‘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.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Future history: Secularizing the Sacred

Relevant to my thoughts on the Protestant Reformation as the crucible of SF, this time with reference to imagining the future in secular terms (or as ‘future history’, which is, of course, one of the core strategies of the genre):
Unlike national prophets who, in the process of sacralising English history, risked losing their past in an ahistorical eternity, other Elizabethan writers attempted to turn the divine prophesy of Revelation into history, making it available as a source of national articulation. As John Pocock has shrewdly observed, “apocalyptic, which sacralises secular time, must always in an opposite sense secularize the sacred, by drawing the process of salvation into that time which is known as saeculum. In the sixteenth century perhaps more than at any earlier period, English Protestants broke with the idealist, Augustinian interpretation of Revelation in favour of a historical interpretation. [Andrew Escobedo, Nationalism and Historical Loss in Renaissance England: Foxe, Dee, Spenser, Milton (Cornell University Press, 2004), 81]


  1. I've got two immediate responses - one is to think this makes an awful lot of sense, wonder how it connects up with the Henrician development of the notion of 'empire' and think vaguely about the irruption of the sacral into the secular more generally, Benjamin and all that.

    The other is to say - making [Revelation] available as a source of national articulation... what does that actually mean? Or what does it mean other than seeing the Balfour Declaration as a sign of the end times (as my grandfather did), or seeing the EU as the twelve-headed beast, or whatever? Because many people, in many periods, do that.

    1. I think Escobedo's emphasis, there, is on the 'national'. The examples you give are both international and there's a long pedigree of mapping Biblical prophesy onto global history. The jacket-flap copy is: "Andrew Escobedo here seeks to provide a new understanding of the emergence of national consciousness in England, showing that many Renaissance writers articulated their Englishness temporally, through an engagement with a history they perceived as lost or alienated. According to Escobedo, the English experienced nationalism as a form of community that disrupted earlier religious and social identities, making it difficult to link the national present to the medieval past. Furthermore, he argues, the English faced the nation's temporal isolation before the Enlightenment narrative of historical progress emerged as a means to interpret novelty in a positive light.Escobedo examines how John Foxe, John Dee, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton used narrative representations of nationhood to mediate what they perceived as a troubling breach in history, attempting to bring together the English past, present, and near future in a complete and continuous story. Yet all four authors also register their concern that historical loss may be an inevitable feature of a "modern" England, and they come to see their narratives as long tapestries that spontaneously rip apart as they grow, obliging the weaver to return to repair them."

  2. Ah - so the Henrician ref. is more to the point. Interesting stuff - and hats off to anyone who's persisted with The Faerie Queene long enough to make sense of it.