‘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.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Some Chestertonian Apothegms

The danger with argument by paradox, proverb, apothegm and the like is that such rhetoric closes down, rather than opening up, further discussion. If you see the point being made and agree with it, you're likely to smile knowingly at the clever perversity with which it has been made and move on, your prejudices un-unsettled. And if you see the point and disagree with it, the form, deliberately lacking the lineaments of logical argument as it does, gives you little by way of purchase for articulating the specifics of your disagreement. Arguing with a witty Chestertonian apothegm is likely to seem like missing the point, like quarrelling with the premises of a joke.

But that's a shame. Witty or otherwise, these things are means of making a point, advancing an argument; and being witty isn't necessarily the same thing as being right. So for example:
If there were no God, there would be no atheists. [Where All Roads Lead (1922)]
OK, but this is an argument about nomenclature, rather than one about materialist-atheist belief. It was religious people who coined the term atheist, after all. This is as if we brought into general usage the term ‘ahippogriffists’ for people who don't believe that hippogriffs are real, and then twitted such people with the line: Ah, but without hippogriffs there would be no ahippogriffists! There's a sort of truth there, on the level of semantics: but it doesn't change the fact that there are no such things as hippogriffs.
Vers libre, or nine tenths of it, is not a new metre, any more than sleeping in a ditch is a new school of architecture. [Fancies versus Fads (1923)]
Because poetry is a house, and metre and rhyme are walls, windows and roof. Why is poetry a house? Why do rhyme and metre have these functions? Because I say so. Is poetry a house, though? Reading a bit of Tristan Corbière is like sleeping in a ditch because only those too poor to afford even the most basic of lodgings would do it, the experience lasts all night, chills you horribly and in the morning you emerge dirty and unrested. Not so funny now, is it!
The general notion that science establishes agnosticism is a sort of mystification produced by talking Latin and Greek instead of plain English. Science is the Latin for knowledge. Agnosticism is the Greek for ignorance. It is not self-evident that ignorance is the goal of knowledge. [The Thing (1930)]
I really think this is Chesterton failing in his own Chestertonianism. Ignorance as the true goal of knowledge is a perfectly serviceable paradoxical maxim, after all. What was it Einstein said? ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, where imagination encircles the world.’
As for science and religion, the known and admitted facts are few and plain enough. All that the parsons say is unproved. All that the doctors say is disproved. That's the only difference between science and religion there's ever been, or will be. [Manalive (1912)]
I've honestly no idea in what sense he means ‘proved’, here, but presumably it is not in the sense that a mother whose child is born with a cleft palate had better take them to a doctor than pray for them to get better, and that there are ten thousand or similar physical circumstances.
A sober man may become a drunkard through being a coward. A brave man may become a coward through being a drunkard. [Charles Dickens (1906)]
And a coward may become brave with a stiff drink in him, as the British Army recognized when they carried the rum ration round the men who were about to go over the top on the Western Front. Your point?
It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged. [Cleveland Press, 1 March 1921]
I suppose this is aiming at jauntiness, but the whole ‘hate your elected officials’ line reeks of incipient fascism: it is, after all, what the fascist dictator cries as he rides in on his white horse. And when every politician not a lickspittle is hanging from a lamppost I'm not sure what good it does to say, but, but I was only joking! Talking of which:
Let a Jew be Lord Chief justice, if his exceptional veracity and reliability have clearly marked him out for that post. Let a Jew be Archbishop of Canterbury ... But let there be one single-clause bill; one simple and sweeping law about Jews, and no other: that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab. Let him sit on the Woolsack, but let him sit there dressed as an Arab. Let him preach in St. Paul's Cathedral, but let him preach there dressed as an Arab. ... If my image is quaint my intention is quite serious; and the point of it is not personal to any particular Jew. The point applies to any Jew, and to our own recovery of healthier relations with him. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land. [The New Jerusalem, (1920)]
So a Jew can never be British. I see. I think the best retort here would be ‘fuck you, Gilbert’.


  1. You have a point on most of these. But the coward-drunkard apothegm seems to me to be a straightforward application of Plato's doctrine of the unity of the virtues. Which I happen to agree with, but in any case I don't think your responding anecdote does much to refute it.

    If anything, it proves Chesterton's point. After all, you didn't say that "a coward may become A BRAVE MAN with a stiff drink in him." A stiff drink might help you do the right thing on one occasion but it won't build a virtuous habit. Drinking in proportion might well do so. But drunkenness (defined, after all, as drinking in excess) won't; it'll reinforce other vices.