Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Quincunx



"Quid [illo] quincunce speciosius, qui, in quamcumque partem spectaveris, rectus est?"

"What is more beautiful than the well-known quincunx which, in whatever direction you view it, presents straight lines?"

It is snowing today, and I am contemplating the garden, whose basic lines are much more visible with a blanket of white covering distracting details. The parts of the garden that are too bare become all too obvious, and the northwest corner seems suddenly barren. I think it needs a quincunx. Perhaps of possumhaws.

Once alerted to their presence, the modern reader might see fractals everywhere; alchemist/physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) saw quincunxes. Not just in gardens, or in orchards, where they were and still are a traditional planting formation, but in Roman battalions and the crowns of the ancients, in the tail of the beaver and the scales of fishes and the skin of man (look closely at the skin on the back of your hand...it's there).

He believed that the quincunx had been the shape of the garden of Eden (with the tree of life in the center), the plan upon which Noah planted his vineyards, and the favored arrangement of Cyrus the Younger of Persia, who was both a leader of armies and a tiller of the soil. He wrote a book about it; the Gardens of Cyrus (available online, though I've yet to wade through it myself).

"The doctrine of signatures – the belief in naturally occurring symbols in plants and minerals which have been set there by God to indicate their medicinal properties – had been vigorously revived first by the Paracelsian medics of the sixteenth century, and taken up more generally by various theological writers, particularly in Italy in the seventeenth, who studied signatures as religious messages...For Browne, however, the quincunx, a kind of signature, has no exact meaning of this kind but rather functions more generally, in the sheer weight of instances, as a joyful reassurance of God's watchfulness, design, and purpose in the world. Browne is not attempting to mysticise the quincunx beyond recognising in its variety and ubiquity the wonder of the creation."

Browne was one of the 'first favorites' of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and since it is late here and the snow is still falling I will leave you with his words on the subject, far more elegant than mine, and go off to contemplate the possumhaws:

"But it is time for me to be in bed, in the words of Sir Thomas, which will serve you, my dear, as a fair specimen of his manner.—' But the quincunx of heaven—(the Hyades or five stars about the horizon at midnight at that time) —runs low, and 'tis time we close the five ports of knowledge : we are unwilling to spin out our waking thoughts into the phantasmes of sleep, which often continueth praecogitations, —making tables of cobwebbes, and wildernesses of handsome groves. To keep our eyes open longer were but to act our Antipodes. The huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia.' Think you, my dear Friend, that there ever was such a reason given before for going to bed at midnight ;—to wit, that if we did not, we should be acting the part of our Antipodes! And then ' the huntsmen are up in America.'—What life, what fancy !—Does the whimsical knight give us thus a dish of strong green tea, and call it an opiate! I trust that you are quietly asleep—
And that all the stars hang bright above your dwelling, Silent as tho' they watched the sleeping earth !
S.T.C. 1804

2 comments:

Hermes said...

Great post. I've long wanted to research how Tudor garden design in particular was influenced by their belief in the power of numbers and geometry.

Phillip M said...

I'd love to see pictures of that Possumhaw quincunx if you ever get around to it!

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