Poetry and Alchemy


Our precious stone, cast forth upon the dunghill, being most dear,

 is made the vilest of the vile – Tractatus Aureus


Ostensibly the forerunner of modern chemistry and usually considered a ‘pseudo-science’ Alchemy first emerged in Egypt during the Hellenistic period. At roughly the same time, a form of Alchemy associated with medicinal aspects of Taoism emerged in China.

The general objective of Alchemy was the creation, through transmutation, of some type of marvellous, quintessential substance, often considered a miraculous elixir, a panacea, for curing all ills, bestowing immortality or spiritual enlightenment.

Known as the art of Khemeia, Alchemy had its theoretical basis in metallurgy, Zoroastrianism, Stoic pantheism and Aristotle’s Four Element theory of matter. The first significant exponent of Alchemy was Bolos ‘Democritus’ of Mendes (circa 200BC) whose treatise, Physika et Mystica, dealt with dyeing and colouring, the creation of gems, silver, and the transmutation of metals, specifically the transmutation of lead or iron, into gold. One tenet of alchemical doctrine was that the prime matter (prima materia) or raw material of transmutation comprised the least valued, most disregarded, of all the elements. Common or ‘despised’ material, both ‘contemptible and precious’, formed the basis of The Work, the opus alchymicum.


There is a secret stone, hidden in a deep well, worthless and rejected, concealed in dung and filth… – Johann Daniel Mylius: Philosophia Reformata, 1622


Khemeia did not flourish during the Roman era, as various Emperors, notably Diocletian, feared that the transmutation of base metals into gold would undermine economic stability. A notable exponent of the Work in later times was the Gnostic mystic Zosimos of Panopolis (Akhmim) whose Hermetic encyclopaedia (a 28 volume compilation of existing and original texts) is dated 300AD. However, as Khemeia was considered ‘pagan learning’, much ancient knowledge of the art was lost during the Christian riots in Alexandria in 400AD.

The Arabs revived interest in Khemeia in the seventh century, as part of a general fascination for Greek science and thought. In the Arabic language the word ‘Khemeia’ became ‘al-kimiya’ and it was this form of the word that became the European term ‘alchemy’.

To define Alchemy as a pseudo-scientific forerunner of modern, scientific chemistry is an oversimplification. From the earliest times Khemeia comprised a resonant, symbolic framework for imaginative speculation. This speculative aspect of the art soon overshadowed its ‘practical’ metallurgical objectives, leading to a well-deserved aura of obscurantism and uncertain interpretation.

In the period between Bolos and Zosimos, Holmyard observes, ‘alchemical speculation ran riot’ as diverse practitioners created a complex body of doctrine, ascribing symbolic meanings to the sequence of metallic colour changes, incorporating all contemporary strands of speculative thought into alchemical theory, including Egyptian magic, Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, Babylonian astrology, Christian theology and pagan mythology.

Works of Khemeia were invariably couched in an ‘enigmatical and allusive language’ and often ascribed to semi-legendary or mythical authors such as Hermes Trismegistus, Plato, Moses, Miriam (the legendary sister of Moses), Agathodaimon, Theophrastus, Ostanes, Cleopatra and the goddess Isis. Thus, almost any contemporary, metaphysical speculation was assimilated into eclectic alchemical thinking: many sayings, stories and myths were endowed with alchemical interpretation, or incorporated into the Hermetic worldview.

By the Byzantine era Stephanos of Alexandria, a philosopher, mathematician and astronomer who flourished during the reign of the Emperor Herakleios I (610-641), had come to view Khemeia as primarily a ‘mental process’. Following F. Sherwood Taylor, E. J. Holmyard quotes Stephanos’ denigration of practical alchemy as a “burden of weariness”, observing that by this time (the seventh century) alchemy had ‘very largely become a theme for rhetorical, poetical and religious compositions, and the mere physical transmutation of base metals into gold was used as symbol for man’s regeneration and transformation to a nobler and more spiritual state’.

So, well before the rise of medieval European alchemy, the tendency to regard The Work as an internalised, psychic process or phenomenon was established. Khemeia could easily be dissociated from physical chemistry and metallurgy and defined as some kind of ‘spiritual’ discipline. Now, the objective was not the transmutation of external phenomena, but the transmutation of the adept himself, and this transformative process was expressed in an obscure, introspective, mythic vocabulary of symbols and complex terminology.

In modern times a fascination with alchemy as an internalised, mental process has been continued by the Surrealists and the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). During the inter-war years and roughly around the same time both Jung and the Surrealists claimed Alchemy as significant in their respective investigations:


…let us not lose sight of the fact that the idea of Surrealism aims quite simply at the total recovery of our psychic force by a means which is nothing other than the dizzying descent into ourselves, the systematic illumination of hidden places and the progressive darkening of other places, the perpetual excursion into the midst of forbidden territory… – Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1930


Jung and the Surrealists (particularly Andre Breton and Max Ernst) were operating against the backdrop of a revival of interest in alchemical symbolism in France and Germany. The works of Zosimos had been translated into French and published by Berthelot and Ruelle in 1887-1888. Herbert Silberer, who proposed a connection between alchemical thought and modern psychology, had anticipated Jung’s researches.

In France the Surrealists were influenced the alchemical novels of Francois Jolivet-Castelot and the esoteric writings of Fulcanelli and Grillot de Givry. De Givry drew attention to the hermetic influences at work in the art of painters like Bosch, Bruegel, Cranach and Baldung. Initially Andre Breton, preceded by proto-surrealist precursors such as Baudelaire (‘the mud you gave me I have turned to gold’) and Rimbaud (Alchimie du Verbe), saw alchemical thought as a way of re-investing poetic language with a sense of mystery: this soon evolved into a more ambitious proposition, the deployment of an ‘alchemy of language’ to transform consciousness, and by transforming consciousness, change life.

On the other hand Jung’s interest in alchemy was triggered by an ancient Taoist text called The Secret of the Golden Flower translated by Richard Wilhelm and for which he wrote a commentary in 1929. As a result of this work he was motivated to research Western Alchemy, which he subsequently defined as ‘the historical counterpart to my psychology of the unconscious’, and a bridge between Gnosticism and the modern world.

The culmination of these explorations was Jung’s attempt to correlate the ‘transpersonal’ element of his psychological paradigm with modern physics. The ultimate acausal reality or, to use the medieval term, unus mundus, forming the underlying transformative matrix of alchemical processes, can be understood, he argued, as simultaneously both psychic and material. This underlying unus mundus is both the indeterminate universe of psychic symbols and the pre-geometric, ‘implicate order’ of high-energy physics.

At the heart of Jung’s Analytical Psychology is the process of Individuation or self-becoming. Individuation is a non-linear, centralizing developmental process culminating in an enhanced synthesis of the conscious and the unconscious spheres. This synthesis also incorporates a paradoxical harmonisation of contradictory elements, a union of opposites – including, for example, the masculine and feminine principles, the animus and anima – correlating with the alchemical coniunctio as symbolised by the hermaphrodite or androgyny.

Jung felt that elucidation of the opus alchymicum would shed light on the symbolic structure of the Individuation process, because the alchemist’s hope of creating philosophical gold was only a partial illusion: ‘for the rest it corresponded to certain psychic facts that are of great importance in the psychology of the unconscious.’

If the alchemists projected the process of Individuation into the phenomena of chemical change, then the same is true for the poet who, likewise, by a synthesis of automatism and active imagination, projects the same process into the phenomena of poetic (artistic) creation. He or she initiates a transmutation of the ‘prime matter’ of language into the aesthetic ‘gold’ of poetry.

Part of this process is a sustained regression into the sphere of the unconscious (the ‘dizzying descent into ourselves’ mentioned in the Second Manifesto) during which imprints of the individual’s psychological and biological development are uncovered in symbolic form. Thus, the alchemical process, by engaging with the Individuation process, establishes a psychobiological frame of reference for both psychological development and imaginative, poetic creativity (‘inspiration’).

Alchemy, viewed from the Jungian perspective, can be seen as a quest for inner psychic unity and wholeness (actualisation) achieved through a non-rational mode of self-knowledge. However identification of poetry (or perhaps the poem itself) with the alchemical arcanum paradoxa and defining poetic inspiration in the context of a psychobiological, existential substrate, highlights a conflict with conventional ideas tending to categorise writing and/or poetry, as ‘literature’.

Academic and other definitions of poetry as ‘literature’ displace the poetic act of imaginative creation from the interior psychobiological universe to the external world of cultural-linguistic structures where the preferred paradigm is communicative. Furthermore, the current ‘postmodernist’ cultural-linguistic aesthetic model presupposes that everything depends upon language and linguistics to the extent that ‘being’ itself becomes literally indefinable in non-semiotic, extra-linguistic terms. This inevitably inhibits understanding of artistic creativity as in innate psychoactive phenomenon effectively blocking access to sources of inspiration in the indeterminate ‘implicate order’ of the unus mundus.

The raison d’etre of the ‘literary’ paradigm is communication. In contradistinction, the raison d’etre of the ‘alchemical-surreal’ paradigm is transformation: transformation energised by inspiration, where ‘inspiration’ is defined in terms of psychic energy. In this paradigm of transformation the Jungian valuation of symbols (distinguished from ‘signs’) as ambiguous emanations of non-linguistic or extra-linguistic or even pre-linguistic being is a key factor.

For Jung the psychic presence of symbols (including ‘archetypal’ symbols) is always experienced as ‘numinous’, a categorical term he borrowed from the Kantian-Friesian religious thinker Rudolf Otto (1869-1937). Otto was seeking to extend or deepen the epistemological scheme of his predecessor Jakob Friedrich Fries. This scheme included the notion of Ahndung, a German term which can be translated as ‘aesthetic sense’. Otto expanded the meaning of Ahndung ‘beyond the merely aesthetic’ by introducing the category of ‘numinosity’, the alleged quality of the sacred.

Otto argued that numinosity is the prime characteristic of the collective experience underlying all religions. This experience can involve a sense of overwhelming power, the mysterium tremendum. The mysterium stands as the first cause of all ‘religious awe’, and, in certain respects, if one follows Jung in the matter, accounts for the sense of power and autonomy apparently exhibited by unconscious contents and symbols.

The association of archetypal symbolism with cross-cultural mythic imagery on the one hand, and Otto’s numinosity concept on the other, was one way that Jung, through his writings and researches, endowed psychological processes such as Individuation with ‘spiritual’ qualities. Part of the attraction of Jungian psychology is his overt identification of self-becoming, or personality formation, with the model of the spiritual quest, articulated through an all-pervasive symbolism shared with the alchemical magnum opus, other mystical belief systems or even mainstream theological precepts. As Anthony Storr explains, Jung was able to do this because he identified the integrated Self with an archetypal symbol of totality identical with the underlying reality of Judaeo-Christian monotheism, the imago Dei.

If the raw material of poetry is language, the essence of poetic practice is active imagination or artistic creativity. It is inevitable that imaginative creativity, in pursuit of inspiration, will engage with that innate process of psychological integration Jung called Individuation. From this perspective the poem may appear as a by-product of the process. For the poet, as for the alchemist, the psycho-activity of inspiration arising from the process of self-becoming is the prime factor. It is this psycho-active effect which dissolves the barriers between the conscious and the unconscious, exposing the subject to the autonomous ‘power’ of symbolic otherness, enhancing creative capability.

For many this dissolution is most satisfactorily defined as an ‘archetypal’, visionary, even mystical, experience. Indeed, for some, even the most wilfully mundane or blatantly secular poems can still radiate, however feebly, an aura of the ‘numinous’, investing the text with all the fascination of an alien artefact.

Grounding poetic practice in a fundamental, psychobiological, ontological matrix de-emphasises, even dissociates, ‘pure poetry’ from the cultural-linguistic epiphenomenal ‘foreground’ superstructure of modern ‘literary’ discourse. It is also the case that, contrary to Jung’s position, pro-active engagement with the principium individuationis from an aesthetic perspective may not accord with traditional ‘religious’ paradigms of human perfectibility or divine purpose.

Thus, the alchemical process of inner purification may well amount to a Promethean affront to doctrines of redemption and predestination. Then, the poet, like the alchemist of old, may stand accused of Faustian occultism – or even the heresy of the Free Spirit, interestingly defined by Vaneigem as ‘an alchemy of individual fulfilment’. The declaration of intent in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism to attain the ‘total recovery of our psychic force’ through a ‘systematic illumination of hidden places’ and excursions into ‘forbidden territory’ must be understood in the context of Romantic metaphysical revolt in the tradition of Miltonic Satanism, Byron and Sade. It is not an affirmation of the ‘spiritual quest’, or the unio mystica described as the supreme desideratum by Jung and other exponents of perennial, pan-religious syncretism.

Furthermore Jung’s identification of the integrated Self with any ‘divine’ reality or purpose is open to question in the post-religious context that is the present evolutionary situation of society. Primordial being may exert or radiate a ‘numinous’ attraction of otherness, or the subject may experience such an inspirational effect. It does not follow that experience of this effect is experience of the ‘sacred’. This is true, even if the effect or experience can be shown to be the result of a quasi-objective incursion of, or from, the unus mundus. Only those predisposed, perhaps by cultural conditioning, to a totalising ‘religious’ reading of fundamental experiences can promote such an interpretation without fear of contradiction.

Again, if the raw matter of the procedure comprises the least valued, most disregarded, of all the elements, such common or ‘despised’ material. Stuff ‘of no price or value’ (Dyas Chemica Tripartita) will also form the basis of the poet’s Work: ‘…for from all these things I extracted the quintessence. The mud you gave me I have turned to gold’ (Baudelaire). Such poetic work is unlikely to meet with approval from the custodians of cultural probity, the proponents of canonical, high-minded artistic or literary greatness.

Is the true poet an exceptional individual?

If the answer is yes, then poetry will reflect the compulsion of such individuals to seek their own path and forge their own identity through an oracular, alchemical poetry, which, like the ancient works of Khemeia, may well appear enigmatical and allusive to the uninitiated.





Balakian, Anna. Andre Breton: Magus Of Surrealism. Oxford University Press, 1971

Baudelaire, Charles. The Complete Verse (trans. Scarfe), Anvil Press, 1986

Breton, Andre. Manifestos Of Surrealism. University of Michigan Press, 1969

Choucha, Nadia. Surrealism and the Occult. Mandrake, 1991

Fabricius, Johannes. Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists And Their Royal Art. Diamond Books, 1994

Holmyard, E. John. Alchemy. Pelican, 1957

Jung, C. G. The Essential Jung. Selected Writings Introduced by Anthony Storr. Fontana, 1998

Klossowski de Rola, Stanislas. Alchemy: The Secret Art. Thames and Hudson, 1973

Vaneigem, Raoul. The Movement of the Free Spirit. Zone Books, 1994



AC Evans


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