‘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, 11 December 2018

Wordsworth's "London, 1802"


There's a specific piece of intertextuality in Wordsworth's famous sonnet that nobody ever talks about, even though lacking an understanding of it means that the poem doesn't make its fullest sense. That's quite a strange combination really especially when we add: it's an obvious point, really. The thing is: the poem's opening phrase addresses Milton in the same terms with which republican conspirators against Caesar in the first century BC addressed Brutus.

Marcus Junius Brutus, Caesar's friend and assassin, belonged to a family that traced a direct ancestral line to the legendary Lucius Junius Brutus who had, in 510 BC, expelled the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus. A Republican hero, then; and one of the founding figures of the whole SPQR set-up. ‘Brutus was proud of his heritage,’ notes Thomas Jones: ‘he had his family tree painted in the atrium of his house, plotting his descent from Lucius Brutus on his father’s side, and, on his mother’s, from Servilius Ahala, who had killed the would-be tyrant Spurius Maelius in 439 BC. There are reasons to doubt this ancestry, which Brutus’ enemies weren’t slow to point outLucius Brutus was supposed to have killed both his sons for plotting to restore Tarquin, so wouldn’t have had any descendantsbut, however remote the connection, it was meaningful to Brutus.’

As Julius Caesar consolidated his hold on power his opponents increasingly likened him to a king and urged action to curb his incipient tyranny. Marcus Brutus became caught-up in one such conspiracy. A statue in honour of Tarquinius Superbus's nemesis, Lucius Brutus, stood in the grounds of the temple of Concord. In February 44 BC someone wrote a graffito on the statue: utinam viveres; ‘thou shouldst be living [at this hour]’. Marcus Brutus took the hint. On the Ides of March 44 BC he stabbed Caesar to death in the capitol.

Utinam viveres became a pretty famous slogan, and quite a few later Latin writers and poets make reference to it: ‘0 libertatis, et impudicitiae ingens ultor Brute utinam viveres!’ wrote the 18th-century Italian Latin poet Enrico Barelli. A quick Google throws up plenty of variations on Dormis, Brute? Utinam viveres!, often in reaction to perceived political corruption or tyranny (‘Utinam viveres; degeres habes posteros’ lamented Heinrich Heisen in 1745). In other words, Wordsworth, in the first line of his sonnet, is Englishing a celebrated Roman republican anti-Caesarist sentiment. He is invoking Milton specifically as an English Brutus, to banish or perhaps even execute the tyrants ruining the country.

1 comment:

  1. It occurs to me, belatedly, that WW might have been thinking of a Latin line of verse along the lines of "in utinam viveres, Miltone!" or something.

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