Astrology and English Literature

By Kitson, Annabella | Contemporary Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Astrology and English Literature


Kitson, Annabella, Contemporary Review


Last autumn the British Library mounted a superb exhibition, 'The Earth and the Heavens - the Art of the Mapmaker', setting forth man's changing vision of the cosmos and his place in it, illustrated with manuscripts, maps, celestial and terrestrial, and other artefacts of great beauty. Apart from the interest for historians of science, there were reflections of religion, art, myth and poetry.

Just as terrestrial maps influenced the world picture, so cosmic notions found expression in the literature of the west. Astronomy and astrology were one subject, taught in medieval universities as part of the Quadrivium. There are many ways in which astrology subsists in English literature from that time to this; many artistic purposes it serves, both evident and covert.

Dr Whitfield, curator of this exhibition, emphasised what scholars in the past tended to minimise. His caption to a Chaucer manuscript ran as follows: 'It has only recently been understood that Geoffrey Chaucer's writings are permeated with astrology. Troilus and Criseyde and many of The Canterbury Tales contain carefully plotted secret meanings, the characters and events often mirror symbolically the changing positions of the heavenly bodies. Chaucer may have demonstrated these with his astrolabe after readings of his poetry.'

This is a welcome acknowledgement of astrology's literary importance; as a source of 'tedious technicalities' it has been sneered at as a mere symptom of delusion, while its symbolic richness was ignored. More recently valuable work has been done on the technical side, on the significance of astrology in political and social life, and on allusion to it in works of art; but artistic literary uses have been neglected.

From a mass of possibilities I have chosen to illustrate these uses from the poetry of Chaucer, from one or two renaissance plays, and from the modern novel. Covert uses need too much glossing to be considered in this context in any detail, but a glance at The Complaint of Mars may suggest the type.

Chaucer

In The Complaint of Mars Chaucer encodes a level of meaning which it might have been politically indiscreet or artistically undesirable to present unambiguously. Mars and Venus are seen as planets with their astrological attributes as well as their characteristics in mythology. Astrology interacts with the plot - indeed, is the plot at one level. It used to be thought that the protagonists stood for real contemporary people - an idea at the moment out of fashion. There is evidence of a scandal involving court personalities, and John Shirley, who annotated the Trinity MS in the next century, clearly thought this was behind the poem, though his comments are confusing.

The Complaint displays astronomical realities applied to ordinary life: the sun must rise, threatening the adulterous couple with discovery, and chasing them relentlessly through the zodiac. Mars and Venus are shown as planets in aspect, coming to a conjunction (copulare is the Latin term) in the sign Taurus, which is Venus's dignity and Mars's fall. The sun is behind them in the zodiac, about to catch up with Mars but not with Venus who is - in both senses - fast. Despite her promises she moves into Gemini, and into the arms of Mercury, who is in his masculine dignity there. Perhaps some other historical figure lurks behind Mercury? The status of planets in different signs was known to Chaucer's audience and to many of his generations of readers later; today many such points are made explicit by the poet's didactic style.

There is an amusing parallel between enskying a recent scandal and the translation of mythological personages into constellations; this is very much in keeping with Chaucer's sense of the absurd. To elevate people from terrestrial reality might protect the poet, and the device underlines the cruel lack of privacy in court life where, as with the Chaucers, husbands and wives could seldom enjoy domestic tranquillity. …

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