‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

G. Wilson Knight quotes F. W. H. Myers from the Other Side



When I was at school in the 1970s and early 80s we were prompted to read G. Wilson Knight on Shakespeare: The Wheel of Fire, or excerpts from it. And when I went to University we were pointed towards his book on the late plays, The Crown of Life. But it seems clear that whatever reputation he once had has been pretty comprehensively eclipsed now. That may or may not be deserved, I don't know.

What I didn't realise until recently was the sheer oddness of which he was sometimes capable. So, there, at the head of this post, is his The Christian Renaissance, with interpretations of Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe, and a note on T. S. Eliot (1933); a little musty, literally and figuratively, and quite fruitily written, but with some interesting things to say about Dante and the others.

Towards the end of the book Knight is discussing the youthful form angels took in medieval and Renaissance representation: ‘The angels announcing the Resurrection in medieval plays were performed by boys, and the ritual of the Boy Bishop assumed a central importance’ [Knight, Christian Renaissance, 334]. Then he quotes F. W. H. Myers:
Our remarks in this section may be neatly summed up by two quotations from the great spiritualist F. W. H. Myers.
I venture now on a bold saying; for I predict that, in consequence of the new evidence, all reasonable men, a century hence, will believe the Resurrection of Christ, whereas, in default of the new evidence, no reasonable men, a century hence, would have believed it. The ground of this forecast is plain enough. Our evergrowing recognition of the continuity and the uniformity of cosmic law has gradually made of the alleged uniqueness of any incident its almost inevitable refutation. Ever more clearly must our age of science realise that any relation between a material and a spiritual world cannot be an ethical or emotional relation alone; that it must needs be a great structural fact of the Universe, involv ing laws at least as persistent, as identical from age to age, as our known laws of Energy or of Motion ... [Myers, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (Abridged Edition, 1927)]
Myers was a classical scholar and in communications purporting to come from him through the automatic writing of the famous automatist Geraldine Cummins (Beyond Human Personality, 1935) explicitly relates the world which he calls ‘Eidos’, on the plane above the etheric, to the culture of ancient Greece:
Further, this Greek vision dimly reflects existence in that world beyond death which I have called ‘Eidos’. It conveys, shadowily, the spirit of that splendid world, where the subtle body, in glowing perfection, expresses form in its greatest and in its highest intensity, where the mere act of living may be accompanied by an exultation that transcends the lofty ecstasy of the greatest earthly artist. [1.21]

Even in the realms beyond Eidos the Greek ideal persists: all who share this spirit of high endeavour may cross that threshold and, pausing on the edge of the Immensities to gaze backwards, perceive the limitations of the crude, dense first disguise, and the perfection of the second and finer disguise. Its perfected form embodies beauty such as the great Greek sculptors dreamed of and by which the great poets, musicians, painters and prophets of all time have been inspired. [X. 100]
Here we may see a new precision in Diotima's insistence in The Symposium that Eros constitutes the link between man and divinity. These quotations from F. W. H. Myers, so similar in style, composed before and after his own earthly ‘death’, contain together a wisdom which our era may find it hard to assimilate. But the task is worth attempting. [Knight, 335-36]
I still can't quite get my head around the fact that Knight is, with a straight face, quoting what another critic said from beyond the grave. Indeed, I may start emulating him in this. Think how it would free up my own academic writing! ‘I was speaking to T. S. Eliot just the other day and blush to report with what enthusiastic endorsement he praised my own science fiction novels ... ’

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Paul Klee, ‘Dancing Under the Empire of Fear’ (1938)



1938, ladies and gentlemen! Klee's deliberately simplified, doodle-like style manages to communicate more by way of dread and terror than any more ‘sophisticated’ visual manner could. Look at those dancers! Are they dancing, in subversive joy, or are they twitching and flailing as they are gunned down? Are those dots people in the distance, or bullets? Look at the Brownshirt and military Khaki colour scheme. Note how the square-bodied figures form rudimentary but unmistakable swastikas. 1938 indeed.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Petit pan de mur jaune



One of my favourite passages in Proust is when the narrator, Marcel, asks himself whether his favourite writer ‘Bergotte’, having died, is now dead for ever, ‘a question to which spiritualism offered no better answer than religious dogmas’:
All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there.
That ‘petit pan de mur jaune’ is one of the most famous references in Proust, of course; from Vermeer's ‘View of Delft’, painted in the early 1660s:



Which detail of the painting is the petit pan de mur jaune? This article makes a good case for the section that heads my post. Proust certainly loved that painting: ‘Ever since I saw the View of Delft in the museum in The Hague,’ he later said, ‘I have known that I had seen the most beautiful painting in the world’. He could be right about that.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

The Prosodic Perfection of Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927"




Prosody fascinates me, although it is one of those topics that tends to make students, and others, yawn. Which is fair enough. Still: speaking for myself, at some point I'd like to write something more serious on the subject: for instance to take polite but substantial issue with Derek Attridge's widely-admired The Rhythms of English Poetry (Longman, 1982), which I think is broadly wrong for more-or-less abstruse reasons I won't go into too deeply here.

At any rate, teaching prosody is less fun that it ought to be. English-speakers in my experience generally have a good ear for ictus, or stress, and can pick which syllables in any given line of verse are stressed and which are unstressed. Couple this with the easily taught table of the four most common metrical patterns in stressed verse—the iambic (de DUM de DUM de DUM), the trochaic (DUM de DUM de DUM de), the anapestic (diddy DUM diddy DUM diddy DUM) and the dactylic (DUM diddy DUM diddy DUM diddy) and you've basically got it. There are other metrical patterns, obviously, and you may need the occasional spondee to make your prosodic analysis work out, but that's basically it. Then it's a simple matter tracing the iambic pulse in a Shakespearian line, or contrasting the dactylic
Blow the wind southerly,
Southerly, southerly,
Blow the wind south o'er the
Bonny blue sea
with the famously anapestic
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
that used to be Byron's most memorised poem. All well and good. But there's a wrinkle: this later European tradition of scanning verse by stressed and unstressed syllables is fundamentally different to the tradition that obtained in ancient Greek and Latin verse. Their metrical feet are the same: iambs, anapests and so on. But in place of stress, the ancients heard length. Robert Graves described the difference of modern and ancient poetics as being that between the hammer and anvil of the blacksmith—ictus—and the long and short strokes of the boatsman's oar—classical prosody. Maybe that gives you a sense of the distinction.

We move into trickier territory. Whether the Ancients also heard stress is a moot point; but their poets, and their grammarians, analysed poetry in terms of the pattern of long and short syllables, not in terms of patterns of ictus. And that's a distinction we can understand too: we hear the difference between the long e (Greek η) in feel and the short e (Greek ε) in fell; between the omega (ω) in dole and the omicron (ο) in doll. But the fact that we can distinguish those sounds in individual words doesn't mean we can all hear the complex patterns of long and short syllables in passages of Homer or Vergil.

I'm going to make a rather shaming confession: I studied this stuff as an undergraduate doing a Classics degree, and went into it in greater detail for my PhD (where it was kind of important) and have kept it up; but I'm still not sure I can properly ‘hear’ the dactyls in Homer or Vergil as I read them aloud; not in the way I can ‘hear’ the stress patterns in English verse. I can see those patterns in Homer and Vergil, when the verse is written down, and can analyse it and so on; but it may be that ictus just strikes me as intuitive and common-sense in a way patterns of long and short vowels don't.

Anyhow, this long preamble is by way of setting up my larger point. For most of its history, the great English poets were trained up on the classics, and taught a prosody of length, before going on actually to write a poetry governed by a prosody of stress. Most of those poets simply wrote metrically in terms of stressed/unstressed syllables, as governed by the particulars of English, and ignored their book learning on how Homer and Horace wrote their verse.

Occasionally a poet of rare ambition would try to write both schemes at once: to write verse in English where the careful patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables matches, or plays creatively against, an equally careful patterning of long and short syllables. But this is very hard to do, and few poets have managed it. I'm prepared to believe that Milton achieves it, though I haven't really looked into his verse on these terms. I know Coleridge did it from time to time, as a particular exercise, but the results (mostly Notebook entries) are a little forced. The one English poet who possessed the needful expertise, whose ear was finely-enough attuned, and whose facility remarkable enough, to write easily and at length in a way that combined both traditions is, I think, Swinburne. And if I had enough time I'd expand upon that point, though it would take a while. Suffice to say I think Swinburne is a much much more interesting poet prosodically than he is on the level of content. Or, indeed, than he has been given credit for.

Now: the reason why I think this dual tradition comes again to have purchase on English poetry is because the main mode of 'poetry' nowadays is music-plus-lyrics. Most pop song lyrics are trash, of course, and many are remarkably clumsy; but the best pops song lyrics work by matching the rhythms of words to the rhythms of music. Harder to do than you might think.

Now as far as that goes, music combines stress and length patternings in a much more organic way than is the case for purely verbal forms of art. Some music (especially pop music, driven as it almost always is by drums) is heavily stressed, rhythmically speaking; other music (Wagner's chromatism for instance) is much more rhythmically defined in terms of pulses of longs and shorts. And for me the ideal song is one where the lyrics match the music both for stress and for length.

It's surprisingly rare. Often pop-sing lyrics will be regularised to match the musical beat in terms of ictus, but will be all over the place in terms of long and short strokes. Then again, quite a few pop lyrics do a crappy job of matching the natural rhythms of words to the rhythms of the music to which the words are attached. And since the whole point of this post is to praise the songwriting of Randy Newman, it's worth noting that sometimes even his best songs wrongfoot their ictus. For instance: ‘Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear’ is a lovely little song; but its opening two lines
I may go out tomorrow if I can borrow a coat to wear
Oh I'd step out in style with my sincere smile and my dancing bear
trip up jarringly on ‘sincere’, which needs to be sinCERE but which can only fit the rhythm of the song by being sung SINcere. Ugh.

Ah, but let us turn to ‘Louisiana 1927’. There it is at the top of this post. It's my favourite Newman song (which is saying a lot) and one of the reasons I love it is that, so far as I can see, it is quite simply flawless in the way it (intuitively, I guess) combines both prosodic paradigms, the modern by stress and the ancient by length, both working together in a way that precisely fits the (beautiful) rhythmic and melodic pattern of the music. It's a kind of perfection, and that's very rare in art. I'm honestly not sure I can think of a better line in modern pop music, prosodically speaking, than Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The Great Comet, Now Rapidly Approaching, Will It Strike the Earth? (1857)



After a very long preamble, in which we discover that Newton believed observable novae and supernovae were caused by comets falling into their parent stars, and that ‘the darkness which suddenly overshadowed the face of nature during the Crucifixion of our Saviour, was caused, it is said,—the Moon not then being in a position to cast its shadow on the Sun,— by a Comet's interposing its mighty bulk betwixt the Earth and the Sun’, we get to the punchline:



That's a no, then. Still, on the offchance ...



So it's not going to happen. But if it did ...

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Lewisham and Prufock


I'm reading, for the first time, H G Wells's semi-autobiographical novel Love and Mr Lewisham (1900). It's very good! It concerns a small, socially insecure but clever young man, with thin arms and legs, who tries to triangulate his love for women with society's larger disapproval and his own shyness. He is a schoolteacher for a while, and yearns in an abortive way after the beautiful Miss Henderson. Then he attends the Normal School in South Kensington, where he yearns after the beautiful, intellectual Miss Heydinger. Here's Wells's description of that location, just before a scene in which Lewisham tries, and mostly fails, to pursue his interest in Heydinger:
As one goes into the South Kensington Art Museum from the Brompton Road, the Gallery of Old Iron is overhead to the right. But the way thither is exceedingly devious and not to be revealed to everybody, since the young people who pursue science and art thereabouts set a peculiar value on its seclusion. The gallery is long and narrow and dark, and set with iron gates, iron-bound chests, locks, bolts and bars, fantastic great keys, lamps, and the like, and over the balustrade one may lean and talk of one's finer feelings and regard Michael Angelo's horned Moses. [ch. 10]
We know that T S Eliot was an enthusiastic reader of Wells (he called The First Men in the Moon ‘quite unforgettable’). He surely must have read Love and Mr Lewisham. Might he, even conceivably, have had this novel in mind when he wrote his great poem about a small, socially insecure but clever young man, with thin arms and legs, who tries to triangulate his love for women with society's larger disapproval and his own shyness? Two accounts, superficially rather different, of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Which room? Somewhere in London, obviously.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Conjunction Problem


A minor philosophical niggle, this. ‘The Conjunction Problem’ is what Daniel Kahneman, in his Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), calls a particular problem in probabilistic thinking. It goes like this:
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller.

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Kahneman says people will choose (b) as more probable, because they are wrongheaded wrongy wrong-wrongs, the berks. Phil Edwards (in a post discussing something else) summarises: ‘The correct answer is—logically has to be—(a); “A and also B” cannot be more probable than “A with or without B”, whatever A and B are. But we’re not hard-wired to be good at probability; we seem to read the question as an invitation to fill in the blank in the way that gives the most satisfying story, in this case option (b).’

Something about this smells fishy to me. I take the force of Kahneman's point, of course; and we can make it clearer by rephrasing the original question.
Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller and either is or is not active in the feminist movement

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
Put like that, (a) certainly looks more probable. But there seem to me two problems with it. One has to do with the vagueness with which the question is framed, a haziness that devolves upon being asked to compare a simple with a compound probability. The other has to do with the different valences of probability itself. ‘Given this information about a person, what do you consider plausible extrapolations as to the person's life or work?’ is a different kind of question to ‘this tossed coin has come up heads ten times in a row, what are the odds of an eleventh head?’

It may be, as Edwards suggests, that people plump for (b) because they prefer its implied story, rather than for reasons of pure probabilistic estimation. But then again, that might have nothing to do with it. Conceivably people choose (b) because they simply consider it more probable, irrespective of narrative. Reframe the question another way:
Here's quite a lot of information about Linda, designed to give you a sense of the kind of person she is, so as to feel confident making informed guesses as to the sorts of things she likes and what she does. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is doing something you consider unlikely.

b) Linda is doing something you consider unlikely. Linda is also doing something you consider she'd be likely to do.
The ‘likelihood’ angle is there in the original formulation as, if you like, Kahneman's sleight of hand, to try and nudge people to the ‘wrong’ answer. But it seems to me, when you frame it this way, it's reasonable to select (b). The thinking would be: (a) is, by definition, unlikely, so it doesn't make much sense to choose it. Of course (b) also includes that unlikely thing, but it also includes something much more likely, so if I select it I'll at least get 50%, instead of the all-or-nothing, weighted heavily towards nothing, unlikeliness of (a). The fuzziness is in the question not specifying whether we are selecting for the likelihood of the statement, or the likelihood of that statement plus literally everything else that might or might not be the case. And when you put it like that (a) becomes not so much unlikely as impossible with regard to anything save the Supreme Being. Quite apart from anything else, that's simply not how we assess statements for likelihood. Is it?

It puts me in mind of a version of the celebrated twins-at-the-fork-in-the-road logic puzzle, I think by Raymond Smullyan. You know the original puzzle. You have to get to Blogtown, urgently. But you've come to a fork in the road and don't know the way. Happily there are two people right there, identical twins, who do know the way. Unhappily, for obscure reasons (perhaps to do with their religion) one of them always tells the truth and the other always lies; and, moreover, they will only answer one question from you. What do you ask? The standard answer is: you pick one at random and ask ‘if I asked your brother which road to follow, what would he say?’ and then proceed up the other road than the one indicated. Fair enough. But the Smullyan solution, which seems to me to have a bearing on the Kahneman dilemma, is: ‘pick one brother and ask him the way to Blogtown. If you have chosen the truth-telling twin, he will point you in the right direction. If you have chosen the liar, he will point along the wrong fork in the road and also, with his other hand,  point down the road along which you have just come.’ That's bonkers in similar ways to the manner of Kahneman's bonkers explanation. Isn't it?