‘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.

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.


  1. Sure Christ’s self-concealment is a topic in the Christian tradition. Jesus gave instructions, “Tell no one,” after healing. He explained his use of parables with a very problematic purpose clause: “that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not hear.”

    1. That's his message, though, isn't it: not his person? I'm wondering if a person actually meeting Jesus in 1st century Judea would instantly spot that he was more than mortal? And so he had to disguise himself (except among friends)? I suppose I'd always assumed Jesus just looked like a regular man.

  2. "Aren't Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all about Jesus travelling far and wide to spread the good news of his divinity?"

    Short answer: Nein! The primary proclamation that Jesus and his disciples make in the Gospels is that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” That is to say, what Jesus is doing first is unveiling the Kingdom. His ministry is apocalyptic. All of the parables, without exception, are parables of the Kingdom, they reveal its character — though only for those with ears to hear. (To the indifferent or the hostile the parables will deprive them of understanding, as Frank Kermode has so eloquently shown.) My favorite moment of more direct proclamation comes in chapter 4 of Luke, when Jesus in the synagogue reads Isaiah’s words about how the Kingdom will be good news for the poor and the outcast and then simply says, “This day this prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing.” He then goes to sit down, at which point “the eyes of all the congregation were fixed upon him” — an extraordinary moment of almost novelistic detail from Luke.

    Notice also that when Jesus heals people he often tells them to keep it quiet, though they rarely do.

    Beyond this, Jesus will say, though he does not often say, that he is the promised Messiah of Israel. And about his divinity he speaks only rarely and riddlingly, almost always in the “I am” statements. “Before Abraham was, I am.” The primary focus of his public ministry is always on the Kingdom of God that is coming, that indeed has in some mysterious sense already arrived.

    So the unveiling is gradual and partial. To take human form is itself a profound mode of hiddenness: Charles Wesley’s statement in “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, / Hail th’ incarnate Deity!” is a familiar form of a common theological idea. The raising of Lazarus is a more dramatic unveiling because it reveals him as having power over death, in anticipation of his Resurrection. And of course that’s a Divine power. Unlike his other raisings, for instance the daughter of Jairus, this comes some days after death and so cannot be explained away as a resuscitation. And yet it’s also done in a tiny village before just a few people, in contrast to what will happen in Jerusalem.

    It’s only with the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, that anyone is in a position to construct the whole story — to “unveil” the whole meaning not just of what Jesus did but of who he is. And it seems that he wanted it that way, perhaps because, as the bird says, “human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

    1. This is really interesting (some but not all of it I'd sort-of heard already). But we're still talking about what he says and does, aren't we. No ordinary man can raise the dead. What interests me is his bare appearance.... I think Vida is channeling Vergil here: when Venus disguises herself as a mortal in the Aeneid mortals can tell, because, after all, she *is* a goddess. The divinity just shines through. Was it like this with Jesus? If you met him in passing would you just sense there was something more than human about him?

    2. I would think not. I'm reminded of Kierkegaard's Johannes de Slientio on encountering the Knight of Faith: "I move a little closer to him, watch his slightest movement to see if it reveals a bit of heterogeneous optical telegraphy from the infinite, a glance, a facial expression, a gesture, a sadness, a smile that would betray the infinite in its heterogeneity with the finite. No! I examine his figure from top to toe to see if there may not be a crack through which the infinite would peek. No! He is solid all the way through. "

    3. (The one moment in which this is not true is the Transfiguration. But that is brief and private.)

    4. Lovely Kiekegaard quotation! It certainly seems right to me (although, as I say in the blog, what do I know).

      I appreciate it's a kind-of barren question as such: because we can't know, without getting in a time machine and going back and seeing. But it seems to me interesting in this particular context. Vida is rewriting the gospels as Vergilian epic. The gospels are about a man who is the son of God. Classical mythology is stuffed full of characters who are sons and daughters of gods and goddesses, so in one sense the NT story is a tale as old as mythic time. But Christ is not Herakles, or Helen, or Aeneas: he is something radically different to that archetype. One might say the danger Vida runs is of diluting the story of Christ by drawing attention to all its pagan antecedents and parallels, as if the Biblical God is just another iteration of randy old Zeus. So he wants clear blue water between what he does and Vergil, except that what he is doing is all Vergil, and when Vergil describes a god come down to earth there is something manifestly, unmissably special and wondrous and beautiful about that figure. One way of doing that would be to portray his Christ as solidly, Kierkegaardianly human: you could meet him, shake his hand, talk with him and not be any the wiser that he's more than human. But Vida, whilst not going the full divine-light-shining-from-his-eyes, can't quite commit to doing this either.

    5. The Transfiguration is the big denouement of Christiad book 1. It'll be interesting* to delve into how Vida handles that!

      *For certain metrics of interesting, at any rate.

    6. In relation to this, the one really interesting moment in the Gospels is the Emmaus road episode, where the disciples do not recognize Jesus until he reveals himself ("in the breaking of the bread") and then they think, "Did not our hearts burn within us when he was opening to us the Scriptures?" Only retrospectively do they perceive it, and even then not because of how he looked but because of the effect his words had upon them.

    7. There's something very human in that, don't you think? Something blindingly obvious is staring us in the face and we don't, or can't, or won't see it.

  3. P.S. You're spending your spare time translating a neo-Latin epic; I'm spending mine reading Ross Macdonald novels. Which of us, I wonder, has chosen the wiser path?

  4. When his mother wanted him to make more wine at the wedding in Cana, his first response was "it's not yet my time". He wasn't ready to reveal himself.

    1. In that case his *actions* would give him away. But what abouf his mere appearance?

    2. I seem to recall both aspects being related. It's been a long time so I can't cite any specifics. I know the focus was on faith rather than proof.

  5. I don't have much to add except that Christ appeared to Paul as a "light from heaven," one so bright it blinded Paul but not, curiously enough, his companions who also saw the light.