Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Flower of the Golden Age. Mythic Flowers

How distinguish larkspur, narcissus, amaranth and apple from vitex, aconite and fennel as fine herbs? Larkspur with death of Ajax, narcissus by the lesson of that name, amaranth the heavenly flower of Milton, and apple blossoms at all weddings. So appealing, but not just Ajax, Taliesin, Aneirin and Siegfried shed their blood on flowers.  And not just weddings in the celestial  gather in the heaven violets and the rose of Sharon and lay them beneath the shining blossoms that fall.  Who would think it so preoccupied, the apple blossom and generic blood?  But more amaranth Lies Bleeding, stretches all bejeweled, /  I watch the fields that purple with their blood, / incarnate flowers quicker turn to red. How compare the thyrsus fennel of Promethus, the aconite spit of Cerberus or the Chaste tree vitex of Hera's chastity with these and more? Some myths come real  that stand for the flower of the mind or heart, temporal, eternal,

 Added on to the Greek virtue of this was fine living in Scottsdale. That's what they call the Vale of Arcady and Tempe now.  New world discoverers have also added golf to it, which compares nicely to the English and Spanish who found the gold lying on the ground the size of a walnut, with its head as big as a child. The horror and defamation of the child, the encephalitic head, the greed of the prospector, the implicit decapitation from the natural all sum up what the golden age in America became while it was pretended that Virgil read Isaiah right into his Fourth Eclogue, “The Golden Age Return.”  

Spiritual pleading turned physical with a Midas touch. In The Golden Age Return the ram changes the color into a rainbow fleece,  grapes are rubies and corn gold, which  of course is the world that later turned to  tin. The new dirt of the garden that grew these counterfeits was politics spread thick. Not manure, gold and politics don’t fertilize anything, they petrify, useful for preserving the status ego. Golden age decoration like the competition for praise of the lady among Elizabethans, where beauty's opposites ended in the black wires that grew on Shakespeare's  lady’s head (Sonnet 130) oppose the Revelation of St. John.
Virgil and his upstarts took home  the flower of the golden age of gain and entertainment, facetiousness and mockery,  made over with selling points like the love place, a locus amoenus, good weather, benign nature, but these did not put on virtue. The grape was ruby and the green gold a thousand years later, further gilded up, got developers like Sannazaro to dress up lords and ladies dress as shepherds and shepherdesses and pretend the rustic age.Like the people of Scottsdale sitting on the boards of charities.

History has contracted a fever from this romance. Earlier and later science did too. Pliny’s Natural History said a gorse bush could bear gold.  He prefabed a gold mine from the root of the plant so its leaf ash could be sieved for gold. Metabolic gold was no more superstitious than recent science saying there is an arsenic based bacteria. The NASA trade of arsenic for phosphate in DNA strands is very like Pliny saying the plant transpired gold. It is not far from Pliny to Peter Martyr who said  in 1515 that he could pick up pieces of gold from the ground that compared with a nut or a fruit, as big as a walnut, and the biggest as big as an orange. Of course neither was it far for scientists to speculate they had found a model of alien life at Mono Lake, especially since all along the whole scientific establishment had been seeking to contact extra terrestrials.

Not to detract from legitimate extremophiles, the gorse bush does not discredit the garden club, but its coarse fantasy that reality is a matter of belief has science endlessly congratulating itself over both its mistakes and their corrections which denigrating philosophy as mere belief lacking empirical logic. Percival Lowell found canals on Mars and mathematical perturbations in the orbit of Neptune leading to the discovery of Pluto from a Shinto trance in Japan! (See Occult Japan).  Pluto was made and unmade a planet by democratic vote, and may be headed back to planetary status with the New Horizons photo of a whale on Pluto, while scientists make the same self congratulatory noises with their mouths and seek grants just the way Raleigh sought his El Dorado gold:

"There came an old man bringing with him two pebble stones of gold weighing an ounce…who when he saw our men marvel at the bigness thereof, he made signs that they were but small and of no value in respect of some that he had seen. And taking in his hand four stones the least whereof was as big as a walnut, and the biggest as big as an orange, he said that there was found pieces so big in his country…Beside this old man, there came also divers other, bringing with them pebble stones, gold weighing x. or xii. Drams: And feared not to confess that in the place where they gathered that gold, there were found sometime ) Stones of gold as big as the head of a child .”  (Peter Martyr, The Third Book of the First Decade of the Ocean, tr. By Richard Eden, ed. by Edward Arber, 1885, 74).]

If  nuggets are like walnuts and oranges that implies a tree, a gold tree that might be found in earth, in addition to the gold plant Pliny found. But this is not the gold tree found in a man, subject for another time. The fact is that  “beautiful colors instead of flowers, round stones of golden earth instead of fruits and thin plates instead of leaves” are not so important as the botanical metaphor that encourages the vegetable gold.

"They lay that the roote of the golden tree extendeth to the center of the earth and there taketh norifhement of increafe. For the deaper that they dygge, they fynd the trunkes therof to be fo muche the greater as farre as they maye folowe it for abundaunce of water fpringing in the montaines. Of the braunches of this tree, they fynde fumme as fmaule as a threde, and other as bygge as a mannes fynger accordynge to the largeneffe or flraightneffe of the ryftes and clyftes. They haue fumetimes chaunced vpon hole caues fufteyned and borne vp as it were with golden pyllars: And this in the wayes by the whiche the branches afcende: The whiche beynge fylled with the fubflaunce of the truncke creapynge from beneath, the branche maketh it felfe waye by whiche it maye paffe owte. It is oftentymes diuided by encounterynge with fum kynde of harde ftone. Yet is it in other clyftes nooriffhed by the exhalations and vertue of the roote. But now perhappes yowe will afke me what plentie of golde is brought from thenfe. The Third Decade,. Martyr, 173

They haue founde by experience, that the vayne of golde is a lyuinge tree: And that the fame by all wayes that it fpreadeth and fpringeth from the roote by the fofte pores and paffages of the yearth, putteth foorth branches euen vnto the vppermoft part of the earth, and ceafeth not vntyl it difcouer it felfe vnto the open ayer: At whiche time, it fheweth foorth certaine bewtifull colours in the fteede of floures, rounde ftones of golden earth in the fteede of frutes, and thynne plates in fteede of leaues…
[They have found by experience, that the vein of gold is a living tree and that the same by all ways that spreads and springs from the root by the soft pores and passages of the earth, puts forth branches even into the uppermost part of the earth, and ceases not until it discover it self into the open air. At which time it shows forth certain beautiful colors instead of flowers, round stones of golden earth instead of fruits and thin plates instead of leaves.]

This idea abstracted from the gold, the age and the plant common to the fairy tale discovers romance. Romance became history just as space travel became geography and so on. They believed their science as much as we do ours. Look at the gold spread in shining bits over the grass! And look in the parking lots!

Renaissance Vegetable Klondike

 Was it the pastoral or the gold they found?  Eternity for the Greek is long. What to do? If we could just get in one of those gardens and pluck we’d never have to work again. You feel excitement at the scheme. The Roman court and garden naturalized its heavenly gold to begin the third millennium of its restoration. Biringuccio (1540) said “in some places of Hungry…pure gold springs out of the earth in the likeness of small herbs.”

That is, that in fum places of Hungarie at certeyne tymes of the yeare, pure golde fpryngeth owte of the earthe in the lykenefle of fmaule herbes, wrethed and twyned lyke fmaule ftalkes of hoppes, about the byggenefle of a pack threade, and foure fyngers in length or fume a handfulL As concernynge which thynge, Plinie alfo in the. xxxiii. [thirty-third] boke of his naturall hyflorie, wryteth the lyke to haue chaunced in Dalmatia in his tyme. The which (if it bee trewe) fuerly the hufbande men of thefe fieldes mall reape heauenly and not earthly frutes, fent them of god from heauen, and browght furth of nature withowt theyr trauayle or arte. A grace doubtleffe moft efpecial, fyth that in fo great a quantitie of earth graunted to the poflefllon of men, in maner onely this is thought woorthy fo hygh a priuileage. But what mall I fay of that wherof Albertus Magnus wryteth in his booke of minerals, affirmynge that he hath feene golde engendered in a deade mans heade : And that the fame beinge founde by chaunce in dyggynge, and perceaued by the weyght and coloure to conteyne fum rainerall fubflaunce, was proued by experience to holde a portion of fine golde mixte with fmaule fande. And in deede his woordes feeme to found to none other fence but only that this precious inetall was engender[e]d there by the great difpofition of the place and ftronge influence of heauen : The which fuerlie is a thynge hardely to be beleued. Yet confyderynge th[e]autoritie of fo greate a clerke, with the force of the fuperiour caufes and the maruelous poure of nature, I had rather gyue fayth hereto then raflhely to contemne the iudgement of fo greate a clarke. 364

[Translated: In some places of Hungary at certain times of the year, pure gold springs out of the earth in the likeness of small herbs, wreathed and twined like small stalks of hops, about the bigness of a pack thread, and four fingers in length or some a handful.. As concerning which thing Pliny also in the xxxiii book of his natural history, writes the like to have chanced in Dalmatia in his time. The which (if it be true) surely the husband mn of these fields mall reap heavenly and not earthly fruits, sent them of god from heaven, and brought forth of nature without their travail or art.” Biringuccio (1540)] There is a modern edition (1990) by Smith Gnudi.

Attributed to Pliny, this myth held that “these fields shall reap heavenly and earthly fruits mixed up  mortal and immortal together. It made a vegetable Klondike of the golden age. They loved repeating each other, whether small herbs, gold trees or gorse.

To Biringuccio, "Wherfor, the diligent fearchers of mines, willing by a certeyne fimilitude declare howe the mynes are placed in the mountaynes, haue figured a greate tree full of branches planted in the myddefle of the bafe of a mountayne, frome the whyche are diriued dyuers and many bouwes and branches, fum greate and fum fmaule, muche like vnto verye trees that are in owlde woddes."  (356 Pyrotechnia)

He could mean for all intents and purposes The Hobbit's Misty Mountains. All legendary places and golden states pick gold from such trees even if they are mines. The nuggets “as big as a walnut…as big as an orange” reported by Arbor in 1515 in England, and added to Virgil, Homer and Hesiod, were as easily discovered in the new world as dot.com bubbles in latter day pyramid America and airbrush mortgages. 

To justify his own tale Raleigh tells another heard of the Inca to compare with  the perfect metal garden he would find in Guiana. Just as Biringuccio quotes Pliny about the gold likeness of small herbs, Raleigh cites Lopez to prove El Dorado, as if it were a simple matter of belief, “but read the report of Francisco Lopez and others, it will seem more than credible.” What credible? Lopez says “they say, the Incas had a garden of pleasure in an island near Puna, where they went to recreate themselves, when they would take the air of the sea, which had all kinds of garden-herbs, flowers, and trees of gold and silver.” They knew Virgil too.

 This was nothing to what the emperor of Guiana had: "All the vessels of his house, table, and kitchen, were of gold and silver, and the meanest of silver and copper for strength and hardness of metal. He had in his wardrobe hollow statues of gold which seemed giants, and the figures in proportion and bigness of all the beasts, birds, trees, and herbs, that the earth bringeth forth; and of all the fishes that the sea or waters of his kingdom breedeth. He had also ropes, budgets, chests, and troughs of gold and silver, heaps of billets of gold, that seemed wood marked out to burn. Finally, there was nothing in his country whereof he had not the counterfeit in gold.

  When an age begins with the discovery of Utopia (1516) poetic travel is a major  occupation. Even if gold is denigrated in Utopia, used in chamber pots and to bind criminals, that was only a mock contempt. By the time of Eastward Hoe (1605) the adventurer bound for Virginia takes the gold chamber pots and chains and adds to them rubies and diamonds from the shore. It’s enough to confuse Raleigh on his way to the gallows, that Pilgrimage

 towards the land of heaven;
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains…

Then the blessed paths we`ll travel,
Strowed with rubies thick as gravel;
Ceilings of diamonds, sapphire floors,
High walls of coral and pearly bowers.

Poetry, discovery, earth, Virginia, Guiana, the golden age or heaven, “pearly bowers,” trees turn pearl?  Joined in the pastoral to make the temporal eternal, as real as Roman empire, the virtue of the golden age would “buy of them the pearles of earth, and sell to them the pearles of heaven (A True Declaration of Virginia (1610). By the end of the day Abraham Cowley was echoing the sentiments of Sir Thomas More, “call in more Spaniards to remove the rest.” (“America: Phoebus Speaks.” (De Plantis, V) because the lust for gold made itself felt so strongly, whether in Guiana or Virginia, that John Smith said “there was no talk, no hope, no work but dig gold, wash gold, refine gold, load gold” (General History of Virginia, 1624).

 But the golden age was forfeit long before. Spenser saw it transfer virtue to counterfeit grapes: in his Bower of Bliss (1590):  “as the Rubine, laughing sweetly red, / some like fair emeralds, not yet well ripened…and them amongst, some were of burnish’t gold, / So made by art, to beautify the rest” (FQ, II, xii, 54-5).

The green gold ivy there is double ivy disguised as gold and gold as ivy: “that wight, who did not well advised it view, / Would surely deem it to be ivy true" (61).  Spenser does to Virgil what Shakespeare did to the Petrarch, give a lie to the lie. Virgil and Plutarch seem in danger of believing the naivete of their poems. Spenser’s garden is an artistry of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue where waving corn-crops shall to golden grow. In this trap for sense, mock nature the living, who have no business there, enter the golden garden, but see only the fake grape, the pleasure of the world. This is so because this world cannot see into the next which the golden age prefigures. Spenser gives these counterfeiters their due, finishes them off, which we have waited a thousand years for. They are turned to hogs, “now turned into figures hideous, / According to their minds like monstrous” (85). So travelers and got their comeuppance.

 The walnuts on the ground, the leaves are deception. Spenser makes the fruit of gold poison.Tantalus invoked, reaches up his hand from the stream, but even if he got the fruit the joke is it’s gold and worthless. Here among all the floral gold the fruit resides as a damsel of the fountain, paradise, golden age and every association in one. She looses her hair “which flowing long and thick, her cloth’d around, / and the ivory in golden mantle gowned” (FQ II, xii, 67). Virgil reversed, but not a pear you can eat.

 Decorative effects of nature thrived. Poets were more nuts than explorers. The “silver-sanded shore,” myrrh-breathing Zephyr,” (Drayton), “nothing that bears a life but brings a treasure” (Fletcher). Cowley translates Pindar, “jewels for their fruit they bear.” The “enameled meadows” express the eternal to the temporal. Virgil brought the golden age to Rome and Waller took it to Bermuda, “the Hesperian garden.”

Of course the lamp was light, all along the sense of the gold, but as light was misunderstood for color and color for gold, virtue continued its fall. Only briefly is the vegetable restored in Marvell’s Bermudas:

He hangs in shades the Orange bright,
Like golden Lamps in a green Night.
And does in the Pomegranates close,
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows.

This did not defeat the plenteous explorations, but the course correction gets high finish in Milton, who sums the entire tradition in his vegetable gold: “the tree of life, /High eminent, blooming Ambrosial Fruit / of vegetable Gold” (PL IV, 218-9), the pliant form and vitality taken back from the metal hardness and greed. Milton calls the artifice that characterized Roman and renaissance pleasure gold a “nice art.” The pretense that art improves nature is gone. Nice art is a human exacting, restraining, ordering of nature into unflattering “curious knots.” opposes  “nature boon.” Earlier the phrase “if Art could tell” shows the impossibility of ordering a description of the garden in the first place. That is, Milton takes art out of the natural setting and puts it back in the poet, or rather, Milton puts the flower of the golden age back in the ground. Once again beyond imitation, breezes are not perfumed with incense, ambergris or myrrh, but with “odorous Gums and Balm.” The vegetable gold and “Golden Rind” are simply natural, unlike the gold apples, walnuts or ivy. 

So the Golden Age and pleasure, the pastoral and fine weather, gold, blessed, fortunate, immortals are  frozen in space and time. The dead yellow hedge. Even these extremes of the garden begged to be outdone, as might be said of Huysmans’ poison flowers and cannibal plants, (in Against the Grain) that they form a reverse golden age that gets you first. Nobody in literature seems to have noticed until recently that the natural world was being systemically killed off.  Weren’t we all prospering?

If this synthesis of botany and geology, vegetable plant and mineral gold, could make art better than nature, more beautiful, you didn’t need actually need nature any more, so the notion that art imitates life was reversed, instead nature, improved by art, exactly the premise of biologists manipulating the genome, was supplied with those deficiencies obvious to human greed. Cloning of geology and botany into the imaginative landscape of the golden age made a nature as deficient in the natural as the human was of virtue, the prerequisite of the golden age in the first place.  It was a precursor of the modern artificial heart. They’d at least get rich in the fantasy. This joke is the same as late night  TV on politics, but with a bite, for in the corruption of nature it takes a human.

Nobody could be blamed for looking for a silver lining in all this. What it was really about? As a metaphor of alchemy, the suppleness of green joined with the incorruptibility of the gold was an inherent paradox, but sunlight stood behind the metaphor  of the gold, to which all the attributes of gold attached. Light was the pristine sense of gold, the incorruptibility of the sun. So the alchemic green gold of poets was really sun on a leaf.

Green and gold  had developed together in Rome, but beyond the celebration of gold as a toy of the rich lay a yearning for immortality. Poetry again corrupted philosophy and cross fertilized with texts of a pristine Eden where the relation of plant and light stood for the relation human and divine. This older metaphor of gold as light transcends the younger literal gold flower, but they joined where the outward sense transformed by its mineral met the inward sense of the human made eternal by gold. That was photosynthesis, transformed by light beyond expectation or precedent.

As an idea of immortality The golden age unexplained by the Greeks was trivialized  by the Romans with little notion of this.  The quest for immortality sometimes caused grief, especially when some powerful person’s plan in the history of religion was crossed, So what was the picture of the outer gold nature of the Romans compared to the inner aspects in the biblical prophets of mineral transformation and the human photosynthesis?
Whether the gold lay behind them in the golden age or ahead in future millennia, there was never a sense in classical writers as in biblical prophets that it existed in the present.

According to Hesiod To get to the Golden Age you had to either die at the end of the first Golden race of men or in the Trojan War. Pindar allowed you could get there by living the three mythical Pythagorean lives. Greek Menelaus’ virtue as the son in law of Zeus, was a whimsical Orphic exemption allowing him immortality because he married Helen,  but virtuous lives in Pythagoras involved chastity and self control maybe too great a price to pay.  

Gold nature abstracted, divided from its source, sucked the essence of nature and transferred it elsewhere, opposing the process of incarnation in photosynthesis where energy stored in the thing did not divide from that source.

Works Cited

Arber, Edward (ed.). The First Three English Books on America. Birmingham, 1885.

There came a owld man bringynge with him two pybble flones of goulde weighinge an vnce, defyrynge them to gyue him a bell for the fame who when he fawe oure men maruell at the byggenes therof, he made fignes that they were but fmaule and of no value in refpecte of fume that he had feene. And takynge in his hande foure ftones the leaft wherof was as bygge as a walnut, and the byggefl as bygge as an orange, …Befyde this owld man, there came alfo dyuers other, brynginge with them pypple ftones of gold weighing, x. or. xii. drammes : And feared not to confefle, that in the place where they gathered that golde, there were found fumtyme ftones of gold as bygge as the heade of a child.

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