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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Number 123: Samuel Taylor Coleridge "Kubla Khan"

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Hap Notes: Where to start?
Should we talk about Coleridge (1772-1834) and his friend Wordsworth starting the English Romantic movement in poetry (of which Byron, Keats and Shelley were the second generation)?

Should we talk of his immense knowledge of literature (he single-handedly got Shakespeare's Hamlet out of the critical dustbin where it had been moldering for years as a "bad play"), philosophy (he was familiar with Kant long before anyone else knew who he was), German (he was assigned to translate Goethe's Faust- which is still a controversy since he reputedly never finished it- yet in 2007 Oxford University Press published what is supposedly his finished translation), and metaphysics?

Or do we talk about his monumental addiction to tincture of opium (some call it laudanum- and it was far cheaper than a bottle of gin in those days) and his recurring debilitating depressions?

I suppose we have to face the opium since Coleridge said that this poem came to him in an opium dream. First off, yes, it's a tad disjointed and Coleridge knew this and had a reason for it which is pretty famous. He said, while in the heat of writing it all down in an opiate furor, someone came to the door, a "person from Porlock," and the visitor ( a bill collector or something) took up an hour of his time and when he got back to the manuscript, the fire of creativity had burned out and he could only vaguely recall the rest of the dreamy scene. Forever after a "person from porlock" is sort of the British equivalent of "the dog ate my homework." (Breaking off briefly to say that Stevie Smith wrote a wonderful poem about this- we'll get to it later, I hope.) Coleridge claims the poem was going to be 300 lines or so but when he got back to the manuscript he had to dimly recall the vivid vision.

Some vocabulary: Athwart means "from one side to the other." "Cedarn" just means composed of cedars- the tree. "Chaffy grain" is the seed husks of wheat or some other grain- he's just saying that the fountain erupts like watching a thresher with the stuff spitting out everywhere.

Now, what's this poem about save for the obvious description of a place built by the Mongolian leader (or Khan) Kublai, the grandson, by the by, of Genghis Khan. Coleridge had been reading about the great Mongol conqueror who invaded pretty much everywhere: China, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, Mesopotamia, Tibet, Russia. It was Kublai Khan that Marco Polo visited and stayed with for more than 15 years. Shangdu (Xanadu) was Kublai's "summer capital." The Mongols had two goals- conquest and trade- and they were very very good at it.

However, there's more to the poem than just ice domes and incense trees. Coleridge is saying something about the writing of poetry and contrasting the man-made with the imaginative. The last stanzas have the poet creating lasting domes in the air through inspiration and imagination.

The more one reads about the poem, the more one wants to throttle that guy from Porlock – there are explications aplenty about this seminal work of Coleridge. I think I'm going to let you enjoy the dreamy drama of the poem and not weigh it down with a lot of literary theory. When I was a kid, I loved the poem because of its dreamy, exotic imagery and while I know Coleridge saw more in the vision than just that, the poem is easily enjoyable as a good read. Read it aloud with lots of drama- it's fun.

Here's a good Coleridge quote: That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." (That's right, Coleridge coined the term.)

And another:
"The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions - the little, soon forgotten charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look or heartfelt compliment."

and again: "
Works of imagination should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are the more necessary it is to be plain."

One more: "
I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order; - poetry = the best words in the best order."

You can find more Coleridge here:

P.S. I have NO idea what kind of drugs were used in the making of the movie Xanadu with Olivia Newton John and Andy Gibb.

(For those of you who are Carrol fans, I've often thought that the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland was Coleridge and that maybe the Mad Hatter was a Coleridge benefactor, Richard "Conversation" Sharp... just a random thought)

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