Imperial Image Makers

Astraea

by Frances Yates
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 233 pp., $21.75

No living historian has done more to read the message concealed behind the symbols of the past than Dr. Frances Yates. In a succession of remarkable books—from The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century (1947) through The Valois Tapestries (1959) and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964) to The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1972)—she has patiently set out to decipher codes that had become indecipherable with time and to recover meanings that had ceased to be meaningful.

Decoding is, by its nature, a solitary, laborious, and sometimes a hazardous task. It requires stamina, infinite patience, and above all a capacity to work one’s way intuitively into an understanding of mental processes that are frequently alien and remote. There will be clues that at first sight appear infinitely promising, only to lead to disappointing dead ends. There will be false trails, seductive enough to mislead the most expert—even Dr. Yates. But there are occasions when the rewards, in the sudden illumination of what was previously obscure, more than compensate for the long years of labor. Dr. Yates has deserved, and enjoyed, such rewards; but it is particularly gratifying that the private satisfaction is now belatedly being accompanied by public recognition. Dr. Yates has certainly earned her success.

The successful are traditionally rewarded by the reprinting of scattered early pieces and minor works in the canon—a reward of which some of them would be better advised not to take advantage. In this instance, however, there need be neither doubts nor regrets. Astraea is a new-old book—old in the sense that it is largely (but not entirely) composed of reprints; new in that the essays have been revised, and sometimes rewritten, and that, when juxtaposed within a single volume, they add up to a composite whole. At first sight the title, Astraea, suggests as recondite a theme as any with which Dr. Yates has bemused, bedazzled, and sometimes baffled her readers, although that handsome silvery portrait on the dust-jacket of Elizabeth I with her feet planted firmly on a map of southern England is a reassuring indication that they may after all not become entirely air-borne if they choose to travel with Dr. Yates as their guide. Indeed they would be well advised to do so, for those who take the trouble to follow her are promised an exhilarating ride.

But who, they may reasonably ask, is Astraea, what is she? The very need to ask the question is itself a vivid example of how far our ability to read the code has been lost. But let us listen to the dedicatory, words of a work by a Dutchman who had taken refuge in the England of Elizabeth: “The Kingdom of Saturn and the Golden world is come again, and the Virgin Astraea is descended from heaven to build her seat in this your most happy country of England.” Already the shadows begin to lift, and we glimpse something of the connotations with which Astraea was surrounded. Patiently, but with an infectious…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.