‘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 27 February 2014

1670 Marginalia Puzzle

This rather interesting MS letter has been sent to me (or a scan of it has, which amounts to the same thing in this our digital 21st-century). I'm told the letter has been dated to 1670; I'm not sure where this date has come from, actually; but judging by the content and the style of the piece it is presumably then or thenabouts. Here's a transcript of the main body of the text:
Deare Aunt,

My mother rescued my unkels Let[t]er this day & ordered me to write a copy of the dean’s letter as followeth > I sympathize with you in your great losse & doe pray unto god to repair it in being a husband to you & a father to your fatherless children > I am sorry you writ to colston your willingness that he should take administration of personall estate who ruins (as it is reported[)] all the estates hee meddles with all, & who would not take legall intrest for £1000 but demanded £100 & when my cos: jackson and john abbey tould him theyr was £500 of the principall he answered if there were £400 he could have a hundred pounds a year for the remainder of the fifteen years, is this a man to be trusted, but the best is you cannot renounce your executorship by a private letter but by an act made by a publique notary & I desire you not to renounce it but to take letters of administration yourselfe[.] I have advised with Dr levitt the judge of the prerogative courte & all the advocates heare & with one or 2 or our best common lawyers & they are all cllearly of the opinion that it is beest for you to take it your selfe, which you may doe with littele trouble & no danger this, calling 4 men to prise & inventory all the goods[,] present that inventory to the court[,] take lettrs of administration then call in the trustees for mr wheelreights children or some other creditor whose debts are secured by judgement & pay him or them so far as the summe of the inventory does extend[,] then make your account to the court & it will give a plene administravit which will bee armor of proofe to defend yourself against all the suits that can bee brought[,] whosoever sues you first will not only cost him but make him pay all charges having administered & paid according to the rule of the law[.] John Abbay I hope hath satisfyed you that we have got 3 weeks time for you to consider & we will do what wee can to pute it off till the end of christmas & by that time I hope there will be some fair season for you to come down with your childrn that we may consult together & you shall want no assisting [that] can be given to you by me[;] & my mothers ansear [answer] to his as folowth: I was at counseil & after resolved if it could be begin my junery [journey] towards yorke the last of this instant month & this morning findingng my selfe pretty well sent to book roumens [rooms] for my selfe & childrn in the coach in which I heard Law[y]er Rouksbe & cos: Bredey was to go down in but he brought me word all the roemns weare taken up for that day and the munday foll[ow]ing[.] if you please to take administration & secuer your £400 I shall be glad being confedant of your ability & faithfulness to me & the children & that you will deall as a friend which I can not expect from Mr colston > I thought as the case stod then he was fitest person & hoped he would delt with me more justly then now I have case to think he will. I have writ to him that he may cease to meddle with the administration.
The reference to 'Prerogative Court' is to the two courts so designated, one in Canterbury and one in York (they were originally part of the authority of the respective archbishops). These had jurisdiction over proving wills and overseeing inheritances. If a will was contested it went to Chancery, but if it was simply a matter of executing it, it went before one of the prerogative courts (until, that is, 1857 when these courts were abolished and their powers transferred to the Court of Probate). But the style of the letter is clearly much earlier than the mid 1800s ... I would say late 17th early 18th century. The Latin in the middle is a legal phrase ("PLENE ADMINISTRAVIT, pleading. A plea in bar entered by an executor or administrator by which he affirms that he had not in his possession at the time of the commencement of the suit, nor has had at any time since any goods of the deceased to be administered; when the plaintiff replies that the defendant had goods, &c., in his possession at that time, and the parties join issue, the burden of the proof will be on the plaintiff.")

Now, this document was sent to me because the sender was puzzled by the marginalia down the left hand side. He thought it might be Greek, and wondered if I could read it. But it's not Greek.

There are a few Greek-y letters in there (the odd alpha, backwards lambda and so on); but it's not Greek. So what is it? I reckon shorthand. (Here's that reputable scholarly source, Wikipedia: 'An interest in shorthand or "short-writing" developed towards the end of the 16th century in England. In 1588 Timothy Bright published his Characterie; An Arte of Shorte, Swifte and Secrete Writing by Character which introduced a system with 500 arbitrary symbols each representing one word. Bright's book was followed by a number of others, including John Willis's Art of Stenography in 1602, Edmond Willis's An abbreviation of writing by character in 1618, and Thomas Shelton's Short Writing in 1626, later re-issued as Tachygraphy.') There's been a certain amount of work on shorthand scripts from the age of Shakespeare, since it's assumed that bad quartos were the result of shorthand writers jotting down plays as they were being performed, and then rushing the notes into print to cash in (hence a knowledge of shorthand might untangle various Shakespearian cruxes). But I have to guess this is different. Two possibilities: one, the writer of the marginalia was moved to add a comment to the letter's disobliging opinion of Mr Colston, and decided to veil his words in code to protect himself from said lawyer's ire; or two (which I think more likely) the letter was at some point entered as evidence in the case to which it refers, or conceivably in some other case, and a clerk of the court, versed in legal shorthand, annotated it for ease of filing or for some other court purpose.

Does anybody know any better? Can anyone decipher the script? It would be cool to know.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Book ideas

Not SF, so parked here rather than anywhere else. A novel about an imaginary literary prize, covering the six judges' different, intertwining backstories; also including detailed accounts of the six (imaginary) novels on the shortlist, enough detail that actually writing any of the six would be a doddle. Lots of space for intrigue, plotting, human interaction of the love and the hate varieties.

Also: one of the six; a novel called 'The Apologiser', about an individual hired by businesses, or a political elite, to shape and deliver apologies in a way that limits fallout and feels genuine. The rationale for such a person would be: even the most efficient organisation, committed (as we certainly are) to getting it right as consistently and completely as humanly possible, will occasionally mess-up. Even achieving 95% leaves a 5% residue, and for the people affected by that the failures in question have a much more than 5% impact on their lives, and therefore have a more than 5% impact on our continuing smooth operation. It is therefore only good practice to dedicate a proportion of our resources to that 5%: more than just a call-centre voice on the end of a phone.

Saturday 15 February 2014

On my Protestantism

If we take Protestant to mean 'member of a group that believes in God according to a particular set of theologically, historically and culturally determined attitudes (defined in part by a set of differences to Catholic religious practice)...' then I'm not one. It has always sounded to my ears slightly mealy-mouthed to talk of being a Protestant 'culturally speaking'. I'll explain what I mean. To begin with, I'd say the chief mistake Dawkins and his supporters make is in assuming that 'religion' is reducible to a series of quasi-positivist assertions about the cosmos that can be tested and falsified -- because religion is also, and perhaps much more, a social praxis, a community, an identity, a set of rituals and ethical foundations, a personal orientation towards the universe, a particular sort of openness and attentiveness and so on; and none of that is falsifiable in the facile way Dawkins thinks. But if that's right, then there is surely a sort-of mirroring error in thinking that it's possible simply to syphon off all the metaphysical and theological 'matter' of religion, as if they are not important. It seems to me they are crucially important, to many and perhaps most of the individuals who consider themselves 'religious'. It would be, clearly, insultingly insufficient to define faith as a tick-box list of axioms of belief; but it follows that there would be a related set of insufficiencies in thinking that 'growing up in a culture shaped by Protestantism' adds-up to anything substantive where religion is concerned. I've always liked (because I applaud its vehemence and sympathise with its sentiment) Philip Pullman's claim that he is an atheist but a Church of England atheist, and in fact a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. Still, I must concede that this rather beautiful claim stops with its toes on the very lip of the chasm, that same chasm that Kierkegaard's Knight spurs his horse precisely to o'erleap. That chasm, or the passage beyond it, is the real heart of a religious life, I suspect.

But these caveats having been registered, of course there is a sense in which I'm a Protestant. I was reminded of this by reading an article in yesterday's TLS [Arnold Hunt, 'Hands Together, Eyes Closed', TLS (Feb 14 2014), 24-25], being a review of Alec Ryrie's Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (OUP 2013). Reviewer Hunt opens by summarising an early attempt to 'distil the essence of Protestantism in a few words', from Charles and Katherine George's The Protestant Mind of the English Reformation (1962). The Protestant mind, it seems,
was "compulsive, repetitive, insecure, aggressive". It was "extremely, sometimes unbearably, serious." It was also "arrogant and wordy", but it was marked by "moral earnestness and the duty and courage of decision". For the Georges, the archetypal Protestant was Oliver Cromwell, "whole, intense, activist, pious."
Hunt notes that Ryrie builds on this definition.
Ryrie's definition of Protestantism is not so different from that of the Georges. Protestantism, he suggests, was "intense, restless, progressive". It took religion very seriously; it craved authenticity and dreaded hypocrisy; it was marked by a "sense of endless struggle", "unceasing self-discipline" and a "pervasive intellectual tendency to anatomize and subdivide." Above all it believed in the importance of being earnest. ... He acknowledges that Protestantism could be cruelly demanding, even "frankly pathological", in the burdens it imposed on its adherents. Yet it could also be deeply passionate in its expressions of "rapture", "ravishment" and ecstatic union with God.
Bracket the 'God' part for a moment (that's some bracket, I know) and I recognise myself in much of this. I recognise my younger self in almost all of it. Two important events in my own if-you'll-excuse-my-pomposity-for-a-moment intellectual development were my discovery of Freud on the one hand (at an early age, thanks to my mother) and Postmodernism on the other (much later on in my adult life, actually). From the latter I have taken an, I think, saving suspicion of 'authenticity' and all its jargon, and a way of thinking-through the love I feel for certain modes of irony. From the former comes a deep-seated sense that 'hypocrisy' in a non-pejorative sense is actually a central part of the way human subjectivity works. Also: these two descriptions of 'The Protestant mind' (I mean, the descriptions up there by the Georges and by Ryrie)  have nothing to say about humour, something that has, for perhaps rather psychologically unhealthy reasons, always been immensely important to me. I was thinking of saying 'I'd certainly add humour into the Protestant mix'; but then I had second thoughts. It's part of the mix of later Protestantism, I think. It's certainly a key part -- along, I think, with a related suspicion of fundamentalist 'authenticity' and 'earnestness' -- in Matthew Arnold, whom I studied fairly intensely for a while as a PG.* Latterly I've been digging into Coleridge, from whom of course Arnold took a lot, and there's a similar quicksilver love of the funny and ironic there too. Both those Protestants are often actively hilarious in their own writing, too. I might also quote another famous Protestant, Kierkegaard. In Stages on Life’s Way (1845) he says: ‘the more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense for the comic. It is only by the deepest suffering that one acquires true authority in the use of the comic, an authority which by one word transforms as by magic the reasonable creature one calls man into a caricature.’ So in a sense what I'm saying is that the Protestant thinkers and writers I know best turn out to be 19th-century. What a surprise! The two books quoted above are about an earlier epoch, and I daresay reflect the cultural flavour of that time perfectly well. And, the exceptions noted in this paragraph aside, they send the shudder of recognition up my spine.

* My PhD started out as Swinburne and the Classics; then it morphed into a comparative study of Swinburne and Browning and the Classics. Eventually it became Browning and the Classics (mostly Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes). This was because, looking at the two side-by-side, it occurred to me that Browning is just a much, much better poet than Swinburne. We tell our postgrads that a completed PhD is a sort of textual iceberg: the actual submitted thesis will not contain, but will nonetheless only poke up above the waterline because of, the nine-tenths of stuff that isn't visible ... all the work on contexts and parallels and related matters, all the intellectual alleyways explored that in the event led nowhere and so on. For my own PhD Swinburne was a great chunk of that nine-tenths, and I've never gotten around to doing anything with all that. But Arnold was also a big element. I read him for his classical criticism and poetry in the first instance, and that led me onto his other stuff. Earlier this term I stepped into the lecture theatre to talk for an hour about him to second years, and as I was going through the Culture and Anarchy motions, and looking at a couple of indicative poems, I found myself thinking: wow, I'd forgotten just how much of a shaping force he has been in my own view of the world, old Laleham Matt. But I digress.

So, yes, I often feel 'Protestant'. My friend and colleague Robert Eaglestone is a Catholic, and he and I will sometimes chat about the differences in our worldview, differences that have little to do with our respective belief-statuses on the existence or non-existence of a personal God, and a great deal to do with the way Protestant and Catholic cultural identities have such deep, conflicted historical roots in British society. My maternal grandfather was a Church of England vicar. My father was, as a medical student, an Evangelical Christian. By the time they had me, both my parents had moved away from religion. For my Dad this was, I think, a more-or-less simple repudiation, quasi-Dawkinsesque (although of course avant la lettre) and Protestant itself insofar as it manifests, to this day, in a tendency to get angry about the hypocrisies of 'religious people' in the world. For my mother it was a more complex business, I suspect. My sense is that gender played a part there. My mother was a feminist at a time (in the 50s and 60s) before it was common, and long before it became the default attitude of sensible people. I suspect a lot of her reaction against Christianity had to do with her sense that it was just so masculinist, that it had so little of worth to say about female experience, and was indeed so prone to marginalising and demonising women. She has certainly never been a simple scientific positivist about religion; and when she's in one of her more Welsh moods will wax almost mystical about spiritual, or poetic, matters. Her Dad died when she was a teenager (years before my own birth) and I'm sure that played into it. At any rate, I was raised atheist. I mean, I was raised specifically to question and interrogate religious matters from the position of healthy skepticism, not that I was raised in a religious vacuum. Religion was earnestly discussed. Plus of course I grew up in a culture that was Protestant. At my (State Grammar) school in Kent we all had to sit through a religious C-of-E assembly every morning; we all had to take RE and attend regular services at Canterbury Cathedral. Protestant architecture, literature and culture was all around. Moving into academia, and specialising in the nineteenth-century, necessitated the work of familiarising myself with religious matters. Nobody can properly grok Victorian literature and culture without a working knowledge of the Bible, a sense of the XXXIX Articles and a good deal of social history about the religious quotidian. So there's that.

And, despite my location on the wrong side of the crevasse, there's a lot I like about the peculiarly English version of Protestantism with which I grew up. Some of this liking is a matter of distant but still significant tribal allegiance of course, like supporting England at football, or considering the English landscape the most beautiful in the world. Which is to say: I'm perfectly well aware that these are biases predicated upon the accident of being born in a certain land at a certain time. 'Being aware', though, is probably the best we can do with those. I know intellectually, and try actively to live my life in the knowledge, that there's nothing special about England in the larger sense; but it still feels special to the child-core of my brain. I like the Church's non dogmatic approach to the actual question of faith; I like its (recent, but still) hospitality to gay communicants and clergy, and to women priests. But these are happenstance ideological consonances, and as an outsider I've really no place even commenting.

Or is that right? As a product of this culture, surely I'm entitled to a view. And the 'ideology' is not marginal to this faith. One of the things I find most compelling about Christianity is precisely its radical concern with the excluded, the un-chosen people, the scums and bums. As I said somewhere else, once, there may be a tacitly self-serving aspect to this: because now that it has become the dominant religion on the planet, the key category of excluded becomes 'unbelievers', like me. So, in appropriately paradoxical mode, only an atheist can truly be a Christian now. This may come over merely as glib; but I hope not. It is (or it seems to me) an observation both profound and important. More conventionally, I can't deny that 'Protestantism' is the structure of belief that shaped most of the literature (and art more generally) that I love; some of the greatest literature the world has ever seen. It shaped science fiction, or so I argue; and remains in the genre's DNA and is still ubiquitous in the mode as a sort of scintillant spectral presence visible behind the manifest contents of the many texts still being produced. My own peculiar literary predilections mean I especially like that Christianity is a faith of the book. I don't mean this in the sense that it has its Bible at the heart of it (as Islam has its Qu'ran, and Judaism its Torah), compelling though that fact is. I mean in the sense that Christianity, uniquely, is a religion structured around the arrow of historical narrative.
One the one hand, in common with other major world religions, Christianity asks us to believe that God is not only coeval with the cosmos (the creation of which, though it happened a long time ago, is not lost in the backward abysm of an infinite past) but the chief cause of that creation. On the other, it says that, from the human perspective, God did not come into his own until a specific moment in history. A strict reading of Christianity as a salvational discourse, combined with a strict sense that it is only through Christ that salvation can be achieved, is tacitly a faith that dismisses billions of years, and many millions of human lives. Some iterations of Christian faith have addressed this issue straight on; the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints, for instance, enact a policy of retroactive baptism, as if temporality were a sort of inconvenience, a simple obstacle to be overcome. But the notion that ‘we’ are saved, where all those who were born before us are ‘lost’ is a more profound thing than this. It reflects (as Heidegger probably says somewhere) the brute fact of our coming into an already existing world—the horrifying realisation that the world got-along perfectly well for enormous gulfs of time before we were here, and will do so again after our departure. The Christian story, in other words, puts God into the position of every human being: it articulates His belatedness. The sense that ‘we’ are special, because we have been born after Christ’s incarnation rather than before, in fact stands as a kind of photographic negative of the true state of affairs. It is that ‘we’ are precisely not special; that we are latecomers. In John 20:29, Christ himself puts a brave spin on the losses necessarily entailed by existential belatedness. ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed. How blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ This I have always assumed is an extension of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount; that the poor are more blessed than the rich, the hurt more blessed than hale and so on. It simultaneously finds consolation in loss and acknowledges that belatedness is a mode of poverty—that we can hardly not envy those who actually knew and saw Christ.

Indeed belatedness is integral to the Christian story. God for Christians is both father and son. Being a son means coming after one’s father; it is—not to be too literal-minded about it—a chronologically subsidiary relationship. It may also, of course, entail other sorts of belatedness; a desire to ‘live up to’ the achievements of the father and so on. But for this particular son, Christ, it includes within itself a transcendental folding back. For according to Christianity Christ is not merely a sort of belated temporal add-on to the divine principle, a secondary god who was budded off from the primary God just as BC swung on its invisible calendrical hinge around into AD. On the contrary, Christ is God, and God is Christ. Christ is a way of saying: God is at one and the same time prior and belated. In Islam, by way of contrast, Mohammed, peace be upon him, is only a man. As such his existential belatedness is no more and no less than that of any other human being. And although he appears relatively late in the larger narrative of the cosmos, Allah has prepared the way via a succession of increasingly important and wise prophets, a line which Mohammed fulfils and brings to a kind of climax. Christ in the Christian tradition is quite otherwise. Though the prophets are there, behind him, he is not a prophet: he is God. His belated appearance in world-history is not the culmination of a succession that serves to reinforce the motion of time in the world (as in Islam); it is a sort of contradiction of the idea of chronology at all.
I've written previously about the implication of this for (to pick one example) Milton's Paradise Lost.  Actually, the essay at the end of that link is quite long and dry, so you may have better things to do with your time than click it. More to the point is this briefer meditation on the pleasantly colourful Le baptême de Clovis painting which makes the same argument in a much shorter space.

So, yeah, I find all that hermeneutic-knot stuff fascinating ('God tells Abraham to kill his son to guarantee his succession; but his son is his succession!' and so on). And actually this is not a reading of 'Christianity' as such; it is (in the sense outlined at the top of this post) very much a Protestant iteration of the matter. Which brings me back to where I started. It's the shock of recognition, the realisation that these very far from flattering traits describe me, and especially describe me as a writer: compulsive; repetitive; insecure; aggressive (maybe not that, but I'll certainly cop to passive-aggressive, and who's going to split hairs?); sometimes unbearably serious; arrogant and wordy (Jeez, wordy hardly does my situation justice!). Why do I write so much? Why do I write at all? Ryrie is onto something here, if only we replace the P-word with the W-word: 'Writing can be cruelly demanding, even frankly pathological, in the burdens it imposes on its adherents. Yet it can also be deeply passionate in its expressions of "rapture" and "ravishment".' There we are.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Beasts and Saints

In the library the other day I chanced upon a lovely edition of Helen Waddell's Beasts and Saints (1934), a "collection of stories of the mutual charities between saints and beasts, from the end of the fourth to the end of the twelfth century translated from the original Latin and illustrated with many wood cuts." I liked the pictures and took photos with my phone, but foolishly I forgot to note down which image was which saint. The first one is presumably St Brendan. The middle one is the Dragon tamed by the Blessed Ammon. I'm told (by Karl Steel) that the guy reading a book whilst riding the placid crocodile (my favourite image, actually) is St Pachome.

Tuesday 11 February 2014


Quoting Terry Cochrane, "The Matter of Language", in Paul A. Bové (ed) Edward Said and the Work of the Critic: Speaking Truth to Power (Duke Univ. Press 2000):
...Paul de Man remarks on Nietzsche's definition of truth: "Tropes are neither true nor false but are both at once. To call them an army is however to imply that their effect and their effectiveness is not a matter of judgment but of power. What characterizes a good army, as distinct for instance from a good cause, is that its success has little to do with immanent justice and a great deal with the proper economic use of its power." Although de Man primarily seeks to read the figures of Nietzsche's text and to show how the anthropomorphism of its language plays out its assertions, his comments are revealing of the dual power that inhabits language. De Man refers to this power as "epistemological" and "strategic," tied simultaneously to the production of knowledge and to persuading, to convincing, to provoking actions. In other words, as a product of ongoing institutionalization, language enforces, cajoles, and convinces, but its power is also more insidious because it lurks in its concepts, in the very matter of thought. Conceptually, this power is an antecedent to judgment, which acts in the name of that power even as the judge can do little more than assert his or her impartiality.
I found this here, where Bob Mcmanus quotes it, glossing it: 'It is a little interesting about what precipitates these hegemonic battles, conducted entirely on the terrain of ideology with dueling pseudo-facts, with propaganda of the dining-room and comment thread, in order as I said, to force an affiliation with a side, tribe, an army.' His take on the 'power is an antecedent to judgment' bit: 'It is the passion that precedes the argument that coerces. Always. "I need you on our side."'

Sendakian Shibboleths

Amy Sonheim ['Sendak's Sustainable Art', PMLA 129:.1 (Jan 2014), 116] says that when she began studying children's literature at grad school 'I did not know how to read a picture book.' Why not? 'I could not appreciate a picture book because I had internalized the following shibboleths, which stack children's books below adult ones':
Text for children are less thoughtful because children are less intelligent.
Art for children is less fine because children are less observant. Illustrations for children reiterate texts and decorate pages, playing negligible roles in the storytelling.
If a book is short, it is simple.
Of course she sets these claims up to demolish them. I sort of see where she's coming from, but these still strike me as strawman shibboleths. Has anybody not obviously a dunderhead ever actually believed anything so foolish as these statements? I doubt it.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Subterranean Rivers in the 18th-Century 1: West

Following on from this post: here's a chunk from Thomas West's celebrated A Guide to the Lakes in Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire (1778). Coleridge owned a copy of this title.
We were persuaded to climb up to the top of the base of Gragarth, the mountain in whose side Yordas is situated, in order to see Cingling-cave. ... This natural curiosity is a round aperture; narrow at the top, but most probably dilating in its dimensions to a profound extent. The stones we threw in made an hollow gingling noise for a considerable time. At intervals we could hear nothing of their descent, then again we heard them resound in deeper keys, tilt they were either immersed in some deep pool or were arrived at too great a distance to be heard; for there seemed a variety of different passages for their descent, some being much sooner intercepted in their career than others. Two dogs that were with us, and a small horse brought up by one of the party, seemed violently agitated, and under fearful trepidations, under honors resembling those we are told the animal creation are seized with, proceeding or during an earthquake. Though our reason convinced us of the impossibility of the ground falling in beneath us, we could nor but feel many apprehensions accompanied with sensations hitherto unknown. We could not learn that any swain had ever been adventrous enough to be let down in ropes into this vast hiatus, to explore those unseen regions; either from a principle of curiosity, or to search for hidden mines. [251]
Spooky! And I especially like 'gingling'. But on to the river running through caverns measureless to man:
On the other hand was the river roiling down from rock to rock in a narrow deep chasm, where there was no room for human foot to tread between the stream and the rugged, high, steep rocks on each side. Several pieces of the state were bespangled with yellow marcasites of a cubic form, and different sizes, others were gilded over with the various foliages of ferns, pines, oaks, and other vegetables. This bed of state runs nearly from south to north by this place and the quarry neat Thornton-force. Its length may be traced two or three miles, though but 200 or 300 yards in breadth, and indeed of good state but a few yards broad: the plain of the stratum is nearly perpendicular to the horizon, and may afford matter of speculation to the natural philosopher, as to its cause, whether from some melted and liquid matter being forced up these at the deluge, or some subsequent volcano; as it is limestone rock on both the east and west side of it, and apparently severed asunder by the weight of the western stratum separating from the above by its inclination to the vale beneath...

About three miles from Ingleton is the head of the river Wease, or Greta, on the left hand side of the road, only a few yards distant from it. It gusties out of several fountains at once, all within twenty or thirty yards of each other; having run about two miles underground, though making its appearance i:i two or three places, within that distance. When there are floods, it runs also above ground, though not in all places, except the rains are extraordinary great. This is the subterranean river mentioned by Dr. Goldsmith in his entertaining Natural History, Vol. I. by the name of Greatah. The first curiosity we were conducted to was Hurtlspot, about eighty yards above the chapel. It is a round deep hole, between thirty and forty yards diameter, surrounded with rocks almost on all sides, between thirty and forty feet perpendicular above a deep black water, in a subterranean cavity at its bottom. All round the top of this horrid place are trees, which grow secure from the axe; their branches almost meet in the centre, and spread a gloom over a chasm, dreadful enough of itself Without being heightened with any additional appendages: it was indeed one of the most dismal prospects we had yet been presented with. Almost every sense was affected in such an uncommon manner, as to excite ideas of a nature truly horribly sublime. When ever we threw in a pebble 01 spoke a word, our ears were assailed with a dismal hollow sound; our nostrils were affected with an uncommon-complication of strong smells, from the ramps and 9ther weeds that grew plentifully about its sides, and the rank vapours that exhaled from the black abyss beneath. The descent of. Æneas into the infernal regions come again fresh into my imagination, and the following passage out of Virgil obtruded itself on my memory.
facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis &c.
While we were standing on the margin of this subterranean lake we were suddenly astonished with a most uncommon noise on the surface of the water under the pendant rocks. It is called by the country people Hurtlepot-boggart, and sometimes the Fairy-churn, as a churn it resembles. It is no doubt frightful to them, and would have been so to us, if we had not been apprized of the cause. We found it was effected by the glutting of the surface of the water against the bottom of some rocks or passages worn into them to a considerable distance, when it was descending aster rain, as then happened to be the case. This deep is not without its inhabitants; large black trouts are frequently caught in it by the neighbouring people. Botanists find here some rare and curious plants.
That's all cool; but West saves the most Sublime for the end of the passage:
We came to Weathercoate-cave or cove, the most surprising natural curiosity of the kind in the island of Great Britain. It is a stupendous subterranean cataract in a huge cave, the top of which is on the fame level with the adjoining lands. On our approach to its brink, our ears and eyes were equally astonished with the sublime and terrible. The margin was surrounded with trees and shrubs, the foliage of which was of various shapes and colours, which had an excellent effect, both in guarding and ornamenting the steep and rugged precipices on every side. Where the eye could penetrate through the leaves and tranches, there was room for the imagination to conceive this cavern more dreadful and horrible, is possible, than it was in reality. This cave is of a lozenge form, and divided info two by a rugged and grotesque arch of limestone rock: the whole length from south to north is about sixty yards, and the breadth about half its length. At the south end is the entrance down into the little cave; on the right of which is a subterranean passage under the rocks, and a petrifying well: a stranger cannot but take notice of a natural seat and table in a corner of this grotesque room, well suited for a poet or philosopher; here he may be secluded from the hudle of the world, though not from noise; the uniform roaring however of the cascade will exclude from the ear every other sound, and his retirement will conceal him from every object that might divert the eye. Having descended with caution from rock to rock, we passed under the arch, and came into the great cave, where we stood sometime in silent astonishment to view this amazing cascade. The perpendicular height of the north corner of this cave, was found by an exact admeasurement to be thirty-six yards: near eleven yards from the top issues a torrent out of an hole in the rock, about the dimensions of a large door in a church, conveying usually as much water as the new river at London. It rushes forwards with a curvature which shews, that it has had a steep descent before it appears in open day; and tumbles precipitate twenty five yards perpendicular down on the rocks at the bottom, with a noise that amazes the most intrepid ear. The water sinks as it falls amongst the rocks and pebbles, running by a subterranean passage about a mile, where it appears again by the side of the turnpike road, visiting in its way the other caverns of Gingkpot and Hurtlepot. The cave is filled with the spray that arises from the water dashing against the bottom, and the fun happening to shine very bright, we had a small vivid rainbow within a few yards of us, for colour, size, and situation, perhaps no where else to be equalled.
'a natural seat and table in a corner of this grotesque room, well suited for a poet or philosopher' indeed! It doesn't address the question of how many people believed that the ocean supplied springs and rivers via secret underground waterways, though.

Friday 7 February 2014


Walter Bradick's 1765 publication of Choheleth: or, The Royal Preacher: a Poem most Humbly Inscribed to The King opens with a preface attributing the original version of the poem to somebody else (J. Dennis Furley, according to some sources) and claiming it first appeared in 1691. The DNB, though, seems to imply Bradick was himself the author (it also laments that 'it may be doubted whether the work is now extant'. Cheer up, DNB! Here it is, on Google Books!) 'Koheleth' is the Hebrew name for this geezer; and the poem is a versification of that Biblical book.

The poem starts on a suitably gloomy, Ecclesiastesiesque note:
O vain, deluding world! whose largest gifts
Thine emptiness betray, like painted clouds,
Or watry bubbles: as the vapour flies,
Dispers'd by lightest blast, so fleet thy joys,
And leave no trace behind. This serious truth
The Royal Preacher loud proclaims, convinc'd
By sad experience; with a sigh, repeats
The mournful theme, that nothing here below
Can solid comfort yield: 'Tis all a scene
Of vanity, beyond the pow'r of words
T'express, or thought conceive. [1-11]
If it's really 'beyond the pow'r of words/T'express, or thought conceive' you have to wonder what the point is in writing a poem about it. Still. Nature, the poem (takings its prompt from scripture) insists, is a Heraclitan flow:
See, how the winds
From ev'ry point are whirl'd, and still renew
Their circuit. Rapid torrents rivers fill,
And these their tribute to the Ocean pay,
Whose vast abyss ne'er overswells its bounds;
For strait, in vapours, by the Sun exhal'd
Or through Earth's secret caverns, it restores
All back again.
This is the first I've come across the idea (was it common in the 17th/18th centuries?) that the ocean supplies waters back to the sources of rivers via 'secret caverns'. I'd like to know more about this idea, actually: is it, for instance, behind Coleridge's dream-vision caverns measureless to man through which Alph flows? Is (that is to say) Alph the sacred river running back from the sea to the springs of creation? (The original Biblical verses don't include the secret caverns: 'The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again' [Ecc. 1:6-7]) '

The poem adds another very Romantic-sounding passage to the original Bible verse, viz.:
More anxious none t' explore the hidden springs
Of Nature's wondrous works; nor less intent,
Though more abstruse the study, to trace out
The mazy lab'rinths of the human heart,
Its dark recesses, various and perplex'd
Its motions, diff'rent passions and pursuits.
Immense the labour, thorny was the road:
This sounds very like Wordsworth. But then we go on, and the anticipatory shadow of Kubla Khan falls again across the reader's mind:
In the royal Seats I rais'd,
United shone magnificence and taste;
With ev'ry precious thing within adorn'd,
That wealth immense could furnish; planted round
With choicest vines, in beauteous order rank'd,
Whose racy juice supply'd the sumptuous board,
And cheer'd the heaviest heart. When tir'd with pomp
Of Court, and Solitude to rural scenes
Invited, entertainment sweet I found
In gardens, which with Eden might compare
Here flow'rs profuse exhal'd their odours, more
Reviving than Arabia's spicy gales;
Nor could Aurora paint on clouds, nor bow
Of Heav'n, by solar beams reflected, shew
Colours so various, or of lovelier hue.
There lofty trees th' extended vista form'd,
Or shady grove. The most delicious fruits
Of ev'ry kind, so plenteous, that, beneath
Their weight, the branches funk. Nor chrystal streams
Were wanting, which in pleasing torrents roll'd
From high cascades, or, in meanders flow,
Through artificial channels taught to glide,
Or rise in figur'd shapes from marble font.
Each tender plant the kindly moisture shar'd,
Nor felt the scorching rays. In this retreat
I pass'd my vacant hours, the cares of life
In sweet oblivion lost.
The parallels with Coleridge's Xanadu aren't, perhaps, very close; although this account is rather more languidly orientalist than the Biblical original (' made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees: I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts.' Ecc. 2:4-8). Still, Ecclesiastes as a source for 'Kubla Khan' (or maybe it would be better to say: 'Kubla Khan' as a sort of exoticised, far-eastern version of Ecclesiastes) hadn't occurred to me before.