‘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 28 April 2013


Very struck by this W G Sebald remark (from an interview he gave to amazon.co.uk, of all places):
I received a letter from a librarian after the publication of The Rings of Saturn, claiming that he had seen archival material that said that the Battle of Sole Bay—off Lowestoft—had been heard in London. Newton heard it from Cambridge. This sort of thing is inconceivable today. We can barely even imagine how it was then. It just shows how much we are losing possession of our senses, and how much noisier our world is now that it ever has been before. It has got much worse in the last ten years.
It's a beguiling notion. We think of modernity as shrinking space, leaping-over distance and so on; but in this auditory sense modernity has made England much bigger. Lowestoft might as well be in Siberia for all the chance I have, sitting here, for hearing anything from it.

Choking on the ashes of our enemies

If water sticks in your throat, what will you take to wash it down?

Thursday 25 April 2013

On the global success of Tolkien

One reason Tolkien’s imaginary realm has proved so successful is precisely its structural non-specificity. What I mean is: Tolkien treats material that has deep roots in, and deep appeal to, various cultural traditions; but he does so in a way—as fictionalised worldbuilding rather than denominated myth—that drains away much of the poisonous nationalist, racist and belligerent associations those traditions have accumulated over the centuries. A thumbnail history would go like this: in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, Wagner’s Ring melodramas spoke to a great many people about a particular northern-European cultural identity; about a group of linked, potent emotional attachments to history, landscape, to the numinous and the divine, to matters of heroism and everyday life. I am trying not to sound sneery as I say this (I mean melodrama in the strict sense of the word), because these things did, and do, matter intensely and genuinely to many people. But there is a reason, a room-filling elephant of a reason, why Der Ring des Nibelungen no longer has this general resonance. It is because the cultural reservoir from which it draws much of its power also supplied cultural capital to the worst regime ever to take charge in Germany, and therefore lubricated the most catastrophically destructive war ever to be waged in the world. In saying this I am not, of course, blaming Wagner for the Nazis. Indeed, the endless debates about Wagner’s own ideological ‘purity’ (‘was Wagner an anti-semite?’ Short answer: yes. Long answer: yes, like just about every other gentile in 19th-century Europe) seem to me to miss the point. The restless churning through this question happens because we're desperate to acquit Wagner so that we can enjoy his music with a clean conscience. We ask the question, get the uncomfortable answer, and ask it again.  In our guts resides the queasy comprehension that Wagner can’t be acquitted. Politics can’t be neatly separated out from the Ring cycle, leaving only a washed-and-scrubbed sequence of pretty orchestral tone poems behind. I love the Ring cycle, and listen to it regularly; but I would never try to deny that it is political all the way through, down to its very marrow. It is, to be precise, about the notion that history and myth are in some sense the same thing—a very dangerous notion indeed.

Tolkien’s story is not the same as the Ring cycle; his ‘ring’ (as he crossly reminded correspondents) not the same as Alberich’s ring. But a considerable amount of the heft and force of Lord of the Rings derives from the way Tolkien draws on the same broader cultural, mythic, northern-European heritage. What saves Lord of the Rings is that it is not about Germany, or about England; or to be more precise, that it is about England and Germany only secondarily, in an eloquently oblique (a cynic might say: in a plausibly deniable) manner. Tolkien found a way of articulating the same deep-rooted cultural concerns in a way that avoids being poisoned by the cultural specificity of European Fascism. This doesn’t let Tolkien off the hook, as far as racial and ideological content goes, of course. Indeed, I offer my thoughts here not as a value judgement of his fiction, so much as an explanation for why Lord of the Rings has done so extraordinarily well—resonated so powerfully with so many people—in the postwar period. It rushed in to fill the gap that more culturally-specific art had supplied before that kind of art was discredited by the 1940s.

I wonder if this is a broader cultural phenomenon. We prefer stories of Marvel superheroes to actual stories of 'crime fighters' (policemen, soldiers and so on) because we have lost faith in the latter, or more precisely lost faith that the latter can ever exhibit the kind of perfect heroism we want our stories to articulate. Hogwarts, being fictional, can apprehend something very important -- school -- without being tangled in the messy specificity of actual real-world schooling.  A sequence of novels set in Eton would be noisome; although that is, in effect, what Rowling has written. The twentieth-century has cured us of our attachment to a certain kind of ideology-text; and the cure we have chosen is -- worldbuilt fiction. (I could add lots of other examples, from West Wing to Westeros. But I've probably said enough.)

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Anglo-Saxon Dental Treatments

These are great.

They're from T Anderson, 'Dental treatment in Anglo-Saxon England', [British Dental Journal 197 (2004), 273-274]. It is through this article that I learned the name and contents of the most excellently titled 'Leechbooks of Bald'. See, I'm going to tell you that's an actual book; and you're going to carry on believing I made the name up. I can't help that.

Anyhow, this is what Anderson says:
The Leechbooks of Bald. These books, possibly compiled in the ninth century, were copied down in Old English at Winchester in the middle of the tenth century. This makes it the oldest extant vernacular medical work. The MS (Royal 12.d, xvii) is housed at the British Library. The third section, with more magical remedies and charms, most accurately reflects English medical practice of the time, whereas volumes I and II contain more mediterranean influence. Book III contains several vernacular remedies for oral problems:

For toothache:
'...chew pepper often with the teeth, it will soon be better for him. Again boil henbane's root (Hyoscyamus niger) in strong vinegar or in wine, set it on the sore tooth, and let him chew it with the sore tooth sometimes; he will be hale'
A recipe 'For a mouth broken inside':
'take a plum (Prunus domestica) tree's leaf, boil it in wine, let him swill his mouth with it'
Apparently an attempt to combat advanced infection, probably associated with advanced periodontal disease. A remedy against 'hollow teeth' apparently refers to large carious cavities:
'...chew bothen's [? Rosmarinus officinalis] root with vinegar on that side'
A complicated remedy, including phlebotomy, is known for a 'crooked or deficient' mouth. This may refer to a cleft lip or palate:
'...take coriander (Coriandrum sativum), dry it out, make it into dust, mix the dust with the milk of a woman who is feeding a boy-child, wring it out through a blue cloth and smear the healthy cheek with it, and drip it into the ear carefully. Make a bathing, then: take bramble (Rubus fruticosus.) bark and elm (Ulmus campestris) bark, ash (Fraxinus excelsior) bark, blackthorn (Prunus spinosus) bark, apple tree (Pyrus malus) bark, ivy (Hedera helix) bark — the lower parts of all of these — and cucumber, smearwort (Aristolochia rotunda), boarfern (Polypodium vulgare), elecampane (Inula helenium), elfthon (Circaea lutetiana), betony (Stachys betonica), horehound (Marrubium vulgare), radish (Raphanus sativus), agrimony (Potentilla anserina), scrape the plant into a cauldron and boil them thoroughly. Once it is thoroughly boiled, take it off the fire and let it stand and make the man a seat over the cauldron and cover the man so that the vapour cannot get out anywhere except that he might breathe it in. Bathe him with this bathing for as long as he can bear it. Have another bathe ready for him then, take an entire anthill — of those that sometimes fly, it will be red — boil it in water, bathe him with it, with excessive heat. Then make him a salve: take some plants of each of those kinds, boil in butter, smear the sore parts with it, they will soon come back to life. Make him a lye from elder (Sambucus niger) ashes, wash his head with it cold, it will soon be better for him; and let the man's blood each month on a five-night-old moon, and on a fifteen, and on a twenty'
That last one is especially marvellous. The incredibly complicated herbal mixture I can just about see; but 'take an anthill, boil him, make the patient sit over the cauldron to breathe in the boiled-anthill-vapour ...' is beyond the comprehension of a simple fellow like me to fathom.

In other news, Boiled Anthill Vapour is the name of my next band.


From Maria Artamonova* I learn that Tolkien, not content with writing Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion in modern English, also composed Old English Annals or Chronicles-style texts concerning various events in his imagined history. Here’s an example:
MMCCCCXCIX Hér gefeaht Féanores fierd wiþ þam orcum / sige námon / þá orcas gefliemdon oþ Angband (þaet is Irenhelle); ac Goðmog, Morgoðes þegn, ofslóh Féanor, and Maegdros gewéold siþþan Féanores folc. Þis gefeoht hátte Tungolguð

Here Fëanor’s host fought with the Orcs and was victorious, and pursued them to Angband (that is Iron Hell); but Gothmog, servant of Morgoth, slew Fëanor, and Maedhros ruled Fëanor’s folk after that. This battle was called the Battle-under-the-Stars [quoted in Artamonova, 86]
From this I learn (a) that Tolkien was Method, when it came to his own writing; and (b) that he chanced upon the greatest name for a villain in the history of Fantasy—Gothmog. Beware the coming of The Gothmog! Black, black like the heart of a crow, his collar studded with silver skulls, his soundtrack of Sisters of Mercy abruptly drowned-out by his earth-shattering MIAOW.


[* ‘Writing for an Anglo-Saxon Audience in the Twentieth Century: J.R.R.Tolkien’s Old English Chronicles’, in David Clark and Nicholas Perkins (eds), Anglo Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination (Cambridge: D S Brewer, 2000), 71-88]

Saturday 20 April 2013


I've been half-thinking about tracing the cultural history of an idea. It started with wondering about the trajectory of Sartor Resartus (which was Carlyle's own personal experience) -- namely, that you pass through the Everlasting Nay in order to be born again in the Everlasting Aye; that spiritual doubt is not an aberration from faith, but a vital component of it (because unless he died, Christ could not be born again; si le grain ne meurt and all that). Carlyle's book embodies this formally and thematically as well as discussing it on the level of content; but who else does it? Who did it earlier than Carlyle? Who says 'perfect faith that never doubts and never has doubted is a kind of monstrosity, almost a perversity of faith'? I'm not sure anybody does -- before Carlyle. Then I chanced upon this on Alan Jacobs tumblr:
“What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s Resurrection? It is as though I play with the thought. – If he did not rise from the dead, then he decomposed in the grave like any other man. He is dead and decomposed. In that case he is a teacher like any other and can no longer help; and once more we are orphaned and alone. So we have to content ourselves with wisdom and speculation. We are in a sort of hell where we can do nothing but dream, roofed in, as it were, and cut off from heaven. But if I am to be REALLY saved, – what I need is certainty – not wisdom, dreams or speculation – and this certainty is faith. And faith is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence. For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind. Perhaps we can say: Only love can believe in the Resurrection. Or: It is love that believes the Resurrection. We might say: Redeeming love believes even in the Resurrection; holds fast even to the Resurrection. What combats doubt is, as it were, redemption. Holding fast to this must be holding fast to that belief. So what that means is: first you must be redeemed and hold on to your redemption (keep hold of your redemption) – then you will see that you are holding fast to this belief. So this can come about only if you no longer rest your weight on the earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything will be different and it will be ‘no wonder’ if you can do things that you cannot do now. [Ludwig Wittgenstein, note of 1937, in Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (1984)]

Thursday 18 April 2013

Perceiving the Universe as it Really Is

Well, this is a pretty stunning thought:
Peeping through my keyhole I see within the range of only about thirty percent of the light that comes from the sun; the rest is infrared and some little ultraviolet, perfectly apparent to many animals, but invisible to me. A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. Donald E. Carr points out that the sense impressions of one-celled animals are not edited for the brain: “This is philosophically interesting in a rather mournful way, since it means that only the simplest animals perceive the universe as it is." [Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), 19
I can't think it's true, though. The data perceived by a single-cellular-being may not be being processed in the ways that happen inside my brain, but it is surely being mediated.


Via Alan Jacobs:
The Medieval Latin word universitas has no reference to the scope of the curriculum of studies; it stands for the whole gathering, the whole body, of a particular class of persons, and indeed stands very near in meaning to the modern ‘union’ in the term ‘trade union.’ It is all but synonymous, for legal purposes, with the Latin term collegium, and for social comparisons, with the old English word guild. The universitas was first of all the whole body either of the masters or of the students, and then very naturally came to mean their self-governing guild or society. The word did not gain its local or educational connotation till the last phase of the middle ages. [David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (1962), 139]

Sunday 14 April 2013

Plan To Correspond With The Moon Via Giant Geometrical Shapes, 1827

CORRESPONDENCE WITH THE MOON. The astronomer Gruithuisen, who maintains that he has discovered by his telescope, such marks of artificial instructions in the moon, as could only be the work of intelligent beings like ourselves, is even of opinion at a correspondence with them might be established. His plan is familiar to one communicated many years ago by Gans to Zimmermann; namely, to erect a geometrical figure on the plains of Siberia; since a correspondence with the Lunarians could only be begun by means of such mathematical contemplations and ideas as we and they must have in common. It is but right to notice, however, that Noggeruth, the geologist. while he does not deny the accuracy of the description published by Gruithuisen, contends that all these appearances are owing to vast whin dykes, or trap veins, rising above the general lunar surface. [Spirit of the English Magazines (1827), 47]

Gruithuisen (Wikipedia tells us) 'made multiple observations of the lunar surface that supported his beliefs, including his announcement of the discovery of a city in the rough terrain to the north of Schröter crater he named the Wallwerk.' Then, rather disappointingly the Encyclopedia Contemporeana Onlinea adds: 'this region contains a series of somewhat linear ridges that have a fishbone-like pattern, and, with the small refracting telescope he was using, could be perceived as resembling buildings complete with streets.' Boo to this explanation, I say. I prefer to believe Wallwerk existed -- in which case, the burning mystery is WHAT HAPPENED TO IT? Let is immediately begin construction of the giant geometrical shapes in Sibera, say I.

But there's more! 'He is also noted for the discovery of bright caps on the cusps of the crescent Venus, and for being the first to suggest that craters on the Moon were caused by meteorite impacts. He proposed that jungles on Venus grew more rapidly than in Brazil due to the proximity of the planet to the Sun, and that as a consequence the inhabitants celebrated fire festivals— the cause of the bright caps on Venus.' Sounds plausible to me.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Napoleon Antichrist!

Available to read in full on Google Books -- Lewis Mayer’s A Hint to England; or, A Prophetic Mirror containing an explanation of prophecy that relates to the French nation, and the threatened invasion; proving Bonaparte to be the Beast that arose out of the Earth, with Two Horns like a Lamb, and spake as a Dragon, whose Number is 666 (1803). It's not a lengthy pamphlet (36 pages), and worth a gander. I especially like the final peroration, in which Mayer proves ‘from the general tenor of prophecy’ that not only is Britain destined to subsume France into the British Empire (‘the British nation will display her banners on the Gallic Shores’), but also conquer the rest of the globe, or at least ‘extend her influence over the Continent of Europe and Asia’, as well as to ‘re-establish the Jews in their ancient possessions’ and ‘give universal peace to the world.’ It says it in the Bible! It must be true.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Babylon: 16th- and 18th-century perspectives

In 1764 The Critical Review, or Annals of Literature covered A General History of the World, from the Creation to the present lime. Including all the Empires, Kingdoms, and States; their Revolutions, Forms of Government, Laws, Religions, Customs and Manners; the Progress of their Learning, Arts, Sciences, Commerce and Trade; together with their Chronology, Antiquities, Public Buildings, and Curiosities of Nature and Art, which work was written 'By William Guthrie, Esq. John Gray, Esq. and others eminent in this Branch of Literature' (2 vols, 1764). One question addressed: what happened to the Biblical Babylon?
Whether any remains of it are to be seen at this day, is very uncertain. Modern travellers even differ as to the situation of Babylon, so completely has that immense city been destroyed. There are several large and remarkable ruins still to be seen in the neighbourhood of the Euphrates, and at many miles distance from each other; but which of them, or if any of them, may be supposed the ruins of Babel, is still very doubtful.

Tavernier, and several other travellers, have visited a mass of ruins about eight or nine miles to the north west of Bagdat, called by the present inhabitants the Tower of Nimrod. This lower tower appears now a shapeless hill, and stands by itself in a wide plain. Towards the middle there is an opening that passes quite thro' the building, and towards the top there is a great window. Authors give very different accounts of the heighth. of the tower, and of the bulk and form of the bricks, and of the manner how they are ranged. Some suppose it to be the fame with the tower mentioned by Moses; and others thinking it cannot agree with his account, embrace the opinion of the Arabs, who say, that it was built by one of their princes for a beacon.

Rawwolf, a German physician, who in the year 1574, passed down the Euphrates, supposes he found the ruins of Babylon on that river, 36 miles to the south-west of Bagdat, where the village Elugo, or Felujia, now stands. He says the country is dry and barren, and that it might be doubted whether that potent city ever stood there, if it were not for some delicate antiquities still remaining. Some pieces and arches of the old bridge over Euphrates are still to be seen; and at a small distance the ruins of the tower of Babel, half a league in diameter; but so low and so full of venomous beasts, that it is dangerous to approach within half a mile of it; except in two months of the year, when those animals do not stir out. On his journey from thence to Bagdat, he observed many large and stately buildings, arches, and turrets, standing in the sand, some decayed and in ruins, others pretty entire, and adorned with curious artificial work.
Two things strike me: one, what a great name 'Rawwolf' is! And, two: the mournful reflection that recent events have made 'Falujiah' much better known than was formerly the case. I wonder if it could have been Babylon?

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Joseph Priestley defends Dissenters

If all who really labour in God's great harvest, and especially those who preach the gospel to the poor, (who stand in the greatest need of instruction,) were to receive their wages, in proportion to the real use of their labours, out of the tithes, and other public funds, from which the clergy are now paid for doing (or rather for not doing) the same work, it would be no small sum that would go out of their pockets into those of the Methodist preachers, who have civilized and christianized a great part of the uncivilized and unchristianized part of this country. But if they be not recompensed out of that fund, they will be recompensed out of another, something more permanent. When this great globe, and all that it inherits, shall dissolve, I had rather be found in the company of such humble labourers in God's vineyard than in that of the generality of your dignified and beneficed clergy, who have had their good things in this life.

From the veneration with which Mr. Madan would inspire you for civil establishments of Christianity, and the abhorrence and contempt with which he treats Dissenters, you would naturally imagine that such establishments of Christianity have been from its first promulgation, and that our mode of religion is quite an upstart thing; whereas the very contrary is well known to be the truth of the case. In every article in which we differ, our system is the ancient one, and yours modern.

What is it that distinguishes Dissenters from the members of Established Churches? They are the following particulars, and no other whatever: They choose and they pay their own ministers, without burdening the state with any expense on that account. They also dismiss their ministers whenever they are dissatisfied with them, and they acknowledge no authority in any man, or in any body of men, to settle articles of faith, or rules of discipline for them. In all these things they judge and act for themselves, holding themselves to be answerable to God and their own consciences only.

These principles are common to all Dissenters, though we differ much from one another in other things, and in all of them we differ from established churches, like that of England. Your creeds and forms of public worship are dictated by acts of parliament. Your ministers, at least most of them, are appointed either by the king, or particular patrons. You have only a right to complain in case of their misbehaviour, but without any other controul over their conduct. You have no power either to choose or to dismiss them, and their incomes are fixed by the law; so that whether you approve of their services or not, they can enforce the payment of their dues, to the uttermost farthing, by a regular, well-known course of law. They can levy a distress, and throw you into prison, for the non-payment of tithes, as well as for that of any other debt.

Now all these things are comparatively of late date in the history of Christianity, and they took place not all at once, in consequence of any proper alliance with the state, which is entirely a fiction of modern times, but one after another, as circumstances were favourable to the clergy. For they, like other bodies of men, never lost sight of their interest; and the ignorance and superstition of former times were exceedingly favourable to them.

When the emperors became Christians, they gave power to the bishops, whom they were then disposed to favour, to enforce the decrees of their councils, with respect to articles of faith and points of discipline. But the church funds, from the voluntary contributions of Christians, being sufficient for the purpose of them, they made no farther provision for the support of the clergy. They only shewed their piety, as other rich individuals did, by building churches, making presents of plate, and vestments, and grants of lands to some of them. By their example they encouraged these donations, and thus the church grew rich, and was supported by its own proper funds, as any other corporate body might be.

But the emperors never interfered in the choice of bishops, till the bishops of Rome becoming very wealthy, and from their peculiar situation having great power, the emperors assumed a negative on the choice of the people, though there is hardly any example of their making a real use of it. They seldom or never presumed to recommend any particular person antecedently to the choice of the people. Ia the appointment of the ordinary bishops and clergy they never interfered at all, directly or indirectly.

When, upon the irruption of the northern nations and the establishment of the feudal system, churchmen got possession of estates in fee, those estates were subject to the same laws as if they had been held by other persons. And as the bishops and abbots had no natural heirs, the princes bestowed them, at least the temporalities, as the estates were called, on whom they pleased. By this means the greater bishops and abbots became temporal lords, and in consequence of this obtained a right to sit in the great council of the nation, along with other peers of the realm. But this did not better the condition of the ordinary clergy, or provide for their maintenance by law.

Tithes, by which they are now legally maintained, took place very gradually, and were first given voluntarily, sometimes to the poor, and sometimes to the church, at the pleasure of the donor. By degrees, however, the clergy excluded the poor, and appropriated all the tithes to themselves; and about A.D. 600, tithes, from being established as a custom, became, in some instances, legal rights; because many estates were bequeathed with an obligation to pay tithes to particular churches. When tithes were left to distant churches, the priests of the parish in which the estate lay, used to complain ; and at length, but so late as the reign of our King John, the Pope made a law that all tithes should be paid to the parish priest; and after some time they were levied by law, in all parishes without exception.*

--- * There was much more reason for an universal tax upon the kingdom to support religion in former times, than there can be at present. But the times, or circumstances of things, change, while the institutions to which they gave birth, continue. When this tax was imposed, there was no other religion than one in the country. At least, avowed sectaries were very few.

[Priestley, 'Familiar Letters Addressed to the Inhabitants of Birmingham in Refutation of several Charges, advanced against the Dissenters' (1790), in John Towell Rutt (ed), The Theological and Miscellaneous works of Joseph Priestley (1817-31) 19:197-99

An algorithm for poetry

Don Paterson (says Peter Howarth, 'Degrees of Famousness etc', LRB [21 March 2013], 33) is 'vigilant about not making poetry into a surrogate justification for fantasies of individual importance.' As he writes in a recent essay on 'The Lyric Principle': "An algorithm for poetry would be incredibly complex, but not infinitely so; and its detachment from such overvalued constructs as 'the individual voice' could be just the thing to propel us into a new era of classicism, should we desire or require such a thing."

How cool this is. How it would have infuriated Coleridge; who believed its exact opposite.