Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Alchymy.

Mrs. Thomas, the Corinna of Dryden, in her Life, has recorded one of the delusions of alchymy.

An infatuated lover of this delusive art met with one who pretended to have the power of transmuting lead to gold; that is, in their language, the imperfect metals to the perfect one. The hermetic philosopher required only the materials, and time, to perform his golden operations. He was taken, to the country residence of his patroness. A long laboratory was built, and that his labours might not be impeded by any disturbance, no one was permitted to enter into it. His door was contrived to turn on a pivot; so that, unseen and unseeing, his meals were conveyed to him without distracting the sublime meditations of the sage.

During a residence of two years, he never condescended to speak but two or three times in a year to his infatuated patroness. When she was admitted into the laboratory, she saw, with pleasing astonishment, stills, cauldrons, long flues, and three or four Vulcanian fires blazing at different corners of this magical mine; nor did she behold with less reverence the venerable figure of the dusty philosopher. Pale and emaciated with daily operations and nightly vigils, he revealed to her, in unintelligible jargon, his progresses; and having sometimes condescended to explain the mysteries of the arcana, she beheld, or seemed to behold, streams of fluid and heaps of solid ore scattered around the laboratory. Sometimes he required a new still, and sometimes vast quantities of lead. Already this unfortunate lady had expended the half of her fortune in supplying the demands of the philosopher. She began now to lower her imagination to the standard of reason. Two years had now elapsed, vast quantities of lead had gone in, and nothing but lead had come out. She disclosed her sentiments to the philosopher. He candidly confessed he was himself surprised at his tardy processes; but that now he would exert himself to the utmost, and that he would venture to perform a laborious operation, which hitherto he had hoped not to have been necessitated to employ. His patroness retired, and the golden visions resumed all their lustre.

One day, as they sat at dinner, a terrible shriek, and one crack followed by another, loud as the report of cannon, assailed their ears. They hastened to the laboratory; two of the greatest stills had burst, and one part of the laboratory and the house were in flames. We are told that, after another adventure of this kind, this victim to alchymy, after ruining another patron, in despair swallowed poison.

Even more recently we have a history of an alchymist in the life of Romney, the painter. This alchymist, after bestowing much time and money on preparations for the grand projection, and being near the decisive hour, was induced, by the too earnest request of his wife, to quit his furnace one evening, to attend some of her company at the tea-table. While the projector was attending the ladies, his furnace blew up! In consequence of this event, he conceived such an antipathy against his wife, that he could not endure the idea of living with her again.1

Henry VI., Evelyn observes in his Numismata, endeavoured to recruit his empty coffers by alchymy. The record of this singular proposition contains “the most solemn and serious account of the feasibility and virtues of the philosopher’s stone, encouraging the search after it, and dispensing with all statutes and prohibitions to the contrary.” This record was probably communicated by Mr. Selden to his beloved friend Ben Jonson, when the poet was writing his comedy of the Alchymist.

After this patent was published, many promised to answer the king’s expectations so effectually, that the next year he published another patent; wherein he tells his subjects, that the happy hour was drawing nigh, and by means of THE STONE, which he should soon be master of, he would pay all the debts of the nation in real gold and silver. The persons picked out for his new operators were as remarkable as the patent itself, being a most “miscellaneous rabble” of friars, grocers, mercers, and fishmongers!

This patent was likewise granted authoritate Parliamenti; and is given by Prynne in his Aurum Reginæ, p. 135.

Alchymists were formerly called multipliers, although they never could multiply; as appears from a statute of Henry IV. repealed in the preceding record.

“None from henceforth shall use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication; and if any the same do, he shall incur the pain of felony.” Among the articles charged on the Protector Somerset is this extraordinary one:—“You commanded multiplication and alcumestry to be practised, thereby to abate the king’s coin.“ Stowe, p. 601. What are we to understand? Did they believe that alchymy would be so productive of the precious metals as to abate the value of the coin; or does multiplication refer to an arbitrary rise in the currency by order of the government?

Every philosophical mind must be convinced that alchymy is not an art, which some have fancifully traced to the remotest times; it may be rather regarded, when opposed to such a distance of time, as a modern imposture. Cæsar commanded the treatises of alchymy to be burnt throughout the Roman dominions: Cæsar, who is not less to be admired as a philosopher than as a monarch.

Gibbon has this succinct passage relative to alchymy:—“The ancient books of alchymy, so liberally ascribed to Pythagoras, to Solomon, or to Hermes, were the pious frauds of more recent adepts. The Greeks were inattentive either to the use or the abuse of chemistry. In that immense register where Pliny has deposited the discoveries, the arts, and the errors of mankind, there is not the least mention of the transmutations of metals; and the persecution of Diocletian is the first authentic event in the history of alchymy. The conquest of Egypt by the Arabs diffused that vain science over the globe. Congenial to the avarice of the human heart, it was studied in China, as in Europe, with equal eagerness and equal success. The darkness of the middle ages ensured a favourable reception to every tale of wonder; and the revival of learning gave new vigour to hope, and suggested more specious arts to deception. Philosophy, with the aid of experience, has at length banished the study of alchymy; and the present age, however desirous of riches, is content to seek them by the humbler means of commerce and industry.”

Elias Ashmole writes in his diary —“May 13, 1653. My father Backhouse (an astrologer who had adopted him for his son, a common practice with these men) lying sick in Fleet-street, over against St. Dunstan’s church, and not knowing whether he should live or die, about eleven of the clock, told me in syllables the true matter of the philosopher’s stone, which he bequeathed to me as a legacy.“ By this we learn that a miserable wretch knew the art of making gold, yet always lived a beggar; and that Ashmole really imagined he was in possession of the syllables of a secret! He has, however, built a curious monument of the learned follies of the last age, in his “Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum.” Though Ashmole is rather the historian of this vain science than an adept, it may amuse literary leisure to turn over this quarto volume, in which he has collected the works of several English alchymists, subjoining his commentary. It affords a curious specimen of Rosicrucian mysteries; and Ashmole relates several miraculous stories. Of the philosopher’s stone, he says he knows enough to hold his tongue, but not enough to speak. This stone has not only the power of transmuting any imperfect earthy matter into its utmost degree of perfection, and can convert the basest metals into gold, flints into stone, &c.; but it has still more occult virtues, when the arcana have been entered into by the choice fathers of hermetic mysteries. The vegetable stone has power over the natures of man, beast, fowls, fishes, and all kinds of trees and plants, to make them flourish and bear fruit at any time. The magical stone discovers any person wherever he is concealed; while the angelical stone gives the apparitions of angels, and a power of conversing with them. These great mysteries are supported by occasional facts, and illustrated by prints of the most divine and incomprehensible designs, which we would hope were intelligible to the initiated. It may be worth showing, however, how liable even the latter were to blunder on these mysterious hieroglyphics. Ashmole, in one of his chemical works, prefixed a frontispiece, which, in several compartments, exhibited Phœbus on a lion, and opposite to him a lady, who represented Diana, with the moon in one hand and an arrow in the other, sitting on a crab; Mercury on a tripod, with the scheme of the heavens in one hand, and his caduccus in the other. These were intended to express the materials of the stone, and the season for the process. Upon the altar is the bust of a man, his head covered by an astrological scheme dropped from the clouds; and on the altar are these words, “Mercuriophilus Anglicus,” i.e., the English lover of hermetic philosophy. There is a tree, and a little creature gnawing the root, a pillar adorned with musical and mathematical instruments, and another with military ensigns. This strange composition created great inquiry among the chemical sages. Deep mysteries were conjectured to be veiled by it. Verses were written in the highest strain of the Rosicrucian language. Ashmole confessed he meant nothing more than a kind of pun on his own name, for the tree was the ash, and the creature was a mole. One pillar tells his love of music and freemasonry, and the other his military preferment and astrological studies! He afterwards regretted that no one added a second volume to his work, from which he himself had been hindered, for the honour of the family of Hermes, and “to show the world what excellent men we had once of our nation, famous for this kind of philosophy, and masters of so transcendant a secret.”

Modern chemistry is not without a hope, not to say a certainty, of verifying the golden visions of the alchymists. Dr. Girtanner, of Gottingen, not long ago adventured the following prophecy: “In the nineteenth century the transmutation of metals will be generally known and practised. Every chemist and every artist will make gold; kitchen utensils will be of silver, and even gold, which will contribute more than anything else to prolong life, poisoned at present by the oxides of copper, lead, and iron, which we daily swallow with our food.” Phil. Mag. vol. vi., p. 383. This sublime chemist, though he does not venture to predict that universal elixir, which is to prolong life at pleasure, yet approximates to it. A chemical friend writes to me, that “The metals seem to be composite bodies, which nature is perpetually preparing; and it may be reserved for the future researches of science to trace, and perhaps to imitate, some of these curious operations.” Sir Humphry Davy told me that he did not consider this undiscovered art an impossible thing, but which, should it ever be discovered, would certainly be useless.

1 He was assisted in the art by one Williamson, a watchmaker, of Dalton, Lancashire, with whom Romney lived in constant companionship. They were partners in a furnace, and had kept the fire burning for nine months, when the contents of the crucible began to assume the yellow hue which excited all their hopes; a few moments of neglect led to the catastrophe narrated above.

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