‘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, 9 March 2014

William Johnson Cory, 'Nascitur cygnus' ('Cygnet is born'; 1877)

Nascitur cygnus: sibi rex videtur,
Impiger pigrae dominus paludis
Matris in dorso sedet, it reditque
     Publica cura.

Pascitur frustris puerumque donis
Ponte deiectis. Famulos moratur
Qui via spissa properant ferentes
     Scruta culinis.

Nam placent Omni modo nata menti
Regnat in terra dea pulchritudo:
Quod novum ridet tenerumque captat
     Lumina vulgi.

Attamen cygni teneri parentes
Ambiunt prolem male suspicaces;
Sibilant, strident, agitant minaci
     Stagna volatu.

Non amor noster sociandus illi:
Di vetant Musas hominum potentes
Scire quid nymphae doceant sodales
     Voce carentes.


Cygnet is born: believes himself monarch,
fast-moving lord of the slow-moving marshes:
throned on his mother's back, passing, repassing,
     we all look out for him.

Gobbles up scraps and whatever boys feed him
tossed from the bridge; tempts servants to linger
hurrying on up the traffic-jammed roadway
     with stuff for the kitchens.

Everyone falls for what's prettily new-born:
Beauty's a goddess whose writ runs the world round:
everything smilingly new is a winner --
     lights up the crowd!

Ah but the parents of tender young Cygnet
swim round their youngster in sour apprehension;
hissing and screaming, they stir up the water
     in threatening wing-strikes.

Let's hope that our love is never so snarly:
Gods prevent Muses (who govern humanity)
even to know what the nymphs teach their followers,
     whose voices are silenced.


  1. William Johnson Cory (1823-1892), born William Johnson, was a much-praised tutor at Eton. Best known for the widely-anthologised 'Heraclitus' ("They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead") he wrote a great deal of Latin and English verse. 'Corey' was added after a scandal, homosexual in nature and concerning some of his boys ("He was forced to resign from Eton at Easter 1872 after an 'indiscreet letter' which Johnson had written to a pupil was intercepted by the parents and brought to the notice of the headmaster, who handled the matter poorly"). He moved away, changed his name by adding the 'Corey', lived in Madeira for a few years, married and had a son, finally settling in Hampstead in 1882.

  2. To say a little more: Johnson, or Johnson-Corey, won a reputation amongst the (as the phrase then was) Uranians of the fin de siècle through his verse and the life-story that lay behind it. Timothy d’Arch Smith provides an account of its publication:
    His own two small books were issued in a strange way at the eccentric author’s whim and expense. Ionica “was made up in a fortnight spent in solitude at Pangbourne on the Thames, August 1850, and was published secretly at the cost of £40 paid in advance.” The second part, simply called Ionica II (1877) was privatively printed without capital letters or punctuation, at Cambridge University Press. The two volumes were reprinted in one, bound in the pale blue of the Eton colours, in 1890 and this is the edition which circulated among the Uranians and became well known.

    Symonds was introduced to the book by John Conington. ‘Conington was scrupulously moral and cautious. Yet he sympathized with romantic attachments for boys. In this winter he gave me Ionica, and I learned the story of its author William Johnso (now Cory) the Eton master and the pretty faced Charlie Wood (now Lord Halifax) who had been his pupil. That volume of verse, trifling as it may appear to casual readers, went straight to my heart and inflamed my imagination. … I went so far as to write a letter to William Johnson, exposing the state of my feelings and asking his advice. The letter, addressed to O.D.Y at the Union, duly came. It was a long epistle on paiderastia in modern times, defending it and laying down the principe that affection between people of the same sex is no less natural and rational than ordinary passionate relations. [This is all quoted from
    Morris B. Kaplan, Sodom on the Thames: Sex, Love, and Scandal in Wilde Times (Cornell 2005), 111-12

    How does this inflect our reading of this poem? The cygnet is the beautiful object of desire; its parents, though, are violent and bitter in their protective instinct. The whole is a allegory for the sorts of boys who are schooled at Eton on the Thames, opposite Windsor, where the swans are numerous. The bridge mentioned is this one.