It may be well here to remark that this voluminous Book of Mysteries or True and Faithful Relation (fol. 1659), from which in the following pages there will be found many extracts, abounds in tedious and unintelligible pages of what Casaubon calls "sermon-like stuff," interspersed with passages of extraordinary beauty. Some of the figures and parables, as well as the language used, are full of a rare poetic imagery, singularly free from any coarse or sensual symbolism. Like jewels embedded in dull settings, here and there a gem of loftiest religious thought shines and sparkles. There are descriptive touches of costume and appearance that possess considerable dramatic value. As the story is unfolded in a kind of spiritual drama, the sense of a gradual moving development, and the choice of a fitting vehicle in which to clothe it, is striking. The dramatis personae, too, the "spiritual creatures" who, as Dee believed, influence the destinies of man, become living and real, as of course they were to the seer. In many respects these "actions" were an exact counterpart of the dealings inaugurated by psychical scientists 275 years later, if we omit the close investigation for fraud.
Casaubon's successor in dealing with the shunned and avoided subject of John Dee was Thomas Smith, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, who, in 1707, wrote the first connected Life of him, in a book of the Lives of Learned Men. It was based upon some of Dee's autobiographical papers, and out of a total of a hundred pages, gave fifty to letters already printed by Casaubon.
After this no sustained account of Dee's romantic career is to be found outside the pages of biographical dictionaries and magazine articles, or among writers upon necromancy, hermetic philosophy, and alchemy. Many of these decorate their collections with apocryphal marvels culled from the well-worn traditional stories of Dee and his companion, Edward Kelly. Thus, throughout his lifetime and since, he has continued to run the gauntlet of criticism. "Old imposturing juggler," "fanatic," "quack," are mild terms: in the Biographia Britannica he is called "extremely credulous, extravagantly vain, and a most deluded enthusiast." Even the writer on Dee in the Dictionary of National Biography says his conferences with the angels are "such a tissue of blasphemy and absurdity that they might suggest insanity." Many more such summary verdicts might be quoted, but these will suffice for the present.
It has been said that no Life of Dee exists. And yet the materials for such a Life are so abundant that only a selection can be here used. His private diary, for instance, if properly edited, would supply much supplementary, useful, and interesting historical information.
It is the object of this work to present the facts of John Dee's
life as calmly and impartially as possible, and to let them speak
for themselves. In the course of writing it, many false assertions
have disentangled themselves from truth, many doubts have been
resolved, and a mass of information sees the light for the first
time. The subject is of course hedged about with innumerable difficulties;
but in spite of the temptations to stray into a hundred bypaths,
an endeavour has been strictly made to do no more than throw a
little dim light on the point where the paths break off from the
main road. If, at the end of the way, any who have persevered
so far, feel they have followed a magnetic and interesting personality,
the labour expended will not have been in vain. With a word of
apology to serious historical readers for the incorrigibly romantic
tendency of much of the narrative, which, in spite of the stern
sentinel of a literary conscience, would continually reassert
itself, the story of our astrologer's strange life may now begin.
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