‘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, 27 September 2015

"The Tell-Tale Compression of the Pages"

The last section of David Lodge's Changing Places (1975) takes the form of a screenplay. Philip Swallow, the British professor, and Morris Zapp, the American (which is to say: fictional-Lodge and fictional-Stanley-Fish) discuss the endings of novels. The ellipses are all in the original, incidentally.
PHILIP: You remember that passage in Northanger Abbey where Jane Austen says she's afraid that her readers will have guessed that a happy ending is coming up at any moment?

MORRIS: (nods) Quote, 'Seeing in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.' Unquote.

PHILIP: That's it. Well, that's something the novelist can't help giving away, isn't it, that his book is shortly coming to an end? It may not be a happy ending nowadays, but he can't disguise the tell-tale compression of the pages .... I mean, mentally you brace yourself for the ending of a novel. As you're reading, you're aware of the fact that there's only a page or two left in the book, and you get ready to close it. But with a film there's no way of telling ... There's no way of telling which frame is going to be the last. The film is going along, just as life goes along, people are behaving, doing things, drinking, talking, and we're watching them, and at any point the director chooses, without warning, without anything being resolved, or explained, or wound up, it can just ... end.

PHILIP shrugs. The camera stops, freezing him in mid-gesture.

Which is archly self-referential enough, I suppose. Of course, what strikes us now is that the major change in the form of the book between 1975 and 2015—from bound codex to e-book—ought to enable the author to unpick precisely this tell-tale-compression. There must be a way (there's got to be a way) to block, or better still to subvert, that little indicator at the bottom of the e-book page that gives the reader a percentage assessment of how far she had proceeded, and therefore how far she has to go. As a writer, I'd like the following hack: let the percentage counter be calibrated for 400-pages on a 250-page book, and to proceed at the former page-rate, such that the words THE END come as an actual surprise. I suppose it's the sort of trick that could only be played a few times, or perhaps even only once, before readers grew wise to it. There's also the risk that readers would be irked: 'hey! I paid for 400 pages! I've been short changed!' and so on. Worth it, though.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Keats's 'Belle Dame Sans Merci'

It has only belatedly occurred to me that Keats's ‘Belle Dame' is named for the triple goddess. That is to say, hers is three names in one: the beautiful young maiden (Belle), the mature matron (the Dame) and the old crone (the Beldame). But of course she is.

'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' may be my single favourite short poem in the language.

So, the image at the head of this post is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 1848 illustration to Keats's poem. I quite like its quasi-mannerist visual punning, such that the Belle Dame herself seems to blend seamlessly into the tree, as if she is some kind of forest spirit, which emphasizes her uncanny, supernatural quality. Cleverer, perhaps, is the knight. His slightly awkward almost-embrace is expressive of both his desire and his reluctance, and the result resembles the topmost arch of a narrow Gothic window, through which the Dame looks to be peering. And if his arm is the frame to a stone window, then it effectively positions him as part of the architecture of a church, and the addition of the little dog in the bottom left is there to put us distantly in mind of those supine stone statues of dead knights, with little stone dogs at their feet. It's all a way of implying without overtly stating that the knight is dead, and the lady Death.

Keats, of course, took his title and mood, if not much else, from French poet Alain Chartier's 856-line 'La Belle Dame sans Mercy' (probably written 1420). This was translated into English by a gentleman called Robert Roos, sometime in the mid 15th-century, and this version was often reprinted. Keats may have read it in Bell's Edition: The Poets of Great Britain (1782); we know that he read various of Bell's anthologies. Roos's version of Chartier's poem opens:
Halfe in a dreme, not fully well awaked,
The goldin Slepe me wrapped undir his wyng,
Yet not forthy I rose, and well nigh naked,
Al sodainly my self rememberyng
Of a mattir, leavyng all othir thyng,
Which I must doe withoutin more delaie
For them whiche I ne durst not disobaie.

My charge was this, to translate by and by,
(All thyng forgive) as parte of my penaunce,
A boke callid La bel Dame sans Mercy,
Whiche Maistir Aleine made of remembraunce,
Chief Secretarie with the Kyng of Fraunce;
And hereupon a while I stode musyng,
And in my self greatly imaginyng

What wise I should perform the said processe
Considiryng by gode advisement
My unconnyng and my grete simplenesse,
And ayenward the straite commaundement
Whiche that I had; and thus in myne entent
I was vexid and tournid up and doune,
And yet at last, as in condusioun,

I cast my clothis on, and went my waie,
This soresaid charge having in remembraunce,
Till I came to a lustie grene valaie
Full of flouris to see a grete plesaunce,
And so boldly, with ther benigne susssraunce
Which redin this boke, touching this matere
Thus I began, if it plese you to here.
This is the translator (obviously): not the original Alain Chartier. What's interesting about it, I think, is the way it foregrounds the poet as the palely-loitering one. Then the echt Chartier begins:
Not long ago, ridyng an esie paas,
I fell in thought of joyful desperate,
With grete disese and pain, so that I was
Of all lovirs the most unfortunate,
Sith by his dart moste cruill full of hate
The Deth hath take my ladie and maistresse,
And left me sole, thus discomfite and mate,
Sore languishing and in waie of distresse.
And so on. Death, of course. There's an inversion in the way the influence works. In the medieval French poem, it is the lady who is dead; in Keats's version she is alive, and the knight is the one who exists in a sort of half-life. Assuming she is alive, which, as I say above, I don't think is true. Not that she's dead. She is the death that happens to other people.

One question is how far the very un-martial Keats (one K-name) inscribes himself into the Knight-at-arms (another K-name) of his poem.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
Ail brings the dipthong of Keats into the 'K[night]-at-[arm]s' of the poem (we tend to pronounced Keats keets, but he himself and his contemporaries tended to say kaits). Then again, the surname Keats, as the poet certainly knew, derives from the Old English for kite, the bird. If ever a poem was about a bird who fails to take these broken wings and learn to fly, it is this one. 'Sedge' refers to a variety of marsh grass; but sedge is also the term for a group of herons. It also glances as 'saids', as in 'the things said', and which has in this case withered. And no poets sing.

This is a poem (to quote another pop song by the same writer) about a lover, not a fighter. The pun on 'arms' is right there, in the first line: arms to fight with, arms to embrace and love with. Rossetti is drawing attention to precisely that pun in the image at the top of this post: his knight-at-arms abandoning his military arms and draping his actual arm over the lady. 'Palely loitering', perhaps the poem's most celebrated phrase, has always chimed in my ear as a jumbled-up version of 'lonely-poetling'. That, I readily concede, is an idiosyncratic and personal reaction.
O what can ail thee, poet-in-love,
Alone and palely loitering?
What's said has withered from the lake,
And no kites sing.
Wentworth House, where Keats was staying during his annus mirabilis and where he wrote this poem, is not far from a rather nice little lake (277 on the map, below). There's even sedge.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Benbow Fights On

This print is called 'Admiral Bembow courageously commanding his Men to fight after his Leg was shattered to Pieces'. Benbow lost his leg in the rather utilitarian-ly titled 'Action of August 1702', which took place in August 1702. He died soon afterwards.

Now John Benbow was regarded in his time as something of a folk hero, the Nelson of his day, though he was pretty evidently rather more hotheaded and indeed piratical than Nelson ever was (item: 'It was claimed afterwards that he cut off and salted the heads of thirteen Moors who were slain aboard his ship, and then took them into Cadiz to claim a reward from the magistrates'). There were many popular songs and broadsheets singing his praises, and several pubs were named after him.

The most famous of these latter, of course, is the fictional Admiral Benbow in Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883). Not uncoincidentally, Stevenson's peerless novel contains what is surely the most famous one-legged man in all literature. I've always particularly loved this passage, Jim's speculation about Long John Silver, before he's even met him:
How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body. To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares.
That last version of the one-legged man has always, perhaps incongruously for this context, put me in mind of the sorts of monster-men illustrated in Renaissance books: the kind of thing Othello boasts about having seen. This sort of thing:

That's the Ravenna Monster from The Doome, warning all men to the Judgement (1581). Or this pleasant-looking fellow:

It makes me ponder what the semiology of the monocrus is, in popular culture and more broadly.

As with all the best novels, Treasure Island directs its resonance in at least two directions. On the one hand is the odour of verisimilitude. War is cruel to body-parts; but eighteenth-century sailors had a higher chance of surviving amputation (in a salty environment, wounds washed with antiseptic brine and so on) than eighteenth-century land-soldiers, a vastly higher proportion of whom died of sepsis. Therefore you'd much more likely encounter a naval amputee than a land-army one, which in turn feeds a popular perception of sailors and pirates having hooks for hands, pegs for legs and the like.

But there's another, symbolic resonance at play here, I think. One of the things Treasure Island does is work subtly against the grain. It is the disabled characters in this novel who are the most menacing, the strongest, the most dangerous: Blind Pew, Long John Silver. This is a novel that says, in effect, that possessing only one leg makes a man not less than counter-intuitively more to be feared.

I'm not immediately sure why this should be. I wonder if it has some buried psychological potency. Freud has little to say on the subject of amputation (unless we regard castration and its attendant anxiety as a form of amputation in which case he has a whole lot to say about amputation). But for any psychoanalytic theory that links subjectivity to a sense of strictly genital identity, the notion of a naturally-occurring 'one-legged human', of the kind Jim Hawkins frets about in his nightmares, is bound to be peculiarly fascinating. An amputee is a person with two legs who has had one leg removed, and whose genitals exist between the real and the phantom limb. But the Renaissance beasts above are somatically determined by their one-leggedness. This in turn leads, consciously or subconsciously, to the anxiety-productive speculation: where are their genitals? Where can they possibly be located? Our natural experience leads us to position the genitals between the legs. The question is whether this involves a tacit inversion, along the lines of when there is no 'between' there can be no genitals. Is that the type of uncanny, unnerving creature that lurks, in the symbolism of this novel, behind the one-legged man? Is that why Long John Silver is so deep-down terrifying?

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Owen's 'Dulce Et Decorum Est' (1917/1920)

Horace's desperately famous line, 'it is a sweet and proper thing, to die for your country', is (of course) invoked here with savage irony. Harry Eyres in his Horace and Me (Bloomsbury 2013) notes that 'few poets have ever stuck the knife in deeper to a fellow poet than Wilfred Owen ... quoting Horace's unforgiveable line'. Here's the poem's final stanza.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
It's about the physical horrors of war, of course; but it's also about the dangerous power of poetry, or more broadly of literature and oratory. The German gas turns the lungs and mouth into horrors, but lungs and mouths, poisoned by 'froth' (Latin spuma and fervo both mean 'froth', but they also both mean 'steam', 'anger' and 'rage') and tongues twisted in vilely incurable ways, made the war happen in the first place, and persuaded young men to sign up for it.

The Latinity of the poem is certainly interesting; and rather hard to ignore, given its title and pay-off lines. Rhyming 'patria mori' with the prosodically equivalent 'desperate glory' ['— ᴗ ᴗ — ᴗ', or '— — — ᴗ', depending how we want to scan it] makes one bludgeoning ironic point. But take the phrase 'froth-corrupted lungs'. Froth is spuma, lungs are pectora. The reference here, I think, is not to Horace, but to Lucan, who includes this famous description of a dying horse in his account of ignoble Civil War:
fessa iacet cervix, fumant sudoribus artus
oraque projectâ squalent arentia lingua,
pectora rauca gemunt, quae creber anhelitus urguet,
et defecta grauis longe trahit ilia pulsus,
siccaque sanguineis durescit spuma lupatis.

The exhausted neck drops down, the limbs reek of sweat, the tongue protrudes and the mouth is harsh and dry, the lungs are seized by quick panting convulsions and gasping murmurs emerge from the labouring breath, the worn-out flanks—and the froth dries and sticks to the bloodstained bit. [Pharsalia, 4:754-8]
That's not irony; it's marking the ghastly connections between war then and war now. Owen plays some quite complex word-games, too. The sores on the tongue (a sore is ulcus in Latin) are vile (nequam): so the many vilenesses that have provoked this sore have made ulcus nequorum. Tempting to think that Owen was on some level thinking of the sour shadowing of dulce & decorum by ulcus & nequorum. The Latin phrase 'ulcus tangere' (it's from Terence, but was widely used) literally means to touch an ulcer, or more broadly means to 'touch a sore spot' or 'refer to a sensitive issue', which this poem is clearly, and deliberately, doing.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Albert Levering 'Everybody Does It' (1890s)

I think this would have more satirical force if everybody didn't look so very jolly.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Milton's "Pastures New"

One of John Milton's most famous phrases, this; perhaps his most famous phrase of all. It's from 'Lycidas' (1638) of course. Lines 190-93, the last of the poem:
And now the Sun had stretch'd out all the hills,
And now was dropt into the Western bay;
At last he rose, and twitch'd his Mantle blew:
To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.
Well here's a surprising thing: Milton more-or-less plagiarised these lines from Phineas Fletcher's allegorical epic The Purple Island (1633):
But see, the stealing night with softly pace,
To flie the Western Sunne, creeps up the East;
Cold Hesper 'gins unmask his evening face,
And calls the winking starres from drouzie rest:
Home then my lambes; the falling drops eschew:
To morrow shall ye feast in pastures new,
And with the rising Sunne banquet on pearled dew. [6:77]
Naughty Milton!

Shakespeare's ghost, 1634

Shakespeare, eighteen years dead, crops up as a passing reference in William Habingdon, his Castara (1634). Since Habingdon was only eleven years old when Shakespeare died I suppose it's unlikely he ever knew the playwright. Then again, he grew up in Worcestershire (at Hindlip Hall), not a million miles away from Stratford, where Shakespeare spent his retirement; and the Habingdons were a famous Catholic family, so if your pleasure runs in the direction of the theory that W.S. was a closet Catholic there may be something there.

At any rate, Castara is a miscellany, containing a great many sonnets and much else. Here's the volume's reference to Shakespeare (I quote the entire poem, although Shakespeare's ghost pops up early on, in line 7):
May you drinke beare, or that adult’rate wine
Which makes the zeale of Amsterdam divine,
If you make breach of promise. I have now
So rich a sacke, that even yourselfe will bow
T’ adore my genius. Of this wine should Prynne
Drinke but a plenteous glasse, he would beginne
A health to Shakespeare's ghost. But you may bring
Some excuse forth, and answer me, the king
To day will give you audience, or that on
Affaires of state you and some serious don
Are to resolve; or else perhaps you’le sin
So farre, as to leave word y'are not within.
The least of these will make me onely thinke
Him subtle, who can in his closet drinke,
Drunke even alone, and, thus made wise, create
As dangerous plots as the Low Countrey state;
Projecting for such baits, as shall draw ore
To Holland all the Herrings from our shore.
But y’are too full of candour: and I know
Will sooner stones at Salis’bury easements throw
Or buy up for the silenc’d Levites all
The rich impropriations, than let pall
So pure Canary, and breake such an oath:
Since charity is sinn’d against in both.
Come, therefore, blest even in the Lollard’s zeal,
Who canst, with conscience safe, ’fore hen and veale
Say grace in Latine; while I faintly sing
A penitentiall verse in oyle and ling.
Come, then, and bring with you, prepar’d for fight,
Vnmixt Canary; Heaven send both prove right!
This I am sure: my sacke will disengage
All humane thoughts, inspire so high alrage;
That Hypocrene shall henceforth poets lacke,
Since more enthusiasmes are in my sacke.
Heightned with which, my raptures shall commend
How good Castara is, how deare my friend.
Prynne drinks a toast/to Shakespeare's ghost. The allusion here is to William Prynne’s Histriomastix ('The Scourge of Actors', 1632) 'for the publication of which,' (to quote 19th-century scholar Sir Charles Abraham Elton) 'the author was sentenced by the iniquitous court of star-chamber to pay a fine to the king of five thousand pounds; to be degraded from his profession of the law, and to lose his ears in the pillory.' Prynne's famous book is a thousand pages of anti-dramatic spleen, attacking the theatres as dens of iniquity and sexual immorality, and, unfortunately for the integrity of Prynne's ears, it contains the phrase 'Women actors are notorious whores'. Since King Charles' wife, Queen Henrietta Marie of France, was fond of acting, this landed Prynne in grave trouble.

Three things. The first is the obvious reading: Habingdon is telling his lady-love, Castara, that he has some Dutch wine so good it would persuade even so notorious an anti-theatrical Puritan as Prynne to toast the ghost of the famous playwright.  If we constellate this with the tradition that Shakespeare famously played the ghost of Hamlet's father in his own play, the reference may be more pointed: Prynne lost his ears; Old Hamlet was murdered via his ears. If we want to be really far-fetched, we might suggest that Habingdon is here recording, obliquely, the knowledge that the play Histriomastix (1599), anonymously published but generally attributed to John Marston (or perhaps the so-called ur-Histriomastix scholars sometimes talk about as existing behind Marston's version) was written by Shakespeare himself. Now that's an intriguing possibility, don't you think?

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Willem Crap's "Flying Cat of Vervier Town" (1730)

The title says it all. A shame posterity appears not to have preserved any further works by Mr Crap.

As for the subject, apparently it's a famous object of Belgian folklore, at least according to this online Belgian newspaper, which ran a feature on a bar called 'Le tchèt volant' in 2012: 'Tchèt Volant: [c'est] littéralement “le chat volant”, un animal emblématique du folklore verviétois, qu’on avait essayé de faire voler en montgolfière'. So there you have it.

The Unpretentious Philosopher

Title page for Le Philosophe sans Prétention ou l’Homme Rare (1775), by Louis Guillaume de La Follie ('M.D.L.F.' there, stands for 'Monsieur De La Follie'), an early French SF novel

I love those little cherubs, hard at work on their various scientific endeavours. 'Teach us how to be playful', the Latin tag says. Quite

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Shiny Happy Victorians

Scene from Gilbert Arthur à Beckett's burlesque The Happy Land (1873), a play that daringly lampooned Gladstone, Lowe, and Ayrton among variously others. From the Illustrated London News, March 22, 1873. Don't they look jolly?