‘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, 23 February 2013


There always has been localist literature; plenty of topographic specificity in 18th-century poetry, or (more to my point, here) a great deal of Cincinnatus-style withdrawal from the national stage to the local focus of one's provincial life. Cincinnatus was a much more important figure to the neoClassical world than is something realised: and one of the aspects of that is the sense that national, or global, politics are inevitably corrupt and corrupting; such that a principled retreat from the larger stage to the local one is seen as a cleansing action. In the nineteenth-century too, the mainstream of Byronic international cosmopolitanism, or Tennysonian civic performance, existed alongside a more modest strand of provincial poetry, a la Clare or Barnes. But the question is whether the 19th-century as a whole sees a shift away from a mode characteristed by large-scale social engagement towards a Cincinnatian withdrawal; from an attempt to make art systematic and global to a valorisation of the local in art.

Such a shift would mark a shrinkage in ambition, it seems to me -- at least in one sense. The real question is whether this correlates to a kind of abdication of the larger social project to understand the world—to, indeed, change it. In Dickens we see various textual strategies that are designed to use the metropolis as a way of apprehending and comprehending the whole world: all of society, men and women, young and old. Something is amiss, the world is not as it could be, and Dickens wants to understand what, and to see what can be done about it. London, according to this reading, is the urbs mundi; the whole of the world—the English countryside, America (in Chuzzlewit), France (in Bleak House and Dorrit) is all positioned in terms of London, and almost always returns to London. London, in other words, is Dickens’s modular way of engaging with the largest questions. Compare this with Hardy, from the century’s end. Hardy’s Wessex is not a microcosm of the whole world; it is, quite specifically, Wessex. That's kind of its point. The stories Hardy tells are human stories, and like all human stories they scale more generally as commentaries upon human experience; but they are local stories. The extent that Hardy’s writing represents a withdrawal from the ambition of a write like Dickens—the ambition to find a way of apprehending the whole, of writing systemically about the system—is precisely the extent to which Hardy’s writing is elegiac in tone, tragic in mode, a literature of enclosure rather than disclosure.

A parallel case (it is, perhaps, not the parallel that would spring readily to most people’s minds) is the career of Alan Moore. By which I mean: is there a similar withdrawal in his body of work? -- from the larger, politically engaged narratives of texts such as V for Vendetta and Watchmen—works that use the melodrama of the graphic novel mode to interrogate questions of the largest social and political relevance—into the private realms of pornographic sexual fantasy (Lost Girls) and localism—Moore has increasingly committed himself artistically to his native Nottingham. The question, then, is: how fair would it be to describe this as a retreat from the very idea of the ability of writers to alter the larger political debate? In the case of Moore, his 1980s anti-Thatcher work was the product of a time (which I remember personally) when the left had a recognisable enemy, and were, broadly, fired-up and ready for the fight. Speaking (again) broadly, much of this energy was dissipated through the 90s and into the noughties, when the UK Labour Party was in power and instituting its nominally socialist practically Thatcherite programme. Some of the harder left did rail against this, of course (the most effective rallying call was the Gulf War); some were converted to New Labour; but many simply retreated from national political engagement altogther, to, as it were, plant cabbages in their back garden or become involved in local history. Or, for all I know, pursue elaborate pornographic fantasies or write mournful lyric poetry about dying.

Does something like this account for the drift towards localism in the later nineteenth-century? The fight seems to naught avail, so the fighter withdraws as gracefully as possible from the national ring, and focusses instead upon private pleasures (Lost Girls) or local history, topography and life (in, say, Nottingham).

Actually, now I'm starting to wonder if we might read Edwin Drood as about this: the (good) Cincinnatian remove to the countryside of Dickens's childhood and country residence, set against the (bad) abdication of social responsibility in favour of individual sensual pleasure represented by opium.

Monday, 11 February 2013

On This Day, 2002

Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest. Byron.

It's usually a good idea that the heart be moved,
from time to time: it's for the best.
There's no call for self-pity, or the scarifying
of one's own clubfooted breast.

My days are now a bright banana yellow.
Kids' rooms decorated with a flowers-and-fruits motif;
golden Spongebob Squarepants duvet/pillow;
the warm and canny Charlie Brown's good grief.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

What is the earliest use of the term "best-seller"?

According to the OED
'Bestseller' is a relatively recent term, first recorded in print in 1889 in the Kansas City newspaper The Kansas Times & Star.
But this doesn't seem likely to me. Certainly it's easy to find prior examples, although in most of the them the 'seller' is a person, not the object being sold:
Bradley himself was as quick as lightning, and if he liked his horse, and thought any one else liked him too, it must have been something terrific to have turned him from his point, and he was the best seller in his trade, where eloquence is always wanting. In fact he was once thus addressed by an ex-member of the Commons. "I sat in Parliament some time," said he, "for which I paid £10,000, but I never heard any one talk so much to his purpose as you do." [The New Sporting Magazine 6 (1833), 175]
But there are examples of the phrase being use with reference to books long before the century's end. For example--
One good publication gells another, and the more we print, the more we sell of each work. Some careful expences will be necessarily and prudently incurred, in this quarter, for advertisements. A regular prospectus printed as a circular will soon appear, and nothing shall be neglected to advance the interests of the company. Queen Mab and Good Sense are the best-selling books which the company has printed; but every copy of every other book will be sure to sell. [Richard Carlisle, 'Joint-Stock Book Company', The Republican 14 (1826), 96]
This leads me to believe that the term was in use even earlier, though I can't for the moment track an earlier citation down.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Landor's De Papavere Invento (1847)

Hora, ut mos mihi, pomeridiana
Flaventem volui videre messem,
Atque corpora magna rusticorum
Instaurata cibo, quiete, lusu,
Et laeta omnia carmine ac labore.
Ulmi tegmine sub patente sedi.
Permulti pueri, sense, puellae,
Matres, ut sua pensa contigerunt,
Compressam segetem ad latus secabant
Siccataeque prioribus diebus
Ponebant onus, aut gravem et recurvam
Torto stramine ne cadat ligabant.
Me prope advenit una, collocatque
Spicas glauca papavera exhibentes
Et rubras folio cadente florum.
Ut bellam alloquar, increpo otiosam
Quae culmo addita liquerit venena.
Mox altus sopor occupant jacentem,
Et mi diva Ceres adesse visa,
Subridensque, “Meis amice regnis,”
Inquit, “te mea dona sic latebant?”
Horum flava seges opima pars est,
Sed pars altera, nec minor, papaver,
Nec mortalibus accidit deorum
Aegris utilius pruisve munus.
At cave, moneo, cave regressus
Ne, si dixeris id domi forisve,
Te Bacchus male Maenadesque multent,
Queis felix nihil est furoris expers.
Cum natam sequerer negataque esset
Angoremque pati amplius nequirem,
Raptor immiserabilis spopondit
Herbam, qua levior foret, reversae;
Invenique papaver ante portas,
Aerumnisque gravissimis levamen
Sic large super arva seminavi.”

['The Discovery of the Poppy'

At that hour of the afternoon, as usual,
I felt the urge to see the yellow harvest,
and the sturdy bodies of the peasants
refreshed by food and drink, sedately playful,
and singing all their glad songs as they work.
I sat beneath a canopy of elm-trees.
You women watched your multitude of offspring,
Mothers! And now their enterprise is over;
the harvest cut and bound-up on the sideline
left to dry according to tradition,
carefully placed, those heavy, tied-back burdens
plaited straw arranged to stop it falling.
I thought of joining in myself, where I saw
poppies in amongst the green corn growing,
the scarlet petals falling in the harvest.
Like speech in wartime, warning against idleness,
the severed stalks still have their venom in them.
And later, as I lay flat out and sleeping
it seemed the goddess Ceres came to visit,
smiling. "And so my friend, it's now my kingdoms,"
she said to me, "where you seek out your refuge?
The yellow part of that crop's fine, don't doubt it;
but the other portion's just as good -- the poppy:
In fact the truth is neither gods nor mortals
have ever seen before such cure for sickness.
You'd be sad, believe me, sad to give it up
no, you might have said, at home and out of it,
Bacchus's wicked crowd of Maenads chasing you,
whose only joy is found in furious madness.
Let me attend the girl who is denied it
in agony almost beyond endurance
unpitied, a robber, and pledged to her
this plant, to overturn and smooth her anguish.
The poppy can be found before the gateways
to grant relief to the severest suffering,
so broadly sow it now upon your fields."]

Friday, 1 February 2013

Department of Predictions, 1950

I picked up a cheap 2nd-hand copy of Thomas Merton's Selected Poems (1950), with a foreword by Robert Speaight.  The poetry (which I didn't know at all, before) is very interesting, actually; but I particularly liked this prediction in Speaight's foreword:
The materialism of America is beginning to lose its self-confidence, [and] the continent is traversed by an intense desire for contemplation.
1950. How'd that work out, I wonder?