‘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.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

A Trove of Triffids

John Wyndham's 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids manages the impressive task of making vegetables scary. It requires a degree of contrivance, but Wyndham pulls it off. First he posits bioengineered carnivorous plants that can walk about on three stumpy legs and sting their prey with whip-like tentacles. Then he adds-in a second disaster: a spectacular meteor shower (which may actually be an orbiting weapons platform: it's never made clear) that blinds all who see it, leaving whole populations helpless before the perambulating plants. The result is one of the masterpieces of British ‘cosy catastophe’ science fiction. The original Michael Joseph cover by Welsh artist John Griffiths imagines the triffid as a sort of giraffe-shaped artichoke on tuberous legs. Since ‘gigantic artichokes’ rather undersells how tense and scary Wyndham's novel actually is, Griffiths has superimposed spiraling green lines to convey alarm. Still, his conception of triffid was iconic enough for it to be copied across to the 1961 Penguin first paperback edition with only minimal changes:

There's something about the neatness of Penguin's orange-and-white livery that adds menace to the clear-line drawing of the plant in the middle; an effect enhanced by the way the penguin logo itself appears to be giving us an alarmed side-eye at the proximity of the monster. The cover art for the first US edition (1951), by New York artist Whitney Bender, reworks the British cover by adding turmoil in the sky:

The splendour of the rendering of city and sky rather dwarfs the poor little triffid, who looks more like an overgrown lampost than a monster. Bender was in his day a respected painter for whom book illustration was a sideline, and there's something a little too stately about his terror-plants. By way of contrast this Earle Bergey cover for the ‘Popular Library’ paperback of 1959 is much more kinetic and vivid, even if it relies for its effect on the titillation of partially undressing the books' heroine:

‘Revolt ...’ was clearly considered a grabbier title than ‘Day ...’, although that shout line is a little strange. Hard to read it, now, without inserting a tentative pause between the first and second words. ‘An  ... unusual science fiction novel’. Still the triffid itself is painted with impressive force and dynamism. Then there's this 1972 cover (artist unknown) with a trio of bristling triffids, standing like backing singers.

Gladys Knight and the Pippids.


  1. The gratuitous semi-nudity on the Revolt cover is obviously daft and unDOTTesque; it reminds me of nothing so much as Carol Cleveland losing her clothes to the cacti in "Scott of the Sahara". That said, there's an odd passage in Wyndham's posthumous novel _Web_ where our terribly British and resourceful hero and his female sidekick, hacking their way through a tropical labyrinth of mutant spider silk (or something along those lines), find that clothes are becoming an encumbrance and agree to take them off; the narrator specifies that he stripped down to his underpants and she to her panties [sic]. Absolutely nothing more is made of this - it certainly doesn't head the way that stories usually head when characters start finding their clothes oddly encumbering - but I did wonder if Wyndham had got a little authorial frisson from the thought of all this topless tropical jungle action.

  2. Aw, I kinda want a stuffed toy version of that adorable 1961 Penguin triffid.

    The weirdest Wyndham cover, IMO, is the 1979 Peter Lord cover for The Chrysalids. Bafflingly irrelevant.

  3. It should never be forgotten that the novel's explanation for the triffids is that they were selectively bred by Soviet botanists to produce vegetable oil in poor soil and/or extreme climates. Implying perhaps that there were other varieties they tried that didn't hunt and kill the farm labourers, but that simply had lower oil yield per hectare, and there were plenty more farm labourers where those came from.