Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Poetry, Newton, and Alchemy

Here are some excerpts from an interview on Newton's alchemy with historian Bill Newman, who has some interesting things to say about alchemy, poetry, and riddles. It's no wonder alchemy interested both John Donne and Isaac Newton.

[A]lchemy has been portrayed as the epitome of irrationality and a sort of avaricious folly....But we now know that most of the great minds of the [seventeenth and eighteenth centuries] were involved in alchemy, including Robert Boyle, John Locke, Leibniz, any number of others....[Alchemy] became legal during Newton's time. But why was it illegal? There's a long association, for good reasons, between alchemy and counterfeiting.

....[Newton] thought that alchemy promised tremendous control over the natural world. It would allow you to transmute virtually anything into anything else, not just lead into gold. There are other things, too, that probably were in Newton's mind. For example, alchemists realized that if the philosophers' stone were real and it got out to the public, it would ruin the gold standard.

....[T]his was the enigmatic language of alchemy. I mean "enigmatic" in a quite strict sense: it was a riddling language. The best way to look at these metaphors is in the light of riddles....the "menstrual blood of the sordid whore" is decipherable. It means simply the metalline form of antimony. That is the "menstrual blood" that's extracted from the "sordid whore," which is the ore of antimony.

It is a code, and it's clear that the alchemists delighted in this code. It's almost a form of poetry. In fact, lots of alchemists wrote in the form of poetry, quite literally.

....Newton was reading alchemists over a period of time, ranging over perhaps a thousand years, and there was a lot of development in these treatises. But Newton generally thinks they're all saying the same thing, so that's a problem....he was weaving together extracts from different authors, trying to make sense out of them. I think alchemy was the ultimate riddle. Newton delighted in riddles, and this provided a challenge to him that he just couldn't resist.

My inevitable list of links:

  • The Alchemy Website. A broad range of articles, illustrations, and essays on the many meanings of alchemy.
  • An interview on Newton's alchemy with historian Bill Newman. Part of Newton's Dark Secrets PBS (November 15, 2005)
  • Book Cover: Isaac Newton Isaac Newton by James Gleick (2003) is an excellent biography of Sir Isaac Newton. I had previously read quite a bit about Newton, but I couldn't seem to form a mental image of the man or his environment. Gleick interweaves the scant Newtonian biographical material with the political, economic, and science history.
  • James Gleick has a very interesting internet site,, where he archives some essays, reviews, and an ecclectic collection of links. It hasn't been updated recently, but there's plenty here to amuse and instruct.

1 comment:

Larry said...

Hi, Rebecca! Your comment on my blog drew me to yours; I hadn't been there for a while. Such eclectic subject-matter! I hadn't read any John Donne in years.

Keep up the good work, and I'll be back!