Divination and Divine Tears: the Power of a Melancholy Humour by Angela Voss
In Seeing with Different Eyes: Essays in Astrology and Divination, eds P. Curry & A. Voss, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 143-172.
The sixteenth-century magus Cornelius Agrippa, in his comprehensive Three Books on Occult Philosophy, observes:
[the melancholy humour] when it is stirred up, burns and stirs up a madness conducing to knowledge and divination, especially if it is helped by any celestial influx, particularly of Saturn … By melancholy saith [Aristotle], some men are made as it were divine, foretelling things to come, and some men are made poets.
In this paper I shall explore the connections between the physiological condition of melancholy and the possession of divinatory knowledge, via the development of the idea of philosophical ‘genius’ which arose in the work of the fifteenth-century Florentine platonist Marsilio Ficino. Ficino’s revival of neoplatonic and Hermetic cosmology and magic within a Christian context was to inform, on many levels, the music, art and literature of the Elizabethan Renaissance, and I would like to trace this influence in particular on the composer John Dowland. Dowland’s appropriation of the persona of the melancholic artist does, I suggest, have far deeper implications than mere conceit or the indulgence of a world-weary personality, and to explore these we will take a multi-levelled approach and evoke the ‘image of melancholy’ through physiological, mythological, astrological, magical and metaphysical contexts. I will conclude that there can be no one definitive interpretation of Dowland’s musical jewel Lachrimae, and that the depth and power of its musical symbolism point to more profound dimensions of reality than even the composer himself may have envisioned.