‘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, 4 March 2016

Paradise Lost's Goodness Infinite

Felix culpa means fortunate fall, or lucky delinquency, and is one of the central theological problematics not just of Milton's Paradise Lost but of Christianity itself. Adam's sin brought death into the world; but then again it's fortunate Adam fell, insofar as it set-up Christ's salvation. Or, indeed: 'if the Jews had not prevailed upon the Romans to crucify our Lord,' as Disraeli says in Tancred, 'what would have become of the Atonement?':
Could that be a crime which secured for all mankind eternal joy? Which vanquished Satan, and opened the gates of Paradise? Such a tenet would sully and impugn the doctrine that is the corner-stone of our faith and hope. Men must not presume to sit in judgment on such an act. They must bow their heads in awe and astonishment and trembling gratitude.
Milton says something similar:
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By mee done and occasiond, or rejoyce
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
To God more glory, more good will to Men
From God, and over wrauth grace shall abound. [Paradise Lost, 12:469-78]
Abound, at the end there, gestures towards Romans 5:20: 'Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound'. And there's something deliberately springy about that bounding, a play on words: that sin which binds men shall also give men the sprightliness to bounce free. People think of Milton as a ponderous sort of poet, and in some senses he is, but he is also playful, sometimes wittily so. The whole point of this passage is that sin is not a terrible end, but is instead the germ of something wonderful. And look there at the first line there: goodness infinite contains at its very heart, the last letter of goodness and the first two of infinite, sin. Sin, Milton is intimating, is the very kernel of infinite goodness.


  1. Nicely done! And catnip to me, of course. One more Pauline echo may be heard here: "Shall we sin the more, that grace may abound? God forbid!" If we affirm with Adam that this first sin should produce "To God more glory, more good will to Men / From God" — and Adam will not yet have wholly lost that "higher intellectual" that Satan so feared — then why not keep a good thing going? If grace abounds through one sin, why not through them all. Thus the old joke that Auden loved to quote: "I like committing sins, and God likes forgiving them. Really, the world is admirably arranged." Adam, for all his mental power, can't see a way to make the theo-logic work out. So at the moment that he realizes his own miraculous deliverance his primary mental/emotional/spiritual state is confusion: "Full of doubt I stand."

    But he does stand: a hugely important word for Milton ("They also serve who only stand and wait"). Our last vision of Satan: "down he fell / A monstrous Serpent on his Belly prone." One can only stand, in this understanding, by accepting that the equation admits no solution. "Full of doubt" is, apparently, the only way to stand.

  2. Very interesting. I was going to add that Adam's doubtful standing contrasts with the sorts of forces that get Satan to his feet: 'Incens'd with indignation Satan stood' and so on. But then I remembered:

    'Abashed the Devil stood,
    And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
    Virtue in her shape how lovely.
    —saw, and pined his loss.'

    So it seems the Devil is capable of doubt, too, but it takes goodness to provoke it. As with Adam. Goodness abashes.

    1. Indeed! That ought to be a hashtag: #GoodnessAbashes