February 18, 2011

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan...

        Samuel Taylor Coleridge composed his famous poem "Kubla Khan" somewhere around 1797-1799, although the final stanza may have been added later.  The story that the poem came to him in an opium-induced sleep was written up as a preface to the poem to be included when it was first published in 1816.  Also famous is the "person from Porlock" who allegedly interrupted the poet at work, thus depriving the world of another 200 lines of genius.  Literary analysis sees the poem as thoughts on the nature of creativity and poetry itself, but I prefer to take it at face value: it describes a pretty cool fantasy world location.

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.
        If you haven't read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams, it's a ridiculous fantasy riff on this poem and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," once again proving the relevance of poetry to modern life not only on this planet but on others, as well.
        As for "Kubla Khan," my favorite part is the first 16 lines, although the final 6 lines are also pretty fantastic (in both senses of the word.)  However I want to point out one particular feature of this poem that surely marks Coleridge as a visionary before his time:  the first eleven lines make a most excellent rap in the style of Run-D.M.C. or other hip-hop artists from the 1980's.  Imagine rapping it golden age style, with the second voice coming in on the emphasized words at the ends of the lines…
                In Xanadu did Kubla KHAN
                A stately pleasure dome de-CREE
                Where ALPH the sacred river RAN
                Through caverns measureless to MAN
               Down to a sunless SEA.

       Yeah, that's how we roll!

        [Picture: "…woman wailing for her demon lover…"  rubber block print by AEGN, 1998.]

1 comment:

  1. I always find something delightful here. Love the rap (wrote a massive graduate paper on Coleridge). Now I'm off to get the Adams book. I read "Teatime" but didn't know Dirk had had earlier adventures. Your blog is always a treat.
    Your block print woman seems to be waiting with a certain, ah, impatience. (And the trees are wonderful.)

    ReplyDelete