The Ironies of Alchemy in Early Modern English Literature, SCSC 2012, Cincinnati

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Chad Engbers, Calvin College
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The Ironies of Alchemy in Early Modern English Literature
Sixteenth Century Society & Conference
October 25-28, 2012

Chaucer's "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" is the first great satire of alchemy in English literature, but in its final lines it nevertheless suggests that the Philosopher's Stone is a genuine secret deeply hidden in the knowledge of Christ. As Stanton Linden observes, Chaucer's sustained ridicule of alchemy is thus accompanied by the suggestion that the opus alchymicum is not entirely a fool's errand.

Linden's seminal study of alchemy in English literature, Darke Hierogliphicks (1996), suggests that alchemy served as an object of satire throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—from Chaucer through Jonson's The Alchemist and Mercury Vindicated—but then flourished as a set of philosophical and religious ideas in the seventeenth century before its ultimate defeat with the rise of modern science. Close examination of the ways in which texts use alchemy, however, often reveals the kind of irony that Linden observes in Chaucer: satires of alchemy might also take it very seriously, and attempts to use it seriously might be skewed or flawed.

This panel includes papers that complicate the standard narrative of alchemy in English literature by revealing such ironies in early modern literary works. Papers might introduce works that have not been widely studied, or they might reassess works whose place in the alchemical literary tradition has long been assumed.

If you would like to participate, please send a 250-word abstract and brief vita to me, Chad Engbers (, by Friday, March 13.

This panel is part of an ongoing project. If you miss the deadline or cannot make the conference but have ideas along these lines, I'd still be glad to hear from you.