‘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.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Gray Days

Alasdair Gray's 'The City', from this short Paris Review piece on him.

I wonder if I should revisit Gray. I read Lanark (1981) as a teenager and it spoke very directly to me. I bought it because I was a SF/Fantasy nut, and the fantasy element seemed intriguing; plus I loved the bravura touch of starting a four-book novel with book three. I can remember quite distinctly standing in the Albion Bookshop in Canterbury browsing it, and deciding to spend my hoarded pocket-money buying the paperback.

But my reading experience did not go the way I expected. As a child I suffered badly from asthma (badly enough for it to threaten my life, to be hospitalised with it, badly enough to bend my physical existence around the lines of its force where sport and exercise were concerned) and the mundane half of that novel, Duncan Thaw's pre-war Scottish life and especially his experiences as an asthmatic child, chimed with my own experience like Big Ben's bell. The fantasy elements were fine, too; but I had not previously read, and have not subsequently encountered, a fictional account of what it feels like to be an asthmatic so powerfully true. At any rate, it made me into a fan of Gray. Since then I've read, I think, everything he has published, novels and short-stories both. But with the sole exception of 1982, Janine (1984), which I read in my first year as an undergraduate, and which I still think an interesting novel, none of them have stayed with me. None of them!

My asthma is considerably better now that I'm an adult, partly because I have to a degree grown out of it, mostly because modern medicines are incomparably better at managing the condition than were 1970s-era drugs. But the debility asthma forced upon me had a deep and shaping effect on me growing up, and is therefore still part of who I am. Gasp, wheeze, etc.

When Orson Welles died in 1985 there was a comedy sketch on British TV premised on the conceit that he had lived his artistic life backwards: starting with sherry commercials and film cameos to raise funds, small-scale bits and pieces as he learned his craft as actor and director, moving onto low-budget adaptations like The Trial, to more ambitious Shakespearian films (Chimes at Midnight, Othello, Macbeth) and, as his skill increased, to technically-accomplished thrillers like Touch of Evil. Finally, having perfected his craft, Wells was able to make his masterpieces: The Magnificent Ambersons and, the copestone to a glorious career, Citizen Kane. There's something of this about Gray, I think.


  1. I liked - and have some memory of - Poor Things, but otherwise I tend to agree with you about post-1984 Gray. 1982, Janine is still wonderful, though, and Lanark was weirdly compelling to this non-asthmatic - I devoured it over four (working) days and it left me feeling unutterably depressed, a combination I've only experienced with one other book (Cloud Atlas). Having said all that, I honestly think Unlikely Stories, Mostly is his masterpiece; it's certainly one of the books I'd save from a house fire.

    1. The best stories in that collection are marvellous, I agree.