‘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.

Wednesday 30 December 2015

Wordsworth's 'Strange fits of passion I have known' (1798)

So, let me ask you a question about Wordsworth's 'Strange fits of passion I have known', one of the most famous of the Lyrical Ballad poems (written in 1798, it first appeared in the 1800 second edition of that famous collection). What kind of moon do you picture, hanging over the cottage?
Strange fits of passion I have known,
And I will dare to tell,
But in the lover's ear alone,
What once to me befel.

When she I lov'd, was strong and gay
And like a rose in June,
I to her cottage bent my way,
Beneath the evening moon.

Upon the moon I fix'd my eye,
All over the wide lea;
My horse trudg'd on, and we drew nigh
Those paths so dear to me.

And now we reach'd the orchard plot,
And, as we climb'd the hill,
Towards the roof of Lucy's cot
The moon descended still.

In one of those sweet dreams I slept,
Kind Nature's gentlest boon!
And, all the while, my eyes I kept
On the descending moon.

My horse mov'd on; hoof after hoof
He rais'd and never stopp'd:
When down behind the cottage roof
At once the planet dropp'd.

What fond and wayward thoughts will slide
Into a Lover's head—
"O mercy!" to myself I cried,
"If Lucy should be dead!"
I think I'd always assumed this was a full moon, perhaps because the scene described seems so fully and visually described, which is to say: there seems to be so much light in this nighttime scene. But reading it again, the imagery strikes me as a procession of sickles: the lover's ear; a rose-thorn; hoof after hoof (presumably imprinting crescent patterns onto the turf); words like 'bent' ('I to her cottage bent my way') and the overall upward-arc of the speaker meeting the downward-arc of the moon until it is eclipsed by the cottage itself. I even find myself wondering if the three crescent-letters 'u' and 'c' and 'y' that make up Lucy's name feed into this. Certainly a sickle-moon, coming down like death's scythe onto Lucy's cottage, makes more symbolic sense of that famously startling last line.

It's all symbolism, of course. The poem is always aware that the 'descent' of the moon is only an optical illusion, and that therefore the 'strange fit' with which the poem ends—'O mercy! If Lucy should be dead!'—has everything to do with the narrator's state of mind and nothing with the external world. The seeming simplicity of the poem's diction and form throws into sharper relief than might otherwise be the case the Empsonian ambiguity of this 'fit'. Is it a fit in the sense that an epileptic has a fit, which is to say a sudden, unexpected aberration? Or is it, rather, something fitting, something that suddenly reveals itself to be proper, the right thing, the desired thing? In either case it deserves the modifier strange. A lot depends on the if in the final line. Its an unstressed little syllable, and its position sandwiched between two syllables not only stressed but prosodically long (cried, a dipthong, and Lūcy) tends to deemphasize it further. Without it, the statement looks rather more like a sudden conclusion that Lucy must die. Even with it, the 'if' modifies in a strange, and strangely unemphatic, way. Maybe it would be better if Lucy were to die? What kind of lover would ever wish such a fate on his beloved?

Love is a complicated emotion. That sentence looks more than a little fatuous, put like that, but it's true. It might be possible to wish an inamorata dead for reasons other than hatred, or anger, or psychopathy. It might, for instance, to feel that strange passionate tangle of desires after the manner of Scobie in Greene's The Heart of the Matter. I appreciate, of course, that most people don't read the poem this way: it is conventionally taken that the strange fit of passion is a fear, not a desire, a sudden anxiety that one's lover might die, or perhaps an existentially vertiginous apprehension of mortality as such. But the thing about desires and wishes is intimate, as Shakespeare's King Henry knew: a person's wish can be father to that person's thought.

The poem is a simple anecdote, 'what once to me befel', and the pun on befel is almost too much. What befalls the speaker is the moon, seemingly be-falling: 'the moon descended'; 'the descending moon'; 'the planet dropp'd'. Thoughts 'slide' into the speaker's head. Everything seems to be falling and slipping and dropping, which is also why the moon is the appropriate poetic symbol: the mutability of all.

But, see, this makes me wonder if this is a poem about a different kind of falling, that thing we call 'falling in love'. It can be discombobulating, that feeling. Strange. Odi et amo: all that. Unthinking people sometimes assert that 'love' and 'hate' are opposites. They're not, of course; a better opposition would be between 'love' on the one hand and indifference on the other. Love and hate, both modes of emotional intensity, have a worrying amount in common. Nevertheless it would be insane to say they are synonyms. Love puts the other above you, even if it blots out everyone in the world who is not you and I. Hate puts the other below you. It is a false idiom to say we fall in love, although falling is a very expressive and exact way of talking about the way hatred possesses us. We don't fall in love; we rise into it. But then: that's exactly what the speaker, here, does. He rises.

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Excursion excursus 1

The Latin root of 'excursion' is much more vigorous, rapid, and indeed aggressive than the connotations of the English word now imply: not a leisurely wandering-around pleasant scenery, but 'a running out, an inroad, invasion, a setting out, beginning of a speech' (from excurrere, 'to run out': ex, 'out' + currere, 'to run'). Invasion ('sally, onset, attack') is one of the prime meanings of the word. And, since I've been going over Wordsworth's Excursion (1814) during the winter break, this etymology has more than once come back to me. All the things I used to dislike about this poem—what used to strike me as a ponderous earnestness, plodding dutifulness and preachiness—strike me now as much more estranging, much more attacking. Indeed I tend to think that one of the things Wordsworth is attacking, in this poem, is the very notion of the well-made poem, the diverting or polished well-wrought urn.

Not that Wordsworth is herein presenting a great slab of Ted-Hughesian Natural Granite. Not at all. The Excursion is indeed a very carefully wrought piece of writing, its great length notwithstanding; and in place of great henges of raw nature we get long, long speeches by the various speakers, decorously Miltonic in cadence (if less Latinate in vocabulary than Paradise Lost) and fully engaged in moral-philosophical and social-philosophical issues. But the very relentlessness of these engagements becomes, in its own way, powerfully estranging. We can of course read the poem as a living intervention into actual ethical and metaphysical questions, if we have the patience; or we can read it as a kind of ur-Samuel Beckett drama, in which a small group of pared-down characters, known not by their names but by titles such as 'The Wanderer', 'The Solitary', and 'The Parson' occupy a denuded stage ('we return The Excursion's images to their origins in the known scene,' W L Renwick notes, 'and forget how little Wordsworth needed for his purposes: trees, water, daffodils; a man beside a bare pool; some tumbled stones on a hillside.' [186]). They pass the time in conversation, although, of course, it would have passed in any case, and much of what they say flows over us like Lucky's speech. What they, and we, are waiting for is a particular iteration of Godot known only as 'the Recluse'. But the Recluse never comes.
The Excursion is the longest of Wordsworth's poems to be published in his lifetime (9,068 lines in nine books), and it is the centerpiece of the great epic that he envisioned. It is a 'dramatic poem', which records the conversation and debate among four characters—a Poet, Wanderer, Solitary, and Pastor—over a period of five days. Wordsworth first developed the plan for The Excursion with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797–1798, the same period during which they were collaborating on the Lyrical Ballads and in which Wordsworth was beginning the autobiographical poem posthumously published as The Prelude. As Wordsworth conceived it, The Excursion would be the second of three long poems in a comprehensive project to be called The Recluse, Wordsworth's mature philosophical consideration of "Man, Nature, and Human Life" (39). Of the three poems projected, Wordsworth completed only The Excursion [Ronald Schroeder, ‘The Excursion’, Textual Cultures 4:1 (2009), 151].
So, at the moment, I'm only in a position to make a few initial sallies into this huge poem. I'll be back, though.

The initial thing I'd record is how much more finely crafted the blank verse of the poem struck me on this latter re-read: insofar as Wordsworth is 'attacking' the notion of the small-scale picturesque and harmonious work, he is doing so from within, as it were. Here's a little scene of pleasant company by the lakeside from Book 9:
A gipsy-fire we kindled on the shore
Of the fair Isle with birch-trees fringed—and there,
Merrily seated in a ring, partook
A choice repast—served by our young companions
With rival earnestness and kindred glee.
Launched from our hands the smooth stone skimmed the lake. [Excursion 9:527-32]
I love the way that last line mimics its subject, swapping about the stress of its opening iamb into a trochaic launching pad, like the stone itself being thrown (running on excurrently into the remainder of the line), and then bouncing once, twice, thrice with the alliterative spondees of 'smooth stone skimmed', the repeated touches of sibilance onomatopoeiacally capturing the glancing impact with the water. Very nicely done. Or at the other end of the epic: this account of the origins of the Wanderer:
Among the hills of Athol he was born;
Where, on a small hereditary farm,
An unproductive slip of rugged ground,
His Parents, with their numerous offspring, dwelt;
A virtuous household, though exceeding poor!
Pure livers were they all, austere and grave,
And fearing God; the very children taught
Stern self-respect, a reverence for God's word,
And an habitual piety, maintained
With strictness scarcely known on English ground.

From his sixth year, the Boy of whom I speak,
In summer, tended cattle on the hills;
But, through the inclement and the perilous days
Of long-continuing winter, he repaired,
Equipped with satchel, to a school, that stood
Sole building on a mountain's dreary edge,
Remote from view of city spire, or sound
Of minster clock! From that bleak tenement
He, many an evening, to his distant home
In solitude returning, saw the hills
Grow larger in the darkness; all alone
Beheld the stars come out above his head,
And travelled through the wood, with no one near
To whom he might confess the things he saw.

So the foundations of his mind were laid.
In such communion, not from terror free,
While yet a child, and long before his time,
Had he perceived the presence and the power
Of greatness; and deep feelings had impressed
So vividly great objects that they lay
Upon his mind like substances, whose presence
Perplexed the bodily sense. [Excursion 1: 108-31]
That's a long chunk, but what leaps out at me is the verse-paragraph from the middle, lines 118-31:
From his sixth year, the Boy of whom I speak,
In summer, tended cattle on the hills;
But, through the inclement and the perilous days
Of long-continuing winter, he repaired,
Equipped with satchel, to a school, that stood   [5]
Sole building on a mountain's dreary edge,
Remote from view of city spire, or sound
Of minster clock! From that bleak tenement
He, many an evening, to his distant home
In solitude returning, saw the hills                  [10]
Grow larger in the darkness; all alone
Beheld the stars come out above his head,
And travelled through the wood, with no one near
To whom he might confess the things he saw.
Isolate that passage, and we have a rather beautiful sonnet to youth, where the blank verse flirts delicately with rhyme ('repaired'/'head', 'home'/'alone', even 'hills'/'hills'). The octave, from the first line up to 'Of minster clock ...', moves us through the more crowded scene of cow-herds and schoolfellows via polysyllabic words: inclement and perilous, long-continuing winter and so on. Indeed, the crowding even squeezes the prosody: I suppose we're invited to read the line But, through the inclement and the perilous days as But, through th'inclement and th'perilous days (horrid, that), but as it is printed, and if we choose to speak it that way, it actually runs twelve-syllables into the space allotted to ten.  Then we get to the sestet (from 'He, many an evening ...' through to '... the things he saw'), which effects a turn towards the isolating grandeur of Sublime nature in verse comprised, from the mid-point of line 10 onwards, wholly of disyllables and monosyllables, and predominantly the latter strung starkly together: he saw 'the stars come out above his head ... through the wood with no one near/To whom he might confess the things he saw.' Only the quasi-religious 'confess', there, disturbs the clear succession of one-stress words. This adds very effectively to the way this pseudo-sonnet, embedded in the larger poetic fabric, works towards the individualised loveliness of its encounter with the chaste stars.

There's something else in this 'sonnet', I think: something Wordsworth believed exemplary of the poet, but which will probably strike us as rather odd. It's one of the things what he says in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, that the true poet delights in contemplating 'volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, is 'habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them', and above all:
to these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present.
Absence is much more what The Excursion is about than I remember. Onwards—excurrently.

Sunday 27 December 2015

Cruiskshank, 'The Gin Shop' (1829)

Not as well-known as Hogarth's 'Gin Lane', but a rather fine image nonetheless (click to embiggen). Death, on the left there, is saying: ‘I shall have them all dead drunk presently! They have nearly had their last glass.’ And in the back room, goblins dance in a ring around a cauldron in which some sort of spectral death’s-head is steaming, singing: ‘Black Spirits and White, Blue Spirits and Grey—Mingle mingle mingle!—You that mingle may’.

Thursday 24 December 2015

On Faith and Doubt

Are there any atheists in the Old Testament? The fool hath said in his heart there is no God, perhaps; but fools aside—how could Adam, Enoch, Abraham or Moses deny the existence of God? In their world he was a straightforward presence, one more actor on the world stage (whilst also, in another sense, being the stage). Or to put the question another way: if we read through the Bible as a narrative—which exercise, however distorting it almost certainly is, has been the pastime of millions of believers—we see not so much a gradual withdrawal of God, from another body in the garden, to a burning bush, to spiritus sanctus; but rather a breach, or break. Who is the first atheist? Which is to say: who, taking Old and New Testament together, is the first figure in the Bible to doubt what everybody else takes as manifest and self-evident, the presence of God in the world? G K Chesterton once suggested an answer to that question: God himself, incarnated as Christ, with his cry from the cross that God has withdrawn from him. This, to be sure, is not an assertion of Dawkinesque atheism (which would be: there is not and never has been a God); but rather the infallible assertion that where God was once a part of the world he now no longer is. Adam and Eve are banished from proximity to the divine into the world, but that world is one in which the physical reality of God is still a part: God is glimpsed, or manifests Himself in natural phenomena—or supernatural ones, indeed. The God of the Old Testament, taken in terms of the internal logic of the world-building of those texts, is a certainty; and opposition to such a God can only be a matter of obstinacy, pride, or idiocy. Individuals who deny Jahweh are on a par with flat-earthers, or individuals suffering from hysterical blindness.

Not so the New Testament. Here we see the same broad premise as the Old Testament, the presence of God in a fallen world, in a completely different light. God’s incarnation is also the occasion for Him to forsake the world. The crucifixion, via a complex process of reiterated incarnation and ascension, destroys the body of God. God himself, on the cross, proclaims atheistical doubts about the presence of God. Of course it is true that after his heartfelt cry of loss-of-faith, why hast thou forsaken me, God himself passes back into faith; and the last of the seven utterances from the cross (into your hands I commend my spirit) functions as a pure and indeed moving article of faith. But the language is not that of certainty—as it might be, ‘now that it is finished, I go to my certain reward’. It is, on the contrary, the language of uncertainty, of hopeful but unsure self-commendation. The truly strange portion of this is, to resume the Chestertonian point, this is both Christ, a man who has been tortured horribly to death, hoping that he will be reunited with the heavenly God (a very human thing) and God, omniscient and all-powerful, who has freely chosen passivity—hence ‘passion’—in the teeth of human persecution. When we start to consider how it might be that God can consider God has forsaken Him, or how He can talk with anything other than certainty about what happens next, we may find ourselves coming to the conclusion that the real subject of the Passion is, precisely, doubt. Death, the one thing certain for all mortals, becomes the aperture through which doubt enters the world; both in the sense that we do not know when it is coming for us, or what happens after, and in the sense that it is death—transience, annihilation—that is most forcefully at odds with the spiritual narrative of immortal souls created by an immortal gods. This is why it is after the crucifixion that Doubt becomes the tenor of the human encounter with the divine, and the new subject of the Bible. Peter’s triple denial of Christ; doubting Thomas, Paul’s sermonizing on the valences of faith instead of proof—this is all part of a new pattern. Once God has withdrawn himself physically from the world, doubt becomes the necessary currency of belief in Him. The mood shifts from imperative to subjunctive.

This is, I suppose, has some relationship to Karl Barth’s celebrated argument that ‘metaphysical absolutes are an abomination unto the Lord and abolished in Christ.’ That, in other words, one of the points of the divine principle supplementing itself (as it were) in Christ is, once and for all, to introduce a saving doubt as the ground of individual faith. Barth objects to all attempts at ‘proof’—St Anselm’s, or St Aquinas’s—as misunderstandings (more precisely; he argues that subsequent thinkers have mistaken the grounds and purposes of these ‘proofs’) of the nature of the way that lies between God and man. In The Word of God and the Word of Man he insists: ‘there is no way from us to God—not even a via negativa—not even a via dialectica nor paradoxica. The God who stood at the end of some human way would not be God.’ If that looks as though Barth’s beef is with a human arrogance and superbus in thinking we can define, or determine, or in some sense fix God, that’s actually only part of it. For Barth, the point is as much that positive assertion as to the existence of God is replaced, theologically speaking, with a mystic negation of the human. In crude terms, the road does not run from man to God; it runs from God to man. This is also the thrust of that splendid though rather under-appreciated piece of creative theology, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The babel-fish knows the truth. Once we accept that proof denies faith, we find ourselves in the situation where any absolute certainty as to the existence of God would be precisely the grounds on which God ceases to exist. ‘Proof denies faith’, here, means something more than ‘proof would tend to degrade or corrode faith’. It means, more starkly: proof and faith together constitute a zero-sum game. The NT lapel-badge says: The fool hath said in his heart, I am certain of God.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Basilisk and Weasel: Fighting Crime

A 17th-century depiction of a basilisk with a weasel, by Wenceslas Hollar. Because Basilisk and Weasel are best buds.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

'All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning" Till A.D. 1850'

All of them. No exceptions. You're curious to know who these women are, aren't you? Here you go then:

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Christopher Middleton

I was sorry to hear that Christopher Middleton died last week: a much underappreciated poet. Here (via) is one of my favourites of his: 'January 1919', from The Word Pavilion & Selected Poems (2001).
What if I know, Liebknecht, who shot you dead.
Tiegarten trees unroll
staggering shadow, in spite of it all.
I am among the leaves; the inevitable
have nothing left to say, the holed head
bleeding across a heap of progressive magazines;
torn from your face,
trees that turned around,
we do not sanctify the land with our wandering.
Look upon our children, they are mutilated.
I'd say 'timely', given that my nation is once again about to go to war. But it's not that the current situation in Syria makes the poem timely; it's that it's a poem about a circumstance that is, alas, never untimely.