‘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.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Lillies that feſter, ſmell far worſe then weeds.

I was chatting to my colleague Roy Booth about this famous line from Sonnet 94 (he was telling me that the very same line appears in the play Edward III, now attributed in part at least to Shakespeare). I said it had always struck me as, well, mendacious. Either it means 'Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds do when they fester', which is surely not true -- you'd think that festering vegetation reeks pretty much on a par; or it means 'Lilies that fester smell far worse than normal, healthy, growing weeds', which is a 'well, durr' sort of observation. Roy countered with his belief that Shakespeare is actually thinking of carnations, which look and smell pretty for a short while and then go egregiously stinky as they rot in the vase, far worse than other flowers. I didn't know that; learned something today.


  1. I think you're overthinking it. The context (even the context of the previous two lines) clearly suggests the second reading. And no, it's not any great insight that rotten flowers smell worse than flourishing weeds, but it's not meant to be. The argument is that someone beautiful & virtuously aloof can also be corrupt & vile, and that - like the festering lily - this makes them worse than somebody ordinarily sinful. And I think it's suggested (although not spelt out) that the aloof purity and the corruption aren't entirely unconnected.

    The plot of Ruth Rendell's _No More Dying Then_ revolves around someone who one character likens to the subject of this sonnet - "They that have power to hurt, and will do none"; it's a powerful image.

    Anyway, did they have carnations at that time? And was the meaning of 'lily' generalisable to cover them? (I have seen 'lily' occur as an adj. - 'lily flour' meaning 'beautiful flowers' - but I don't know how broadly the noun referred.)

  2. Yes, I may be overthinking it, Phil. I don't know though your reading seems to me to imply a timescale 'you used to be both beautiful and virtuous, but now you're beautiful and wicked, and that's worse than someone who has maintained a baseline sinfulness ...' I'm not sure that's true, either.

    According to Wikipedia, Carnations have been widely cultivated across Europe and Asia for the last 2,000 years.

  3. I'm sure carnations or "clove pinks" would have been in cottagers' gardens in Shakespeare's time. Today, our florist-purchased carnations last a long time because the fragrance has been bred out of them in order to give a long life in the vase or arrangement. But in Shakespeare's world, clove pinks (and many other flowers) would have had a very brief life in the vase, and the same natural oils that made them much more fragrant than our carnations would have caused them to rot quickly. So a plucked flower would turn sour...

    Enjoying rambling around in your poems.