"The Alchemist in the City" is fascinating in its demand for multiple readings. Meaning is beautifully evasive and it is in the ambiguities of the poem that it is possible to locate a series of powerful cultural and religious imageries.

"The Alchemist in the City"

My window shows the traveling clouds,
Leaves spent, new seasons, alter'd sky,
The making and melting crowds:
The whole world passes; I stand by.

They do not waste their meted hours,
But men and masters plan and build:
I see the crowning of their towers,
And happy promises fulfill'd.

And I perhaps if my intent
Could count on prediluvian age,
The labors I should then have spent
Might so attain their heritage,

But before the pot can glow
With not to be discover'd gold,
At length the bellows shall not blow,
The furnace shall at last be cold.

Yet it is now too late to heal
The incapable and cumbrous shame
Which makes me when with men I deal
More powerless than the blind or lame.

No, I should love the city less
Even than this my thankless lore;
But I desire the wilderness
Or weeded landslips of the shore.

I walk my breezy belvedere
To watch the low or levant sun,
I see the city pigeons veer,
I mark the tower swallows run

Between the tower-top and the ground
Below me in the bearing air;
Then find in the horizon-round
One spot and hunger to be there.

And then I hate the most that lore
That holds no promise of success;
Then sweetest seems the houseless shore,
Then free and kind the wilderness.

Or ancient mounds that cover bones,
Or rocks where rockdoves do repair
And trees of terebinth and stones
And silence and a gulf of air.

There on a long and squared height
After the sunset I would lie,
And pierce the yellow waxen light
With free long looking, ere I die.


1. Thinking of "The Alchemist in the City" alongside "The Lady of Shalott," the reader can note similar strands of imagery running through the poems. In "The Lady of Shalott," the Lady exists only in a world of witnessing: "And moving thro' a mirror clear/ That hands before her all the year,/ Shadows of the world appear" (II iii)." The Alchemist lives in the same world: "My window shows the traveling clouds,/ Leaves spent, new seasons, alter'd sky,/ The world passes; I stand by." Both the Alchemist and the Lady of Shalott are alienated, disengaged individuals incapable of integrating into the social world. The ends of the two poems, however, mark an interesting inversion. The Lady of Shalott dies in an attempt at integration. The Alchemist, on the other hand, dies after a complete and final withdrawal from the social world of the city. What else can we say about the similarities between the two poems? Might a comparison of these two poems help us to grasp the social and religious significance of the figure in waiting — this disengaged, isolated individual endowed with an overwhelming power of sight? More generally, how can the examination of these two poems aid us in our understanding of the power and place of the city in Victorian religious thought?

2. Alchemy is seen only as an act the speaker cannot, or will not, perform.

But before the pot can glow
With not to be discover'd gold,
At length the bellows shall not blow,
The furnace shall at last be cold.

What, then, is the significance of alchemy, and the alchemist, in the poem? Can we read alchemy as an analogy for artistic production, or is something more complicated occurring? How can we think of the religious aspects of alchemy in the context of this poem?

3. There are two phrases that, though rather mysterious is their meaning, seem to form the foundation of the poem's meaning: "cumbrous shame" and "thankless lore." What can we say about these two phrases? How do these two phrases work to enhance the effect of the hopelessness expressed in the poem?

4. Comparing the first and final stanzas, we see a transition from passive to active observation. In the first stanza, the speaker's "window shows the traveling cloud." The object through which the speaker sees the world becomes the agent of his sight. The speaker is passive and exists simply as a receptacle for the window's vision. In the final stanza, however, the speaker "pierce[s] the yellow waxen light/ With free long looking, ere I die." We see that the speaker's withdrawal from the social world is linked to a perceptual empowerment, an ability to actively and critically see the world. Thinking about Aurora Leigh and In Memoriam, among others, how can we situate "The Alchemist in the City" in a discussion of themes of engagement and withdrawal in Victorian poetry? Is the a tone of the religious in the Alchemist's withdrawal?

Last modified 19 April 2024