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Friday, March 4, 2011


Coleridge in 1798

Much has been written about Coleridge's magnificent poem of 1797, and I am very wary to add more to such a mountain of words that will never do justice to the work, since it is the emotion in the reading or in the listening to its recital that speaks volumes more than any re-wordings.

But I am compelled to add a brief comment, for how can one stay silent before this monument? The poem is clearly divided in two parts. The second part begins with the line “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw . . .” The first part is a report of preternatural events, a story about a wondrous place and the fabled creations of a remote man, the kind of report that Coleridge himself was reading in Purcha’s Pilgrimage when he fell asleep in that famous farm-house that lay somewhere between Porlock and Linton. (See the 1816 Preface, below). The second part culminates in the vision of what the poet himself would create, - another Xanadu, greater than the first, - if he could revive within his soul the deep delight which the "symphony and song” of the Abyssinian maid had once caused in his imagination, fed on honey-dew and drunk with the milk of Paradise. It is a parable about creativity and about the power of the Imagination, which he would later articulate in the famous Chapter 13 of his Biographia Literaria. The origins of creativity, the “esemplastic Power” (Coleridge's own phrase: the power to mold things into one, from the Greek eis en plattein, "to shape into one," from hen “one,” and plastikos "able to be molded, pertaining to molding," from plastos "molded," from plassein "to mold"), - this power of the creative genius, argued Coleridge, comes from within, from the imagination and not from external causes. This is where he differed most fundamentally from the thought of Wordsworth. In his much later poem (1802) Dejection: An Ode, Coleridge states this most clearly:

My genial spirits fail;
And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
It were a vain endeavour,
Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

[emphasis added]



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 here 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.

Preface of 1816

Kubla Khan was published in 1816, with the following

Author's Preface:

"In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purcha's Pilgrimage: 'Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.' The author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter! . . .

Yet from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him . . . but the tomorrow is yet to come.

Note: This fragment with a good deal more, not recoverable, composed, in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium taken to check a dysentery, at a Farm House between Porlock & Linton, a quarter of a mile from Culbone Church, in the fall of the year 1797."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

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