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Monday, May 30, 2011

"Kubla Khan," "Invisible Cities," and "An Approach to Literature"

"KK" in C's own hand
(For the record, it appears that Coleridge has the spelling deficiency, not Calvino or his translator, William Weaver (whom, by the way, Eco also happens to endorse), regarding the spelling of the 5th Great Kahn of the Mongol Empire.)

I stated in a comment earlier today that I believe Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" was an integral part in the creation of Calvino's Invisible Cities.  In the most recent three editions of Sunday Poetry, I've been digging through An Approach to Literature, assembled by Cleanth Brooks, John Thibaut Purser, and Robert Penn Warren (yes, that Robert Penn Warren), which, by the way, I happen to think is excellent and happens also to have a solid and succinct application of the interpretation of "Kubla Khan" to the general interpretation of poetry in general, and, as it happens, very specifically to Invisible Cities.  This, "Kubla Khan," is a poem that every literature student (at least those with an correlating BA) on the planet has read and torn apart.  I'm a big fan of the monster and have even taught it to my high school students.  Here it is (and, if your interested, I've looked over the Italian translation, and it appears to be right on--not that I'm an expert):

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.

Next, here is most (like 99.9%) of An Approach to Literature's word-for-word ... uhm ... approach:

“Kula Khan” raises in a most acute form the whole question of meaning in a poem and the poet’s intention.  …  We have Coleridge’s account account of how the poem was composed:

        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 effect 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 'Purchas'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 or 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 the 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 had been cast, but alas! without the after restoration of the latter.

        Can a poem dreamed up, as “Kubla Khan” was, be said to have a meaning?  Can it be said to express some ideas held by the poet?  But supposed it is not a poem dreamed up, but a discovery in mathematics or a chemical formula?  Does the mathematical discovery or the formula have any less validity because it was dreamed up or came in a flash?  We should have to say, no, its validity does not depend on how it came, it depends on its own nature.  We can, in fact, find many accounts of important scientific discoveries made quite literally in a dream or in some flash of intuition.  For instance, the great German chemist Kekule’ dreamed up two of his most important discoveries just as Coleridge dreamed up “Kubla Khan.”  But there is one important fact to be remembered: only poets dream up poems and only scientists dream up scientific discoveries.  In other words, the dream, the flash of intuition, or the moment of inspiration really sums up a long period of hard conscious word.
        Wordsworth, in the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, has a very important remark on how meaning gets into poetry.  Having just said that he hopes his poems to be distinguished by a “worthy purpose,” he continues:

        Not that I always began to write with a distinct purpose formally conceived: but habits of meditation have, I trust, so prompted and regulated my feelings, that my descriptions of such objects as strongly excite those feelings, will be found to carry along with them a purpose. If this opinion be erroneous, I can have little right to the name of a Poet.  For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic se sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.

The important point is that Wordsworth takes a poem that happens to come in a flash as embodying the ideas carefully developed over a long period of time.
        Sometimes, of course, a poet does start with a pretty clear notion of what he wants his poem to be and works systematically.  Sometimes he starts with on the vaguest feeling and with no defined theme.  Sometimes he may simply have a line or a phrase as a kind of germ.  But no matter how he starts, he is working toward a conception of the poem that will hold all the parts in significant relation to each other.  Therefore, as his general conception becomes clearer, he may find more and more need for going back and changing parts already composed.  The poem isn’t a way of saying something that could be said equally well another way.  Its “saying” is the whole poem, the quality of the imagery, the feel of the rhythm, the dramatic force, the ideas, and the meaning does not exist until the words are all in their order (emphasis added).
        It does not matter, then, whether the composition is slow and painful or easy and fast.  We do not have two kinds of poetry, one spontaneous and one calculated.  Without reference to the origin, we consider the quality of the poem, for the poem must deliver its own meaning.  Some of those meanings may have entered in a flash, out of the poet’s unconscious, but once they are absorbed into the poem they are part of the poem; they are ours and not the poet’s (emphasis added).
        Let us come back to “Kubla Khan.”  We know that it came to Coleridge in an opium dream.  But we also know the origin of almost every image and of many phrases in the poem, for John Livingston Lowes has tracked them down in Coleridge’s reading (The Road to Xanadu.  Houghton Mifflin Co. (1930), pp. 356-413).  But the materials from Coleridge’s reading do not give us the meaning of the poem any more than the fact of the composition under the influence of opium necessarily renders it meaningless.  We have to look at the poem itself.  The poem falls into two main sections.  The first describes the dome of pleasure, the garden, the chasm, the great fountain and the ancestral voices prophesying war.  The second, beginning with the line, “A damsel with a dulcimer,” says that music might rebuild the world of Xanadu—or rather, that the special music of the Abyssinian maid might rebuild the world—and if the poet could recapture that music all who saw him would recognize his strange power, both beautiful and terrible.  In other words, without treating the poem as an allegory and trying to make each detail equate with some notion, we can still take it to be a poem about creative imagination: “song,” the imaginative power, the poetic power, could “build a new dome in the air” and recreate the enchanted and ominous world of Xanadu.
        Does the fact that Coleridge considered the poem unfinished argue against this interpretation?  Probably not, because though from the point where the poem now ends many different lines of development might have been followed, we have a thing that is in itself now coherent and that comes to a significant climax.  This thing might have been a section in a larger work, but in default of that larger work it can stand alone.
        How do we know that Coleridge “intended” the poem to mean what we have just said it means?  Now we are back to our starting point.  We do not know that he “intended” anything.  He simply had a dream.  But we do know that this poem is very similar in tone and method to his great poem “The Ancient Mariner” and the great unfinished work “Christabel,” which were composed bit by bit and not dreamed up.  Slow or fast, opium or no opium, Coleridge wrote the same way, and it all came out of Coleridge, and there carries his characteristic themes and ideas.  …

Note to two sections I bolded and how they fit precisely with our discussion of Invisible Cities' introductory account between Polo and Khan.  Thoughts?


  1. Holy sore fingers, Batman! But a very nice job. I don't think that I detected a single flaw in the whole thing.

    On the first quotation: It seems to me that this might be important to keep in mind since the book is a bit episodic so far. Like Joyce's "Dubliners" (btw, can I expect a post on that soon?) or Nietzsche's aphorisms, they're all apparently isolated, but the author's going to put them in an order that matters--or at least I would suspect.

    On the 2nd: Yes, I agree. That's why if you are trying to get across a point in your writing, it's imperative that you be clear, or if not ostensibly clear, clear once someone has cracked the code to interpreting the piece. Once the writing's out there, your piece is essentially subject to every interpretation that comes from it. Of course, that doesn't mean that one is as good as another, or that anything goes, just that you can expect different interpretations based upon different readings.

  2. (It actually took a surprisingly short period of time. I was a bit proud of myself! I'm glad to hear it relatively free of errors, because I was typing as fast as I ever have and realized after I clicked "post" (or whatever it is) that I hadn't proofed it.)

    When I found the discussion in the textbook I was happy because all other "KK" discussions are so lengthy. When I actually read it I was just as pleased that it was less to do with interpreting the poem as it was discussing the general interpretation of literature, and blown away by how perfectly it aligned with our introductory discussion.

    Yes the book is and will remain extremely episodic, but unlike the others you mention (and, for that matter, "Einstein's Dreams," which I've mentioned a few times now) there is indeed an order, as well as a brilliant trick--a joke almost--and a developing, though very subtle, conflict between the Khan and Polo.


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