‘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 14 January 2016

Blake's Jerusalem

There's been some discussion over the last few weeks about whether England, as distinct from 'Britan', needs its own national anthem. 'Jerusalem' has, of course, been proposed. Not everyone thinks it's a good idea. Over on The Spectator blog Kate Maltby insists that 'there’s nothing patriotic about William Blake’s Jerusalem'. As to that assertion, I think it depends upon what patria one has in mind. I agree there's nothing public-school, white-posh-English patriotic about the poem; but it seems to me an intensely patriotic text, addressed to a version of England too little acknowledged. I should concede that my judgement is not wholly objective, here, since this work is one of the very few in the whole corpus of poetry to send actual shivers up the nape of my neck when I read it. Would it make a good English anthem? Maybe, maybe not. Still, my real beef with that Spectator article concerns this statement:
The truth about Jerusalem is that it isn’t a patriotic poem at all. Parry’s music gives the hymn an upbeat tempo – especially with the booming orchestration by Edward Elgar – but William Blake’s original words are as laced with resentful irony as Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony. Famously, Blake asks four questions in succession, and the answer to each is a resounding no. Christ’s feet never trod in England; the Lamb of God didn’t gambol – preposterous as the image is – around the Cotswolds; the Holy Spirit wasn’t regularly spotted in London fog; and most directly of all, there was no sense of Jerusalem in the dark Satanic mills of the Industrial Age.
This is not right, I think. The answer to these four questions, in the logic of the poem, is not "no". The answer is "not yet". If you can't see that that makes all the difference, then you really haven't understood the poem at all.


  1. I read it slightly differently - starting from the myth that (as you know, Bob) Joseph of Arimathea planted the Glastonbury Thorn, and the myth-within-a-myth that the risen Christ came along with him, Blake performs the dawning of belief: could this be true? no, seriously, could this actually be true? you know what that means, don't you, if this is actually true? (What that means, specifically, for England and the sacredness of the land of England.) It's like a conversion experience - religious, political, conspiracist - compressed into four rhetorical questions. Then the third and fourth quatrains say, if there's any possibility that it was true - and we've established that there is - then it can be true again, and I'm going to make it true again.

    When you read it properly it is spine-tingling stuff. But that in itself is a good argument against making it any sort of anthem - nothing kills poetry like over-exposure. (I was pushing 20 before I realised that "To be or not to be" means "Life or death?".)

  2. You're right about how deadening turning it into an anthem would be (think how dreary this poem becomes at Rugby grounds). As to whether you're right in the eloquent first para of your comment ... I'm not sure. I'm thinking about it.