Same but Sundered: on Mercury, meaning, and metaphor

I’m still reading Planet Narnia, and enjoying every page. Ward begins his chapter on Mercury with these words from C. S. Lewis‘s poem “The Planets”:

Meeting selves, same but sundered.

—Lewis, “The Planets,” lines 17–18

It should come as no surprise that quicksilver (Mercury) is the metal associated with the Roman deity. Mercury is curious in that it can be drawn apart and then rejoined without a trace of that former division. We see this symbolism in the Mercury-associated myth of Castor and Pollux, identical twins who are “same but sundered.”

But what Michael Ward points out that has captured me is the association of Mercury with masterful use of language. Lewis himself noted that Martianus Capella (a name familiar to scholars of the history of music theory) depicts Mercury as the groom of Philologia in De Nuptiis. Philologia, in its original sense broadly meant “love of learning.” But we can’t help but associate it with the more specific derivative, philology, the study of language through the lens of history.

One of the things Lewis does with allusions to Mercury is use him as a metaphor for metaphor—and I doubt you can get much more “meta” than metaphor-izing metaphor. Ward draws on Lewis’s words from The Personal Heresy. Here Lewis is examining a passage from Keat’s poem “Hyperion“:

Tall oaks, branch-charmed by the earnest stars…

John Keats, “Hyperion”

Lewis remarks:

We have all seen the trees with branches stretched up in intense stillness towards the stars. We have imagined or been told of people compelled by magical charms to stand as still as trees. Lay the two side by side and add the word ‘earnest’—which is exactly the point where the sensible image [trees, branches] and the idea of insensible ‘magic’ merge beyond hope of distinction—and the whole, like meeting drops of quicksilver, becomes a single perception.

—Lewis, The Personal Heresy, pp. 20–21, emphasis mine

What Ward points out I find to be so satisfying—that even as Lewis alludes to Mercury via quicksilver, the very form of the sentence reflects (a serendipitously apt word when considering quicksilver) the content of the sentence—”Meeting selves, same but sundered.”

Ward remarks on Lewis’s remark (see how deep the rabbit hole goes?)

This is a deliberately fugal [another word familiar to music theoreticians] sentence, in which the idea of two things becoming one is formally conveyed three times:

1. ‘side…side…add’

2. ‘sensible…insensible…merge’

3. phrastically [sic] in the culmination of (1) and (2) in ‘the whole…like meeting drops…becomes’

Thus, the form and the content of the expression are of the same nature, but of sundered manifestation.

In music, this Mercurial influence might take the form of text painting, in which the words being sung are mirrored in some way by the musical structures that ensconce those words. Or perhaps what Richard Cohn calls “introverted motives” (i.e., musical motives that operate on both a microscopic “surface” level as well as macroscopic “subsurface” level of the music) in his essay “‘This Music Crept by Me upon the Waters’: Introverted Motives in Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ Sonata” (Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, ed. Deborah Stein, 2005, pp. 226–235). Introverted motives are indeed same but sundered, for they help to unite the piece but operate on different depths of the musical architecture.* It may also be significant that Cohn’s essay analyzes the “Tempest” Sonata, named after Shakespear’s eponymous play. Shakespeare was no stranger to planetary allusions in his works.

This is where metaphor comes in, because Lewis reveled in Spenser and Milton and Dante, writers whose rhetorical mastery of symbols and multiple meanings Lewis seems to have thought unmatched. Lewis saw a threat in reductionists’ attempts to remove what they saw as the superfluous language of metaphor by replacing all those allusions with a single word that could denote the same idea. To borrow, as Ward does, from Owen Barfield, even in trying “to cut away and expose all metaphorical usage,” one does not “escape the curse of Babel.” (The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1997, p. 64). Ward sums it so well, I will end with a quote from him rather than make the attempt myself:

Metaphor rests on the ‘psycho-physical parallelism…’ that characterises the universe, and therefore to deny or to restrict metaphor (the ‘carrying over’ of meaning
from physical units to metaphysical entities) is a mental move similar to a denial of the relationship between material creation and immaterial Creator. To say ‘There is no such thing as Man, there are only men’ [A line uttered by an antagonist in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength] is to resist the imagination’s power of seeing beyond sensory data; it is to stultify that faculty which operates also in the realm of faith.


*Fractals and the Mandelbrot set also come to mind as structures that could be thought of as Mercurial.


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