Christ as the philosopher's stone in George Herbert's 'The Elixir.'
Miller, Clarence H. Notes and Queries 45:1. 39-41. 19.03.1998.
Herbert's 'The Elixir' has long been recognized as the most remarkable example of his successful revision.(1) The principal change was the added alchemical figure of the elixir or philosopher's stone as a metaphor illuminating how a religious motive transforms a mundane action. Of the last three stanzas of the poem, the first two were significantly revised and the last stanza was a new addition:
All may of thee partake:Before 1996 no one had thoroughly demonstrated that the philosopher's stone was a well-known symbol of Christ in Herbert's time, but in that year Stanton J. Linden published Darke Hieroglyphicks: Alchemy in English Literature, from Chaucer to the Restoration (University of Kentucky Press); he gave ample and widespread evidence of the analogy between Christ and the stone and pointed out that Donne and Herbert took a new direction by abandoning satire of alchemy (as in Chaucer and Ben Jonson) and exploiting the Christological significance of the stone.(2) Nevertheless, in his interpretation of 'The Elixir' he equates the stone not with Christ but with God: 'God is seen as the "famous stone", his will is the "tincture", man is the "mean" substance upon which the tincture is projected' (191). But since the poem is addressed to God ('my God and King,' line 1), the 'thy' of 'for thy sake' must refer to God; and the 'tincture', the phrase 'for thy sake', is not God's will but is addressed to him, in one sense by the doer of the mean deed and in another by Christ, whose obedience to the Father is the tincture, elixir, and stone which transforms actions that seem lowly and wretched into the gold of glorious and meritorious deeds.(3) It is also noteworthy that Herbert takes a new line, different even from Donne's, in applying the metaphor not to Christ's role in creation, resurrection, or the transformation of the world at the end of time (the usual analogies in the seventeenth century), but to the psychological dimension of Christian motivation.
In a theologically complex analysis of the revisions of 'The Elixir', Janis Lull had already corrected Linden's slip: '. . . Christ is necessarily the real speaker of "for thy sake"'.(4) She skillfully traces the resonances of the paradoxical combination of faith and works, nature and grace in the poem, so that 'for thy sake' is spoken both by the doer of the deed himself and by Christ in him or with him (100).(5) Several of Donne's Holy Sonnets also turn on the paradox that Christ does all, though man does something.(6) But Professor Lull misses the extraordinary pun on 'his' in the lines:
Nothing can be so mean,According to Professor Lull, 'merely desiring to act "for thy sake" is enough, not because of any power or merit in human will, but because "his tincture" (this tincture, but also his tincture, Christ's own attitude - his own speech infused into the speaker) has already transformed the unworthy to "gold"' (99). But the other meaning of 'his' is not 'this' (the facilior lectio of the editions between 1656 and 1674) but rather 'its'.(7) In other words the tincture 'for thy sake' belongs not merely to Christ but also to the action; the motive of the doer is also 'for thy sake'. The ambiguous 'his' attributes the transformation of the deed to both grace and good will.
Herbert had a precedent for a pun turning on the vexed paradox of free will co-operating with grace in Spenser's Faerie Queene. After the Red Cross Knight has defeated the dragon, Una thanks him:
Then God she praysd, and thank't her faithful knight,As A. C. Hamilton remarks in his edition of The Faerie Queene (London and New York, 1977), 'There is a deliberate ambiguity in his: it refers to both God and the Knight. Man's might and God's grace merge as the Knight is revealed in the lineaments of Christ...'.
CLARENCE H. MILLER
St Louis University
(1) F. E. Hutchinson, for example, in his edition of The Works of George Herbert (Oxford, 1941) remarks that 'no poem of Herbert's better shows his skill in revision' (541). Quotations from the poem are from this edition. The revisions have been discussed by Charles Molesworth, 'Herbert's "The Elixir": Revision Towards Action', Concerning Poetry, V (1972), 12-20.
(2) pp. 35, 154-5, 189-92, 210-11, 214-20.
(3) Some of the principal scriptural texts which show Christ's mission as acting for the Father's sake in obedience to the Father's will are: 'thy will be done' in the Lord's prayer (Matt. 6:10) and in the Garden of Olives (Matt. 26); 'my aim is not my own will, but the will of him who sent me' (John 5:30); 'I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me' (John 6:38). (See also Rom. 5:19 and Phil. 2:8.)
(4) The Poem in Time: Reading George Herbert's Revisions of The Church (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990), 98.
5 In a few places, however, the argument is quite tenuous. The phrase 'for thy sake' cannot be taken as spoken by God the father (100), for the reason I have already given. It is also argued that 'action' and 'fine' in line 20 have legal overtones so that 'makes . . . the action fine' means 'puts fine' to the legal action for the debt man owes because of original sin. But under 'fine' sb.(1) 8 OED does give the phrase 'to make fine' meaning 'to settle a matter', but it is never used with a double object such as 'make the action fine'.
6 Nos. 2, 4, 10, 12 of 'Divine Meditations' and No. 1 in 'Divine Meditations (added in 1635)' in The Divine Poems, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).
7 According to OED, the modern form 'its' was beginning to replace 'his' in the beginning of the seventeenth century.