‘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.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Thoughts That Do Often Lie Too Deep For Tears

One of, if not the single, most famous line(s) in all of Wordsworth, this: of course the conclusion to his masterly 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood' (1807). This rich and complex poem starts from the simple observation that when WW was a child he had an unforced, natural access to the splendour and joy of the cosmos, but growing old has alienated him from that blessed mode of being-in-the-world. It starts:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
It ends:
And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born Day
Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
I have a simple question: what does it mean to talk of 'thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears'? I'm not asking after the psychological or existential ramifications of the phrase; I'm asking about its semantic content.

You see, it's a phrase that seems to me to imply two quite incompatible meanings. One: the speaker of the poem is saying that even the meanest flower that blooms—like the one at the top of this post—can sometimes make him cry. These tears come from a source that is usually, in his day-to-day living, repressed, buried deep in the psyche, since he is English and therefore too buttoned-down to permit weeping. But the encounter with simple natural beauty liberates this emotion from its prison, and the cathartic tears can at last flow. These are thoughts that often, but not always, lie too deep for expression as tears. In other words, the encounter with the wild-flower in the last two lines of the 'Ode' is, in its bittersweet way, a positive one.

But there's another way of reading the line. This would posit a psychological topography in which, in descending layers, we have: the normal everyday placidity, and below that the propensity to weep, and below that something else, some profound sorrow or depression too deeply ingrained in the human soul ever to find release in tears. Children cry, when provoked, as we all know, because they are more intuitively in touch with their emotions; this is, in one sense, the whole thesis of the 'Ode'. But the poem also embodies the mournful observation that men like Wordsworth's speaker here have lost the capacity for that kind of emotional ingenuousness. Now to encounter nature, in the form of the wildflower, creates a sense of sorrow so deep that it cannot even be relieved by crying. It is not every thought, it's not always like this. But it often is.

Clearly the line can't mean both of these two things. The first suggests that a grown-up saudade finally relieves itself in crying the sorts of tears that great beauty can provoke. The second implies that the Ode is an elegy for the barrenness of modern emotional existence, a parched state where the sorrowful thoughts cannot even provoke tears, because they lie too deep for them. Tears of complicated joy, versus I-have-no-mouth-and-I-must-scream despair. Hmm.

1 comment:

  1. 40 years ago I read this poem in a large audience. I agree with the second analogy.