When two master poets take on the same topic—and by this I don’t mean something from among that eternal triad of love, war, and death, but something more specific—the experience of reading their works side-by-side is like watching flint get struck from different angles. The simile’s especially apt in the case of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Louise Bogan (about whom Auden said, after reading her first book, “That woman will be able to do anything”): both took up, with more than a century’s worth of distance between them, the figure of the alchemist—that practitioner of what the Oxford American Dictionary calls the “medieval forerunner” of chemistry, that seeker of an absolute elixir or some recipe by which to transform worthless metals into gold. That their treatment of this trope is so familiar to contemporary representations and alike between the two, almost despairingly so, attests to the notion that the alchemist is for these poets not merely a figure fixed in historical time but one whose ambitions, motivations, and desires transgress temporal demarcations. A more romantic claim might stake out the poet as another incarnation of the alchemist, frustrated at the stasis and failure of a world of unsatisfactory materials, rearranging them in random acts of will that sometimes yield unimaginable results—a conjurer who works less with the rudiments of a burgeoning science than with the stubborn, inflexible instruments of pen and paper, but one who still blends and observes, posits and hopes.
Both Bogan’s and Hopkins’s poems are stanzaic; the former’s is divided into two stanzas of six lines each, something of a truncated sonnet, maybe, while the latter’s consists in 11 four-line stanzas for a total of 44 lines. In inhabiting these forms, both poems begin with the incantatory weight of an experiment, equation, or operation. An they likewise begin somberly, with a tone more befitting regret than the exuberance one would save for, or savor at, the emergence of a metaphysical breakthrough. The speakers of both poems proceed in the first person, and Bogan’s—titled, matter-of-factly enough, “The Alchemist”—starts immediately with this “I”:
I burned my life, that I may find
A passion wholly of the mind,
Thought divorced from eye and bone
Ecstasy come to breath alone.
Impossible not to think of Dickinson after those first two lines. The dash-weight of the comma is palpable—is it so hard to imagine “I burned my life—that I may find— / A Passion—wholly of the Mind”?—and then descends, in the next two lines, into the negative components of the alchemist’s project. Talk of a passion “wholly of the mind” implies the abandonment of the body along the way, but this isn’t brought out explicitly until we get, in the following two lines, an understanding of just what the price of obtaining that passion looks like to this speaker: the utter separation of thought from “eye and bone,” and ecstasy, whatever that is (is it power? is it knowledge? some sort of contentment, completion, or satisfaction that comes from knowledge?), relegated to “breath alone.” To conceive of thought separated from “bone,” or the body, is easy enough: this is the classic Cartesian dualism that’s haunted, in the form of one specter or another, all of philosophy. But to conceive of thought separated from “eye” is more difficult, in particular if we take “eye” as a metonym not just for the body but as a representation of the perceptual capacities that link us to whatever we take the world to be, whether we’re realists, idealists, or skeptics. The “eye”—that Socratic window to the soul—becomes, on this second reading, a fulcrum with which to pry the mind, and its “[t]hought,” from not only the body but the ways in which the body itself understands the world. Bogan’s move is smarter than it might seem on a first reading that picks up only the clear dichotomy of body and soul: to divorce thought from bone and eye is to abstract intellectual energy away from every possible physical incarnation, past every remove of the body. At this point, such a mind, ironically, almost can’t be conceived.
But the body, strangely, lingers—the ecstasy that comes from such an abstraction comes, after all, to “breath,” and not just breath, but “breath alone,” remaining rooted in the material universe. Hopkins’s alchemist is in a similar situation, standing in a not-quite-liminal, not-quite-attached relationship to the world, as the last clause of the first quatrain of his poem, titled “The Alchemist in the City”—setting the person of the alchemist, unlike Bogan, in an emphatically and specifically modern situation, that of the polis:
My window shews the travelling clouds,
Leaves spent, new seasons, alter’d sky,
The making and the melting crowds:
The whole world passes; I stand by.
They do not waste their meted hours,
But men and masters plan and build:
I see the crowning of their towers,
And happy promises fulfill’d.
Only a little less than explicit is the implication that the alchemist’s own projects, be they attempts at purification, distillation, divination, or transubstantiation, have failed. Amid an urban scene where individuals, safe within the limitations of the known laws and sciences, fulfill their “happy promises,” the alchemist “stand[s] by,” a spectator to the world that might be changed utterly (to borrow a phrase from Yeats) by his endeavors. Curious to note, though, that this world seems to possess the very attributes assumed to lie out of the alchemist’s reach, those which prove the failure of his attempts all the more damning: the “alter’d sky” as a sort of indefinite mixture—think of Anaximander positing of apeiron, meaning “unlimited,” “indefinite,” or “infinite,” as the fundamental substance—and the “melting crowds” which, despite their refusal to settle in any one form, nonetheless succeed in “making.” Bogan’s poem ends on no brighter a note:
I broke my life, to seek relief
From the flawed light of love and grief.
With mounting beat the utter fire
Charred existence and desire.
It died low, ceased its sudden thresh.
I had found unmysterious flesh—
Not the mind’s avid substance—still
Passionate beyond the will.
To break one’s own life—at once almost a senseless phrase and almost the most concise to say just what it is that happens when a life “breaks”—and to do this, above all, to “seek relief” from some “flawed light”: the alchemist is denuded as someone driven to the more supernatural limbs of science not by a natural progression of ability, not after having mastered the sphere of common and established laws, but to elude and surpass it. And this sphere is not just unsatisfactory but defective. On the face of it, this move, this leap, pans out; the fire, though it dies out ingloriously, still ends up obliterating the “existence and desire” which mark (and, so we assume, beset) the speaker’s life in this common, public realm. At the end of it, there’s no gold winking from the ash, just the “unmysterious flesh” that somehow remains “[p]assionate beyond the will”—the will which, at this point, has flown with the fire. Bogan’s alchemist ends this monologue, then, with a return to the body, locating that most sought-after of transactions not beyond the self but in its basest, as it were, materials. This “unmysterious” substance that outlives the will is, in the end, rather mysterious, admitting of no further explanation; with all the abbreviation of a scientist, the alchemist reports the findings of this metaphysical metallurgy and is gone.