxia Epidemica which includes the index entry - 'Philosophers Stone, not impossible to be procured' a statement which seems to be unequivocal evidence of Browne's cautious and critical, yet believing, approach to alchemy. [8]

It's from Paracelsus' interest in Austrian folk-lore that Browne wrote-

and wise men may think there is as much reality in the pygmies of Paracelsus; that is, his non-Adamical men, or middle natures betwixt men and spirits.[P. 4:11].

The Swiss alchemist-physician proposed that a particular spirit resided over each element. Nymphs ruled the water, the Salamander, fire, Sylphides, the air, and citing Germanic folk-lore, he claimed that deep in the earth there exists a race of dwarf- like Earth-spirits, which he named Gnomes. According to Paracelsus these little people were the guardians of the earth who knew where precious metals and hidden treasure were buried. The word gnome, another neologism of Paracelsus, originates from a  play on the Greek words of gnomic meaning knowledge and intelligence and genomus meaning 'earth-dweller'. Paracelsus described Gnomes thus-

The gnomes have minds, but no souls, and so are incapable of spiritual development. They stand about two feet tall, but can expand themselves to huge size at will, and live in underground houses and palaces. Adapted to their element, they can breathe, see and move as easily underground as fish do in water. Gnomes have bodies of flesh and blood, they speak and reason, they eat and sleep and propagate their species, fall ill and die. They sometimes take a liking to a human being and enter his service, but are generally hostile to humans.

Browne concluded his speculation upon the existence of little people open-mindedly stating -

we shall not conclude impossibility, or that there might not be a race of Pygmies, as there is sometimes of Giants.  [P. 4:11].

The first ever Gnome named in literature was Umbriel in Alexander Pope's poem The Rape of the Lock (1712). An eerie aural depiction of the Gnome can be heard in the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's suite Pictures at an Exhibition which was imaginatively orchestrated by the French composer Maurice Ravel.

Paracelsus, the self-styled 'Luther of Medicine' was an early advocate of opium in medicine. Throughout the history of alchemy a considerable knowledge of substances, minerals and drugs can be found. Widely in use since the sixteenth century, opium was used to relieve such disorders as dysentery and respiratory ailments. By the seventeenth century, physicians required a license in order to obtain Opium, the only available pain-killer and tranquillizer in medicine of the day. Such was its widespread usage in seventeenth century medicine that Browne's contemporary, Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) declared-

Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.

As early as 1959, the critic Peter Green suggested one reason why Browne's prose is stylistically unlike any of his contemporaries, may have been due to his experimenting with drugs. Green noted that the twin Discourses of 1658 were penned by a Royalist who was under intense emotional and psychological distress, and proposed that the last chapters of both Discourses were written in a trance-like condition. On several occasions in Urn-Burial Browne poetically links opium's effects with the  theme of the unknowingness of the human condition such as-

The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her Poppy. 

while crucial evidence that he observed the psychological effects of opium can be found in his medical-philosophical declaration-

'There is no antidote for the Oblivion of Time which temporally considereth all things'

The phrase temporally considereth all things  is Browne's succinct observation of the drug's psychological effects, whilst the moralist in him denounces all trafficking in substances, sternly declaring -  'Oblivion is not to be hired'.

Today there's strict legislation and laws on drug consumption, however,this was not so during the seventeenth century, which saw the foundation of addictions now long-standing in Western society with the widespread introduction and consumption of the newly-discovered tobacco-leaf and Coffee throughout Europe. Although it is difficult nowadays with our politically correct thinking to accept that a devout Christian and respected doctor may have written his 'deep, stately, majestic' prose (De Quincey) with its slow, sombre contemplations under the influence of Opium, for the empiricist, such as Browne, as for the alchemist, the self and the sensory impressions were the seat of all experiment. There are several notes upon the effects of dosages of narcotics in Browne's common-place books but whether his empirical nature endorsed experimenting with drugs it is not documented, however he may well have done so accidentally, or as part of his alchemical quest. It's also worth remembering that as a botanist with an interest in toxicology, Browne may well have been able to identify psilocybin  and fly agaric fungi.

Whether or not Browne ever had his hand in the medicine-cabinet will never be known, however it’s certainly a big coincidence that his labyrinthine prose was 're-discovered' by the early Romantic figures of Coleridge and De Quincey, both of whom suffered from the ravages of drug-addiction at cost to their longevity and artistic productivity.

The 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Browne and his son Edward’s libraries, supplies further evidence that the ideas of the Swiss Renaissance physician were an influence upon the Norwich physician. Not only does it list an edition of the complete Opera of Paracelsus, but also many books by followers of spagyric medicine, including the chief protagonist of Paracelsian medicine, Gerard Dorn, as well as books by Alexander von Suchten, Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, Joseph Duchesne, Martin Ruland, Petrus Severinus and John French. In fact it would have been near impossible for any medical practitioner  of the seventeenth century not to have had a  strong view upon Paracelsus. England saw slower acceptance of what was perceived to be continental medicine. In any event such a number of books by medical advocates  in Browne's library once again suggests more than a casual interest in Paracelsian medicine. [9]

Paracelsus was fond of inventing new words to describe his alchemical/astrological form of medicine. For example he described himself as a pagoyum a neologism composed from the combing the words "paganum" and the Hebrew word "goy". Similarly, Paracelsus described his type of medicine as an 'Yllaster' a word coined from plaster and astrum a star ; in this context its worthwhile looking at the verse inscribed upon the Coffin-plate of Sir Thomas Browne's lead Coffin.

It’s not known who composed the inscription verse upon Browne's Coffin-plate. It may have been written by Browne's eldest son Edward, one of the few people who really knew him well, or the author may have been Browne himself. But whether written by father or son, the fact remains that the Paracelsian word, spagyrici the name of Swiss alchemist-physician's distinctive brand of alchemy, is engraved upon Browne's coffin-plate. The word spagyrici is a typical Paracelsian neologism which is believed to derive from the fusing of the Greek words  Spao, to tear open, and  ageiro, to collect

Browne’s coffin-plate inscription alludes to the commonplace quest of alchemy, the transformation of metals which for the spiritual alchemist signified a far deeper goal - the transformation of the base matter of man to acquire spiritual gold –

Hoc locuolo dormiens, corporis spagyricci pulvere plumbum in aurum convertit

translated reads-

Sleeping here the dust of his spagyric body converts the lead to gold.

The usage of the Paracelsian word spagyrici meaning to tear apart and to bind, a polarised maxim not dissimilar to the commonplace maxim of alchemy solve et coagula is perhaps the strongest concrete evidence which refutes claims that Browne's interest in Paracelsian medicine was merely marginal.

Far from being opposed to Paracelsian medicine, all the evidence suggests, that like the German chemist Andreas Libavius (1564-1616) Browne possessed a thorough and critical knowledge of Paracelsian literature, in both its practical and mystical forms, and just like Libavius (who is approvingly alluded to by Browne in P.E.) he was a critical follower of Paracelsian medicine.

But perhaps of far the most important influence of Paracelsus upon Browne is that of the Swiss physician's usage of proper-names from mythology in order to describe the psyche and its components. Most striking of all is Paracelsus's choice of symbolic proper-names to represent the alchemical art, namely Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. A flavour of Paracelsian alchemy can be gleaned from this extract-

This process is alchemy; its founder is the smith Vulcan… And he who governs fire is Vulcan, even if he be a cook or a man who tends a stove….To release the remedy from the dross is the task of Vulcan…This is alchemy, and this is the office of Vulcan; he is the apothecary and chemist of the medicine. Everything is at first created in its prima materia, its original stuff; whereupon Vulcan comes, and by the art of alchemy develops it into its final substance….Alchemy is a necessary, indispensable art…It is an art and Vulcan is its artist. He who is a Vulcan has mastered this art; [10]

It can hardly be coincidental that the very opening sentence of Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus depicts the Roman god Vulcan as an alchemist of the Creation.

That Vulcan gave arrows unto Apollo and Diana the fourth day after their Nativities, according to Gentile Theology,may passe for no blinde apprehension of the Creation of the Sunne and Moon, in the work of the fourth day; When the diffused light contracted into Orbes, and shooting rayes, of those Luminaries.

The Roman god Vulcan, patron 'saint' of alchemists is named twice more in The Garden of Cyrus, crucially at the discourse's apotheosis where Browne states his determinants for acquiring scientific certainty.

Flat and flexible truths are beat out by every hammer, but Vulcan and his whole forge sweat to work out Achilles his Armour.

Scattered, throughout both Urn-Burial  and The Garden of Cyrus there can be found observations made from two of Browne's amateur pursuits, namely archaeology and botany which add empirical depth to the  alchemical theme of the discourse's study of 'solve et coagula' or decay and growth; more importantly Browne's diptych discourses, not unlike passages of the Ur-Psychologie of Paracelsus, attempt to delineate components of the psyche. Indeed, not only does one of the very earliest usages of the word 'archetype' occur in The Garden of Cyrus but throughout the discourse highly original proper-name symbolism is employed to designate components or archetypes of the psyche.

In the twentieth century C.G.Jung held a deep interest in Paracelsus. The Swiss physician was well-aware of his earlier compatriot's importance in the history of the understanding of the psyche, an understanding which only began with a tentative recognition of the psyche itself, in writings by hermetic philosophers such as Paracelsus and Sir Thomas Browne. Jung's two essays on Paracelsus remain rewarding reading. Indeed, during the darkest hours of World War II in 1943 Jung calmly lectured upon Paracelsus in Zurich. Jung also shares with Browne a remarkably similar assessment of Paracelsus for while he described Paracelsus' writings as –

'long dreary stretches of utter nonsense (which) alternate with oases of inspired insight'.[11]

Browne, late in his life considered –

'many would be content that some would write like Helmont or Paracelsus; and be willing to endure the monstrosity of some opinions, for divers singular notions requiting such aberrations. [12]

Today, Jung’s assessment of the relevance of Paracelsus to our own time has become equally applicable to the growing interest in Sir Thomas Browne-

Paracelsus was, perhaps most deeply of all, an alchemical "philosopher" whose religious views involved him in an unconscious conflict with the Christian beliefs of his age in a way that seems to us inextricably confused. Nevertheless, in this confusion are to be found the beginnings of philosophical, psychological, and religious problems which are taking clearer shape in our own epoch.

Notes


[1]  Manly Hall
[2] R.M. I: 36
[3] R.M.  2:35
[4] R.M. 1 :45
[5] P.E Bk 2 :3
[6] Bk 3:12
[7] Bk 3 :12
[8] 1658 edition in author's possession.
[9] 1711 Sales Catalogue
[10] Paracelus -Selected Writings Jolande Jacobi pub. Princeton 1988
[11] C.W. 15
[12] Christian Morals  2:6