‘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 30 April 2020

Isn't It Good/Empsonian Wood

I’m reading Michael Wood’s On Empson (2017) and enjoying it very much. I am, it's worth saying, an Empson fan of longstanding (both Some Kinds of Pastoral and, in a rather different way, Milton’s God strike me as properly amazing, enduring works of criticism) and Wood’s take on Empson is full of insight and thoughtfulness. But here's one small thing that struck me as I read. In his account of Empson’s first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Wood says:
Among his cases of the sixth type of ambiguity Empson includes a famous speech of Othello’s and makes what must be among the most brilliant commentaries ever on the possibilities of the word “it”—hard even to see what the competition would look like.

It is the Cause, it is the Cause (my Soule)
Let me not name it to you, you chaste Starres,
It is the Cause. Yet Ile not shed her blood,
Nor scarre that whiter skin of hers, then Snow,
And smooth as Monumentall Alablaster
Wood then quotes Empson, that, if he were ‘guessing at a one-word referent, he would say “it” was blood’.
But it is no use assuming … that one case can be assigned, and one thing it is the cause of. There is no primary meaning for lack of information, and secondary meaning, therefore, holds the focus of consciousness, that we are listening to a mind withdrawn upon itself, and baffled by its own agonies. As primary meaning of it, however, thus thrust back among the assumptions, one might list his blackness, as causing her defection; the universality of human lust (in both him and her), as causing her defection and his murder; her defection, as causing his horror and his death. [ST, 185-86]
But isn’t this to isolate the wrong word for its ambiguity? ‘It’ strikes me as like ‘this’, one of those radically ambiguous words that (as Hegel noted) always means both something particular, something specificied and individual, and at the same time, in its capacity for referring to literally anything at all, is the least specific and individualised of words. (That's a perfectly Empsonian observation, I think).

Surely the operative ambiguity in Othello’s speech is not ‘it’ but ‘Cause’, a word that can mean both the reason for or rationale of an event or action—that which produces or effects a result (which is how Empson takes the word) and a movement, a belief-set, even a party (such as one might say: ‘he dedicated his life to the cause of women’s rights, or racial equality, or whatever). Othello is certainly a play about cause-and-effect in the first sense, but in this speech here Othello himself, manifestly urging himself on to do something he doesn’t really want to do, is surely reinforcing his determination by identifying as part of a ‘cause’, a group of people with a common belief-set dedicated to achieving particular goals: policing chastity, reinforcing women’s roles, asserting the authority of the husband, somesuch patriarchal bullshit. Iago is able to bend Othello to his will not only by insinuating certain plaguing fantasies into the man’s imagination, but by stressing (something he does repeatedly) that they are in it together. Before he presses the detonator on his bomb-vest, the terrorist thinks not of the cause-and-event that brought him to this place, but of the cause in this latter sense, and especially of his comrades-in-terror. This speech is Othello quieting that inner voice, the one saying fool, what are you doing? He’s doing ‘it’, and it is murdering the woman he loves; and this action is part of the cause to which he has, now, dedicated himself, even though it will also result in his own destruction.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Excerpts from T S Eliot's "Covid Wasteland"

“April is the Covid month, breeding
Lockdowns out of the dread bug, mixing
Boredom and more boredom, watching
Netflix with much wine.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Minds in blessed ignorance
Of how bad this all could get.
Trump surprised us, suggesting we all guzzle bleach and”


“Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Can't get a Coronavirus test
Not being a celebrity. Here, said she,
Is your card, the shag-haired British P.M.
(Those his words they all are lies. Look!)
Here is Kier Starmer, the starmerer,
The stare-eyed.”


“O O O O that Televehision Rag—
Let's watch Tiger-King
It's quite baffling
‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?
I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
With my hair down, so.’

‘Don't do that. The police will have a word.’”


“Virus the Increasing, logarithmic dead,
Ignores the cry of trolls, the news cycle
The profit and loss.
                                A current under all
Picks our lives to whispers. As it rises
We pass the stages of our age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

Consider Virus.”


“—O sallow sallow
Le Prince Maladie au monde abolie
London Town is falling down falling down falling down
Why then Ile fit you. POTUS’s mad againe.
Cough. Shallowcough. Deepcough.
       Wuhantih        Wuhantih        Wuhantih

Monday 20 April 2020

Rebecca West, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” (1941)

There's a consensus among critics and readers that Rebecca West's enormous travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (1941) is her magnum opus. Magnus it certainly is: it's more than 1100 pages long, rich and detailed throughout; more a meditation on how history shapes the present, and how both factor in specific identities, societies and cultures. I'm reading it at the moment, in between other things. It's not a book to bolt: full of fascinating detail, often very funny in a mordant kind of way, and advancing several key Westian ideas: for instance that women are idiots and men lunatics. At the book's beginning she recalls being in hospital in 1934, and hearing on the radio ‘how the King of Yugoslavia had been assassinated in the streets of Marseilles that morning’. She adds ‘it appeared to me inevitable that war must follow’:
I rang for my nurse, and when she came I cried to her, “Switch on the telephone ! I must speak to my husband at once. A most terrible thing has happened. The King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated.” “Oh, dear!” she replied. “Did you know him?” “No,” I said. “Then why,” she asked, “do you think it's so terrible?”

Her question made me remember that the word “idiot” comes from a Greek root meaning private person. Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain. It is no worse than the male defect, which is lunacy; they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.
This is the sort of idea that gets under your skin, and as West returns to it (several times) in this book, she adds nuance and depth to it. Speaking for myself, I can only push-back against its manifest gender-essentialism; and yet it is saying something quite profound, I think.

At one point, about halfway through volume one, staying in Sarajevo with her husband, West disgresses into a claim that twice in the history of Europe the Slavs have achieved victory over their enemies by allowing those enemies an apparent victory that only, with time, revealed itself to have been a profound, veiled defeat: ‘once, on the simpler occasion, when the Russians let Napoleon into the core of their country, where he found himself among snow and ashes, his destiny dead. The second time it happened here in Sarajevo [when] the heretic Bosnian nobles surrendered their country to the Turks in exchange for freedom to keep their religion and their lands’ [West, BLGF 1:307]. West explains this strategy with what is, in effect, a sketch for a short novel, although not a very comfortable-sounding one.
There is a kind of human being, terrifying above all others, who resists by yielding. Let it be supposed that it is a woman. A man is pleased by her, he makes advances to her, he finds that no woman was ever more compliant. He marvels at the way she allows him to take possession of her and perhaps despises her for it. Then suddenly he finds that his whole life has been conditioned to her, that he has become bodily dependent on her, that he has acquired the habit of living in a house with her, that food is not food unless he eats it with her.

It is at this point that he suddenly realises that he has not conquered her mind, and that he is not sure if she loves him, or even likes him, or even considers him of great moment. Then it occurs to him as a possibility that she failed to resist him in the first place because simply nothing he could do seemed of the slightest importance. He may even suspect that she let him come into her life because she hated him, and wanted him to expose himself before her so that she could despise him for his weakness. This, since man is a hating rather than a loving animal, may not impossibly be the truth of the situation. There will be an agonising period when he attempts to find out the truth. But that he will not be able to do, for it is the essence of this woman’s character not to uncover her face. He will therefore have to withdraw from the frozen waste in which he finds himself, where there is neither heat nor light nor food nor shelter, but only the fear of an unknown enemy, and he will have to endure the pain of living alone till he can love someone else ; or he will have to translate himself into another person, who will be accepted by her, a process that means falsification of the soul. Whichever step he takes, the woman will grow stronger and more serene, though not so strong and serene as she will if he tries the third course of attempting to coerce her. [West, BLGF 1:306-7]
Since man is a hating rather than a loving animal ... as with the naked gender essentialism of her idiot/lunatic distinction, I can only push-back against the starkness, even cynicism, of that little thumbnail of homo sapiens. And yet ...

Thursday 16 April 2020

Lockdown Poem

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing loccdown
Groweþ plump
doun in þe dump
and scowlþ þe wide froun
Sing loccdown

Ma bleteþ after gin
stil in her nightgown
Netflics sterteþ
faþer farteþ
gloomie sing loccdown.

Loccdown loccdown
Wel singes þu loccdown
ne swik þu nauer nown

Sing loccdown nu • Sing loccdown.
Sing loccdown • Sing loccdown nu.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Christiadic Thoughts for Easter

We all have our projects to help pass the time during lockdown. For some it's knitting, or doing jigsaws, or playing video games—whatever lights your candle, it's all good. My as-it-were jigsaw is translating Vida's 1535 Latin epic about the life of Christ, The Christiad, into English, line by line. That link takes you to the blog I've made for this busy-work. I'm enjoying it, although (as with jigsaws and crosswords and the like) part of the enjoyment is the knowledge that it's quite useless. There are several translations of Vida into English already; the poem itself is, by critical consensus, dull and inert, more interesting for its influence on later literature (Milton drew on it extensively for Paradise Lost for instance) than itself. 16th- and 17th-century epic is not my period, so I'm not doing this in order to be generative in any scholarly sense. But taking it a line at a time, working out the meaning and then chosing the right English word to express that, like choosing the right jigsaw piece to fit at a particular place in the larger puzzle, is absorbing and satisfying to me. It might look tedious and baffling to you, but that's alright. You can do you, and leave me to my abstruse pleasures.

It's Easter, though, and one consequence of spending time with Vida is that it has taken me back to the New Testament—also very interesting. Vida's poem is of necessity a reading, or interpretation, of the evangelists' account. The choices he makes, the little suppressions and additions, say a lot about his own theological assumptions and the shape of his belief. Today is Easter Saturday, and I've got to Christ hearing that Lazarus is sick, and resolving to go visit him. Vida's Lazarus is a very rich man, a mover-and-shaker, although I don't believe that's how the gospels portray him.
Hic subito, non læta ferens, gravis impulit aures         [100]
nuntius, atque animum rumore momordit amaro.
Lazarus haud procul hinc Bethanes regna tenebat,
dives opum, clarus genus alto a sanguine regum.
Nam pater ingentes Syriæ frenaverat oras,
vique sibi captas quondam subiecerat urbis.             [105]
Nemo illo hospitibus facilis magis: omnibus illa
noctes atque dies domus ultro oblata patebat.
Huc etiam persæpe ipsum succedere Christum
haud piguit creberque domus indulsit amicae
hospitio, atque deum posita se nube retexit.             [110]
Hunc igitur postquam morientem accepit, et acri
vix morbo correptum, auras haurire supremas
et quasi jam leti portas luctarier ante,
demisit lacrymas, sociisque hæc edidit ore:
“Cedamus. Leto actutum revocandus amicus             [115]
in lucem, modo me summus pater audiat ipse,
atque suas velit hic, ut sæpe, ostendere vires.”
Hæc ait, et gressum Bethanae tendit ad urbem.
Prosequitur comitum manus ingens atque videndi
innumeri studio socios se protinus addunt.               [120]
Then suddenly all happiness was hushed: a grave         [100]
messenger came, hurting their hearts with sharp news.
It was Lazarus, ruler of nearby Bethany:
a very wealthy man, and of royal bloodline
(his father had quelled rebellion on Syria’s coast
and conquered many cities there by force).                [105]
No one was more hospitable to guests: all
were welcome to his house, both night and day,
and Christ himself was often a visitor
relaxing in that friendly home, able there
to set-aside the cloud that hid his godhood.              [110]
So when he heard that this man was dying, cruel
disease wasting him—that he was breathing his last
and struggling at the very gates of death—
he shed tears, and spoke to his disciples:
“we have to go. Our friend must be recalled              [115]
into the light, if the supreme Father will hear my words,
once more will use this man to show his strength.”
He spoke, and then went straight to Bethany.
A crowd followed him, eager to see the man live
and many more joined with them on the way.                   [120]
So: this morning, posting this, I was very struck in particular by the throwaway reference in line 110. If I knew my theology and traditions of Biblical interpretation better I'm sure I'd know the answer; as it was I could only ask the question:
More striking is line 110. What do you think Vida means when he says that, in Lazarus's house (and by implication not elsewhere) Christ ‘set aside’ the ‘cloud’ (nūbēs) that hid his godhood? To me it suggests that Christ generally went around disguising that he was divine, something that would otherwise have been unmissably obvious to everyone and which he was obliged actively to occlude. But isn't that the very opposite of what the gospels imply? Aren't Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all about Jesus travelling far and wide to spread the good news of his divinity?

My reading of this line, for what it's worth: this, as the old deconstructivist jargon has it, is the problematic of Vida's poem. Christ in the gospels is a simple man, a carpenter's son. He spends his time with ordinary people, not with kings and princes. The authorities think him merely a rabble rouser and criminal; unable to see that he is divine they execute him as a low criminal. The message he brings is not for an elite, but for everyone; it is, in both senses of the word, common. It is one of the creative paradoxes of the gospels that this low-born ordinary man is also the king of kings, literally God come to earth.

I think that the Christiad simply finds it hard to believe that God could walk among us and nobody notice. Surely it must have been obvious! And yet, the NT makes manifest, not only wasn't it obvious to most people, even some of Christ's closest followers doubted it. Perhaps, Vida intimates—and he doesn't go much beyond hinting at this, in his poem—that was because, on most occasions, Christ deliberately hid his divinity from mortal eyes. Why? Well the ways of God are ineffable, so who knows. I mean, it seems to me a radically point-missing piece of post-hoc rationalisation, and rather demeaning than anything else (as if Christ is Cyclops from the X-Men, veiling his uncontrollable eye-beams behind a specially constructed visor). But what do I know?
Is this a significant point of discussion amongst Christians? Is it, for instance, commonly accepted that Christ went about veiling his otherwise-too-obvious godhood from people? I just don't know.

At any rate: happy Easter everyone! Lockdown notwithstanding.

Monday 6 April 2020

Sir Bors and the Holy Grail

Sir Bors achieved the Holy Grail and so took it home with him.
And it was naught but a handled beaker made of hammered tin;
And he set it high on his sideboard shelf to jostle with clutter and mould,
And there the beaker hoarded its magic until his life was old.
For that's when he took it down again and wondered at its design,
And said “I've owned it all these years and forgot that it never was mine.”
And he polished it up, and held it, and he took it, and threw it outside,
And soon as he'd done so he laughed in release and laid himself down and he died.