Saturday, April 03, 2004

In Xanadu

The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power, first out in action by the will and understanding, and retained under their irremissive, though gentle and unnoticed, controul (laxis effertur habenis) reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshnes, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound and vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner, to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry.
So says Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Biographia Literaria Coleridge (1772-1834) was a man of many interests. Not only was he a poet, but also literary critic, philosopher, theologian, political scientist, amateur chemist and physician and voracious reader. He was famous among his friends for his marginalia, notes and comments he'd write in the margins of books. In fact, his marginalia was so popular, friends would send him their books just so he could write in them. William Wordsworth was a good friend and it is suggested that Coleridge helped shape Wordworth's ideas about poetry. Coleridge was chronically ill and addicted to opium. He despaired of being the kind of poet he hoped to become. In 1801 he wrote in a letter to William Godwin, "The Poet is dead in me!" This didn't keep him from writing, however, since Dejection: An Ode and To William Wordsworth were both written after this declaration. As was this little scrap:
What Is Life? Resembles life what once was deem'd of light, Too ample in itself for human sight? An absolute self--an element ungrounded-- All that we see, all colours of all shade By encroach of darkness made?-- Is very life by consciousness unbounded? And all the thoughts, pains, joys of mortal breath, A war-embrace of wrestling life and death?
During Coleridge's life it was believed that to be a major poet you had to write a sustained work in verse. Coleridge never managed such a work. Most of what he left are short pieces and "fragments," longish poems he meant to add to like Cristabel. But Coleridge endures for us today in the metaphor "the albatross around my neck" which comes from Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Of all of Coleridge's poems my favorite by far is Kubla Khan. There is some question as to the veracity of the myth perpetuated by the author, that he had dreamed the entire poem of 200-300 lines, woke from sleeping and began to write furiously, was interrupted and then forgot the rest. We do know, however, from a note on the manuscript in Coleridge's hand, that the poem was composed "at a farmhouse between Porlock and Linton" while he was "in a sort of reverie brought on by two grains of opium, taken to check dysentery." For your enjoyment, here is the poem:
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 man 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 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.