THE SCHOOL OF NIGHT
by Frederick Turner
1593 was a plague year in England. A plague makes nothing matter: the black noise of apparently random and horrible death amid blooming health and plenty drowns out the subtler vibrations of moral and political significance.
They come, they go, they trot, they dance: but no speech of death. All that is good sport. But if she [that is, Death] be once come and, on a sudden and openly, surprise either them, their wives, their children, or their friends, what torments, what outcries, what rage, and what despair cloth then overwhelm them? . . .At the stumbling of a horse, at the fall of a stone, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently ruminate, and say with ourselves, What if it were death itself?
–from John Florio’s translation of Montaigne
England herself was sick: the euphoria of 1588 at the defeat of the Spanish Armada had soured by 1593; Philip Sidney, the stellar fire of English civilization, had died at Zutphen; Raleigh was in disgrace; Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with its odor of brimstone and despair, was touring the provinces. At a performance of the play in Exeter the actors noticed there was one devil too many in the damnation scene: they closed the show and left the place in terror, and the actor Alleyn wore a cross thereafter when he played Faust.
In London, if we can trust Jonson’s portrait in The Alchemist, the plague year had a mood of manic charivari, of picaresque atrocity, unbridled lust and ingenious crime. Law was ridiculed or in abeyance. The hero was the cony-catcher, the spy, the con-man, the Felix Krull. That year the trial of Christopher Marlowe for atheism took place, marked by the treachery of the playwright Thomas Kyd to his erstwhile roommate and the lurid half-truths of the informer Richard Baines. Marlowe was not convicted because he was murdered first, in one of those tavern brawls he got into, like Shakespeare’s Mercutio:
Benvolio: . . .For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.
Mercutio: Thou art like one of these fellows that, when he enters the confines of a tavern, claps me his sword upon the table, and says “God send me no need of thee!” and by the operation of the second cup draws him on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.
The quarrel was over the bill for a day’s drinking. Touchstone in As You Like It is referring to this incident when he describes the ill effects of neglect upon a poet: “it strikes a man as dead as a great reckoning in a little room.”
Many of the great hopes of the previous decade had come to nothing. The fantasy of wealth from the New World had fired the imagination of the age:
And cheerfully at sea
Success you still entice
To get the pearl and gold,
And ours to hold, Virginia,
Earth’s only paradise.
To Faustus, if he is resolute, his magic will bring
…from America the golden fleece
That yearly stuffs old Philip’s treasury.
Sir Epicure Mammon, that plague year, waits in expectation for the alchemist Subtle to produce “the flower of the sun, / The perfect ruby, which we call elixir”:
Now you set your foot on shore
In Novo Orbe: here’s the rich Peru:
And there within, sir, are the golden mines,
Great Solomon’s Ophir!
But the American elixir had turned out to be a fraud. Raleigh’s Virginia expedition had perished on the shoals and shores of Hatteras, and what gold had entered the European economy had fueled rampant inflation. We can imagine it in modern terms: the revulsion against the space program in the seventies, perhaps even the inflationary interbellum Germany of George Grosz and Thomas Mann. The excitement of a new world has turned into a fever and thence into a sickness.
Perhaps we can glimpse the same confrontation with the abyss in the religious and philosophical sphere. However terrifying, the seizure of religious power by Henry VIII and Elizabeth must have felt like an intoxicating liberation to those who thought about such things: we had taken control over our own spiritual lives, the human arrangements of law and state were, all along, the earthly embodiment of the laws of the cosmos, there was a divine stamp upon social intercourse. The minor loss of the rituals of the old church had been more than compensated for by the magnificent spectacle of court and theatre; the cult of the Virgin Mary was replaced by the cult of the Virgin Elizabeth; the translation of the Bible into English did not demystify the Word of God but gave it greater dignity, so splendid was the English of the translation.
But after all, what was this human world but a quintessence of dust? Man does not live by words alone: he must be nourished by the Eucharistic bread of heaven. The theatre is not a church. The queen is aging: her pageantry and painting can no longer conceal it. Perhaps the safest thing to do with the Word of God is to make it into an iron rule for life, as the Puritans did, and so overcome the uncertainty of this new world.
Even in the sciences the boundaries of the world have cracked, giving us a glimpse of a void beyond. No use covering up our eyes with our hands like Michelangelo’s damned soul: the Renaissance pride of knowledge makes us peer between our own fingers:
Let not light see my black and deep desires
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.
Thus the deicide Macbeth. The optical research that produced the telescope was already in progress; the many comets of the time were being carefully observed and mathematically recorded. The new philosophers were prying into the privates of God.
It was in this context that a remarkable gathering came together around Walter Raleigh, exiled from the court and living in the pleasant country estate of Sherborne in Dorset. There many young gentlemen and intellectuals flocked to him, to “fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.” Shakespeare’s court of Aragon in scholarly retirement is surely a portrait of them; and so perhaps is the exiled duke and his retinue in As You Like It. They called themselves The School of Night and affected black apparel, like Jaques’ melancholy garb or Hamlet’s “suits of sables.” Melancholy, with its fine edge of madness, genius, and suicidal boldness of speculation, was their humor.
Who were they? First, of course, Raleigh himself. Raleigh wore black velvet, with a myriad pearls sewn on loosely so that in a press they would fall and roll among the crowd, to be fought over as he passed on, with his gold earring, his princely perfume. Raleigh’s heart, so his myth went, was broken by the Queen. She called him “Water,” making fun of his name, and he, in his epic love-poem to her, called himself “Ocean” and her the queen of night, Cynthia, the moon, who controlled the wild tides. The Queen had flown into a jealous rage when she found out about his secret marriage to Elizabeth Throckmorton, and had exiled him from court. His mood ranged from the elegiac to the bitter:
Like truthless dreams, so are my joys expired,
And past return are all my dandled days;
My love misled, and fancy quite retired–
Of all which passed the sorrow only stays.
My lost delights, now clean from sight of land,
Have left me all alone in unknown ways;
My mind to woe, my life to fortune’s hand–
Of all which passed the sorrow only stays. . .
Go, soul, the body’s guest,
Upon a thankless arrant.
Fear not to touch the best;
The truth shall by thy warrant.
Go, since I needs must die,
And give the world the lie.
Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood;
Say to the church, it shows
What’s good, and cloth no good:
If church and court reply
Then give them both the lie.
Raleigh knew well the world that lies behind the grand theatre of the world: “Who was it,” he asks in his History of the World, “that appointed the earth to keep the centre, and gave order that it should hang in the air?” If the earth is no sure foundation, then we all “hang in the air” together; or to change the metaphor, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Shakespeare’s melancholy Jaques, who speaks this famous speech is echoing or echoed by a poem of Raleigh’s:
What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division;
Our mother’s wombs the tiring-houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy;
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is
That sits and marks still who does act amiss;
Our graves that hide us from the searching sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we playing to our latest rest.
And then the last line, that only Raleigh could have written
Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest.
The origin of this poem was probably the wonderful Fable About Man by Juan Vives, the Spanish Renaissance philosopher, which in turn derives from ideas in Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. In Vives’ fable, the gods are celebrating Juno’s birthday. Like Shakespeare’s Prospero, Jupiter stages a masque for their entertainment. The theatre that he creates is the world, the “great globe itself.” The actors are the living creatures that grow and crawl upon its face. Lastly Jupiter creates Man, costuming him in the excellent mask and costume of head, body, limbs, senses. Man is the greatest actor of all, the finest mimic. He mimics plants and animals with brilliant verisimilitude; then he retires, and the curtain is drawn back to reveal him as a rational, social creature, prudent, just, faithful, human, kindly, and friendly, at home in civil society. Next, he robes himself more splendidly still, and presents the gods themselves in all their beauty and wisdom. At last he impersonates Jupiter himself, so well that none of the gods can tell the difference between the real and the counterfeit. Whereupon Man is seated at the divine banquet, and crowned the brother of the gods.
“Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest.” Well, said Raleigh, let us play out the play nevertheless. His whole life became an exercise in the Gay Science of the magnificent gesture. If life is a game, then is it not noble to play it as well as, or better than, something more “serious”? That way we put the gods to shame. Perhaps, as with Shakespeare’s Antony, that fascinating queen had corrupted the brave soldier. Raleigh’s loose pearls remind us of the “crowns and coronets” of Antony, which are like “plates dropped from his pocket”; Raleigh’s sea-battles remind us of Antony’s; his bounty likewise; like Antony, Raleigh botched a suicide, and like Antony, Raleigh began his dying speech twice, in order to get the full attention of his audience.
In any case, Raleigh played the game with magnificent gallantry. In his role of soldier we see him storming the land and sea defenses of Cadiz against absurd odds, he and Essex striving which could show the craziest streak of courage, sacking the city, carrying off its great library among the spoils, to be the nucleus of the Bodleian Library: there Raleigh got the terrible splinter-wound of which he limped the rest of his life. Or again at Fayal in the Azores, storming ashore at a disadvantage, for he could have landed elsewhere in greater safety. As he says in his History of the World:
The truth is, that I could have landed my men with more ease than I did, yea, without finding any resistance, if I would have rowed to another place; yea, even there where I landed, if I would have taken more company to help me. But, without fearing any imputation of rashness, I may say that I had more regard of reputation in that business than of safety. For I thought it to belong unto the honour of our prince and nation that a few islanders should not think any advantages great enough against a fleet set forth by Queen Elizabeth.
It was Raleigh’s ambition not only to grace the stage of his world but to have changed the stage itself. He pushed out the boundaries of the world with his expeditions to Virginia, the Orinoco, Guyana; he sought the legendary Eldorado, and though he brought back little gold, he changed the economics and ecology of the world by introducing to Europe the tomato, the potato, and tobacco. Like Othello, he brought back tales of monsters and “anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders.” He trafficked not only with the void beyond the world of maps but the void of the future, and changed both into a setting for his grand gestures.
But there was nothing lightweight about him: he was an imagemaker, but his images grew “to something of great constancy,/ But howsoever strange and admirable.” He knew the foremost scientists, scholars, navigators, mathematicians of his time, and contributed seriously in a number of academic fields. His History of the World was, for some time, definitive. It is typical of him to have embarked not just on a history of England, but of the whole world:
I confess that it had better sorted with my disability, the better part of whose times are run out in other travails, to have set together (as I could) the unjointed and scattered frame of our English affairs than of the universal; in whom, had there been no other defect (who am all defect) than the time of day, it were enough; the day of a tempestuous life drawn on to the very evening ere I began. But those inmost and soul-piercing wounds which are ever aching while uncured, with the desire to satisfy those few friends which I have tried by the fire of adversity–the former enforcing, the latter persuading–have caused me to make my thoughts legible, and myself the subject of every opinion, wise or weak.
The point of view one must adopt if one wishes to discuss the whole world is necessarily outside it. Like Descartes, Raleigh embarked on a program of systematic skepticism. There are stories of his refuting divines who fell back on invisible essences when the conversation turned to God or the Soul. Raleigh does not deny the existence of either, but he refuses to allow his interlocutor to claim that something which is an artifact of verbal definitions had extra-verbal authority. The soul, he felt, was created as Vives’ actor creates his part; but is no less real for that. Whether he felt the same way about God we do not know.
Raleigh was the Renaissance Man par excellence, “the courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,” and he collected around him an astonishing variety of genius. Christopher Marlowe was certainly one of his circle. In As You Like It, which, I maintain, has the Sherborne exiles in mind, Shakespeare refers indirectly to a famous exchange of pastoral love-poems between Marlowe and Raleigh, and directly to Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, which had been completed on Marlowe’s death by George Chapman, another member of the School of Night. “Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might: Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?” Marlowe was that “dead shepherd”; he also wrote “Come live with me and be my love” to which Raleigh wrote an ironic rebuttal. As You Like It is a dramatic expansion of that same dialectic, between the urgency and the impracticality of love.
The unsavory informer Richard Baines, who testified in Marlowe’s trial for atheism, links Marlowe with Raleigh repeatedly, relying on the latter’s disgrace with the Queen to aim so high in his slanders. Baines’ evidence gives a fascinating if unreliable record of the conversation of the School of the Night. Marlowe, Baines maintained, had stated that “Moyses” kept the Jews 40 years in the wilderness “. . .to thintent that those who were privy to most of his subtilties might perish and so an everlasting superstition Remain in the hartes of the people.” Critics usually take this, if Marlowe indeed said it, to be an angry young intellectual’s usual outrageousness, to upset the proper citizen; but if we look closer, and in the context of Marlowe’s undoubted learning and his political opinions as shown in Tamburlaine, a more interesting possibility arises. What Marlowe must have been talking about was the Noble Lie of Plato’s Republic, the necessary fiction that underlies any society, the illusion that protects the vulgar from the terror and chaos of their own freedom. Other elements of Baines’ testimony confirm this hypothesis: “Moyses, being brought up in all the artes of the Egiptians, ‘found it easy’ to abuse the Jewes, being a rude and grosse people.” Marlowe (probably through Giordano Bruno) had come across the neoplatonic tradition that the chimerical Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus was of equal antiquity and authority with Moses, thus providing a humanist counterweight to the Bible. Further, Marlowe said (according to Baines) that the Jews were right to crucify Jesus: naturally one should defend the fiction upon which all one’s value must rest. Since we must play a game of life, let it at least be a good one. The Catholics, said Marlowe, had a better claim than the Protestants to God and good religion, because their pomp and ritual were better. Marlowe, said Baines, proposed to write a new religion–its Greek, at any rate, would be better than that of the New Testament.
But there is a terror in the nakedness of such a mind. Doctor Faustus explores that terror. Having no God to meditate the ferocity of its aspiration, the mind must contemplate and prey upon itself, until the veils of habit tradition and expectation are torn away and the soul confronts the essential zero at its core. But the fierce spirit presses on:
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command. Emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces,
Nor can they raise the wind or read the clouds;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as cloth the mind of man
A sound magician is a mighty god:
Here, Faustus, try thy brains to gain a deity!
All that might frighten him is but a tissue of words:
This word damnation terrifies not him
For he confounds in hell in Elisium.
But the answer is that
Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
in one self place, for where we are is hell
And where Hell is there must we ever be. . . .
Shakespeare’s Hamlet stares into the same darkness:
I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself
a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
That “nothing,” the “not to be” which Hamlet poises against “to be,” is the fascination, the terror that ravishes the minds of these Renaissance men. First it is the realm of possibility, the void that Lucretius posits as the necessary space for new things to happen in. But it becomes a sort of black hole that sucks the self into itself in a feverish vortex of reflection, until the self yearns to be rid of itself:
All beasts are happy,
For when they die
Their souls are soon dissolved in elements,
But mine must live still to be plagued in hell.
Cursed be my parents that engendered me!
No, Faustus, curse thyself, curse Lucifer
That hath deprived me of the joys of heaven.
O it strikes, it strikes! Now, body, turn to air
Or Lucifer will bear thee quick to hell.
O soul, be changed into little water drops
And fall into the ocean, he’er be found.
My God, my God, look not so fierce on me!
Milton’s fallen angels will inhabit that same mental space:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?
Here at least
We shall be free. . . .
. . .For who would lose
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather, swallow’d up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night,
Devoid of sense and motion?
But the paradox is that the “intellectual being,” to be what it is, must have a frontier with the void: its own corrosive skepticism, like Descartes’ doubt of all things sensory, must burn itself to the quick. And the burning is both a torment and a delight, a ravishment.
All the same, the world seen from such a vantage-point – the All seen from the only point of view outside it, that is, Nothing – becomes valueless in turn, and we are left with the dark charivari of Wagner and the devils, unnatural strawberries in winter, delicious, soul-stealing sexuality without heart or issue: a theatre-world of illusion and sensation without substance. One of the things they talked about, that plague year in Sherborne, was what kind of value can be found or created in such a world. If we are masks, can masks love each other? If Vives’ fable of Man the protean actor is accurate, can we act Goodness and Truth and really make them come to be? To do that would be godlike work enough: to claim from the wilderness of the void, “clean from sight of land,” a new world. Shakespeare, I believe, was trying to answer these questions in Othello, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest.
Who were the others in the School of Night? John Florio was one: Florio was the translator of Montaigne, and a friend of Giordano Bruno, Richard Hakluyt and Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton. Giordano Bruno came to England in 1583 and lived at the house of his patron, Mauvissiere the French ambassador. Bruno’s presence may in fact have catalyzed the formation of the School of Night. To those memorable dinners at the French embassy came Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, Philip Sidney, and Fulke Greville; Florio, Bruno and Mauvissiere played host. The conversation, according to Bruno’s Cena de le ceneri, dwelt on the new Copernican system of astronomy, and its philosophical implications. Florio’s Montaigne was on Shakespeare’s shelves, we know, for there is a copy with his hooked-S signature in it. Another member was Florio’s publisher, Edward Blount, one of the “stationers in Paules churcheyard” who were implicated with Marlowe in Thomas Kyd’s accusations of atheism. Blount was also the publisher of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Matthew Roydon the poet and William Warner, a scientist who probably anticipated Harvey in his discovery of the circulation of the blood, were associates of Marlowe’s and also of other members of the School of Night. The wizard John Dee, whose magical entertainment of the emperor Rudolf 11 at his court at Prague in the late eighties probably formed the basis of the corresponding scene in Doctor Faustus, was also closely connected with the group. Although Dee himself published little, the work of his disciple Robert Fludd gives us a good idea of the nature of his thought. Fludd developed a remarkable memory system called the Theatrum Mundi, the Theatre of the World. Frances Yates believes that the architecture of the Globe Theatre was partly inspired by this system. George Chapman, the translator of Homer, was another member of the School. Some have speculated that Chapman was Shakespeare’s “rival poet,” though others, notably A.L. Rowse, believe Marlowe himself better fits the part. In either case, the rivalry might explain the peculiar relationship of Shakespeare to the group, one of close interest, admiration, and intimate knowledge, but also a certain personal distance and even hostility. Chapman’s close relationship with Marlowe is attested by his completing of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, which had been interrupted by Marlowe’s death.
Through Raleigh, who was his patron, Edmund Spenser himself must have come to know other members of the group. Muriel Rukeyser believes that there had been an earlier gathering of some elements of the School at the Abbey of Molanna in County Cork, Ireland, during Raleigh’s Irish sojourn in the late eighties. In the Mutabilitie Cantos of Spenser a philosophy of change and appearance is adumbrated which accords closely with the preoccupations of the School of Night. More interesting still, the astronomical researches of the School are reflected in these cantos, and the philosophical thesis of the poem is illustrated by a myth in which the river-nymph Molanna betrays the natural mysteries of Diana’s nakedness to the curiosity of a Faun. If the abbey of Molanna was the site of philosophic, scientific and astronomical researches and discussions, the myth, translated, might well describe the School of Night. As we shall see, if Diana is taken to be the moon, there is a still more exciting possibility. One member of the School of Night, the actual proprietor of the abbey of Molanna, was a great astronomer who is known to have observed the craters of the Moon. To this subject I shall return.
Spenser’s Faerie Queene reflects another interest of the School: the new-found-land of America. Fairyland is, according to the second canto of the Second Book, compared with the “Indian Peru,” the lands about the Amazon, and “fruitfullest Virginia” itself. In a sense, the fairies are Californians. (California was named for a fabulous country in Spanish romance.)
Who else were in the School? The discoverer of San Francisco Bay, Raleigh’s friend and kinsman Francis Drake, among others, and his half-brother Humphrey Gilbert, and his close associate Richard Hakluyt. Probably Philip Sidney was too: almost all of the poets in the School contributed to The Phoenix Nest, the collection of elegies for him. Robert Sidney, Philip’s brother, is known to have been closely connected with the group.
I do not mean to imply that the School of Night was a sort of club, with rules and membership-cards. It was more like a sort of loose network, changing and adding to itself as time passed, conducting ideas very rapidly across its membership, and, though a nucleus is clearly identifiable, without a clear boundary line. We have in the School of Night a living demonstration of the actual workings of a Zeitgeist or “climate of thought”; a civilization is not an impersonal force but a network of conversations in which ideas are generated and developed. There is no “program” except the program that the conversation itself creates; and people join and drop out of the conversation in no systematic way. Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, for instance, became in later years a central figure in the group, taking over the role of prime financial patron from the impoverished Sir Walter Raleigh; but in 1593 he was a relative newcomer. Later the main meeting-place of the School was Northumberland’s London seat, Sion House, across the Thames from Kew Gardens; and here his circle, which included the Earl of Derby, Ben Jonson, the poets Goodge and Peele, the astronomer Robert Hughes, and others, merged with Raleigh’s. Northumberland was nicknamed “The Wizard Earl,” and was the patron of a number of poets, scholars, scientists and mathematicians.
Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature portrait of Northumberland repeats a theme which is becoming familiar. He is lying in a garden; on his face an expression of meditation and melancholy; above him in the sky is an odd emblem, a balance-scale whose yoke or fulcrum is so close to one end of the balance beam that the cannon-ball or globe on the nearer end is exactly balanced by the feather on the other. Written alongside is the motto: tanti, meaning “so much” and “so little.” The great weight in one scale, if the leverage is correct, can be sustained by the featherweight in the other. Archimedes had claimed to be able to move the world if he were given a fixed place for a fulcrum. The emblem and motto develop Archimedes’ idea in a way peculiar to the School of Night. Does the emblem mean that the world is equal to nothing? Or that it is supported by nothing? Or that so great is human thought that though it have but a feather’s weight in the physical realm, yet by the contrivance of a machine it can move the world? From what bird came the feather? The mind or imagination of man was likened to a bird in a metaphor standard to the great Renaissance humanists. The fulcrum is a sort of equals-sign; the length of the beam on either side can be compared to a numerical multiplier; the weights are the multiplicands. What does the equation mean?
Walter Raleigh once astonished the Queen by claiming to be able to weigh tobacco-smoke. When challenged, he weighed a pipe of tobacco, smoked it, weighed it again, and subtracted the second figure from the first. There is a power of thought behind this trick which, two hundred years before the oxygen-phlogiston controversy, has already seized the importance of the competing principles involved. The apparently insuperable problem of weighing smoke has yielded to the leverage of a mental algebra that, by reversing the problem, solves it easily. The terms of the solution are opposite to the terms of the problem, just as the force exerted at one end of a lever is opposite to the force experienced by the mass at the other.
The generalization of the lever-idea in the Renaissance has been noted by Frances Yates. The frontispiece of Robert Fludd’s Technical History of the Macrocosm, which she reproduces in her book The Theatre of the World, depicts a wheel, whose hub is an ape, emblematic of Man’s mimetic powers. The spokes divide a series of representations of human technical activities: surveying, lifting by pulleys, chronometry, architecture, navigation, astronomy, music, and so on. Pulleys, like hydraulic screws, are relatively simple extensions of the lever concept: both translate distance into mass and vice-versa in the same way as does a lever. More subtly, the translation is effected in terms of strict ratios: a single block-and-tackle lifts twice the weight half the distance, a screw of a given periodicity will lift twice the water half as fast as a screw of half that periodicity, and so on. In light of the principles of ratio and proportion, the relevance of the other technical activities becomes clear: musical notes consist of periodicities in integral ratios to each other; surveying, navigation, architecture, and astronomy use the trigonometrical proportions of the sides of triangles–parallax is a sort of mental leverage and an angle is a spatial ratio; and chronometers, besides using the differential proportions of cogged wheels and levers, indicate the rational relation of various periodicities in the cosmos: terrestrial, lunar, solar, and sidereal. Moreover the lenses used in telescopes and theodolites, which were being developed by the School of Night during this period, display similar rational relations between their refractive indexes, radii of curvature, magnification and focal length.
Fludd himself was probably on personal terms with several members of the School in its later years. If we generalize his principles once more, we are very close to the ideas we have already detected as characteristic of the School of Night. The principle of the lever, whereby a lesser weight balances a greater across a fulcrum by means of a proportionate difference in the length of the beam ends, can be extended and abstracted in a very suggestive way. In theory, for instance, an infinite weight could be properly balanced by an infinitesimal one if the scales are properly biassed: the world against a feather. The weightless thoughts of man can effectively control the massive universe itself, if correct principles of rational transformation–proper levers, pulleys, lenses, clocks, quadrants–can be found. The microcosm can not only reflect, but control, the macrocosm. With correct mnemonic technology, the whole universe can be stored in one man’s memory: here the levers are the “commonplaces,” the topoi of the “memory theatre” system of recall. Modern science tells us that the information storage capacity of the human brain is many orders of magnitude greater than the amount of information in the physical universe, so the idea is in principle quite sound.
The theatre itself can balance the great stage of the world in the same way. Outside Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre hung an emblem of Hercules, earning the status of a god by carrying on his shoulders the globe of the world. If our dramatic technology is sophisticated enough, the empty space inside the theatre, populated only by weightless thoughts and imaginings, “airy nothings,” “the forms of things unknown,” can influence the universe itself outside its walls. The fulcrum is the trope, the transforming leverage of metaphorical language. Artistic mimesis is in this sense an originating and creative force; not a passive copying but an active seizing of control over the world.
Again, we are presented with the vertiginous idea of the whole universe in one pan of the scales, and nothing in the other: with the implication that if we can inhabit that nothingness, colonize it with plantations, so to speak, we shall gain magical control over the world. Even the difference between man and God becomes trivial if the lever which weighs them is properly adjusted. And this leaves us in the same loneliness as God’s own loneliness, with no superordinately responsible guardian between us and the absolutely arbitrary.
If the weights at either end of a lever correspond in algebra to the quantities on either side of an equation, and the lengths of the balance-beam ends to the multiplicands, to what does the fulcrum correspond? The answer, of course, is the “equals” sign, which divides and connects the two sides of the equation. We may fruitfully think of the “equals” sign as a transformation of the double colon used to indicate the isomorphism of a pair of ratios, as in 2: 3 :: 4: 6. The double colon becomes a pair of lines ( = ) in a delightfully appropriate geometrical development from zero-dimensional point to one-dimensional line, just as the single colon, transformed to a single line, and rotated 90°:, becomes the line between the numerator and denominator of a fraction. Thus 2/3 = 416. This development from point to line reminds us of that wonderful finesse whereby the calculus enables us to treat continuities as assemblies of infinitesimals.
And who devised the modern equals sign? The fulcrum of this paper lies in the answer to this question. The great Arabic mathematicians had invented practical algebra (al-jabr: “the art of bone-setting”); but between them and the theoretical elegance of Newton, Leibniz, and Descartes lies a mysterious gap. The finesse, or aufhebung, whereby fractions are cancelled, becomes, when generalized, the spirit of modern mathematics. It is usually believed that the French mathematician Ferdinand Vieta must take most of the credit for universalizing the useful techniques of the Arabs into a fully-fledged body of theory. But there is strong evidence to suggest that much of the credit must go to the English mathematician Thomas Hariot. Hariot’s disciple Nathaniel Torporley had indeed been Vieta’s secretary; Vieta and Hariot clearly knew each other’s work; in a period of scientific breakthrough we know that discoveries are often made simultaneously and independently (as of course with the discovery of calculus in the next generation). But whoever first used the equals-sign, we do know that Hariot was the first to use its immediate derivatives, the signs for “greater than” and “lesser than,” > and <, which show a theoretical interest in and understanding of the meaning of the equals sign. To Hariot we can assign the mathematical fulcrum. He was said to be “the first that squared the area of a spherical triangle” and, it was claimed, he could “make the sign of any arch on demand,” that is, provide the formula of any curve. Hariot was beating on the frontiers of the calculus.
Most important of all, and perhaps Hariot’s greatest contribution to mathematics, was his systematic practice of “bringing the whole equation over to one side and making it equal to nothing,” that is, the fundamental operation, the sine qua non, the “to be or not to be,” of any modern algebra. And here we surely recognize our theme once more.
For Thomas Hariot was the nucleus of the School of Night, perhaps its greatest generator of ideas. He was probably Raleigh’s closest friend: in his will Raleigh left him all the “blacke suites of apparell” he possessed, together with a generous pension; there exists in the British Museum a paper written in Hariot’s handwriting containing notes on Raleigh’s magnificent speech on the scaffold; when Raleigh tried suicide in the tower after his first arrest for treason, Hariot attended him; Raleigh gave the Irish estate of Molanna, once a monastery, to Hariot for his own. Yes, Hariot was that astronomer who laid bare the glories of Diana. The estate of Molanna later went to Richard Boyle, father of the great chemist. Hariot was even suspected, with Raleigh, of having been involved in the Gunpowder Plot; so great was King James’ fear of Hariot that one of his accusations against Raleigh was that Raleigh had made Hariot cast the horoscope of the king. Countless other documents connect them: their association lasted over thirty-six years, from 1581 or thereabouts, when Raleigh took Hariot into service, until Raleigh’s death in 1618.
Perhaps it was the context of wild adventure surrounding their early association that cemented their friendship. Hariot had attended Oriel College, where he made the acquaintance of Robert Hughes (they graduated the same year, 1579). He already had the reputation of a brilliant mathematician and scholar. Raleigh probably hired him as a tutor in the expanding science of navigation: in those years Raleigh also consulted Drake, Hakluyt and Humphrey Gilbert on the same subject. Hariot may even have been an observer on the Amadas-Barlow voyage of 1584. In any case, Raleigh entrusted to Hariot the scientific mission of the first Virginia Expedition of 1585.
On that expedition the astonishing breadth of Hariot’s genius began to show itself. He mapped the coastline of the Hatteras peninsula, the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds and the shoals and island to the north and south. He recorded the new species of animals and plants that abounded in the New World, and gave them names; he wrote down the customs, history, and politics of the local Indians; he even made the first transcript of a North American Indian language, Carolina Algonquian, developing a system of English orthography for the purpose, and taking note of the interesting linguistic implications of its dialectal variations. He made friends with two Indians, Manteo and Wanchese. During the voyage he observed comets and eclipses, and developed an improved version of the cross staff, the navigational forerunner of the sextant. As geographer, cartographer, biologist, anthropologist, linguist, and astronomer he brought back out of the wreck of the colony not gold but the intangible riches that accrue from traffic with the unknown and the nonexistent. He had had his first brush with the Nothing, of the unnamed, and his eyes were opened. Perhaps the experimental, improvisational, and opportunistic spirit of American civilization derive mysteriously from that moment when Thomas Hariot first set foot upon those printless sands.
When Hariot returned he wrote at Raleigh’s request a sketch of his discoveries, entitled A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. Michael Drayton, another member of the School of Night, was inspired by this document to compose the “Ode to the Virginia Voyage” I have already quoted. (In his “Of Poets and Poesy” Drayton pays lavish tribute to his fellow-poets in the School of Night–Spenser, Warner, Marlowe and Chapman–as well as to Sidney, Shakespeare, Jonson and others.) Hariot’s American experience had released a flood of questions and philosophical speculations. It was in this period that Hariot met Marlowe: we know this because one of the gravest charges against Marlowe was his consorting with the reputed magician Hariot. Marlowe, said Richard Baines, had dismissed Moses as “a jugler, and. . .one Heriots being Sir W. Raleighs’ man can do more than he.” Hariot had “read the Atheist lecture” to Raleigh. Raleigh’s “School of Atheism,” as Father Parson termed it in his Responsio ad Elizabetha Edictum of 1592, was centered, he claimed, upon Hariot. Aubrey deplores Hariot’s influence on Raleigh and Northumberland, claiming that Raleigh’s History of the World also bears the taint of Hariot’s “deism.” Antony a Wood, conceding Hariot’s great skill in mathematics, says that Hariot “had strange thoughts of the Scriptures and always undervalued the old story of the Creation of the World, and could never believe that trite position, ex nihilo niha fit.” It was only his powerful protectors, evidently, that kept Hariot from the stake, or worse. Dee’s library at Mortlake had been burned by an angry, terrified populace, and Dee’s reputation was if anything rather less lurid than Hariot’s. Giordano Bruno, on his way from the Thames landing stages to the French ambassador’s mansion to dinner with the School of Night, had nearly been lynched. Hariot complained in a letter to Johannes Kepler that it was impossible to express one’s views freely in public. Raleigh’s estate at Sherborne, where the School gathered in exile from the queen’s displeasure and the plague, quickly gained the reputation of a place of black arts and witchcraft. Raleigh and Northumberland were finally beheaded for their views; Hariot was imprisoned; Bruno burnt at the stake; Spenser exiled; Marlowe saved from the gallows by the thrust of a dagger.
But even in the fear and calumny we can see a grain of truth, I think. What Hariot had actually said about the Creation of the World was more subtle than Wood’s quotation: it was that in a sense the two statements ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing nothing is made) and omnia fint ex nihilo (out of nothing everything is made) could both be true and did not contradict each other. Now the Aristotelian idea that “nothing can come from nothing,” as King Lear puts it, is surely opposed to the Biblical account of creation of the world out of nothing. Antony à Wood is obviously confused, or his Latin has deserted him. Hariot would have been quite orthodox in denying the impossibility of creation ex nihilo. But what he really maintained was a very mysterious paradox: that both nothing, and everything, are made out of nothing. Obviously our theme, of the world and nothing balanced across the fulcrum (or yoke, or jugum, or yoga) of the scales, has recurred, more clearly still. How can we resolve the paradox? Perhaps one way is suggested by Marlowe’s claim (according to Kyd) that he had as much right to strike coins as did the Queen. That is, perhaps the world has the same sort of reality as the value of a coin: a conventional reality, for it is “only” convention that distinguishes between a counterfeit coin and a genuine one. If the universe is indeed the result of a “fiat,” a spoken word, then it is obviously of the same order of being as a conventional entity, such as a law, a game, a contract, a marriage, or a fiction. Like Moses’ “subtilties,” the universe itself is a Noble Lie. “All the world’s a stage”; the “great globe itself, yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, and like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff as dreams are made on. . . .” Vives’ fable comes back to us again.
So the world is like language: a self-maintaining, self-validating conventional reality. Indeed, it is language: or, one might say, language is it. The act of translation, then, is not merely an epistemological operation, but an ontological one as well. We know already of Hariot’s fascination with the nature of translation: his friendship with the Amerindian princes Wanchese and Manteo, his naming the unnamed-in-English, his linguistic and orthographic investigations. Now, through Walter Raleigh, Hariot met the translators John Florio and George Chapman and became closely involved with the issue of translation in general, and the translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in particular. In Chapman’s dedication of his Homer he thanks his helpers (including Robert Hughes, another member of the School of Night); but his chief praise and gratitude are saved for Thomas Hariot, whose learning was essential to the whole enterprise. Muriel Rukeyser thinks that Keats noticed Hariot’s name in Chapman’s dedication, and that Keats has Hariot in mind in his magnificent “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: Hariot is both the “watcher of the skies” and the explorer who looks on the new ocean “with a wild surmise.”
One of the reasons for the present obscurity of Hariot was that his executor and former mathematical associate Nathanial Torporley failed to publish most of the work Hariot left behind. Further, Torporley, afraid of King James and the new atmosphere of superstitious terror and suppression of magic that James fostered, betrayed his dead friend by turning on him in print and attacking him for his atomist opinions. Worse, he sat on Hariot’s most important work and thus condemned it to obscurity. Hariot (like Shakespeare, as one critic notes) was careless in his lifetime of his own literary posterity and never bothered to publish his major work.
What was the atomism Torporley condemned? Why was it abhorrent to the orthodox? Is there a connection with Hariot’s other speculations and discoveries? The masterwork of classical Democritean atomism was the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius. Hariot and his School undoubtedly knew it well. (So did Shakespeare: he quotes from it continually.) For Lucretius the world is made up of indivisible particles, just as a discourse in a language is made up of the individual letters of the alphabet. The atoms could be combined into various levels of organization, as letters are combined into words, sentences, discourses and so on. The idea of the world as language is one we have already encountered. But Lucretius went further. If the world were made only of atoms, he argued, there could be no motion: the world would be a fixed block, like Parmenides’ One. But motion obviously occurs, and all changes are a kind of motion. Motion must have space to occur in; there must be something other than atoms. But there is nothing other than atoms; therefore the universe must be partly composed of void: the atoms float within a void, and the density or rarefaction of matter is a function of how much void it contains. Of course we have here the embryo of modern physical chemistry.
Hariot took this line of thought much further. Armed with the Renaissance theory of optics originally proposed by Alhazen, that light does not proceed from the eyes to the object of vision, but is reflected from the object of vision to the eyes, Hariot began an investigation of the atomic structure of matter in terms of its optical characteristics. There exists a long correspondence between him and Johannes Kepler on the optical properties of various transparent substances, their refractive indexes, relative densities, and so on. This line of research now joined up with Hariot’s practical knowledge of lenses as a navigator and sailor, and with his expertise in surveying and trigonometry. Even on the Virginia voyage, as early as 1585, he had astonished the Indians with his burning-glass and his “perspective glasses.” The combination of his practical with his theoretical knowledge resulted, probably before 1600, in the invention of the telescope, or the “perspective truncke,” as he called it. Whether his invention preceded Galileo’s is not clear, but he must certainly now share the credit. In the next few years he observed the craters of the moon, the moons of Jupiter, the sunspots, and the horns of Venus, and predicted comets and eclipses. In his correspondence with Kepler he speculated on the structure of the whole universe; he was especially interested in how the universe would look from the point of view of one of the “fixed stars,” which were then thought to lie at the very edge of the universe. Stripped of their merely technical naiveté, his questions are identical to the questions asked by modern relativistic cosmologists: is the universe homogeneous in space and time, or only in one of them, or in neither?
And these questions bring us back to the problem of why Hariot’s atomism was so egregious an object of disapproval to Torporley. The problem is that in the atomic theory atoms are immortal, uncreated, and responsible for the nature and existence of the world. These properties were for orthodox theology rightfully attributed to God alone. So the theory of the optical characteristics of matter which made the telescope possible, was equally as opposed to the orthodox world-picture as was the disruption of the orthodox heavens that the telescope revealed. The seeds of the quantum theory and relativity had been planted in the womb of European thought.
A modern reader, with his habits of reliance on training and specialization, is inclined not to take seriously the work of some one who crossed the boundaries between the literary, the philosophical, and the scientific, and between the worlds of language, thought and action, as much as Hariot did. But he is at least consistent, and his work bore fruit. As Hariot himself scrawled on a margin, adapting an old proverb:
A man of wordes and not of deedes
Is like a garden full of weedes:
A man of deedes and not of wordes
Is like a privie full of tourdes.
The Rabelaisian freedom is quite characteristic.
If we can come back once more to the question we have asked several times in this essay, “What did the School of Night talk about?”, I think we now have a good idea of the answer. They talked about Nothing. Or, more accurately, about Everything and Nothing. From Raleigh came the shocking, magnificent vision of the world as a stage and human life as a self-maintaining fiction or game we play out, like Drake’s bowls, in the face of the abyss. From Marlowe came the idea of men as gods, and the mood of euphoria, fatal intoxication, terror, loneliness and charivari that the god-man must endure as his mind plummets the dark. From Bruno came the continental astronomy and a mystical theology of nature. Through Florio came the introspective spirals of Montaigne; and from both Chapman and Florio came a preoccupation with the nature of language. From Spenser came a vision of the alternative universe of the imagination; from Hakloyt, Gilbert, and Drake came accounts of the edge of the known world. Dee, Warner, and Hughes supplied technical and scientific theory; Jonson provided the perspective of the theatre; and the great Earl of Northumberland gave brilliant patronage and political protection. At the centre was Hariot, who brought, as I have tried to show, the single, sinuous twist of thought that held them all together–the seeing of everything in the context of nothing; the recognition of the edge that the world shares with the void, which is the only chance for creation, novelty, freedom.
And outside the School, linked to it by a myriad subtle threads of personal involvement, philosophical influence, and artistic rivalry, was Shakespeare.
In the nocturnal world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream we find, as we do at Sherborne in that plague year of 1593, the lunatic, the lover, and the poet. The lovers are in exile from the court, like Raleigh himself. The fairies perhaps come partly from Spenser. The lunar imagery is typical of the School of Night. The philosophy of the imagination, in which the “poet’s eye” glances from earth to heaven and back, that is, from the known or existent to the unknown or nonexistent and back, and “bodies forth” the “forms of things unknown,” giving to “airy nothing” a “local habitation and a name,” is one we recognize as characteristic of the School.
But suppose, taking the world to be a stage, we find, as Hamlet does, fratricide and incest under the surface of convention? The glance from earth to heaven becomes the question “to be or not to be”: to stand outside both is to have no basis for choosing either, and the mind is left terribly alone. Worse, there are evil fictions: those of Iago and Edmund. That “airy nothing” can become the terrible “nothing” of Iago’s lies or the worse “nothing” of King Lear.
Shakespeare’s deepest discussion of Nothing is King Lear. When the King’s crown is broken in two it is both All and Nothing that are broken: the circle stands for the globe (and the Globe) and for the zero. What is left is only numbers, eggshells, pea-pods, parings, oyster-shells, empty eye-sockets. The soft life that the whole-hole protects is spilt, and lies naked to the storm. The evil fictions of Edmund, once the groundedness of sacred tradition is exposed as a game, are triumphant. But both Lear and Edmund are wrong in believing the naturalist position that “nothing can come from nothing.” There can be good fictions, fictions which do not distort an existing system, as Edmund’s do, but generate a new system. By a “noble lie” Edgar convinces Gloster that his life is a miracle and that the “clear gods” are to be thanked; and he puts on the armor of a Divine Justice which will not come except through his own reinvention of it.
The problem of evil fictions intensifies in Macbeth, where imagination becomes a fever and a sickness, and confusion “makes his masterpiece.” Macbeth is an originator; Edmund is merely a distorter. We may become more than human by creating and inhabiting such a fiction as Macbeth’s, but we are damned by it to an inhuman world of dream, “told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” Macbeth is Tamburlaine and Faust.
But suppose we take the question out of the Christian era, back to just before the birth of Christ–the world of Antony and Cleopatra. Now Cleopatra is a “great fairy” who cannot be condemned by a Christian morality that has not yet come into existence. As with Titania, the moral laws do not hold for her, the “holy priests Bless her when she is riggish.” Even though, like Elizabeth’s, the “mortal moon” of Cleopatra must endure its eclipse and her proud lover be vanquished by a cold young king, nevertheless in the last days of their reign Antony and Cleopatra can create together a splendid fiction of love at the “darkling” “shore of the world.” That ungrounded reality, the All that faces Nothingness, triumphs over Caesar, who is the slave to natural groundedness.
And in The Tempest, islanded off from history, the Magician-Artist-Scientist-Philosopher is free within his magical theatre to revise the moral rules of the world for the better. Surrounded by the nothingness of the sea, “rounded” with “a sleep,” uncoupled from the responsibilities of the old world, a new paradise is brought into being by Prospero. In it Miranda, his Eve, and Ferdinand, his Adam, can re-enact the story of the Fall without its evil consequences. Creativity and change need not be necessarily evil. Prospero’s prohibitions, unlike Jehovah’s, are meant to be broken. Sexuality is not, as in Genesis, permitted in Paradise and cursed after the expulsion from Paradise, but marvellously transformed into a reward for that disobedience and generosity by which the young seize to themselves their freedom from their parents. Prospero, instead of making toil into the punishment of disobedience, as Jehovah did, transforms it into the trial of love, and gives us the beautiful spectacle of Miranda helping Ferdinand pile up logs. Most important of all, Shakespeare grounds his new ethics neither on nature (you cannot trust Caliban) nor on the inborn essential soul (you cannot trust souls of Antonio and Sebastian), but rather on an act of art, a social chess-game in which the game itself establishes the spiritual identity of its players. The climactic moment of revelation that sums up Shakespeare’s life of art is the drawing aside of the curtain to reveal Ferdinand and Miranda at chess. The brave new world, the moral America, is, like a game, ungrounded, for it needs no ground. It generates its own values; it writes its own constitution. Prospero is a juggler, like Marlowe’s Moses: but he sets his children free not only physically but spiritually too. He breaks his staff and drowns his book, freely renouncing the authority that his children have claimed as their birthright. His noble lie does not conceal the fact that it is “only” a fiction, an “insubstantial pageant” which, having served its purpose, can dissolve, solemn temples and all, and “leave not a wrack behind.” The best posterity is the freedom and self-command of one’s descendants. Perhaps (and this is mystical) Shakespeare intended to let his plays perish without being put into a book.
It is here, in The Tempest, that we find the last words of that debate on Nothing that began in the French ambassador’s house in 1583, continued across the Atlantic, into Virginia, through Hariot’s abbey of Molanna in Ireland, through the plague years at Sherborne, to its darkest moments at Sion House and the Tower of London in the time of the Gunpowder Plot. Suppose, went the debate, the world were founded on nothing? Where is the edge of the world? Would not the boundary between all and nothing constitute a fulcrum whereby we could get tremendous leverage on the world–even if that boundary existed in all matter, depending on its density or rarefaction? Suppose the soul itself were not so much an entity, a being, as a reflexive process at the boundary of being–or even a systematic absence whose suction galvanizes the world into action-like desire, for instance, which, like a lack, disappears when it is fulfilled? If we are masks, can masks love each other? Why not? Is there a fertility not of the order of nature but of the order of art? What is justice, if the soul is artificial? If the world is unfounded, like a game or a language –that is, if it is conventional by nature–what constitutes a new move or a new utterance in that game or language? What is translation if language is no less real than the world? Can we change the rules? Should we change the rules?
In the process, the conversation gave us much of our algebra, astronomy, and optics, the roots of our political theory, and a rich legacy of poetry and drama.