Ann Bathurst (c. 1638-1704) was a theological and mystical writer. She was connected to the seventeenth-century dissenting religious group, the London Philadelphian Society, which was named after the church of Philadelphia mentioned in the Book of Revelation (1:11). The Philadelphians believed that all human beings had the capacity to seek divine truth through the wisdom of God. They emphasized the importance of mystical experience and visions. The Society were inspired by the German theologian, Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), whose works were translated and printed in English from 1648 onwards.
During the period 1679 to 1696, Bathurst kept a spiritual diary which recorded her ecstatic visions. On a recent archival trip to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, I was lucky enough to consult two volumes of Bathurst’s diaries: MSS Rawl. D. 1262 and Rawl. D. 1263.
What struck me about these two volumes is how Bathurst punctuated her visionary prose with poems. As Sarah Apetrei (2016: 178) has recently pointed out, Bathurst often sang her experiences using a poetic form, as well as writing them in prose. Bathurst’s poems, however, have not yet received close critical attention by modern scholars.
Today I thought I would discuss one of Bathurst’s poems, ‘Baptis’d I am into the Love of Thee’, which is copied into MS Rawl. D. 1262 under the entry for ‘1692’. What I would like to suggest here is that Bathurst in this poem draws upon the bible, Jakob Böhme’s Theosophick Philosopy Unfolded (1691), and the printed gnostic text, The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus (1649), to configure her own lyrical, woman-inclusive representation of mystical theology.
‘Baptis’d I am into the Love of Thee’ begins with a meditation on baptism, where the speaker desires to be transformed by God’s resplendent ‘Fire’ (l. 5):
Baptis’d I am into the Love of Thee,
Nature’s dead, I wholly am sett free
Eternal Love doth sett me in a flame
Nature dies when once my Lord I name
O Holy, Holy! fit me for thy Fire,
When ’tis on us we’re fitting to expire.
Cause us O God to melt into that Flame (ll. 1-7).
These lines evoke John the Baptist’s words: ‘he wil baptize you with the holie G[h]ost, and with fyre’ (Matthew 3:11). For this baptism to occur in Bathurst’s speaker, ‘Nature’ must ‘ di[e]’ (l. 4). ‘Nature’ here refers to the ‘phenomena of the physical world’ (OED, n. 11a). For Bathurst’s speaker, physical nature is compelled to give way to spiritual nature. Bathurst goes on to posit, however, that ‘nature’ (both physical and spiritual) is endowed with a positivist protean power:
Nature doth transmute, & change the same:
that melts down dross and wholly it calcine
and raise a Phœnix (ll. 8-10).
The dominant strand of imagery here stems from alchemy – the chemical craft of transformation and extraction: ‘transmute’ (l. 8); ‘melts’ (l. 9); ‘dross’ (l. 9, the waste that results from melting metals); ‘calcine’ (l. 9, to purify or refine). Bathurst utilizes these early modern scientific terms with confidence and applies them to delineate the regeneration of the soul.
Bathurst’s use of spiritual-alchemical lexicon recalls Böhme’s Theosophick Philosopy Unfolded (1691: 206), in which Böhme had portrayed the end of earthly time as an alchemical process:
we see that Antimony calcin’d by the solar Rays through Burning Glasses, may both be augmented to almost half in weight, and also changed from a strong, rank, great Poison to a vigorous Balsam and potent Fortifier of decaying Nature, shewing us how the Mutations of time cease, and how to enter into a fixt serene Eternity.
Whereas Böhme describes ‘Nature’ as ‘decaying’, Bathurst instills nature with a life-giving potency, as nature brings forth the alchemical opus – the philosophers’ stone – the ‘Phœnix’ (l. 10). In the early modern period, the phoenix was a symbol for renewal and resurrection (Abraham, 2010: 152) and appears to be used by Bathurst as a synonym for Christ.
What is more, the phoenix was regarded in the early modern period as a mixed-sex creature (Fig. 2). In the anonymous poem, ‘A narration and description of a most exact wondrous creature, arising out of the Phœnix and Turtle Doues ashses’ (which was printed in Robert Chester’s Loves Martyr, 1601: 173), the speaker aligns the phoenix to God, man and woman: ‘God, Man, nor Woman, but elix’d of all’. As Julie Hirst (2012: 11) points out, in Bathurst’s prose meditations, she emphatically referred to God’s mixing of the male and female: ‘Thy masculine[e] power to be poured forth upon thy sons & daughters, that masculin[e] & feminin[e], thy spirit & word of power, may go forth witnessing that the word of the holy Ghost that was made flesh’ (MS Rawl. D. 1263: 744). Read within these contexts, it seems that the ‘Phœnix’ in ‘Baptis’d I am into the Love of Thee’ is a poetic signifier for Bathurst’s own divine-inspired gender-fluid identity.
‘Baptis’d I am into the Love of Thee’ ends with a philosophical meditation on the Deus unus – the unified God: ‘One Being, one Good, the one in all; / what doth remain when God is all in all?’ (ll. 13-14). Here Bathurst echoes The Divine Pymander (1649: 127), which was affiliated with the reputed founder of alchemy, Hermes Trismegistus: ‘For there is one Soul, one Life, and one Matter. […] There is therefore one God. […] He therefore being One, doth all things in many things’. Bathurst offers a striking poetic representation of Hermetic monism.
On the surface,‘Baptis’d I am into the Love of Thee’ appears to be a simple poem written in a spontaneous style. However, a close reading reveals that it is imbued with an intricate philosophical and mystical message. This poem offers a fascinating example of how the concepts of gnosticism, alchemy and mysticism were infiltrating seventeenth-century women’s poetry. Moreover, the poem provides an insight into how Bathurst manipulated poetic form to create an esoteric mode of writing, which she utilized to foreground her divine-inspired fusion of the male and female.
Works Cited and Consulted
Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Rawlinson D. 1262.
Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Rawlinson D. 1263.
Printed and Electronic Sources
Abraham, Lyndy. 2010. A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 4th ed.
Apetrei, Sarah. 2016. ‘Mystical Divinity in the Manuscript Writings of Jane Lead and Anne Bathurst’. In Jane Lead and Her Transnational Legacy, edited by Ariel Hessayon. 167-86. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Böhme, Jakob. 1691. Theosophick Philosopy Unfolded, translated by Edward Taylor. London.
Bouldin, Elizabeth. 2015. Women Prophets and Radical Protestantism in the British Atlantic World, 1640-1730. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bowerbank, Sylvia. 2004. ‘Bathurst, Ann (b. c. 1638, d. in or before 1704)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/40570> [accessed 21 Oct 2017].
——. 2004. Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press.
Chester, Robert. 1601. Loves Martyr. London.
Everard, John. trans. 1649. The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus. London.
The Geneva Bible, A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition. 2007. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers.
Hirst, Julie. 2012. ‘‘If my pen’s liquor is to be from eternity, it cannot be written dry’: Anne Bathurst, A Seventeenth-Century Visionary’. In Under the Veil: Feminism and Spirituality in Post-Reformation England and Europe, edited by Katherine M. Quinsey. 9-20. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Kahlas-Tarkka, Leena, and Matti Kilpiö. 2012. ‘‘O Thou Sea of Love’: Oxford and St Petersburg Manuscripts of Ann Bathurst’s Religious Visions’. VARIENG: Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English, 9, <http://www.helsinki.fi/varieng/series/volumes/09/kahlas-tarkka_kilpio> [accessed 13 Nov 2017].
Merchant, Carloyn. 1983. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. San Francisco: Harper. 2nd ed.
OED. 2017. Oxford English Dictionary, online edition, <http://www.oed.com> [accessed 13 Nov 2017].