Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Allegorical Analogies: Henry More's Poetical Cosmology

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Allegorical Analogies: Henry More's Poetical Cosmology

Article excerpt

As a young fellow at Cambridge, Henry More wrote a collection of long allegorical poems that were first published in 1642. More's poems are "Philosophicall Poems" in title and content; they are also Spenserian allegories. This article explores the ways in which More turns to the allegorical mode to express his key philosophical theory of "Vital Congruity," the act of union between body and soul he knew "not better how to term." I will argue that, in these experimental early works, when every material substance and action is considered analogous to its perfect divine source, the life of the soul between the terrestrial and celestial realms begins to assume an allegorical form. The isolated embodiment of allegorical images, the gap they inhabit between physical form and spiritual moral, makes the mode fittingly analogous to the limitations More places upon mortal enquiry. Contrary to critical assumptions, More's poems demonstrate how allegory continued to be methodologically productive within early modern philosophical enquiry.


DURING the 1650s, the Cambridge Platonist Henry More entered into a pamphlet war with Thomas Vaughan, in which he accused the hermeticist of unfounded and dangerous enthusiasm. (1) Not one to keep quiet in the face of such accusations, Vaughan hurled insults back in the direction of his assailant with customary vigor. In one of the most memorable, he crushes More's credibility as a philosopher on the basis that his recent publications were collections of poetry. Vaughan's introductory epistle to The Man-Mouse Taken in a Trap dismisses More as a

Poet in the Loll and Trot of Spencer. It is suppos'd he is in Love with his Fairie-Queen, and this hath made him a very Elf in Philosophie. He is indeed a scurvie, slabbie, snotty-snowted thing. (2)

Vaughan goes as far as to withhold poetical merit from his victim, as he dismisses the Platonist's work as mere imitative verse in the tradition of Spenserian allegory. Even in imitation, Vaughan considers More's achievements so poor that he is in the "Loll" of his idol; his words hang and droop in their futility like a lolling tongue, the poor articulacy of which is reenacted by the hermeticist's tirade of sibilant insults. More's admiration for The Faerie Queene, recalled by the author himself as harmless childhood nostalgia, is reworked by Vaughan into a dangerous influence over philosophical enquiry. (3) Its presence transforms More into an "Elf." His image is laughable: it renders the philosopher's work insignificant, and takes a dig at Edmund Spenser and his frequent use of "Elfe" to address his valiant knights. (4) The Spenserian tone of the insult nevertheless accentuates its more sinister connotations, as it encourages the reader to reconsider the benevolent use of "Elfe" in The Faerie Queene as unusual. An elf was traditionally a malignant being with formidable magical powers. Hence, Vaughan might consider Spenser's praise of the Redcrosse Knight--"valiant Elfe"--to be absurd and ill-judged and More's attempt to combine Spenserian verse with philosophy as liable to cause harm.

The Man-Mouse Taken in a Trap was printed in 1650, by which time More's sole publications--save his first pamphlet, directed against Vaughan--were works of poetry. (5) As a young fellow at Christ's College in the 1640s, More wrote a collection of allegorical verses that were first published in 1642. (6) These are "Philosophicall Poems" in title and content--they are works of natural philosophy and rational theology, detailing his theories of the soul's immortality and preexistence, the Copemican universe and his early methodological attempt to reconcile Lucretian imagery with neo-Platonism. (7) They are also Spenserian allegories.

As Vaughan's criticism suggests, allegorical poetry was falling out of fashion by the mid-seventeenth century. Written after the work of Rene Descartes, More's philosophical poetry presents a relatively isolated case of applying allegory to the description of cosmic structures. …

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