‘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.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Browning, Mute Dwarfs and Naked Indian Queens

So, when I was a PhD student at the University of Cambridge many years ago (in the 1980s, no less) and working on Robert Browning, I came upon a reference in Browning's first published work, the long blank verse poem Pauline: Fragment of a Confession (1833). In the course of this work the narrator comes to a place where
           nature lies all bare,
Suffering none to view her but a race
Or stinted or deformed, like the mute dwarfs
Which wait upon a naked Indian queen.
I didn't get the reference, and the footnotes didn't help me. No footnotes ever have; I don't believe any editor has explained what Browning is referring to, here. Maybe it proceeded from his fevered imagination.

Anyhow, many decades later, and pursuant to an entirely different project, I was reading Photius's Βιβλιοθήκη, which contains his capsule review (amongst many many other titles) of Ctesius's Indika, or 'History of India' (from the late 5th-century BC). Among the many marvels Ctesius records ('elephants which knock down walls, little apes with tails four cubits long, and of cocks of very large size; of the parrot about as large as a hawk, which has a human tongue and voice, and if taught Greek, speaks Greek') are pygmies:
In the middle of India there are black men, called Pygmies, who speak the same language as the other inhabitants of the country. They are very short, the tallest being only two cubits in height, most of them only one and a half. Their hair is very long, going down to the knees and even lower, and their beards are larger than those of any other men. When their beards are full grown they leave off wearing clothes and let the hair of their head fall down behind far below the knees, while their beard trails down to the feet in front. When their body is thus entirely covered with hair they fasten it round them with a girdle, so that it serves them for clothes. They are snubnosed and ugly. Their sheep are no bigger than lambs, their oxen, asses, horses, mules, and other beasts of burden about the size of rams. 3000 of them attend on the monarch of India.
Could Browning be thinking of these? Perhaps he has transferred the nakedness of the Pygmies onto the monarch. Not sure where the muteness has come from, though.

In terms of the poem, Browning is here talking about Switzerland: beautiful nature, like a naked (but why Indian?) Queen, ugly shortarsed natives (but why mute?). Or so he thought. I've always found Swiss people quite attractive, myself.


  1. I think the idea is that mute dwarfs couldn't go away and talk about what they'd seen - like eunuchs only more so. I don't know how good Browning's geography was - perhaps 'Indian' just meant 'somewhere out East'. But then, why dwarfs? Odd.

    There's a strange sort of strenuous fluency about Browning's longer blank verse works, as if he's writing himself exhausted. I've only read _Mr Sludge, the Medium_ once, but I distinctly remember feeling towards the end of it as if I'd finished a long walk or stayed up all night, and feeling as if the narrator (or Browning himself) felt like that too: exhaustion, elation, a sense of having got past all the distractions and trivia to finally see things plainly. This hasn't got much to do with _Pauline_, except that it supports my sense that Browning was the kind of writer who, if he realised that he was writing some mad stuff about mute Indian dwarfs, would just leave it there and press on - all part of the process. A bit like a talking cure.

  2. It's weird, right? Pauline is not often studied, amongst Browning experts, in part b/c RB himself more-or-less repudiated it. But it has always struck me as a very interesting piece: inchoate, but redeemed by the extent that it is about inchoateness.

  3. Sludge is great: a 40-line poem that is inflated into hundreds and hundreds of lines for no other purpose, as far as I can see, except that RB wanted to formally embody as well as critique windy pompous mendacity.