The Poetry of Alchemy: Distillation, Transmutation and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 33

I do love my booze, but even beyond the literal satisfaction of imbibing spirits, distillation offers a wonderful metaphor. You take a thing that you really really like, put it into an apparatus, subject it to fire, force its volatility, and are rewarded with a high concentration of the thing you liked about the thing you like. In other words, you make the thing you like more like the thing you liked about that thing. Get it? No? Ok, I’ll try again, but first let’s drink to our health…

Ah, that’s better.

It’s like this: writers worth their salt know writing can be fine or painful, but it’s the edit–the distillation –into high proof prose or poetry that knocks socks off. Writing–the putting words on paper or device–is like dropping berries in a bucket–fermentation will happen and you will get something mildly alcoholic. You can thank the yeast fairies for that. Likewise, you can thank the human brain for the stories and images that drop into the buckets of our imagination. But it is the work of the writer to distill the fermented mash into a strong-ass spirit.

In Proof, a delightfully geek-inducing book on the science of booze, Adam Rogers writes, “Distillation tells us that having less of something can make it more potent. It is concentration. It is focus.”

While fermentation is natural and happens with or without us, distillation is a human invention, a technology. As Rogers puts it, “Distillation takes intelligence and will. To distill, literally or metaphorically, requires the hubris to believe you can change the world.”

And who better to turn to for advice about the hubris of changing your world than the very lunatics who, if they did not ever hit upon the philosopher’s stone, did invent and perfect distillation–the alchemists.

Though alcohol was not the first thing to come out of their alembics, we must thank the long and secretive contemplation of transmutation for the eventual revelation of distillation. The alchemists figured out how to turn wine–ironically perhaps?–into water, specifically aqua vitae from which developed such delightful “waters of life” as eau de vie (French), akvavit (Scandinavian) and whisky (from Gaelic uisce beatha).

But before fermentations of grains and fruits went into the still, strange things like Sulphur and antimony went in, the ultimate goal being the philosopher’s stone, a substance that would turn base metals to gold.

For many centuries and many alchemists chrysopoeia was the name of the game. Chrysopoeia means the making of gold–chryso is the gold part and poeia is the making part. And if that poeia part looks familiar, it’s because the Ancient Greek word “to make–poiein” has come down to us as poetry. At its most basic level writing poetry means to make or create, and to take it one-step further, the transmutation of base metals into gold is not unlike a poet turning the mundane and painful stuff of life into something sublime.

I think it’s helpful to understand that our modern tendency to want to find straightforward one to one analogies and symbols was not shared with our Renaissance counterparts. As Lawrence Principe puts it in The Secrets of Alchemy, “premoderns tended to conceive of and visualize the world in multivalent terms, where each individual thing was connected to many others by webs of analogy and metaphor. This view stands in contrast to the modern tendency to compartmentalize and isolate things and ideas into separate disciplines.”

So as we turn to the highly distilled Shakespeare sonnet, we ought not to forget that multiple and even contradictory readings are possible. In Sonnet 33, I would argue that Shakespeare indulges in the contradictions inherent in the human heart, and intentionally leaves us unsure.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 33

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace;

Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no wit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain, if heaven’s sun staineth.

In the first quatrain, we have a lovely picture of morning, more specifically the morning sun, flattering the lowly mountains (a reversal of the usual flattery of the lowly towards his superior), and in the next two lines the sun becomes the artist–both like a painter who kisses with gold light to create a brighter green, and an alchemical artist who would cover the natural world with gold.

Suddenly in the second quatrain everything changes. Anon, meaning shortly, the effect is reversed. Now it’s the base things, associated with the world, that darken and disgrace the face, i.e. the “ugly rack” of clouds are permitted to ride the sun and darken the forlorn world.

The third quatrain superimposes a new and personal element to the poem. Now the poet is involved, so that the first two quatrains are compressed into a single quatrain divided into two couplets, signified by the dividing semicolon. The first couplet refers, for the first time in the poem, explicitly to a sun, specifically “my sun,” indicating possession, albeit brief, by the poet. If we read this through the lens of the first quatrain, we might see how the poet enjoyed a brightening and gilding not unlike that experienced by the lowly mountains and streams. And, as in the opening octave, very quickly the poet experiences a reversal and the “region cloud”–perhaps another lover? Has come between the poet and his sun, leaving him to see only a masked, or covered-over splendor. In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Helen Vendler demonstrates how the brevity of what we might call the personal third quatrain narrative may be filled out with the vocabulary of the seemingly impersonal description of a morning sun being obscured by clouds:

Even so my sun (glorious, golden, sovereign) one early morn did shine (flattering, kissing, alchemizing) with all-triumphant splendor on my (pale) brow; but out alack, he was but one hour mine, the (basest) region cloud (permitted by him to ride with ugly rack on his celestial face) hath masked him (hiding his visage) from (forlorn) me now (as he steals in disgrace away).

In the final couplet, a kind of parable enters the poem and offers a rather dull platitude: if the heavenly sun may be so easily stained by ugly dark clouds, then of course the suns (a pun on sons) cannot be blamed (disdained) for taking on a stain, or blemish.

Besides the direct reference to alchemy in the first quatrain, and the transformative powers it infers, the sonnet as a whole displays the transmutation of the prosaic into poetry in a stunning reversal: first we have the metaphor and, until the “even so” that opens the third quatrain and its shift to the literal event (the disgrace or perhaps betrayal of the friend or lover), we do not really know that this description of morning is meant to symbolize anything in particular. A more typical construction would present the loss of lover first and then set about describing how it makes the poet feel. In the case of Sonnet 33, the metaphor, or philosopher’s stone of the poem reverses the project and turns a golden morning into a base and rather relentless couplet of blemishes–the word stain may even strike us as crass and overused.

By the end of the fourteen lines, it is not clear whether or not forgiveness is felt as deeply as had been the joy and the suffering. Knowing that all earthly creatures are susceptible to corruption is not the same as feeling compensated by this knowledge.

Likewise the dwindling away of poetic space–from the octave metaphor, to the quartet narrative, to the couplet platitude–suggests a kind of lessoning of interest or importance. Though the final couplet may assert an unarguable fact of human nature, it cannot compare to the magic of poetry that may transform clouds passing over the sun into the sufferings of a disappointed lover.

To finish an inherently unfinishable investigation, I will clumsily return to our opening metaphor of distillation and remind my dear reader that April is National Poetry Month! Hence, you may be disposed to spend time with the bard, perhaps even his sonnets, which, though they be difficult, beckon. If so, I offer this disclaimer, or WARNING label if you will: Do not guzzle! Sip as you would your favorite 180 proof spirit and keep your interpretive lens away from the flames of modernity and the scientific method, for the power of the philosopher’s stone lies in what you discover en route to what you thought you wanted!

*This piece was first published at Quail Bell Magazine*