The Composition of the Text: The Purple Island (1633) and Mimesis of Anatomical Demonstrations and Illustrated Textbooks

The Composition of the Text: The Purple Island (1633) and Mimesis of Anatomical Demonstrations and Illustrated Textbooks
18 January 2018, 12.15pm - 2.15pm
Lunchtime Lecture
Room 246, Second Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Dr Peter Mitchell, University of Wales Trinity Saint David


Phineas Fletcher’s poetic allegory, The Purple Island (1633), is a literary anatomy with epic aspirations and pastoral elements. Its composition includes more anatomy (from sources like Vesalius and Harvey) than any other literary work of the English Renaissance, combining this with the creative development of the metaphor of the human being as an island realm and as microchristus, whereby the poem discovers hidden aspects of the rational, coherent, and consistent figurality it shares with anatomy textbooks. The composition of the text, in the sense of the arrangement or design of movable type to make up a form, juxtaposes the figurative ‘speaking picture’ of poetry with the relatively less figurative marginal anatomical notation. Yet the anatomy in the poem is not only congruous with the moral and religious allegory; the admixture of even recently discovered anatomy is directly dependent upon the ingenuity and inventiveness of the poem’s figurative design. The Purple Island’s negotiation of anatomy lectures and illustrated textbooks might be described as acquisition through metaphor and synecdoche: a mimetic strategy or mode of exchange whereupon the printed page imitates the arrangement of text and illustration in anatomy textbooks, and the poem relates its differentiation between levels of narration to that between roles in anatomical demonstration, drawing out homologies between dissection by the anatomist and dissection by words alone, acquiring from the former not only text but method, duration, and the lecturer’s oral account in the voice of the poem’s diegetic narrator.

I hold my current post of Senior Lecturer in Early Modern English Literature at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, where I also teach critical theory. I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Faculty of the History and Philosophy of Medicine and Pharmacy in the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. I have held a Leverhulme Research Fellowship and a Fellowship with the Francis C. Wood Institute for the History of Medicine at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. My publications include an authored book entitled ‘The Purple Island’ and Anatomy in Early Seventeenth-Century Literature, Philosophy and Theology (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007). Currently I am working on a research project entitled ‘Literary anatomy, cosmography, and the bodies of souls in the seventeenth century’.


Gottfried Bidloo, Anatomia humani corporis (Amsterdam: Joannis à Someren, Joannis à Dyk, 1685). By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / National Library of Wales.

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