‘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.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Landor's "Southey and Porson" (1823)

We start with a Porsonian dig at critics, the education of which
must be entered on in an opposite way from the statuary's: the latter begins with dirt and ends with marble; the former begins with marble and ends with dirt. [5:141]
Landor's Southey then picks up on the dirt idea, by way of deprecating the modern age 'in which everything must be done quickly'.
To run with oars and sails was formerly the expression of orators for velocity : it would now express slowness. Our hats, our shoes, our whole habiliments, are made at one stroke : our fortunes the same, and the same our criticisms. Under my fellow-labourers in this vineyard, many vines have bled and few have blossomed. The proprietors seem to keep their stock as agriculturists keep lean sheep, to profit by their hoof and ordure. [5:141]
But wait now: 'this vineyard' is poetry (or is it criticism?); and Southey's 'fellow-labourers' are other poets (or critics?). So who are the proprietors? The public? Whoever they are, they are interested in their literature, or perhaps in their criticism, only for its glue and its shit.

Porson's animus is against contemporary reviewers of the Jeffreys type ('they who attack [Wordsworth] with virulence or with levity are men of no morality and no reflection', he says: a line altered in later editions to the hardly less stinging 'men of as little morality as reflection' [5:139]). In some respects Landor's Porson ventriloquises Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (no mean feat, since that book was first published nearly a decade after Porson's death):
I have observed the same man extol in private the very book on whose ruin he dined the day before. [5:142]
(Coleridge, in the conclusion to the Biographia, laments the reaction to his own 'Christabel': 'In the Edinburgh Review it was assailed with a malignity and a spirit of personal hatred that ought to have injured only the work in which such a tirade appeared : and this review was generally attributed (whether rightly or no I know not) to a man, who both in my presence and in my absence has repeatedly pronounced it the finest poem in the language.')  The main theme of this 'Conversation' follows the critical line of the second volume of Coleridge's famous book: discussing specific flawed examples of Wordsworth's 'simple' style whilst praising overall his nobility and clarity.  Landor's idiom, is dirtier. As his Porson puts it:
Wordsworth goes out of his way to be attacked: he picks up a piece of dirt, throws it on the carpet in the midst of the company, and cries This is a better man than any of you. He does indeed mould the base material into what form he chooses; but why not rather invite us to con- template it than challenge us to condemn it? This surely is false taste. [5:154]
The carpet is a synecdoche for a wealthy person, the clod for a poor one; with the implication that bringing these two humans together must (deliberately, polemically even) entail the dirtying of the former. It is worth adding that Coleridge is also discussed in propria persona. 'Bright colours without form,' is Porson's dismissal: 'sublimely void.' The ground of his hauteur, however, is not style but religion.
[Coleridge] believes he is a believer; but ... is it an act of piety to play the little child in the go-cart of Religion, or to beslaver the pretty dress he has just put on,
Porrigens teneras manus
Matria e gremio suae
Semihianto labello.
Pardon a quotation: I hate it: I wonder how it escaped me. [5:154]
The hatable quotation in question is from (of course) Catullus, Carmina 61: 'Torquatus uolo paruulus/matris e gremio suae/porrigens teneras manus/dulce rideat ad patrem/semihiante labello' ('A little Torquatus I wish, stretching out his little hands from his mother's lap, sweetly smiling at his father with parted lips'). Carmina 61 was written in honour of the marriage of Manlius Torquatus and Vinia Aurunculeia, the poet urging bride and bridegroom together into the honeymoon bed to beget children sooner rather than later. Coleridge, it seems, is sublimely void in an infantile way: reaching out with his hands from his mother's lap, and grinning. Porson hates a quotation. But who is the mother, here? What the dress? Mother church?

The bulk of this first Southey-Porson exchange is given over to a lengthy reminisence by Porson of a visit to a brothel. It was, he insists, at a length that encroahces on protests-too-much territory, an accident that he ever came to be in such a place:
I had been dining out: there were some who smoked after dinner; within a few hours the fumes of their pipes produced such an effect on my head, that I was willing to go into the air  a little. Still I continued hot and thirsty; and an undergraduate, whose tutor was my old acquaintance, proposed that we should turn into an oyster-cellar, and refresh ourselves with oysters and porter. The rogue, instead of this, conducted me into a fashionable house in the neighbourhood of Saint James's ; and although I expostulated with him, and insisted that we were going upstairs and not down, he appeared to me so ingenuous and so sincere in his protestations to the contrary, that I could well disbelieve him no longer. Nevertheless, receiving on the stairs many shoves and elbowings, I could not help telling him plainly, that, if indeed it was the oyster-cellar in Fleet-street, the company was much altered for the worse, and that in future I should frequent another. When the fumes of the pipes had left me, I discovered the deceit by the brilliancy and indecency of the and was resolved not to fall into temptation. Although, to my great satisfaction and surprise, no immodest proposal was directly made to me. [5:156]
Porson recalls being mocked by the whores for his dirty nails ('a pretty woman said loudly, "He has no gloves on!" "What nails the creature has!" replied an elder one. "Piano-forte keys wanting the white!"); converses with a 'thief taker' and recounts the brothel-equivalent to the reviewer who mocks a book in public and praises it in private: a German bawd who ('a beldame with prominent eyes, painted mole-hairs, and abundantly rich in the extensive bleaching-ground of cheeks and shoulders') first voices 'all manner of spiteful things against a young person called pretty', and then 'with her arm upon the neck of the girl, and looking softly and benignly, and styling her my young friend here, in such a sweet guttural accent, so long in drawing up, you would have thought it must have come from the heart.' The change of heart comes from the fact that a client of high standing has expressed his interest in the girl. All this, howsoever removed it seems from the business of literary criticism, culminates in a disquisition upon sexual euphemism:
A friend who happened to be there, although I did not see him, asked me afterward what I thought of the naked necks of the ladies.

"To tell you the truth," replied I, "the women of all countries, and the men in most, have usually kept their necks naked."

"You appear not to understand me, or you quibble," said he; "I mean their bosoms."

I then understood for the first time that neck signifies bosom when we speak of women, though not so when we speak of men or other creatures. But if bosom is neck, what, according to the same scale of progression, ought to be bosom? The usurped dominion of neck extends from the ear downward to where mermaids become fish. This conversation led me to reflect that I was born in the time when people had thighs; before your memory, I imagine. At present there is nothing but leg from the hip to the instep. My friend Mr. Small of Peter-house, a very decent and regular man, and fond of fugitive pieces, read before a lady and her family, from under the head of descriptive, some verses about the spring and the bees. Unluckily the honied thighs of our little European sugar-slaves caught the attention of the mother, who coloured excessively at the words, and said with much gravity of reproof, Indeed, Mr. Small, I never could have thought it of you, and added, waving her hand with matronly dignity toward the remainder of the audience, Sir, I have daughters.
This is funny, but it begs the question: what has it got to do with Wordsworth? If the point is that Wordsworth's verse treats of common and vulgar people (which of course it does) we are surely moved to note that it does not deal with prostitutes and brothels. Porson accuses Wordsworth of throwing 'a piece of dirt' onto the carpet of respectable literary opinion we perhaps think of a rural clod. This lengthy story about the brothel -- and the quotation from Catullus -- inflect out sense of dirt in a sexual manner. Indeed, the lines quotes from Carmina 61 have a ribald double meaning: Catullus spends the preceding several stanzas of his poem urging his married lovers into bed with one another; the 'semihiantis labellum', half-opened lips and the woman's 'gremium' have a sexual as well an innocent meaning. 'Gremium' is an interesting word in this context, actually: it can mean, according to Lewis and Short, 'lap' or 'bosom', or 'bowels'. And in fact it can mean less euphemistic things as well. A few poems along from Catullus's Carmina 61 we find the scurrilous Carmina 67, a piece of poetic gossip about a father who has fucked his son's wife: 'qui ipse sui gnati minxerit in gremium', 'a man who pissed into the gremium of his own son's wife'. Scholars tend to translate 'gremium' here as womb (the Carmina ends with an unwanted, incestuous pregnancy); and Lewis and Short themselves euphemistically render the line as 'a father who dishonoured his own son's wife'. It's clear enough, however, what the word 'actually' means -- clear enough for me not to need to spell it out. Which is to say, the interesting thing about it is precisely the way it mediates euphemism.

This seems a long way from Wordsworth's shepherds and leech-gatherers. But Landor's point is, partly, that (to quote his Porson again) 'trifling people are often useful, unintentionally and unconsciously: illustrations may be made out of them even for scholars and sages. A hangman sells to a ragman the materials on which a Homer is printed.' But the particular illustration seems more sexually charged than the actual topic requires. What is going on here?

All this -- the dirtiness of critics, the double-entendre of the Catullus quotation, offered as if it Freudianly slipped from Porson's mouth ('I wonder how it escaped me!'), the anecdote of going (inadvertently! we are earnestly assured of the visit's inadvertence) into a brothel where whores laugh at your dirty nails, the excursion into the topic of sexual euphemism -- all this is a prelude to a discussion of what is surely, at first blush, the chastest of all Wordsworth's many chaste poems: 'Laodamia' (1815). The logic of these structural juxtapositions fair screams 'irony', a circumstance that can only be emphasised by the way both Southey and Porson iterate and reiterate the stately chastity of the piece: it is 'most spirited', 'a draft of pure poetry' (although one with 'a flake of tartar' in it that Porson can criticise), 'a current,' Southey insists, 'of rich and bright thoughts runs through the poem.' It might, he adds, he 'heard with shouts of rapture' by the angels in heaven [5:162-3]. But what of that 'flake of tartar' that Porson 'wish[es] away'? What is it that contaminates 'this classic poem'? Protesilaus has sacrificed his life for his country; his wife is constant and adoring even in death; given the chance to meet his shade she finds herself unable to relinquish him a second time to the shades -- but his departure is a necessity, and he returns to the underworld leaving his wife a corpse by his tomb. What muddies the cleanness of this rebuke to excessive wifely affection? Might there be some suggestion of lewdness?

On the contrary: it is not impurity that contaminates 'Laodamia', but, paradoxically, purity, or at least Christian piety.

No comments:

Post a Comment