VIII. See, through this air, this ocean, and this earth,
All matter quick, and bursting into birth.
Above, how high, progressive life may go!
Around, how wide! how deep extend below?
Vast chain of being! which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see,
No glass can reach; from Infinite to thee,
From thee to nothing. On superior powers
Were we to press, inferior might on ours:
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale’s destroyed:
From Nature’s chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.
And, if each system in gradation roll
Alike essential to the amazing whole,
The least confusion but in one, not all
That system only, but the whole must fall.
Let earth unbalanced from her orbit fly,
Planets and suns run lawless through the sky;
Let ruling angels from their spheres be hurled,
Being on being wrecked, and world on world;
Heaven’s whole foundations to their centre nod,
And nature tremble to the throne of God.
All this dread order break—for whom? for thee?
Vile worm!—Oh, madness! pride! impiety!
Its major premise was that every existing thing in the
universe had its “place” in a divinely planned hierarchical order, which was
pictured as a chain vertically extended. (“Hierarchical” refers to an order
based on a series of higher and lower, strictly ranked gradations.) An object’s
“place” depended on the relative proportion of “spirit” and “matter” it
contained–the less “spirit” and the more “matter,” the lower down it
. . . .
A major example [of this theme] was the title character of Christopher
Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus. Simultaneously displaying the grand spirit of
human aspiration and the more questionable hunger for superhuman powers, Faustus seems in the play to be both exalted and punished. Marlowe’s drama, in fact, has often been seen as the embodiment of Renaissance ambiguity in this regard, suggesting both its fear of and its fascination with pushing beyond human limitations.
I thought it might be interesting to write a post-enlightenment Great Chain of Being poem with a modern twist on all the familiar themes. In fact, it might begin with an embrace of the scientific hubris about which Renaissance artists were ambivalent (whether it leads to a similar ambivalence about technology is an open question). Here’s a beginning — I’ll be working on this over the next few weeks.