‘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.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Cædmon's Hymn


There's no shortage of translations of this, English's oldest surviving poem, of course. Why attempt another? Well, looking at the poem again I was struck, as I hadn't been before, that one way of reading it is as an expression of the many different ways in which we might name God (Lord, Almighty, Maker, and so on). So I had a go, picking out with capitals the way Cædmon rings those changes, whilst keeping as much of the alliteration and the original sound-patterns as I could.

Nu sculon herigean       heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte       and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,       swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,       or onstealde.
He ærest sceop       eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,       halig scyppend;
þa middangeard       moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,       æfter teode
firum foldan,       frea ælmihtig.



Now should we hymn again       heavenrealm's Warden,
the Measurer's might       and his mind's thought,
work of the Wielder-father       from his first wonders,
see this Sovereign,       what he established.
He earliest shaped       for earth's offspring
a heavenroof on high,       that holy Shaper;
middle-earth was made       by mankind's Guardian,
and that Emperor       afterwards adorned
our folk's fine fold,       almighty Führer.

This works, if it does, by a process of accumulation that pays off (if it does) on the last word—which I insist is not only justified by the alliteration and the etymology of it (and of the original frea; they both come from the same root, which means to lead forward) but also in terms of the increasingy oppressive hectoring of the piece itself, short though it is. It reminds me a little of Michael Palin's vicar, from Meaning of Life: ‘O Lord, ooh you are so big’ and so on. Cædmon? C'mon, man!

2 comments:

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