The Millions

Henry Vaughan’s Eternal Alchemy

Mercury has a boiling point of 674.1 degrees Fahrenheit and a freezing point of -37.89 degrees, rendering it the only metal that’s liquid at room temperature. Malleable, fluid, transitory—the element rightly lends itself to the adjective “mercurial,” a paradoxical substance that has the shine of silver and the flow of water, every bit as ambiguous as the Greek god from whom it derives its name. Alchemists were in particular drawn to mercury’s eccentric behavior, as Sam Kean explains in The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, writing that theyconsidered mercury the most potent and poetic substance in the universe.” Within sequestered granite basements and hidden cross-timbered attics, in cloistered stone monasteries and under the buttresses of university halls, alchemists tried to encounter eternity, and very often their medium of conjuration was mercury. The 13th-century English natural philosopher Roger Bacon writes in Radix Mundi that “our work is hidden… in the body of mercury,” while in the 17th-century the German physician Michael Maier declared in Symbola aurea mensae that “Art makes metals out of… mercury.” Quicksilver which pools like some sort of molten treasure is one of the surprising things of this world. To examine mercury and its undulations is to see time itself moving, when metal appears acted upon by entropy and flux, the disintegration of all that which is solid into pure water. Liquid metal mercury is a metaphysical conceit.

Alchemy has been practiced since antiquity, but the decades before and, , and (who was also a chemist proper), and then there was the astrologer and necromancer , who latter had some renown as a physicist and mathematician.  Such were the marvels of the 17th century, this “age of mysteries!” as described by the Anglo-Welsh poet –born 400 years ago tomorrow. He could have had in mind his twin brother, , among the greatest alchemists of that era, whose “gazing soul would dwell an hour, /And in those weaker glories spy/Some shadows of eternity.” Writing under the name , Thomas was involved in a project that placed occultism at the center of knowledge, seeing in the manipulation of matter answers to fundamental questions about reality. Though Henry is the more remembered of the two brothers today (though “remembered” is a relative term), the pair were intellectually seamless in their own time, seeing in both poetry and alchemy a common hermetic purpose. Four centuries later, however, and alchemy no longer seems an avenue to eternity. Thomas’s own demise demonstrated a deficiency of those experiments, for despite mercury’s supposed poetic qualities, among its more tangible properties is an extreme toxicity, and when heated in a glass it can be accidentally inhaled, or when handled by an ungloved hand (as alchemists were apt to do) it can be absorbed through the skin. The resultant poisoning has several symptoms, not least of which are muscle spasms, vision and hearing problems, hallucinations, and ultimately death. Such was the fate of Thomas after some mercury got up his nose in that apocalyptic year of 1666, when plague and fire destroyed London.

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