Alchemical imagery and ideology is present in many Romantic works of literature, but it has largely been overlooked by literary historians in their contextualization of the time period. The same can be said for mysticism in general, of which alchemy is a subset. This project accounts for alchemy in the works of transcendental philosophers and writers as it contributes to some of the most important conversations of the Romantic time period, particularly the reaction against empirical philosophy and the articulation of creative processes. The transcendental conversation is a transnational one, encompassing Germany, Britain, and America, with its use of alchemy also following this transnational progression. The German idealists developed an epistemology that took from alchemical precepts that in turn informed their spiritual models of genius and the creative process. German idealism largely influenced Romantic conceptions of art and creativity, which then contributed to the Romantic ideal of a poet-prophet. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Nathaniel Hawthorne further developed their own models of the creative process by incorporating alchemy as an image of the transformation from vision into art. I examine Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" and Hawthorne's "The Artist of the Beautiful" for their alchemical imagery that articulates such a genius ideal. I also found, however, that these two Romantic works express an awareness of artistic limitations and frustration in the face of this ideal, which illustrates the ambiguity these two writers are known for. But alchemy, as a discourse of contradictions and their negotiation, is a site that accommodates the tension between a posited ideal and the reality of actual experience. As such, alchemy, as an underlying ideology to the poet-prophet, allows for flexibility in an artist's identity. Furthermore, as a deeply personal philosophy of transformation, alchemy's image as a work of art suggests the artist's personal investment in the creative process, which is necessary to art's viability in an increasingly materialistic world.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Brocious, Elizabeth Olsen, "Transcendental Exchange: Alchemical Discourse in Romantic Philosophy and Literature" (2008). Theses and Dissertations. 1340.
transcendentalism, alchemy, mysticism, Hermeticism, German idealists, genius, transformation, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Immanuel Kant, F. W. J. Schelling, G. W. F Hegel