Thomas Vaughan, Henry More, and the Semiotics of Primal Matter

[First published in English Studies in Canada 12.1 (1986): 108-114. I have made several small corrections to the text, and have added note 4. Although this piece is a book review, I have placed it among my essays because of its unusual length—the editors of ESC were generous in that regard—and also because I find the Vaughan-More controversy irresistibly entertaining, as well as interesting for what it reveals about a significant fault-line in seventeenth-century thought.]


Review of The Works of Thomas Vaughan, ed. Alan Rudrum, with the assistance of Jennifer Drake-Brockman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) xiv, 761. $142.50


Thomas Vaughan (1621/2-1666) was, by his own account, a writer “borne out of due time.” The nine short books which he published between 1650 and 1655—and which, together with the Latin poems gathered by his twin brother Henry in Thalia Rediviva (1678) and a scattering of other texts, constitute his literary legacy—identify him as a belated but passionate exponent of Renaissance traditions of alchemy and magic. It is understandable that a writer who could proclaim of Cornelius Agrippa, the early sixteenth-century magician and humanist, that “He is indeed my Author, and next to God I owe all that I have unto Him” (84), should have felt himself out of place in the age of Descartes and Hobbes. More surprising to some may seem the notion—which must be presupposed by this edition, despite its prohibitive cost—that such a writer deserves readers in the present century.

In his first book, Anthroposophia Theomagica, Vaughan correctly prophesied the reception of his works: “I know my reward is Calumnie.” The opinion of one Edward Bolnest that Vaughan's books “doe contayne ... strange and strong delusions” may perhaps be discounted on the grounds that Bolnest himself practised the arts both of the alchemist and of the extortioner: Thomas Vaughan, in the latter instance, being the unhappy substance from which his operations succeeded in extracting aurum potabile. More objective is the judgment of another contemporary, inscribed in a copy of Anthroposophia Theomagica, that “Ego ... legi et perlegi hunc librum ... et nihil inveni in eo recte rationi aut veritati Philosophicae consentaneum” (“I have read and re-read this book ... and I have found nothing in it consonant with right reason or philosophical truth”)—to which might be added Jonathan Swift's description of the same work as “a Piece of the most unintelligible Fustian, that, perhaps, was ever publish'd in any Language.”1

Vaughan permitted himself to hope that “Prodeant forsan in Novissimus, Qui faculam hanc meam praeferent vel Solibus tusculanis” (“Maybe some far-off day there will arise those who will value this my little torch above even Tusculan suns” [49]). But his ghost would be wrong to take Alan Rudrum's excellent and finely annotated edition as a fulfilment of that hope, for as Rudrum's preface makes plain, it was the momentum gathered during his work on the poet Henry Vaughan that propelled him into this second editorial labour. One may anticipate that most readers of this edition will come to Thomas Vaughan in a similar manner, with the aim of deepening a specialist knowledge of his twin brother's poetry. There are, however, other reasons for taking an interest in this peculiar writer.

While anticipating that calumny would be his reward, Vaughan added: “but he that hath already condemn'd the Vanity of Opinion, is not like to respect that of Censure” (70). He accordingly replied with alarming vehemence when the Cambridge Platonist Henry More attacked him, on the basis of his first two books, as an “enthusiast,” one who desired “to heat and warm [himself] rather by preposterous and fortuitous imaginations, then to move cautiously in the light of a purified minde and improved reason.”2 Stung by such epithets as “Simon Magus like .... a vanting Mountebank, a Pander..., a shittle skull” (241-42),3 Vaughan proclaimed of More in the preface to his third book, Magia Adamica (1650), that “There is something in him prodigious: his Excrements run the wrong way, for his mouth stooles” (149); and in The Man-Mouse Taken in a Trap, which was composed in some ten days and printed with Magia Adamica, he offered a combative rebuttal of More's attack. More's rejoinder, The Second Lash of Alazonomastix (1651), was greeted by another counterblast, The Second Wash: or The Moore Scour'd once more (1651), after which the Cambridge doctor seems belatedly to have recognized the futility of debating with someone whom he had himself labelled “a sworn enemy of Reason” (242).

At moments in this controversy, Vaughan rises almost to the level of his great predecessor in the art of tormenting Cambridge academics, Thomas Nashe. More is made to suffer for having perpetrated philosophical poems “in the Loll and Trot of Spencer”; it is, Vaughan supposes, his love for the Faerie Queene that “hath made him a very Elf in Philosophie” (237).4 “Thou hast abus'd me basely,” he writes, and assure thy self, I will persecute thee, as long as there is Ink or Papyr in England .... woe to thee, thou Man-mouse! now comes thy finall and fatal Ruine; Receive it from my mouth, for I am thy Destinie” (250, 253). But Vaughan is too chained to the defence of his own doctrines to be capable of emulating Nashe's arias of invective. He applies to More the same rhetorical question that Nashe, in more memorable language, had asked of Martin Marprelate—“Think you this miry-mouthed mate a partaker of heavenly inspiration, that thus abounds in his uncharitable railings”5—but seems unaware of its applicability to himself.

Beyond such matters as the nature of the tides (on which Vaughan was obtusely wrong) or the etymology of the Aristotelian term “entelechy” (on which he was right), beyond the question of the relative validity of rational method and alchemical rhapsodies, the central point at issue in Thomas Vaughan's dispute with Henry More seems to have been the nature—and the necessity—of signs. Vaughan's position is touchingly naive. Believing, with Cornelius Agrippa, that the Fall of humankind resulted in a veiling of “that Intellectual shining light, which God hath placed in us,” he held that “the greatest Mystery both in Divinity, and Philosophie is, How to remove [this veil]” (76). The knowledge imparted by the angel Raziel to Adam after the Fall (161) made possible the interpretation and manipulation of natural signs: “for hee that knowes the Analogie of parts to parts in this great body, which wee call the World, may know what every Signe signifies” (171). The unveiling of the intellect, however, seems to imply for Vaughan an escape from the endless substitution of signs into the reality of physical transformations of substance, so that instead of “perusing the outside, or Crust of Nature, one can “pierce ... experimentally into the Center of things” (108). He writes that “It hath been the Common errour of all times to mistake signum for signatum, the shel for the Kernel” (75)—and his assurance that he had been led by his alchemical work to the First Matter, the seminal principle of all natural things, convinced him that he had himself transcended this error.

Henry More objected, sensibly enough, that “The nearest we can get [to the primary substance] is to know the powers and operations, the respects and fitness that things have in themselves or toward others”; no human understanding, “be it as sharp as it will, can enter the bare essence of any thing.”6 To which Vaughan could only reply that “the first Matter is both Visible, and Tangible, I have seen it, and felt it ten thousand times” (256). But of course his attempts in other texts to describe what it was he had seen and felt tipped him back again into the labyrinth of signs. The First Matter, he writes, is “a weak virgin Substance, a certain soft prolific Venus, the very Love and Seed, the Mixture and Moysture of Heaven and Earth.... It is a Metalline bitter saltish liquor.... It looks in Truth like the Belly of a Snake, especially neer the Neck, where the Scales have a deep Blew Tincture” (329, 331-32). Admitting that “there is no proper name for it, unlesse we cal it a Sperm,” he shows an exasperated awareness of his predicament: “Certainly you must be very unreasonable, if you expect that language from Men, which God hath not given them”—but then plunges onward once more: “It is then a slimie, slippery, diffusive Moysture” (333). Vaughan writes elsewhere that the substance with which he is concerned “is not Bloud, nor the Seed of any Individual, as some unnaturall, Obscene Authors have imagin'd” (95). But neither does he seem willing to concede that he is speaking in metaphors: “I have written nothing but what God hath verified before my Eyes in particular, and is able to justifie before the world in generall. I have known his secret Light” (302).

It is in this bizarre insistence upon the literal referentiality of his tropes, and in the claims of illumination which support it, that Vaughan sets himself part from all but the most eccentric writers of his age. Henry More, to be sure, also wrote in his Conjectura Cabbalistica of “a certain primordial or genital moisture.” But in his suggestion “that the Seminal Forms that descend through the Matter ... are not unlike the drops of rain that descend through the Heaven or Air, and make the Earth fruitful,” there is a modest awareness that this “may seem too elaborate and curious” an analogy.7 Vaughan, in contrast, presents a similar structure as the literal truth. Water is carried up into the air, where it is “exposed to the eye of the Sun, and to the pointed ejaculations of all the fixed Starrs and Planets, and this in a naked, rarified, opened body” (539)—with the result that what falls as rain is a dilute form of the seminal Primal Matter. Perhaps, however, the same qualities which excited the contempt of his contemporaries may commend Vaughan to the curiosity of an age whose literary theorists have lately been exploring the relations between writing and sexuality.

The tedious solemnity with which many of his speculations are delivered is lightened in places by playfulness. One of Vaughan's more startling descriptions of the First Matter (“shee shedds at her Nipples a thick heavy water .... she gives him Bloud from her very heart .... she presents him with a secret Chrystall”) ends with the injunction: “This is shee, and these are her Favours: Catch her, if you can” (199). The reader, who is consistently thought of as male, is invited in the same text to amuse himself by considering the likely reactions of another kind of person. Vaughan declares that “a Lady may reade the Arcadia, and at the same time attend this Philosophie without disturbing her fansie” (220)—but seems to contradict himself when, in the verses which conclude this text, he imagines his book falling from the hands of women readers “into their Bosomes,” and from thence dropping to “a more pleasing place”:

There in some silken, soft Fold thou shalt lye
Hid like their Love, or thy own Mysterie. (233)

The seduction of the First Matter and of the female (non-) reader have become curiously intertwined.

Silks and seminal fluid recur together in the most remarkable of Thomas Vaughan's writings, Lumen de Lumine, which tells of a nocturnal encounter with a being in whom are reassembled several of the images elsewhere associated with personifications of the First Matter:

Attir'd she was in thin loose silks, but so green, that I never saw the like, for the Colour was not Earthly. In some places it was fansied with white and Silver Ribbands, which look'd like Lilies in a field of Grasse. Her head was overcast with a thin floating Tiffanie, which she held up with one of her hands. ... Her Eys were quick, fresh, and Celestiall, but had something of a start, as if she had been puzzl'd with a suddaine Occurrence.... I expected some Discourse from her, but she looking very seriously and silently in my face, takes me by the hand and softly whispers, I should follow her. (305)

Leading him into a deep valley, Thalia (as she names herself) shows Vaughan a strangely silent waterfall and river of a viscous fluid, “bright like Pearls, and transparent like Chrystall,” some of which he takes up in his hand. “When I had viewd and search'd it well, it appear'd somewhat spermatic, and in very Truth it was obscene to the sight, but much more to the Touch” (307). We have come, through this hushed and starlit landscape, to familiar territory; and the soft voice of Thalia also begins to sound familiar when, having told Vaughan she has found him “much of my own humour” (310), she demonstrates their affinity by denouncing abstract universals as “empty imaginarie Whymzies” (312).

This literary fantasy is strangely echoed in a dream which Vaughan recorded eight years later, a year after the death of his wife. Walking with her in a churchyard, he struck the ground with his cane, “and it gave a most shrill reverberating Eccho. I turned back to looke upon my wife, and shee appeared to mee in greene silks down to the ground, and much taller, and slenderer than shee was in her life time.... She told mee the noyse of the cane had frightened her a little, but saying soe, see smiled upon mee, and looked most divinely” (504). There, in the afterlife of his alchemical paradise, we may leave Thomas Vaughan, and conclude by remarking on certain aspects of this edition.

It is one indication of the high quality of Rudrum's work that I found only three typographical errors (a clause repeated on p. 205, l. 4, a turned letter uncorrected on p. 358, l. 3, and a superfluous apostrophe on p. 518. l. 3). The use of camera-ready copy, the four years's delay in publishing this edition (which was handed to the Press in April 1980), and the fact that only the biographical introduction and commentary are indexed, are all reminders of the financial pressures felt by academic publishers. But Rudrum's commentary, which runs to almost one hundred and fifty pages, is a triumph. Readers may need to be warned that since Vaughan sometimes quoted Latin sources from memory, the translations given may diverge slightly from his text in the case of well-known sources (as with the Agrippa quotation on p. 83). However, the curiosity of even the most assiduous reader about Vaughan's sources, from Nollius to Sendivogius, will be more than satisfied. Scholars and enthusiasts alike, whether clad in dusty corduroys or green silks, have much to be grateful for in this edition.



1  See Rudrum's “Biographical Introduction,” pp. 18-21, 30 (quoting from Swift's A Tale of a Tub, ed., A. C. Guthkelch and D. Nicol Smith [Oxford, 1958], pp. 127-28).

2  More, Observations Upon Anthroposophia Theomagica and Anima Magica Abscondita (1650), Preface; quoted from F. B. Burnham, “The More-Vaughan Controversy: The Revolt Against Philosophical Enthusiasm,” Journal of the History of Ideas 35 (1974): 38.

3  The first of these epithets at least is oddly accurate: on p. 83, Vaughan quotes approvingly from Agrippa's De occulta philosophia, III. xliv, a passage expounding the miraculous powers of the anima stans et non cadens—a notion derived from the title “The Standing One” adopted by Simon Magus, the first-century magician and heresiarch (cf. S. Clementis Romani Recognitiones, II. 7). “Shittle skull,” surprisingly, is not scatological: following the Oxford English Dictionary, Rudrum glosses “shittle” as “variable, fickle (used of persons); shaky, unstable (used of things).”

4  More was of course a prominent figure among the poetic disciples of Edmund Spenser: see William B. Hunter, Jr., ed., The English Spenserians: The Poetry of Giles Fletcher, George Wither, Michael Drayton, Phineas Fletcher, and Henry More (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1977).

5  Nashe, Works, ed. R. B. McKerrow, vol. 3, p. 347.

6  Observations, pp. 46, 6; quoted from Burnham, 43.

7  “The Defence of the Philosophick Cabbala,” ch. 1, pp. 77, 76; in Several Philosophical Writings (1662), vol. 2, sig. L114, L113v.