Aristotelian Astrology

Aristotle's cosmosCommencing my serious study of classical (Medieval) astrology to benefit not only my summer of Shakespeare (English Literature at Oxford) but also my newest novel (time travel from 21st to 16th century England), I thought I’d share what I’m learning. Never underestimate how differently folks in the 16th century saw the world.

In this regard, I give thanks to Bernadette Brady and her brilliant work at Astro Logos.

It all comes down to Aristotle.

His view of the world was that we are surrounded by 8 spheres – 7 of which are ruled by one each of the visible planets (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) and the 8th (being the Sphere of the Fixed Stars) ruled by God. When a soul incarnates, he/she moves down through each of the spheres taking up the qualities of each until he/she gets to the Sphere of the Moon.

UnknownQualities are as follows:

  • Earth = cold and dry
  • Water = cold and wet
  • Air = warm and wet
  • Fire = hot and dry

The ancients believed that souls could only incarnate on a new or full moon – and hence he/she was kept in a holding pattern in the Sphere of the Moon until the right moment – and in while there – had all the qualities absorbed by the previous spheres SCRAMBLED !

Not only was this scrambling considered the basis of all ‘disease’ (i.e. imbalance of the qualities) but sole purpose of the soul’s incarnation was to UNSCRAMBLE himself/herself through understanding of the planets (and their essential qualities) as shown in their natal charts so that he/she could return to God in the Sphere of the Fixed Stars.

imagesPerhaps like me, you’ve  wondered how in this regard some planets were considered malefic (Saturn and Mars) while others were considered benefics (Jupiter):

  • Saturn = pure cold and dry = hence not conducive to human life
  • Mars = pure hot and dry = equally not conducive to human life
  • Jupiter = pure warm and moist = very conducive to human life
  • Sun & Mercury = have no essential qualities of their own and depend solely on the other planets to which they are related.
  • Venus = acquired just the right amount of warm from the Sun and just the right about moisture from the Moon – hence considered conducive to human life.
  • Moon = pure cold and wet = hence not conducive to human life (and this is why we see so much about night ‘vapours’ being so dangerous to our health).

Wondering how to determine how you stack up? – stay tuned –  more later !!

Body & Soul – Harnessing the Renaissance Magic of Marsilio Ficino


Worth reconsidering

Originally posted on Archetypal Assets:

BODY & SOUL – Harnessing the Renaissance Magic of Marsilio Ficino

by Debra Moolenaar

© 2006

Open your life to soul.  Take control of your thoughts and emotions.  Align them with the heavens, and you could you literally realign the energies surrounding you here on earth.  By changing your frame of mind, you’ll make different choices.   You can beat those empty feelings that fuel compulsions like excessive eating, drinking, or shopping.

If you’re seeking happiness, Renaissance astrologer and magician Marsilio Ficino believed that happiness comes with the good things in life – health, wealth, position, and power – to name a few.  But having them isn’t enough. They must be desired, acquired, and used with wisdom.

Do this, he says, through natural magic.  Because soul works through symbols and images, you absorb planetary rays through food, music, talismans, and medicines that correspond to, or vibrate in sympathy with, the…

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Change as the Result of Time in the Secular Poetry of John Donne

love's alchemyOne of the perennial philosophies asserts that only in eternity (i.e. God, Plato’s forms, Aristotelian essences) can constancy be found. All else is subject to mutability, change as the result of time (Gale, 66). In Book Eleven of his Confessions, St Augustine questioned time in relation to God (the stable Truth) and His creation of the temporal world. He concluded that time – past, present and future – could be nothing more than a conscious act of human representation (Gale, 68). Whether or not this is true, I suggest that at least in his secular poetry, John Donne shows a particular interest in time and shrewdly manipulates his own representations of it in order to explore and express his ideas about constancy and mutability in a variety of thought-provoking ways.

In A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, Donne uses time to help his speaker come to grips with a difficult situation. ‘Tis the year’s midnight’ – the winter solstice – when the ‘sun is spent’ and the world’s ‘whole sap is sunk’. Someone important to the speaker, likely a lover or former lover (suggested by the speaker’s address to ‘other lovers’), has died. It is indeed a dark time. Yet the cycle of death is now complete – ‘this time to the Goat is run’ – (i.e. at the winter solstice, the sun enters Capricorn, ‘The Goat’, in order to die and be reborn). Because ‘spring’ is connected through rhyme with ‘thing’ (‘I am every dead thing’), there is hope of regeneration not only for the sun but for the speaker as well. In turn, this will ‘fetch new lust’ (the goat being associated with the genitals and the union of male and female powers, Fontana, 91). The desolate speaker takes solace from the next (‘summer’) solstice – ‘let me prepare towards her’ (emphasis added) for after ‘midnight’ comes the new day. With this, Donne has effectively reset the clock and put the difficult situation into new perspective.

Texts unfold in time; by necessity they have a beginning, middle, and end and their temporality is heightened when are framed by time. The Sun Rising is framed by the time it takes for the sun to rise. The speaker, in bed with his lover (the speaker refers to the lover as ‘she’ and himself as a ‘prince’ so is quite likely to be male), mockingly questions whether it is also ‘to thy (sun’s) motions lovers’ seasons (must) run.’ He then suggests that if this is what the sun ‘shouldst think’, then the sun is wrong. If the speaker so desires, ‘I could eclipse and cloud’ ‘thy beams’ ‘with a wink’. But he does not so desire and in the final stanza abandons his derisory threats to welcome the sun because its job is ‘to warm the world’ and the world ‘All here in one bed lay’.

Why the change of heart? Perhaps it only the speaker’s attempt to come to grips with the reality that the sun will rise regardless of what he fantasizes. Or maybe the allusion to ‘alchemy’ takes us in an altogether different direction – pointing past the false gold of temporal ‘honours’ and ‘wealth’ to something much more valuable.

Frames draw attention to that which they are framing. Frames objectify the framed and define its relationship to its surroundings adding status and value (Jacobs, 18). How better to add status and value to a sexual relationship than through allusions (‘that’s done in warming us’) to the alchemical process of warming the alembic (two connected vessels, OED n 1) and all it might imply. According to Mark Booth (342), at its heart alchemy is a spiritual exercise intended to transform man’s selfish, sexual desires into living, spiritual desires which in turn allows the Phoenix, bird of resurrection and immortality, to rise.

In The Canonization, the speaker actually suggests that he and his lover might ‘die’ (through organism?) and ‘rise’ like the ‘phoenix’ from the ‘greatest ashes’ beyond the ‘half-acre tombs’ and be reborn (the ‘phoenix riddle’). According to Booth, (342), alchemists are fascinated with love because they know that the heart is an organ of perception. Adepts at alchemical transformation have made a conscious decision to see the world through the eyes of love which in turns leads to an immortality of sorts (Booth, 343).

The speaker in The Anniversary elaborates. Although everyone and everything (‘kings’, ‘honours’, beauties’) grows older with time (the passing of ‘the sun itself’), ‘our love’ ‘no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday.’ To this end, the speaker encourages us to ‘love nobly’ and by doing so ‘add again/Years and years and years’ to achieve the ‘second of our reign’. The message seems that with proper application, through ‘love’, we can propel ourselves past time to a place where as ‘souls’, ‘nothing (else) dwells but love’.

Might this really be achieved? Donne seems to suggest not. In Love’s Alchemy, the speaker makes clear that those who ‘have deeper digged love’s mine’ do hope to achieve the ‘hidden mystery’ – the ‘elixir’ – indefinitely prolonging their lives (OED n 2 a). Realistically they have little hope of accomplishing this. For although most ‘lovers dream a rich and long delight’, what they get is a ‘winter-seeming summer’s night’ (short and cold life).

In The Flea, Donne uses time to effect desired change. ‘(C)loistered’ in bed with his lover, the frustrated speaker does everything possible to convince her to lose her ‘maidenhead’. When a flea ‘sucks’ them both, he hatches a cunning plan. ‘Mark but this flea, and mark in this’, he commences. For ‘in this flea, our two bloods mingled be.’ Doubtless knowing his lover will kill the (now doomed) flea, the speaker ratchets up the pressure by asserting that ‘this flea is you and I’ and if you kill it, you will be ‘killing three’. When his lover inevitably kills the flea (her ‘purpled’ nail marks the moment), the speaker launches into the final phase of his argument: if she had not feared that killing the flea would be a ‘sacrilege’ as he had suggested, then might her loss of ‘honour’ (and maidenhead) be equally a ‘false fear’?

The lapse between the flea’s initial ‘suck(ing)’ and its demise cannot have been more than a couple of minutes; time is pushed fast-forward on a wave of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter/pentameter culminating in a couplet marking the end of each of three distinct phases of the poem that function like acts in a play. As readers, we cannot help sensing that in this dynamic, dramatic flow of time, the speaker has seized upon the perfect moment to force his lover’s hand.

Donne also uses time to express vexation. In Song the speaker urges an unidentified other to ‘Ride ten thousand days and nights’ until ‘age snow white hairs on thee’ and then report back whether there ‘lives’ (anywhere) ‘a woman true, and fair’. The sheer length of the time proposed (along with other impossible tasks like ‘catch a falling star’) suggests an exasperated speaker who believes what he asks (yet, still he asks) is an impossibility. Vexation is further suggested by the speaker’s request virtually springing from the stressed first syllable in each of three commanding/demanding lines; ‘Go’, ‘Tell’, Teach’; the four beat sing-song nature of these lines is mocking. Even if by some wild chance ‘such a pilgrimage’ were successful, there is still time for it all to go wrong: ‘Though she were true, when you met her’, she will have turned ‘false’ by the time the speaker meets her. The speaker foresees no remedy for -‘Yet she/Will be’ – with the two beat couplet pounding home the un-deniability of the assertion.

At first blush, this poem seems trite, flippant. Those sing-song lines and hyperbole do their job. Yet ‘Tell me, where all past years are,’ suggests the speaker is not simply vexed but deeply troubled especially in conjunction with asking how he is to ‘keep off envy’s stinging’? Ouch. If the speaker’s flippancy is meant to insulate him from re-experiencing past hurts, however, then in refusing to change his mind-set he is actually perpetuating them. Constancy is not always a good thing.

In Woman’s Constancy, Donne takes a fresh approach with a (rather insincere) seventeenth century rendition of the twentieth century hit song ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (The Shirelles). Here Donne’s speaker develops his (the speaker is likely male complaining about ‘woman’s constancy) concerns that having ‘loved me one whole day’, his lover might forget all about him ‘tomorrow’. Even worse, she might choose to ‘antedate’ (assign an earlier date, OED v 2) some ‘new made vow’ in effect voiding her ‘lovers’ contract’. The reference to contract law (Donne was trained in law) is a neat twist because a contract requires reciprocity, a meeting of the minds. In suggesting that their ‘lovers’ contract’ may be invalid, the speaker legitimately gives room for his own inconstancy (‘for by tomorrow, I may think so too’). I suggest that it is just possible that he ‘abstained’ from forcing her to honour her ‘oath’ in a ‘dispute’ because he liked her ‘new vows’ as much if not better than she.

Finally, Donne highlights perhaps his most intriguing ideas about mutability and constancy in The Computation. That speaker counts up an amazingly long 2,400 years (100 for each hour) since an unidentified (and notably absent) listener has ‘gone away’. The speaker suggests that his is not a ‘long life’ however (even though it seems rather long plodding along in unrelenting iambic pentameter) but more of a metaphysical impasse: he thinks that in being ‘dead, he or she may now be immortal (presumably in the sense of not being subject to death, OED adj A a).  This apparent oxymoron invites the reader to dig deeper. What might it mean to be both ‘dead’ and ‘immortal’ at the same time? What might it mean to be a ‘ghost(s)’ that cannot die? Perhaps Donne is expressing the same sad sentiment as in Song where past pain persists (or seems to persist) into eternity making him forever feel like a ‘ghost – a mere shadow of his former self (OED n 10 a). Or Donne might have meant a ‘ghost’ with regard to the spirit (OED n 6) to which Donne might have assigned religious significance – perhaps even addressing his own schism with the Catholic Church. But regardless whether this poem is about a secular or religious relationship (or both), it bodes ill – for the speaker’s ‘Tears drowned one hundred’ of those amazingly long years and his or her ‘sighs blew out’ a good many more.

In summary, Donne uses various representations of time in his secular poetry to explore and express his ideas about constancy and mutability. While on the surface it may appear that he is a proponent of constancy, his speakers often lamenting how others are so inconstant and false, I would argue that on the whole Donne favours change. Without change, the speaker in A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day would be caught in a vicious cycle. Without change, the frustrated lover in The Flea would be caught in a sexual stalemate. In The Sun Rising his speaker seems to suggest that through alchemical change, immortality is a real possibly. Although this idea is glorified in The Canonization and The Anniversary, in Love’s Alchemy Donne suggests that realistically chances of success in this endeavour are for the most part grim. In Woman’s Constancy, Donne suggests that love is like a contract and that in trying to change the terms of said contract retroactively one may unwittingly provide the other party with a way out. Finally, in The Computation Donne explores what it may be like to be trapped in a situation feeling bereft as a ghost yet unable to die/escape the situation. Contrary to what many might believe, constancy (and/or eternity) as protrayed by Donne may not always be a good thing.





Donne, John. The Major Works. ed. John Carey. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2008.


Abbott, H. Porter. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 2008.


Booth, Mark. The Secret History of the World. New York: The Overlook Press (2008).


Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 1997.


Gale, Richard M (ed), The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics. Oxford; Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2002.


Haskin, Dayton. ‘Donne’s afterlife’ (233-2466). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


Jacobs, Richard. A Beginner’s Guide to Critical Reading. London: Routledge, 2001.


Magnusson, Lynne. ‘Donne’s language: the conditions of communication’ (183-200). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


Scherer Herz, Judith. ‘Reading and rereading Donne’s poetry’ (101-116). The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. ed. Achsah Guibbory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.


Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, ‘The Experience and Perception of Time’. 5 June 2014.



The Summer Solstice and the Portal of Mortals


worth reconsidering as the summer solstice 2014 grows near…

Originally posted on Archetypal Assets:

“Today is the summer solstice – the longest day of the year.   From here we start the long, slow slog to darkness, which culminates at the winter solstice when the sun does its annual ‘about face’ to again, favour us with its warming rays.

As markers of our seasons, the solstices have long been the subject of magic and myth.  Even in our scientifically oriented times – if approached with an enquiring spirit, these ancient ideas can inform much about our relationship with the world.

In a letter to a wealthy patron, the renowned Renaissance philosopher and astrologer, Marsilio Ficino, addressed the esoteric significance of the summer solstice, which marks the sun’s entrance into the zodiac sign Cancer:

“Ancient theologians said that souls (animae) go into lower things through Cancer, the domicile of Luna.  For since by a disposition to generation they come into a region subject to generation, appropriately…

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Art & Cognition: False Images in the Poetry of Spenser and Sidney

UnknownSidney and Spenser both suggest the purpose of poetry is to ‘delight’ and ‘teach’ using ‘speaking pictures’ in line with the Horatian tradition of ut pictura poesis – ‘as is painting so is poetry’. According to Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy, (ll. 219-22) this is to be achieved through mimesis which entails the process of imitating – with a view to perfecting – nature.

Neuropsychologist Merlin Donald suggests that mimesis works because it has played a crucial role in human cognitive evolution, serving as the primary means of representing reality prior to the emergence of language and symbolic thought. According to Donald, mimesisrefers to intentional means of representing reality utilising vocal tone, facial expression, bodily movement, manual gestures, and other non-linguistic means. This is fundamentally different from both mimicry and imitation because mimesis adds a new dimension: it ‘re-enact[s] and re-present[s] an event or relationship’ in a nonliteral yet clearly intelligible way (Kamhi).

So why do we delight in mimetic representations? Kamhi suggests because they are not real; they are carefully crafted representations of reality which require our contemplation. Out of countless possible attributes, actions, and entities, an artist or poet isolates those which he or she deems essential to his or her purpose and integrates them through mimesis into a new, embodied image (Rand, 45). It is in this new image that we take such pleasure in understanding.

During the English reformation ‘images’ were especially suspect. They were seen as impersonators, their deceptiveness offering nothing more than a temptation to idolatry and damnation (Tassi, 24). Both Spenser and Sidney were well aware of this and perhaps they conjured up the ‘false images’ in their own poetry with a view to teaching readers about this very danger. For sure much of Sidney’s Defense of Poesy is given over to justification of why ‘feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else’ (ll. 281-82) is such a noble cause. Likewise, in his letter of intention to Sir Walter Raleigh, Spenser defensively notes that he was also aware of the dangers of allegory although he had just created (a long) one.

My essay compares and contrasts the representation of what I consider to be several key ‘false images’ in Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (‘FQ’) and Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella (‘AS’). My goal is to pinpoint patterns in regards to non-linguistic representations in order to better understand how Early Modern poetry attempted to delight and teach through mimesis (as framed by Merlin Donald). In this regard, it matters not what they say but how they say it.

Arguably the most important false image in FQ is Archimago who specialises in conjuring up his own false images to confuse and manipulate (Tonkin, 63). Given Spenser’s concern about false imagery, it is not surprising that Archimago (also representing the original False Poet (id)) is responsible for pretty much all that goes wrong. Along with Redcross and Una, we first meet Archimago on the road (I i 29). It seems a safe enough place – a well-beaten path (which without narratorial comment we could not realise leads precariously one-way) situated on an open ‘plaine’ (having just experienced the dangers of the dark, forest we can appreciate the ability to see for miles around). He is ‘aged’, barefooted, and his eyes are ‘lowly bent’ to the ground. He often ‘knockt’ his breast and ‘saluted’ bowing ‘low’. Archimago appears humble, harmless enough.

Little wonder that the tired travellers accept his offer to stay overnight in his ‘litle lowly Hermitage’. The humble, harmless man seems so much that which we would like him be that along with the tired travellers, we may be forgiven for ignoring that his home lays ‘hard by a forests side’. Is it not with a prick of concern – if not fear – that we encounter the cold, dark, damp forest? Did we not fail to heed Una’s earlier warning that ‘danger hid, the place vnknowne and wilde’ (I i 12.3)? Yet we are tired. The ‘lowly Hermitage’ lays next to a ‘holy chappell edifyde’. Even though ‘oft fire is without smoke’ (I i 12..4), this is reassuring enough – perhaps so much so that we also fail to question the ‘pleasing wordes’ that humble, harmless ‘olde man’ had in ‘store’ with a voice ‘as smooth’ as glas’? Surely everyone with any experience of glass knows how dangerous, slippery it can be (I i 35.10-11)?

In regards to AS, we must search harder for non-linguistic clues for our narrator, Astrophil, appears more preoccupied with words than mimetics (al la Merlin Donald). He opens with an internal debate on how to make words ‘show’ his ‘love’ for Stella. Shall he study ‘inventions fine, her wits to entertain’ or should he just ‘look in (his) heart and write’? Yet if visual ‘images’ are suspect then what about words? Are they not ‘false’, deceiving ‘images’ as well? In Sonnet 35, Astrophil addresses this directly asking ‘what may words say, or what may words not say,/Where truth itself must speak like flattery?’ What is the relationship between images and truth and flattery? If visual and verbal ‘images’ are equally dangerous, is there nothing that can accurately represent truth? Because during this period sonnets were a popular form to strongly emote (perhaps overemote) over some desired and/or detested object (Spiller, 124), we have reason to suspect Astrophil is going to find out the hard way.

In the first stanza of AS, Astrophil declares his love in ‘truth’ but is ‘fain’ (gladly willing (OED adv B) and also perhaps a pun on ‘feign’ suggesting deceit, (OED n)) in ‘verse to show’.His ‘words’ come ‘halting forth, wanting invention’s stay’. In this sense ‘invention suggests a contrivance or device crafted through ingenuity (OED n, 9). Is Astrophil suggesting that his words are as contrived and deceiving as – perhaps – Archimago’s ‘pleasing wordes’? If so, then as readers might this realisation make our brains as ‘sunburnt’ as Astrophil’s? Reaching for our aspirin, at least we may take solace that we now have seized upon a good non-linguistic clue.

The (unnamed) narrator in FQ seems equally aware of problems with expressing truth. In the opening line of his prologue to the entire poem, he advises that whilst his ‘Muse’ did previously ‘maske’ his abilities (i.e. hide his true form and character behind an outward show, OED v 4), he is now ready for a ‘farre vnfitter taske’ which is nothing less than to write an epic poem (he must imitate the opening lines of Renaissance editions of Virgil’s Aeneid for a reason) which is also a Romance (‘sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds’(I.5)). Might we as readers be forgiven for wondering just how he might achieve such a complex objective in a single go? What if his ‘Muse’ is as deceitful as Duessa (after all, his muse is also a woman)? According to Dees (537), throughout the entire poem the words of our narrator are frequently oversimplified, contradictory, and misleading. While Dees suggests this might be because they were written in a less sophisticated age than our own, I suggest that it is more likely to have occurred by design. As our narrator moralises and explains his way through the poem, might we be well reminded of Archimago – who could also ‘well file his tongue as smooth as glas’ (I i 35.7)? It matters not what they say but how they say it.

Meanwhile while Archimago is in hot pursuit of Una, whom Redcross has abandoned thanks to Archimago’s ‘false images’, Redcross meets Duessa (I ii 13). She is well-dressed (perhaps too well-dressed) and her manner is one of ‘faire disport’ suggesting the making of merriment and fun (OED n 3). Yet if Redcross had been able or willing to see more clearly, he must surely have wondered how Duessa could have been so merry with her champion one moment and then run away from him ‘with all her powre’ the next moment when he should ‘fall’ (I ii 20.1-4). But her ‘melting in teares’ (I ii 22.1) and ‘ruefull countenaunce’ (I ii 21.1) manages to convince Redcross to accept her tale of ‘fortune false’ (I ii 22.4).

In stanza five of AS, Astrophil reminds us that ‘it is most true, that eyes are formed to serve/The inward light;’ and that if we swerve from seeing thus, we are ‘Rebels to Nature’. Perhaps he is suggesting that only in nature is truth to be found and that – by analogy – mimesis (represented nature) causes us to miss the truth? Or perhaps he is suggesting that we should elevate the ‘light of reason above our more primative senses? If so, then is mimesis not dangerous for no other reason than because it does not operate in the ‘light’ of reason? In any event, although Astrophil uses the word ‘true’ seven times in this stanza, all he can see is the (irrational) ‘truth’ that ‘I must Stella love.’

We hope that Astrophil will do better with Stella than we suspect will Redcross with Duessa. But when in stanza seven we learn that Stella’s eyes are ‘black’ (highly unusual for English women of the period), we have renewed reason to be concerned. Astrophil’s reference to a painter here is also suggestive of the dangers of representation and we are given further cause for concern when we learn that Stella’s eyes (if ‘no veil those brave gleams did disguise’), ‘sun-like, should more dazzle than delight’. In dazzling sunlight, most would instinctively turn away. Perhaps it is due to his ‘sunburnt’ brain (or the false flattery of anticipate ‘delight’) that Astrophil fails to do the same?

Redcross also has an encounter with dazzling sunlight when ‘golden Phoebus now ymounted hie’ made the road he travels with Duessa ‘so scorching cruell hot’ (I ii 29.3-5). His ‘new Lady’ cannot endure the heat and so they find shady spot whence they are ‘entertained’ by Fradubio’s story of how his association with Duessa ended with his being turned into a tree. Perhaps the brain of Redcross is also ‘sunburnt’ for although Duessa, fearing discovery, faints, he ‘oft her kist’ until she made a full recovery.

Despite being yet again dazzled by Una (unveiled, the ‘blazing brightnesse’ and ‘glorious light’ of her ‘sunshyny face’), Redcross finally manages to see something for it is and marries Una, his heroine. Not surprisingly, after this momentous occasion all goes well for him. Perhaps his aspirin finally took hold? Sadly, Astrophil’s does not. Although his narrative also ends with allusions to sunlight – ‘Phoebus gold’ – it is only to curse it because ‘O absent presence, Stella is not here’ (although he still cannot see that in reality she never really was and that what ‘told’st mine eyes’ was only his own ‘false flattering hope’).

In conclusion, by comparing and contrasting the representations of key false images I suggest we can pinpoint a pattern of carefully crafted non-linguistic images depicting inconsistencies and overreactions that act as signals or clues. Although each inconsistency and overreaction is small, isolated, seemingly harmless enough – taken together they add up to big trouble (‘oft fire is without smoke’): (1) Duessa’s behaviour in regards to her fallen champion, (2) the ‘pleasing wordes’ of a humble, harmless man whose ‘voice was ‘as smooth’ as glas’, (3) the unusual ‘black eyes’ of a woman in conjunction with reference to a painter, (4) for no apparent reason, Duessa faints after Fradubio’s story, and (5) Astrophil’s ‘sunburnt’ brain resulting from mental masturbations over a women we suspect he does not even know (Spiller, 125). I suggest these ‘false images’ serve to demonstrate to readers how difficult will be their task to not be taken in by ‘false images’ – all the more dangerous because such images can be so easily ‘explained away’ with equally dangerous false, flattering, and deceptive ‘words’.





Sidney, Sir Philip. The Major Works including Astrophil and Stella. ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.


Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. ed. AC Hamilton and Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007.


Bae, Kyung Jin. ‘What May Words Not Say’: Language and Silence in Astrophil and Stella. Journal of English and American Studies (vol. 2, December 2003) (14 May 2014).


Dees, Jerome S. “The Narrator of The Faerie Queene: Patterns of Response”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Vol. 12, No. 4 (Winter 1971), pp. 537-568.


Freeland, Cynthia. Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.


Halliwell, Stephen. Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.


Kamhi, Michelle Marder. ‘Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Gard.’ Aristos: an Online Review of the Arts. (14 May 2014).


Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto: a Philosophy of Literature. New York: New American Library, 1975.


Spiller, Michael. Development of the Sonnet: An Introduction. Florence: Routledge (1992). May 2014).


Tassi, Marguerite A. The Scandal of Images: Iconoclasm, Eroticism, and Painting in Early Modern English Drama. Selingsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2005.


Tonkin, Humphrey. The Faeire Queene. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Whispers from a Secret Life – The poetry of Christina Rossetti

Christina RossettiSome have suggested that the work of Christina Rossetti revolves around a secret, which she was either unwilling or unable to disclose (D’Amico, 173). Whether or not this is true, the usefulness of viewing her poetry as ‘whispers from a secret life’ is debatable because we no longer place emphasis on authorial intent.

But this was not the case when Rossetti was writing. Indeed, while ‘psychoanalysing’ an author might, today, be considered to commit the ‘sin’ of intentional fallacy, the study of an artist’s life to explain her work – and vice versa – was an established practice during Rossetti’s lifetime (Wright, 34).

This essay is intended as a brief ‘psychobiography’ through which to explore facets of Rossetti’s ‘secret’ as represented through several of her poems. In no way, however, am I trying to prove or disprove that a secret existed. Even if that were possible, I agree with Ms D’Amico (176) that attempting to explain Rossetti’s poetry through a single secret does not allow her to be the complex, fully-rounded poet that she undoubtedly was. I do believe, however, that this approach shines an interesting light on Rossetti as a person.

Biographers note that when young, Rossetti was passionate and wilful. She had more than the usual difficulties conquering her childish desires (Marsh, 13). Hence I have chosen to use classical Freudian (Id-Psychology based) Literary Criticism which asserts that all art and literature fulfils some repressed infantile desire of its creator much in the same way as do dreams (Wright, 28). Even though contemporary literary criticism often frowns on Freud’s patriarchal (phallas-centred) approach, I suggest it is appropriate for Rossetti who not only lived in a very patriarchal society, but also in a patriarchal household. Further, although literature is not the same as dreams in the sense that an author retains significant control over representation of her ‘repressed reality’, in Freudian terms this does not alter the fact that (1) such repression exists and (2) that it will find expression (Wright, 27).

In the Freudian context, this almost always relates to the Oedipal complex. A young girl like Rossetti, once bound to her mother through homosexual desire, must turn that desire toward father and the wish for his baby (Blass and Simon, 169). Perhaps such a desire would give rise to secrecy in a such a passionate, yet religious, young girl like Rossetti? In any event, to resolve her complex, the young girl must turn away from father back to mother with whom she must identify. This is key to successful integratation into society as a wife and mother in her own right (Eagleton, 135).

Freudian psychoanalytic theory purports that tension exists between these infantile desires and their expression. Freudian (Id-Psychology based) Literary Criticism claims this tension is channelled (consciously or not) by an author into her work (Wright, 18). Hence in investigating Rossetti’s poetry, I will look for tension in regards to setting, characters, and emotion (Wright, 27).

Winter: My Secret is considered to be Rossetti’s signature poem in regards to secrets. The tension is whether or not a particular secret shall be revealed. Usually, the title of a poem is meant to reveal important information about it and a colon indicates that which follows explains or illustrates that which precedes. Winter is a dark, dead time when people are reluctant to go outside. Might winter be symbolic of Rossetti’s well documented secluded life in later years? If so, might it at least in part, have resulted from the secret?

Today, the secret cannot be told; it ‘froze, and blows, and snows’. That which is frozen connects through rhyme with ‘knows’ and ‘shows’. Might the secret be frozen? Although rhyme also suggests a light-hearted ‘gaming’ attitude (perhaps there is no secret but just ‘my fun’), the scansion is at odds with such gaiety – it is illusive and evasive and, perhaps like the emotions underlying it, the metre is an untidy jumble.

Might this light-hearted attitude be a ploy?

Winter: My Secret is structured as a dramatic monologue the major feature of which is the speaker’s desire to achieve a purpose (Pearsall, 68). Here the speaker is attempting to establish herself (the veil suggests the speaker is female) as more powerful than her silent listener. How could she be expected to let down her guard to ‘test’ his or her ‘good will’ with so much potential for ‘nipping’ and ‘biting’ and ‘pecking’? Not only that, but giving in would unveil her – strip her cloak – exposing her to the ‘draughts’ that come ‘whistling’ through her ‘halls’. Would revelation of the secret cause her to being literally ‘frozen out’ in her own home?

While there is little evidence that Rossetti had a difficult relationship with her mother, we do know that during her father’s illness she was more or less forced to be his constant, sole companion (Marsh 47). There is the suggestion that her father, confusing Christina with her mother whom she resembled, might have made excessive demands on her (Marsh, 48). What these might have been, we ought not to conjecture. But we can surmise the scene was set for Rossetti’s Oedipus complex to unfold.

The poem shifts to spring and summer. Yet the secret remains untold. Issues of ‘trust’ endure as does the continued threat of ‘frost’ that ‘withers’ May flowers (virginity?). During the time of her father’s illness, Rossetti, well-developed for her age, changed from a ‘quick-tempered’ but ‘affectionate girl’ to a ‘painfully controlled young woman’ who was ‘mistrustful of the world and of her own self’ (Marsh 49). It was also during this period that she started to self-harm (Marsh, 50). Both suggest the Oedipal complex was in full swing (Gardner, 72).

The poem ends in limbo. The secret will be revealed only at such impossible time as there is ‘not too much sun nor too much cloud’ and ‘the warm wind is neither still nor loud’. Might the speaker also be in limbo in regards to her secret? If so, there are many possible reasons. However in terms of Freudian theory, the most likely is that her Oedipal complex has failed resolve. More often than not, the Oedipal complex is not enacted physically but psychologically. Father is the king and daughter, the princess. But as Rossetti reached sexual maturity, her father became old and ill. If ever he was, he is kingly no more. Rossetti’s biographers suggest she found this extremely difficult with which to deal (Marsh, 49). Possibly, she discovered other ‘father’ figures upon which to hang her desires? Her brother revealed she did hold a ‘rather unusual feeling of deference’ to the (male) head of the family in later years (Marsh, 48). At any rate, there is more than a hint that she never came to grips with her sexuality vis a vis men.

Men, Freud claims, separate women into either mothers/sisters or prostitutes. While symbolising the mother, a woman is a ‘forbidden oedipal object-choice’; she is to be married, not sexually desired. A wife must reciprocate her husband’s establishing her as an asexual mother (‘angel in the house’) so that he may pursue the ‘prostitute’ while avoiding his own Oedipal guilt (Chodorow, 239). Freud does not suggest how this might affect women who may or may not have successfully completed their own Oedipal journeys (he claimed his understanding of women was ‘shadowy and incomplete’, Chodorow, 246). But it is not hard to imagine that these ‘angels in the house’ might resent their sexually promiscuous ‘rivals’.

A recurring theme in Rossetti’s poetry was that of the ‘fallen woman’. This was not unusual. The fallen woman was a recurring leitmotif in Victorian art and literature (D’Amico, 94). However, unlike most artists, Rossetti refused to lay the blame solely on the woman (D’Amico, 95). An Apple Gathering, written in 1857 when Rossetti had already received one of the three marriage offers she would reject, is representative of her approach.

Initially, this poem appears to be either another story of ‘love gone wrong’ or a warning that only virgins become wives. But the use of apples as allegory for the relationship between temptation and ‘original sin’ should not be overlooked. ‘Pink’ apple ‘blossoms’ have been ‘plucked’ (suggesting sexual indulgence) by a young girl for the benefit of her ‘love’. As the result, at harvest (the appropriate time to pick fruit), she has no apples (no husband nor home of her own).

Instead of heaping scorn on herself, however, the speaker turns it on her ‘love’ – for in her eyes, it was he who succumbed to temptation: the ‘rosiest apples offered by ‘plump Gertrude’. How could the speaker’s love be of ‘less worth’ than whatever Gertrude had brought to the table? This is not a standard Victorian response. Even more surprisingly, when the night grew ‘chill’ (the speaker is literally left out in the cold) and her neighbours ‘hastened’ (away), the fallen woman ‘loitered’ and ‘loitered still’, refusing to either tragically fade or die as was socially expected (D’Amico, 102). Given her religious values and social position, it is puzzling why Rossetti would have strayed so far from the party line. Had she perhaps, like the fallen women in her poetry, also succumbed to temptation?

Rossetti often wrote sympathetically about the Eve, ‘the first mother’. Her stance was that, being deceived by Satan (master of guile), Eve’s only error was one of mistake. Adam, on the other hand, was not mistaken. His was not an error of judgement, but one of will (D’Amico, 126). That Rossetti failed to wholesale adopt the angelic ‘mother’ imagery of her time suggests that, having commenced her Oedipal cycle, she failed to complete it by returning to identify with ‘mother’. For Freud, this would account for her apparent inability to form appropriate adult heterosexual relationships. It would also account for her retreat into religion; Freud believed religion was an attempt to master or control the Oedipus complex.

This brings us to the last of Rossetti’s poems that I wish to consider. Up-Hill is hauntingly – yet subtly – evocative of religious imagery (‘day’ and ‘night’ suggests life and death and the weary traveller ‘seeking’ a ‘resting place’ at an ‘inn’ is often used to signify Christians seeking redemption).

Like Winter: My Secret, Up-Hill also focuses on secrets, albeit of a different kind. Like Winter: My Secret, Up-Hill adopts a playful, rhyming tone. Unlike Winter: My Secret, however, the secret in Up-Hill will be freely given if only the seeker knows how to ask. Up-Hill is not a dramatic monologue. The speaker does not necessarily have a purpose to achieve. Instead, it is structured as a question and answer sequence with two speakers, both fully articulated and engaged. They are not equals, however and their relationship is more akin to that of teacher/student or, perhaps because of the riddle-like nature of the responses, that of guru/disciple.

Most importantly, the primary speaker in Up-Hill no longer is anxious or threatened as she was in Winter: My Secret. This suggests that he or she (there is no clue as to the speaker’s sex in Up-Hill) has found solace – perhaps even forgiveness – in religion. As with Eve, ‘the first’ mother’, his or her past sins will be washed away and as Rossetti desired for Eve, this speaker plans to be among the forgiven on resurrection day (D’Amico, 129). This is not to suggest that Rossetti definitively found resolution of her Oedipus Complex (or her secret) in religion. However, it is well-known that she turned down three marriage offers in a society where marriage was expected and, as she grew older, she took increasing solace in her religion.

In summary, while no conclusions can be drawn regarding whether Rossetti’s work revolved around a secret (or whether or how she resolved her Oedipal complex), I believe that by looking through the lens of ‘whispers from a secret life’, we can view Rossetti and her work in new and engaging ways.






Blass, Rachel and Bennet Simon. “The development and vicissitudes of Freud’s ideas on the Oedipus complex (161-174). The Cambridge Companion to Freud. ed. by Jerome Neu. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online) 2006.

Chodorow, Nancy J. “Freud on Women” (224-248). The Cambridge Companion to Freud. ed. by Jerome Neu. Cambridge University Press (online) 2006

D’Amico, Diane. Christina Rossetti: Faith Gender and Time. Baton Rouge; Louisiana State University Press (1999).

Devlin, Rachel. “Acting out the Oedipal Wish: Father-Daughter Incest and the Sexuality of Adolescent Girls in the United States, 1941-1965.” Journal of Social History, Spring 2005, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp. 609-633.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1996).

Frankland, Graham. Freud’s Literary Culture. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press (2000).

Gardner, Fiona. Self-Harm: A Psychotherapeutic Approach. ed. by Patrick Parrinder. London: Routledge (2013).

Hassett, Constance W. Christina Rossetti: The Patience of Style. Charlottesville; University of Virginia Press (2005).

Marsh, Jan. Christina Rossetti: a literary biography. London: Jonathan Cape (1994).

Pearsall, Cornelia DJ. “The Dramatic Monologue” (67-88). The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (online) 2006.

Peck, John and Coyle, Martin. Practical Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan ((1995).

“Religion as an attempt to master the oedipus complex.” Freud Museum London. (3 April 2014).

Wright, Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic Criticism: A Reappraisal. Cambridge: Polity Press (2nd ed.) 1998.


Mapping Your Life Story with Astrology

imagesA few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend an all day astrology seminar right here in Oxford with Bernadette Brady – I’ve heard her speak before and she is brilliant. The topic of today – was Mapping Your Life Story.

She  gave us three fantastic techniques for mapping our life story:

(1) Progressed Sun – By progressing one’s natal chart one day – we map our the arc of our entire life ‘experience’ – for example, I was born when the Sun was at 5 degrees Libra. Hence my first experiences in life was finding balance and maintaining diplomacy (i.e. “I will do whatever you want me to do if only you will like me”). Next, at age 25 years, my progressed Sun moves in Scorpio where “passion” (deep-seated jealousies, dark desires, dangerous fantasies) take over the soul. Needless to say, I married a Scorpio (born on the full moon) and in many respects, I consider myself lucky to still be alive). At last, the prize – at about age 55 years my progressed Sun moves into Sagittarius and I can finally see ‘the light of day’. But to date, that hasn’t exactly been a bowl of cherries either – for I am beginning to realise the fruits of my labours aren’t as worthwhile as I had planned.

(2) Progressed Moon/Sun cycle – each month – every 28 days – the moon goes through her 8 phases – vis a vis her position with the sun. But let us not forget that by progression each individual’s progressed natal sun and progressed natal moon goes through the same 8 phases every 28 years (3 ½ years for each phase):


NEW MOON – beginnings – the seed germinates

1st QUARTER – rapid growth – the seed becomes a seedling

GIBBOUS – manifestation – the seedling starts to bear fruit

FULL MOON – harvest time!

DISSEMINATING – time to turn the harvest into something tangible

3rd QUARTER – take that something tangible to ‘market’

BALSAMIC –prune and go fallow – making room for new growth

NEW MOON – beginnings (again)!


  1. My current cycle started in with the New Moon in 1993-1997 when I moved from Boston to Amsterdam to take up a whole new life – where I fell in love with my husband and astrology.
  2. From 1997 – 2000, during the 1st Quarter, I moved to London and studied with Liz Greene at the Centre for Psychological Astrology.
  3. During the Gibbous phase (2004-2007), I left my job as an international tax lawyer and studied religion, spirituality, and astrology at the graduate level at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
  4. During the Full Moon (2007-2010), I stared writing fiction in earnest using ideas and new philosophies developed from 1997 to 2010.
  5. During the Disseminating phase (2010-2014), I’ve continued writing fiction and honing my writing skills to a higher level at the University of Oxford through studying creative writing and English literature
  6. During the 3rd quarter (2014 – 2019), I’m bringing my first really good novel (which combines astrology, Eastern spirituality, and the world of international finance (which I’ve experienced first hand for years in my ‘day job) to market. And according to my Firdaria (see next technique) June 2019 will be a very good time for me in this regard.
  7. During the Balsamic phase (2019-2023), I will be letting things go in preparation for the next new moon.
  8. During the New Moon phase, starting in 2023 when I’ll be 70 years old, I’ll start out a brand new course of action!


(3) FIRDARIA – this technique is based on ancient Islamic astrology which came to the West in the 13th century. It relies on dividing one’s life into irregular ‘planetary periods’ in ruled by particular planets and sub-planets. In this regard, a diurnal chart (Sun above the horizon) is treated differently than a nocturnal chart (Sun below the horizon).

My chart is nocturnal and so the planetary periods of my nodes (north and south) fell in 1992-1995.

According to Bernadette, this time represented periods of significant upheaval (some might even say karmic) – well, needless to say this is the period I nearly died (literally) as I struggled to survive the backlash from that Scorpio first husband. Trust me, this caught my eye. There’s something to this stuff, I assure you.

Currently I’m in my Venus/Mars Firdaria and because my Venus in Virgo is in detriment, it wants alternative expression – well why else did I write a novels using astrology as my structuring device during this time?  Hmmm.  Not only that, but because my natal Venus is conjunct Mars in the 3rd house (writing – oh hello), the Venus/Mars Firdaria may prove a time of consolidation for my writing – publisher here I come?

Well… maybe…but according to Bernadette, my biggest success in publishing will come in 2019 with my Mercury/Saturn Firdaria (Mercury is my signature planet – with Cancer rising and the Moon in Gemini as well as my natal Mercury in a tight conjunction in Libra (air – Mercury loves air signs) with Saturn/Neptune) and of course that cheerful Venus/Mars conjunction in the 3rd house in Virgo (Mercury both rules and is exalted in Virgo and is the natural ruler of the 3rd house).

And don’t forget that Saturn (which is required for physical manifestation) is exalted (very happy) in Libra (as it should be).


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