Antiperistasis

by Nick

I’m reading Adrian Tinniswood’s By Permission of Heaven at the moment, and there is a great chapter about the poetic response to the Great Fire of London. He quotes (pp.214-215) a wonderful couplet by John Allison – a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge – in Upon the late lamentable fire in London (1667):

fire1.jpg

I would have had to reach for a dictionary if Tinniswood hadn’t defined antiperistasis – which is, apparently, any process which sets two elements against each other, in the process of which one gets stronger.

Tinniswood mentions it just as an amusing aside, and doesn’t dwell on the poem in any detail. But having read through the poem, it seems there’s a bit more to it. Much of the poem is pitched in terms of an Aristotelian, elemental explanation for the fire – the Air and Fire conspiring to burn down the city. There are various references to the four elements, to two of the four humours, and a nod to Aristotle himself near the end.

What’s interesting is that Allison models his poem “after Mr Cowley his Pindarick strain”. This is almost certainly Abraham Cowley – not just a prolific poet but also a keen practitioner of experimental science. Although he wasn’t a member of the Royal Society, he addressed an ode to it in 1667 shortly before his death, and was certainly sympathetic to its aims. One of the Royal Society’s founding members, Robert Boyle, had in fact in 1665 published New experiments and observations touching cold, which included An Examen of Antiperistasis – in which Boyle set out to question the doctrine. This wasn’t the only Aristotelian or peripatetic doctrine Boyle had questioned. he had already argued in The Sceptical Chymist (1661) that Aristotle’s theory of the four elements could be refuted.

So Allison’s poem is interesting not just for its clunky rhyme scheme. It’s also a reminder that, despite Boyle’s decision to start publishing in the 1660s, the traditional scholastic curriculum hadn’t died out completely at this period.