‘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.

Friday, 9 October 2015

The BCP Lord's Prayer

This morning was Harvest Festival at Dan's School. Parents were invited, so at 9:30am I and several score other parents squeezed into a rather overcrowded school assembly hall. All the kids filed in, and we all sang songs and watched various presentations and so on from Years 3 (Dan's year) up to Year 6. The assembly ended with everybody saying the Lord's Prayer, and it occurred to me, not for the first time, what a horrible piece of translation it is.

That's fighting talk, I know. The Book of Common Prayer, like the KJV, is supposed to be one of the few undisputed masterpieces of translation in English. And it is, inarguably, full of the most amazing passages and extraordinary prose. Not this bit, though; which is a more than a little irksome seeing as how this is one of the bits most often read aloud, and usually by many people in unison. And when that happens? Well
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive them that trespass against us
turns into
And forgive uss sour tresspassssesss ass
we forgive them that trespassssagainssssusss
and the whole room sounds like it's full of snakes. Tennyson used to revise his poetry specifically by eliminating the sibilants, a process he called 'kicking the geese out of the boat'. Somebody might have done some geese kicking here, I think.

I suppose, at a pinch, we might argue that this ghastly hissing in the middle of a core Christian prayer perhaps enacts the jarring, dinning nature of trespass (the snake in the garden, and so on). But it's not a very persuasive argument, really, is it. Quite apart from anything else, the original Greek contains a very low quotient of sibilants: καὶ ἄφες ἡμῖν τὰ ὀφειλήματα ἡμῶν,/ὡς καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν τοῖς ὀφειλέταις ἡμῶν: all 'h's and 'm's and 'f's and much smoother on the ear.

Whilst we're on this: 'for ever and ever' is a daft repetition: clumsy and a bit infantile. But that's a separate issue.


  1. Not being an infidel, I have had this experience more times than I can count, and almost every time have wondered why the BCP (and most Christian denominations) did not adopt Matthew's version: "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" — equal biblical authority with a fraction of the sibilation.

  2. Ah, but what then happens to the doxology?

  3. Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled Dox and hatred therewith.