Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Have you ever woken up from a particularly fascinating and vivid dream, then gotten distracted for a few minutes, and just when you’re about to tell somebody about it, it seems to have vanished into thin air — and you try to recall it, but all you get is a fallen leaf here and a bit of tissue paper there, nothing solid to grab hold of? Well, imagine that you wake up composing a poem or a song, and a Person from Porlock shows up at your door, and you have to attend to his business, and when you go back to your paper, you see the words you’ve written, but otherwise you come to a blank wall. That’s what Samuel Taylor Coleridge says happened to him, the morning when he woke up composing “Kubla Khan,” our poem this week. Poof, it was gone!
We can well see why. The poem is all about fantastic visions that move the artist’s mind and soul to creative action. But the thing about visions is that they simply won’t come at your beck and call. They are as fleeting as ghosts, and just as unreliable. And yet if you have ever experienced a burst of artistic inspiration, you’ll say that it seems to come unbidden from nowhere, and the thing you must do is work while it is there: a melody that suddenly comes to you, or lines that the blind poet Milton says come to him from the Muse that visits him nightly, and “inspires / Easy my unpremeditated verse.” You can’t force these moments, but you can be ready for them, to receive them when they come.
So, if you’re looking for consistency and perfect polish in “Kubla Khan,” it isn’t there, but a lot of wild and spirit-moving sights and sounds are, which Coleridge describes in fascinating and other-worldly images. Think of it — a “pleasure dome” above a river, with gardens, crazily running streams, tall brooding trees, and the strangest thing of all, the “caves of ice”! How can you build such a thing? Coleridge doesn’t tell us how. He doesn’t know. Maybe there is no answer to the question. How did Mozart compose The Magic Flute? Mozart himself, I’ll wager, could hardly have said. But Coleridge does say one thing. If you are in the presence of great beauty, when art and nature seem to strive and yet to be as one, it opens up the soul, and then you may just gain the power to do wonders. That’s what he would do, he said, if he could just capture again the vision he had of an Abyssinian maid, singing of the mysterious Mount Abora — in Ethiopia, where legend had it that paradise itself lay, hidden from the eyes of men.
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.
Word & Song by Anthony Esolen is a reader-supported online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. To receive new posts and support this project, become a free or paid subscriber.
Wistful search for mysticism while " Blowin' in the Wind."
As you know, my major in college was mathematics, but my wife was fond of telling people of my confession that the two most-influential (to my intellectual development) courses I took in college were two particular classes, one in music appreciation and the other a poetry class. I was first introduced to Kubla Khan in that college poetry class, and the first assignment in the class was to write a paper on Kubla Khan. The professor's teaching focus at that point was about how the more subtle and less-noticed (consciously anyway) aspects of a great poem play into its greatness, and his examples of poetic subtilty in various poems resonated with me strongly at the time (and still do).
I remember writing the KK paper with that in mind and (I wish I had it in hand to review those loooong-ago and mostly forgotten points but alas, the paper is long gone now...), and I vaguely remember mentioning something (among several other things) about the poem's intermingling contrasts (ie, "nearly opposite" aspects, in fact) between the various descriptions of wide open and vast images against (sometimes within the very same object being described) "enclosed" areas and images (eg, measureless/seas/twice-five-miles/etc as "vast and wide open" imagery contrasted with dome/caverns/sunless/etc as "enclosed" imagery). And lots more other sorts of subtilty throughout the rest of the poem that I can't recall the details of now.
And I mention that because, as I recalled that paper while reading your column, it resonated with your line (among other comments), "when art and nature seem to strive and yet to be as one, it opens up the soul, and then you may just gain the power to do wonders."
And reading through the poem now with those thoughts in mind, I especially notice the intense alliteration and assonance on each line (mostly at the end of each line, but also strewn throughout here and there -- eg, Kubla Khan, dome decree, river ran, measureless to man, sunless sea, etc, on and on throughout nearly the whole poem).
And, phew!, how about those THREE-syllable rhymes (or at least near-rhymes) -- and we're talkin' high-powered rhymes here -- at the top of the poem: fertile ground/girdled round, cedarn cover/demon-lover. You can almost see those rhyme-heavy line endings as the very "walls and towers" that girdle round and enclose the fertile ground! I would even say (but I can imagine someone disagreeing here, not sure) that the phrases "oh! that deep" and "romantic" are another three-syllable "close rhyme" (I don't know if there is a technical term for "close rhyme").
Well anyway, it seems like every line screams out with alliterations and assonances and internal rhymes and on and on, and back and forth, that aurally mimic your description, "a lot of wild and spirit-moving sights and sounds," at least to me, it seems.
And as another side-track, I have to mention one example of why it is often good to "know" the period of the poem or work one is reading, lest misunderstandings occur. For as I read about "this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething," I couldn't help wondering what a pair of "fast thick pants" might be like, let alone being worn by a personified "earth" breathing (in ceaseless turmoil seething, no less). Of course I fairly quickly (after a brief head-scratching moment) realized the pants were of the sort a dog does and not the sort a man wears.
(And now I come to it, I would even say that "turmoil seething" and "pants were breathing" is another sorta-three-syllable rhyme with the "tur/were, seething/breathing" -- despite the intermingling "-moil" there, but I say that that disruption is "helped along" by the rather chaotic-inducing and assonantic [ok, ok, I just now coined that word -- so sue me], adjective, "ceaseless" just before "turmoil" to create a kind of category 5 hurricane of sounds with "ceaseless turmoil seething". So there! :-) )
And, since I've strayed so far from home already, I'll just add the conclusion of that college poetry class paper story, if only because it is one of my "proud" moments: When I handed the paper in, I felt pretty shy and embarrassed. That's because, though I wrote it in seriousness, I couldn't help feeling like the professor would read it and see it as a kind of last minute, frantic, reaching-for-straws attempt to put SOMETHING -- ANYTHING down on paper to get the assignment done in time no matter how much "Huh? what in the heck is Stanley talking about here?" sense it seemed to make. I dreaded getting it back -- really, truly.
The next day (or couple days later, can't remember now), the professor came in with a stack of the class's graded papers and began handing them out, calling each name to hand it back to the student -- name, hand paper back, name, hand paper back, name, hand paper back. But when he got to "Stanley," he paused, and suddenly announced to the entire class that this was the only paper that got an A in the class. Totally embarrassed was I of course, but internally, my inner weak-self-confidence child was dancing a jig, you might say.
In ANY CASE, you can probably imagine that Kubla Khan ranks as one of my dearest college memories for that reason :-)