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The Road to Xanadu
A Study in the Ways of the Imagination
By John Livingston Lowes
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
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The title of this volume is less cryptic than it seems. I propose to tell the story, so far as I have charted its course, of the genesis of two of the most remarkable poems in English, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and "Kubla Khan." If that should appear a meagre theme on which to lavish all these pages, I can only crave of the judicial reader a suspended sentence. For a quest which began with a strange footprint caught sight of accidentally just off the beaten track became in the end an absorbing adventure along the ways which the imagination follows in dealing with its multifarious materials — an adventure like a passage through the mazes of a labyrinth, to come out at last upon a wide and open sky. Those ways are the theme of the book. "The Road to Xanadu" is but a symbol of something which, when all is said, remains intangible.
But the road, as we shall actually travel it, leads through half the lands and all the seven seas of the globe. For we shall meet on the way with as strange a concourse as ever haunted the slopes of Parnassus — with alligators and albatrosses and auroras and Antichthones; with biscuit-worms, bubbles of ice, bassoons, and breezes; with candles, and Cain, and the Corpo Santo; Dioclesian, king of Syria, and the daemons of the elements; earthquakes, and the Euphrates; frost-needles, and fog-smoke, and phosphorescent light; gooseberries, and the Gordonia lasianthus; haloes and hurricanes; lightnings and Laplanders; meteors, and the Old Man of the Mountain, and stars behind the moon; nightmares, and the sources of the Nile; footless birds of Paradise, and the observatory at Pekin; swoons, and spectres, and slimy seas; wefts, and water-snakes, and the Wandering Jew. Beside that compendious cross-section of chaos, nightmares are methodical. Yet of such is the kingdom of poetry. And in that paradox lies the warrant of our pilgrimage.
For out of the heart of the chaos sprang the poems. And our attempt to grasp the implications of that fact will bring us ultimately to the workings of the imaginative energy itself. No such outcome was foreseen or even suspected when, for the zest of the game, this tracking of a poet through heaven and earth was begun. It was only when facts pursued farther kept ramifying into other facts, and unforeseen links between them began by degrees to disclose themselves, that certain inferences became (as it seemed) inevitable, and certain tentative conclusions assumed gradually clearer form. Those conclusions are offered with reasonable confidence in their broad validity. But in any case this at least is true: they rest, every one of them, not upon preconceived notions, but on concrete facts. If the conclusions are faulty, the facts are there by which they may be tested, and (at need) amended. And therein lies, I think, such value as this study may possess.
Our first business, then, will be with the incongruous, chaotic, and variegated jumble out of which emerged the two unique poems which I have named. The goal of our passage through chaos, however, lies, not in the phantasmagoria itself, but in the operations of that shaping spirit of imagination which, likewise moving through the welter, fashions its elements into lucid and ordered unity. That the moulding imagination in this instance happens to be Coleridge's and not another's, is the accident of a chance page of Purchas, which one day flew a signal and beckoned down a trail which turned out to lead through the uncharted regions tributary to "The Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." Coleridge as Coleridge, be it said at once, is of secondary moment to our purpose; it is the significant process, not the man, which constitutes our theme. But the amazing modus operandi of his genius, in the fresh light which I hope I have to offer, becomes the very abstract and brief chronicle of the procedure of the creative faculty itself. I am not so rash, I trust, as to essay to pluck out the heart of the mystery. But the game of coming to close quarters with the riddle is more than worth the candle.
We shall be occupied first, accordingly, with the raw stuff of poetry. The finished product will concern us later. With that positive assurance to support us, we may strike at once into the thick of a farrago which will triumphantly justify, I think, the title of this chapter.
In the British Museum is a small manuscript volume of ninety leaves, which is, in my judgment, one of the most illuminating human documents even in that vast treasure-house. It is a, note book kept by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, partly in pencil, partly in ink, and always with most admired disorder. There are just two dates from cover to cover, but internal evidence makes clear that it embraces a period of about three years, from the spring of 1795 to the spring or summer of 1798, the years which lead up to and include the magnificent flowering of Coleridge's genius on which his renown as a poet rests. It was printed thirty years ago by Professor Brandl of Berlin, but it lies so effectively buried in a German philological periodical that the latest English edition of Coleridge refers to it as vaguely as if it had been published in the moon. Yet its value is incalculable, not only for the understanding of Coleridge, but also as a document in the psychology of genius, and as a key to the secrets of art in the making. And its service is inestimable to our present enterprise.
It is, on the whole, the strangest medley that I know. Milton's Commonplace Book is a severely ordered collectanea of extracts culled from his reading, docketed alphabetically, and methodical as a ledger. Shelley's note books, written upside down, sidewise, and even right side up, with their scribbled marginal sketches of boats and trees and human faces — these battered and stained and happy-go-lucky little volumes are a priceless record of the birth-throes of poetry. But it is chiefly poetry, beating its wings against the bars of words, which they contain. There are few notes of Shelley's reading. The Coleridge Note Book is like neither. It is a catch-all for suggestions jotted down chaotically from Coleridge's absorbing adventures among books. It is a repository of waifs and strays of verse, some destined to find a lodgement later in the poems, others yet lying abandoned where they fell, like drifted leaves. It is a mirror of the fitful and kaleidoscopic moods and a record of the germinal ideas of one of the most supremely gifted and utterly incalculable spirits ever let loose upon the planet. And it is like nothing else in the world so much as a jungle, illuminated eerily with patches of phosphorescent light, and peopled with uncanny life and strange exotic flowers. But it is teeming and fecund soil, and out of it later rose, like exhalations, gleaming and aerial shapes.
How those shining shapes arose from chaos it will be our ultimate task to see. But our way at the moment lies through a veritable tohu-bohu, which is "neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire, But all these in their pregnant causes mix'd Confusedly." And as expositor and guide I am at once confronted by the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand is a natural leaning toward all achievable lucidity of outline and arrangement. The document, on the other hand, of which above all things I wish to give a true impression, is almost everything else under Heaven, but lucid it emphatically is not. It is singularly like a collection of the flashing, fleeting, random, and disjointed thoughts and fancies which dart, with the happy inconsequence of aquatic insects, across the surface of the stream of consciousness — all jotted down impartially by an interested, and sometimes amazed, Recording Angel. A shower of meteors is not more erratic, and you cannot impose upon a shower of meteors the luminous sequence of the wheeling constellations without its forthwith ceasing to be the thing it is. And it is precisely the incredible olla-podrida, as it is which I am anxious, before going farther, to set forth: confusion at its worst confounded, as the elemental stuff of poetry — its "materies ... et corpora prima" — waiting only for the informing spirit which broods over chaos to draw it (in Milton's rendering of the magnificent Lucretian phrase) into "the precincts of light." In order, then, to exhibit at the outset the formlessness out of which eventually form was wrought, I must forego for the moment the aid of orderly arrangement, and can only ask those readers who may quite intelligibly object to being hurled unceasingly from alligators to maniacs and from birds of Paradise to rainbows in the spray to believe that the disorder of this opening chapter is itself an essential factor in an ordered plan.
Without more ado, then, let us plunge into the wilderness which the strange document before us exhibits. And I shall first excerpt a dozen consecutive pages, and shall then, without regard to sequence, pick from the remainder such characteristic jottings as may serve our later ends.
Let us begin with the most dramatic moment in the Note Book. Coleridge has been tinkering at some pretty verses, touched here and there with his own elfin magic, about "Moths in the Moonlight." Then, without break, he has set down, as if oblivious of the implications of the contrast, one of the most profound and haunting phrases ever penned —
the prophetic soul Of the wide world dreaming on things to come —
and has followed it with a second excerpt from the Sonnets, more poignantly personal than the first:
Most true it is, that I have look'd on truth
Askance and strangely.
Next on the page appears a jotting later to find its way, transformed, into the magical opening of "Christabel":
Behind the thin
Grey cloud that cover'd but not hid the sky
The round full moon look'd small. —
And then, on the heels of a bit of poetized observation of snow curling in the breeze, comes without warning "the alligators' terrible roar," and the captivating entry thus proceeds:
The alligators' terrible roar, like heavy distant thunder, not only shaking the air and waters, but causing the earth to tremble — and when hundreds and thousands are roaring at the same time, you can scarcely be persuaded but that the whole globe is dangerously agitated —
The eggs are layed in layers between a compost of earth, mud, grass, and herbage. — The female watches them — when born, she leads them about the shores, as a hen her chickens — and when she is basking on the warm banks, with her brood around, you may hear the young ones whining and barking, like young Puppies.
20 feet long — lizard-shaped, plated — head vulnerable — tusked — eyes small and sunk —
— Hartley fell down and hurt himself — I caught him up crying and screaming — and ran out of doors with him. — The Moon caught his eye — he ceased crying immediately — and his eyes and the tears in them, how they glittered in the Moonlight!
— Some wilderness-plot, green and fountainous and unviolated by Man.
An old Champion who is perhaps absolute sovereign of a little Lake or Lagoon (when 50 less than himself are obliged to content themselves with roaring and swelling in little coves round about) darts forth from the reedy coverts all at once on the surface of the water, in a right line; at first, seemingly as rapid as lightning, but gradually more slowly until he arrives at the center of the lake, when he stops; he now swells himself by drawing in wind and water thro' his mouth, which causes a loud sonorous rattling in the throat for near a minute; but it is immediately forced out again thro' his mouth and nostrils with a loud noise, brandishing his tail in the air, and the vapor ascending from his nostrils like smoke. At other times when swollen to an extent ready to burst, his head and tail lifted up, he twirls round on the surface of the water. He retires — and others, who dare, continue the exhibition — all to gain the attention of the favorite Female —
The distant thunder sounds heavily — the crocodiles answer it like an echo —
Now Coleridge got his alligators from one of the most delightful books which he or anybody ever read, William Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (the amplitude of the title is prophetic of the book's own leisured pace), the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. There is more of the title, but just now the crocodiles and not Bartram hold the stage. Coleridge wanted his alligators badly, but even his genius found them a trifle intractable as boon companions for moths in the moonlight, and in the strange and demon-haunted setting to which he finally transferred them they stubbornly declined to stay. Poor little hapless Hartley, sandwiched weeping between their layered egg-heaps and their thunder-echoing roars, he extricated later in the closing lines of "The Nightingale." And the green and fountainous wilderness-plot belongs in the complicated history of "Kubla Khan."
From the exciting domestic life of alligators Coleridge now passes to exotic plants:
— the never-bloomless Furze —
and then transi to the Gordonia Lasianthus. Its thick foliage of a dark green colour is flowered over with large milkwhite fragrant blossoms on long slender elastic peduncles at the extremities of the numerous branches — from the bosom of the leaves, and renewed every morning — and that in such incredible profusion that the Tree appears silvered over with them and the ground beneath covered with the fallen flowers. It at the same time continually pushes forth new twigs, with young buds on them; and in the winter and spring the third year's leaves, now partly concealed by the new and perfect ones, are gradually changing colour from green to a golden yellow, from that to a scarlet; from scarlet to crimson; and lastly to a brownish purple, and then fall to the ground. So that the Gordonia Lasianthus may be said to change and renew its garments every morning thro'out the year. And moreover after the general flowering is past, there is a thin succession of scattering blossoms to be seen, on some parts of the tree, almost every day thro'out the remaining months until the floral season returns again. — It grows by ponds and the edges of rivers – – –
The never-bloomless furze later found a modest place in "a green and silent spot, amid the hills" where "Fears in Solitude" was written. The Gordonia lasianthus wasted its sweetness on the desert air, so far as Coleridge is concerned, for he never used it — though Wordsworth, in a poem fairly steeped in Bartram, did. That, however, is another story, and sticking to Coleridge we pass, still under Bartram's conduct, from alligators and never-fading trees to birds:
Perhaps — the Snake bird with slender longest neck, long, strait and slender bill, glossy black, like fish-scales except on the breast which is cream-coloured — the tail is very long of a deep black tipped with a silvery white; and when spread, represent an unfurled fan. They delight to sit in little peaceable communities on the dry limbs of trees, hanging over the still waters, with their wings and tails expanded — I suppose to cool themselves, when at the same time they behold their images below — when approached, they drop off as if dead — invisible for a minute or two — then at a vast distance their long slender head and neck only appear, much like a snake — no other part to be seen except sometimes the silvery tip of their Tail.
Excerpted from The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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