‘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.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Bowles 5: To the River Wensbeck

A river in Northumberland, apparently. It looks like this:

While slowly wanders thy sequester’d stream,
WENSBECK! the mossy-scatter’d rocks among,
In fancy's ear making a plaintive song
To the dark woods above, that waving seem
To bend o'er some enchanted spot, remov’d
From Life's vain coil; I listen to the wind,
And think I hear meek sorrow's plaint, reclin’d
O'er the forsaken tomb of him she lov’d!—
Fair scenes, ye lend a pleasure, long unknown,
To him who passes weary on his way—
The farewell tear, which now he turns to pay,
Shall thank you,—and whene’er of pleasures flown
His heart some long-lost image would renew,
Delightful haunts! he will remember you.
The River Wansbeck '...rises above Sweethope Lough on the edge of Forelaws Forest in the area known locally as The Wanneys (Great Wanney Crag, Little Wanney Crag; thus the "Wanneys Beck"); runs through the town of Ashington before discharging into the North Sea at Sandy Bay near Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.' So now you know.

'Sequestered' here means wild and isolated; and this is a poem about isolation, I think, in the specific sense that bereavement is a kind of isolation. Bowles makes his words do an impressive amount of work, which adds to the compression and an Empsonian network of creative ambiguities. In no particular order: 'flown' in the 12th-line (rivers flow; but, he says, so do pleasures); the 'dark woods above' wave and bend in the breeze; but rivers contain waves, because they are made of water; and their trajectories through the landscape sees them bend. Then there's something about death and bereavement, constellated around the figure of the woman 'reclin’d/O'er the forsaken tomb of him she lov’d!', or more precisely around the absent, nameless figure of the dead man. So: 'coil' in line 6 evokes Hamlet's mortal coil; but also the fact that a river winds and coils along its path; and 'Delightful haunts!' toys with actual ghostly haunting as it invokes the conventionalised phrase for locodescriptive spots.

At the core of the sonnet, though, is a different register of ambiguity. Does the speaker actually hear 'a plaintive song'? Or does this only happen 'in fancy's ear'? Rivers, even quite gently flowing ones, do make a sound, I suppose; perhaps the fancy is involved in reimagining the sounds of the river as a song sung to the woods. Or perhaps the river is silent, and the fancy is in imagining any noise at all. Then, a few lines later: can the speaker actually hear a woman crying at the tomb of a dead lover, or does he only imagine it? The lines are:
And think I hear meek sorrow's plaint, reclin’d
O'er the forsaken tomb of him she lov’d!—
This seems to me ambiguous between: 'there was no actual woman, but this was the sort of scenery in which such a mournful scenario could easily be imagined', and 'I heard something, distantly, not sure what, but it could have been ... etc.' The abruptness of the transition from this couplet to the next one, across the octave/sestet divide, complicates matters:
Fair scenes, ye lend a pleasure, long unknown,
To him who passes weary on his way—
Since only an emotional sadist would take active pleasure in hearing a woman crying aloud in despair at the grave of her dead lover, it's a little hard to parse this step. If the sorrow's plaint is just in the speaker's mind, then this implies a emotional jitteriness, even inconstancy; if he hears something but he's not sure what, then we might wonder why he doesn't investigate further. Taken on its own, the couplet implies the rather ordinary thought that: I was sad (or at least tired) but being in beautiful countryside is a pleasure that makes me forget all about that'. It's the juxtaposition of that sentiment with the gesture towards bereavement at the poem's heart that is so odd.

Perhaps I'm making unnecessarily heavy weather of this: it's not a woman, it's the wind, and the wind sounds like the keening of a mourning woman. But that isn't my point. I'm suggesting the poem puts in play two modes of 'isolation', one pleasurable (the joy of being on your own, far from society's frets and stresses, in a beautiful location) and one mournful (bereavement; loneliness and so on). The question, then, is how far the poem is able to bring these two modes into a harmonious relation.

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