Monday 8 October 2018

The Elizabethan World Picture

About 30 years ago I was looking at some books that my brother was getting rid of. Among them was one that drew my attention. It was by an academic named E.M.W. Tillyard and it was called The Elizabethan World Picture. I had recently been reading books by Frances Yates, a scholar who more or less exhumed studies of occultism during the Renaissance, and this looked interesting. "Could I take it?" I asked. He didn't want it (it was an old school book) and so I salvaged it from the pile of rejects.

The stimulus for this book was the attempt to get to grips with the metaphysical background to Shakespeare's plays and to Elizabethan literature in general. Tillyard realised that to understand the idea of political order during the period of the English Renaissance he had to see it as part of a much larger cosmic order. He found that this could be conceived in three ways which were as a chain, a set of correspondences and a dance. The notion of cosmic order, in fact, ran through the whole of Elizabethan society and it was fundamentally religious in tone - as it would have to be since it was rooted not in the material world but in metaphysical reality. He saw that to imagine the Elizabethan age as a kind of precursor to secular humanism that was making the break from medieval religiosity, as apparently was often the case at the time he was as writing (1943), was completely wrong. It was much more the continuation and development of medieval thought and not really modern, as in humancentric, at all.

The basis of the Elizabethan understanding of the world was order. There was a divine order, reflected externally in the Sun and the planets, and this order was expressed hierarchically. The proper working of this order, and its proper recognition by Man, resulted in harmony. Its neglect or abuse caused disharmony. It was like a musical instrument out of tune. And what principally caused disorder was sin.

The awareness of sin was everywhere in the 16th century as it had been in earlier centuries. The idea of sin and salvation was familiar to and acknowledged by all sections of the populace. And sin was spiritual in significance. Man's sin did not just affect him individually. It corrupted the world and set it out of kilter with its source. It severed the links in the chain that led down from God to Man.

The Great Chain of Being from Robert Fludd (1574-1637). The hand of God reaches down through the stars to Nature and thence to the physical world.

The chain of being was the symbol that described both the connection of Heaven to Earth and its hierarchical nature. In Tillyard's words "The metaphor served to express the unimaginable plenitude of God's creation, its unfaltering order, and its ultimate unity. The chain stretched from the foot of God's throne to the meanest of inanimate objects." It bound the whole of creation together and each link took from above and gave to below which is not to imply that the movement was always in one direction only. One of the significant aspects of this understanding of life was that even lower links in the chain brought something to the whole which was not otherwise present. Stones are near the bottom "but they exceed the class above them in strength and durability". So God is never wasteful and everything has its purpose.

Tillyard's book contains a full description of the various links in the chain as visualised by the Elizabethans, but, for the purposes of this brief article, it will be sufficient to list them very basically. All starts from God, naturally enough, and then proceeds down from him through the various hierarchies of angels until it reaches the stars "which, though obeying God's changeless order are responsible for the vagaries of fortune in the realms below the moon." Man, poised between heaven and earth, is the nodal point of this system and "his double nature, though the source of internal conflict, has the unique function of binding together all creation, of bridging the greatest cosmic chasm, that between matter and spirit". Below man, of course, there are the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms.

The chain describes the vertical aspect of the world but the horizontal is also catered for in this system. Here operate the correspondences which relate various things to others of a similar kind. However, the correspondences are not only horizontal, that is to say, connecting things on the same plane, for there are correspondences between celestial archetypes and earthly manifestations too. For example, the Trinity is reflected in man in understanding, will and memory, divine Intellect in the light of the sun and so forth. The correspondences in this regard demonstrate the wisdom of the old Hermetic maxim. "As above, so below". The pattern of the heavens is repeated in things of the earth.

Finding connections is a game one can play endlessly and it can be illuminating too. However, I would refer the interested reader wanting to learn more to one of the many books on symbolism, or even astrology which is largely based on a similar idea, the sense that all things in this world are reflections of higher ones and also connected to each other in various ways.

The last chapter in Tillyard's book is called The Cosmic Dance and it describes how traditionally creation had been thought of as an act of music. This idea is echoed in the creation myths of both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis which each start with music. Tillyard quotes from A Song for St Cecilia's Day by John Dryden (memorably set to music by Handel) which, though composed a little later in 1687, perfectly encapsulates the Elizabethan idea of creation.

FROM harmony, from heavenly harmony,
      This universal frame began:
  When nature underneath a heap
      Of jarring atoms lay,
    And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
    'Arise, ye more than dead!'
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
  In order to their stations leap,
     And Music's power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
   This universal frame began:
   From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.

But it is not just creation that is understood musically. The dance goes on everywhere at all times, the movement of the planets being a notable instance of it. The sea dances to the music of the moon. Time itself is said to be a kind of dance. Movement is musical. Life is musical. And it is no accident that courtship was thought to revolve around dancing. That idea survives today, even if in a much degraded form. In fact, you could probably judge the state of a society's civilisation by the sort of dances it favours. Which is bad luck for us.

These three things, the great chain of being, universal correspondences and the dance of life were at the heart of the Elizabethan conception of the universe. This was seen as existing both horizontally and vertically with all its component parts related to each other, all having a place in the scheme of things to which they should keep if the whole was to continue in harmonious fashion. This did not rule out growth and development, but that should be in line with the naturally unfolding patterns of life and not be in an arbitrary, chaotic, forced or wilful way which would surely introduce disorder and destroy harmony.

I am not saying that the Elizabethan World Picture is literally true but I do think that, as a symbolic representation of how the universe is organised, it is considerably more accurate than anything we have today. We now live in a world that has abandoned any higher sense of how the universe works and have consequently introduced the level of disorder that all traditional teaching warned  about if the laws of life were disregarded and human egotism allowed its head. We have disrupted order. Now it is up to us to rediscover it and remake the or, at least, our universe.


John Fitzgerald said...

That's right. The Elizabethan would picture was a very dynamic one. Is it any wonder that the English language soared to such heights during this period? The Shakespeare scholar, G. Wilson Knight - in books like 'The Imperial Theme' and 'The Crown of Life' - is also excellent on this topic. It's a shame that the second Elizabethan age has been quite the reverse in many ways.

William Wildblood said...

I think that language does have a lot to do with it. When language is poetically rich it can inspire thought and vice versa.

Chiu ChunLing said...

The eternal consequence is of primary importance (religion), the long-term consequence secondary (nature, including human nature), and the short term consequence tertiary if it is even to be considered at all (everything modernity thinks important).