The Alchemical Code in Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress'

Lyndy Abraham


Amongst the most striking allusions in 'To his Coy Mistress' are those to 'the lovers and the tomb' and to the 'amorous birds of prey', both well known images of the alchemical union of man and woman, and two of the most memorable emblems in the visual representation of the alchemical process. The union ofman and woman in alchemy signified the magical moment of the coniunctio or chemical wedding in which opposites were united to form an integrated whole. In treatises such as Mylius' Philosophia reformata (1622), which describe and represent the progress of the opus with a sequence of dramatic emblems, we encounter a whole series of male and female couplings and copulations. These emblems symbolized the union, at certain stages, of various substances and qualities such as sulphur and mercury, hot and cold, dry and moist, active and passive, and fixed and volatile. In his Lexicon of Alchemy (1612), Ruland defines the final 'union ofman and wife' as the 'copulation ofthe congealed spirit with the dissolved body'. From the chemical union of the congealed spirit with the purified body came the precious Philosopher's Stone, the third principle or divine knowledge which arose at this resolution of opposites. The Stone was poetically referred to as the 'son' or 'child' of the copulation of male and female, and was capable of converting lead into gold, and base man into the divine. But while male and female were kept apart, this crucial generation of the 'son' or Stone could not occur and so the opus was unable to proceed. The state of the matter in the alchemical vessel before the 'copulation' was said to be in a state of 'separation'.

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