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Alchymy

I HAVE seen an advertisement in a newspaper, from a pretender of the hermetic art. With the assistance of “a little money,” he could “positively,” assure the lover of this science, that he would repay him “a thousand-fold!” This science, if it merits to be distinguished by the name, has doubtless been an imposition, which, striking on the feeblest part of the human mind, has so frequently been successful in carrying on its delusions.

Mrs. Thomas, the Corinna of Dryden, in her life, has recorded one of these delusions of alchymy. From the circumstances it is very probable the sage was not less deceived than his patroness.

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. This 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 contemplations of the sage.

During a residence of two years, he never condescended to speak but two or three times in the year to his infatuated patroness. When she was admitted into the laboratory, she saw, with pleasing astonishment, stills, immense caldrons, long flues, and three or four Vulcanian fires blazing at difterent 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 of expectation 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 recenty 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.

Henry VI. was so reduced by his extravagancies, that Evelyn observes in his Numismata, he 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 very probably communicated (says an ingenious antiquary) by Mr. Selden to his beloved friend Ben Jonson, when he was writing his comedy of the Alchymist.

After this patent was published, many promised to answer the king’s expectations so effectually (the same writer adds) 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 authuritate parliamenti.

Prynne, who has given this patent in his Aurum Reginæ, p. 135, concludes with this sarcastic observation—“A project never so seasonable and necessary as now!” And this we repeat, and our successors will no doubt imitate us!

Alchymists were formerly called multipliers; as appears from a statute of Henry IV. repealed in the preceding record. The statute being extremely short, I give it for the reader’s satisfaction.

“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.”

Every philosophical mind must be convinced that alchymy is not an art, which some have fancifully traced to the remotest times; it may he 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.

Mr. 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 insured 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 lengths 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 Saint 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 stories, which vie for the miraculous with the wildest fancies of Arabian invention. 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 of blunder on these mysterious hieroglyphics. Ashmole, in one of his chemical works, prefixed a frontispiece, which, in several compartments, exhibited Ph�bus 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 caduceus 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 is military preferment, and astrological studies! He afterwards regrated 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 transcendent 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 Göttingen, has lately 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 oxyds 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.”


Editor’s Notes

 § A footnote is subjoined to this article in later editions of the Curiosities, further to the paragraph ending ‘he could not endure the idea of living with her again:’

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.

 ¶ This article is substantially rewritten and expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. In earlier editions, D’Israeli writes of having seen the newspaper advertisement mentioned in the article’s opening sentence ‘but the other day.’ The anecdote related in the second through to the fifth paragraph above is introduced as follows in the 1793 Curiosities:

As late as the days of Mrs. Manly, the authoress of the Atlantis, is there on record a most singular delusion of Alchymy. The recollection of whether it was herself, or another person, on whom it was practised, has now escaped me…

The same anecdote is concluded with the alchemist being ‘scorched to death,’ in the laboratory fire, rather than, as above, with his poisoning himself on a later occasion. Another couple of anecdotes related in the 1793 version of the article, are omitted altogether in the foregoing:

An author, who wrote in the year 1704, presents us with the following anecdote, concerning an Alchymical speculation.
The late Duke of Buckingham, being over-persuaded by a pack of knaves, who called themselves Chemical Operators, that they had the secret of producing the Philosopher’s Stone, but wanted money to carry on the process; his Grace engaged to assist them with money to carry on the work, and performed his promise at a vast expence. A laboratory was built, utensils provided, and the family filled with the most famous artists in the transmutation of metals—adepts of a superior class, who would concern themfelves only about the grand elixir, and a pack of shabby curs, to attend the fires, and do other servile offices; and yet, forsooth, must be also called philosophers.
This great charge continued upon the duke for some years; for, whoever was unpaid, or whatever was neglected, money must be found to bear the charge of the laboratory, and pay the operators; till this chimera, with other extravagancies, had caused the mortgaging and selling many fine manors, lordships, towns, and good farms.
All this time, nothing was produced by these sorts of art of any value; for, either the glass broke, or the man was drunk and let out the fire, or some other misfortune, still attended the grand process, at the time assigned for a je ne sçai quoi to be produced, that must turn all things to gold. The duke encountering nothing but disappointments, and the operators finding themfelves slighted, and money very difficult to be had, the project fell!
Also,
Penotus, who died at ninety-eight years of age, in the hospital of Sierdon, in Switzerland, had spent nearly his whole life in researches after the Philosopher’s Stone; and being, at length, from affluent circumstances reduced to beggary and reason, was accustomed to fay—“That if he had a mortal enemy, that he durst not encounter openly, he would advise him, above all things, to give himself up to the study and practice of Alchymy.”