‘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 6: To The River Tweed

O Tweed! a stranger, that with wand’ring feet
O'er hill and dale has journeyed many a mile,
(If so his weary thoughts he might beguile),
Delighted turns thy beauteous scenes to greet.
The waving branches that romantick bend
O'er thy tall banks, a soothing charm bestow;
The murmurs of thy wand’ring wave below
Seem to his ear the pity of a friend.
Delightful stream! tho’ now along thy shore,
When spring returns in all her wonted pride,
The shepherd’s distant pipe is heard no more,
Yet here with pensive peace could I abide,
Far from the stormy world's tumultuous roar,
To muse upon thy banks at eventide.
The 'romantick' waving branches is a nice touch; it refers primarily back to actual Romance, but looks forward as well to the Romanticism these poems (via Coleridge, and to a lesser extent Wordsworth) will provoke. And the poem's through-line is easy to follow: the speaker has a heavy heart, but finds solace in the remote natural landscape of the river. He heats its flow as a consoling friend. The (nameless) Something in the speaker's past is paralleled with the social wrong of the Enclosures, leaving deserted villages where once there had been pastoral activity and song. And yet, in a when-you-come-to-think-of-it puzzling final twist, the speaker seems to applaud the forced depopulation of the countryside, since it has had the agreeable side-effect of giving him the elbow-room to sit and muse. I'm not sure, if I think about it, whether the poem squares the circle of its (conventionalised) desire to deplore the Enclosures, and its (more individual) sense that an empty countryside is a beautiful countryside.

Something else that strikes me: to what extent is this poem stitched together out of scraps and phrases from elsewhere? 'Wandering feet' is Jeremiah 14:10; 'hill and dale' is Shakespeare (Midsummer Night's Dream; it's also Milton's 'Song on May Morning'); 'beauteous scenes' is a standard poeticism (Google returns pre-1789 hits for Prior and Reynolds); likewise 'soothing charm' ('And now where every other motive fails/The soothing charm of eloquence prevails', 'The Councillor', 1733); 'wonted pride' is Paradise Lost (1:527), 'pensive peace' is from Thomas Warton's 1761 'Cherwell' Ode ('Lo! pensive Peace shall tune your solemn strings,/To saddest airs along my lonely verge'; Warton was Poet Laureate from 1785!); and 'the shepherd’s distant pipe is heard no more' chimes with a hundred pastoral texts (for example: here's the libretto to Handel's Acis and Galatea (1718): 'Stay, shepherd, stay!/See, how thy flocks in yonder valley stray!/What means this melancholy Aria?/No more thy tuneful pipe we hear.')  I'm not sure what to make of this single-minded dedication to writing at second-hand. It's like a sort of Waste Land tissue of quotations, only without the larger 'cultural exhaustion' rationale.


  1. I still can't see the merit in Bowles. I appreciate that your point isn't that Bowles necessarily has merit - but to try to work out what on earth Coleridge can have seen in him. As you point out here, the poems (seen through the prism of time) have a very second-hand quality to them. But think of colleagues and friends whose work you admire - how many of them have terrible taste in literature, film, music (if by terrible taste one means that their dedication to band x, director y, poet z is personally inexplicable)? People can be very misguided in their adolescent predilections (in particular)and then have a kind of affectionate fidelity to those early loves, without it having any discernible impact on their own creative output. Or maybe this is too glib.

    But in any case, I think we are in agreement that any kind of affection for Bowles is a bit bewildering.

  2. I wouldn't call it glib, exactly; and it may be true. But the thing that fascinates me is not adolescent Coleridge's enthusiasm, but adult Coleridge's decision to start the Biographia Literaria -- his mature statement of poetic theory, after all, and one of the most influential books of literary criticism ever written -- with several paragraphs praising Bowles in general, and these sonnets in particular. Why?

    No, honestly: I'm asking. Why? It's a real puzzler.