Episode 34

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Poet

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Reading and commentary by

Mark McGuinness

Kubla Khan

Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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.

 


Podcast transcript

Late one afternoon in the autumn of 1797, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was making his way along a coastal path on Exmoor, in south west England. It was one of the remotest points in a pretty remote region. It may have been raining (it usually is in that part of the world), but his glimpses of the sea on one side of the path, and ancient woodland on the other, would have appealed to his Romantic imagination.

Coleridge was a great walker, but on this occasion he was going more slowly than usual and paying less attention to the landscape, because he felt himself coming down with a fever. He made his way to Ash Farm, near the 12th century Culborne Church, to seek lodging for the night.

With no inns nearby, farms often served as stopping places for travellers and Coleridge’s biographer Richard Holmes suggests that the poet was probably a regular guest at Ash Farm. He was soon ensconced in a room with a fire and a meal, and a book on his lap.

In one of his accounts of what happened next, Coleridge tells us that he took ‘two grains of Opium’ for medicinal purposes, which brought on ‘a sort of Reverie’. Here’s what he wrote in a longer version of events:

In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse 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 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 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 awakening 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!

Although Coleridge lamented the interruption that meant he lost most of the ‘two to three hundred lines’ of the poem, the fragment that he did manage to write down, which we know as ‘Kubla Khan’, is one of the most magical and memorable in English.

This is also one of the most famous stories about the creative process, which tends to divide commentators into two camps – firstly there are those we might appropriately call the Romantics, who take Coleridge’s account at face value, and cherish it as proof of the essentially mysterious and sacred character of creativity, emanating from a source that is at least unconscious and quite possibly divine.

In the other camp are the sceptics, who point out that Coleridge’s main account dates from 1816, almost twenty years after the alleged incident, and in any case, it was written by an opium addict whose word could not be trusted, especially in relation to anything relating to his use of the drug.

They point to John Livingston Lowes’ extraordinary book, The Road to Xanadu, published in 1927. Lowes had been on what must be the longest paper chase in English literature, and discovered all kinds of literary sources and borrowings in ‘Kubla Khan’ and the Ancient Mariner, in books that Coleridge had read and often annotated in the margins.

The sceptics also point to the existence of more than one version of ‘Kubla Khan’, in different manuscript and print editions.

To the sceptics, this is undeniable evidence that ‘Kubla Khan’ did not spring fully formed from Coleridge’s unconscious mind, let alone the Muse; it was clearly the result of his wide reading and thinking, and he worked on the draft the same way most writers work through various drafts and revisions, using conscious effort and craft.

So who is right?

To me, this is a bit of a false dichotomy. There’s no reason to doubt ‘Kubla Khan’ has as many sources as John Livingstone Lowes says it does, the evidence is there before us, a lot of it in Coleridge’s own handwriting. And I don’t think it’s any great surprise to discover that Coleridge had worked on the draft of ‘Kubla Khan’ after scribbling it down in that farmhouse.

But I still don’t see any reason to doubt the basic truth of Coleridge’s account of his opium vision with the poem emerging as if from nowhere, as a series of visual and (presumably) auditory hallucinations, watching the images unfold and hearing the words of the poem as if spoken by someone else.

If we put Coleridge’s account side by side with the evidence from Coleridge’s library and manuscripts and the other source’s Lowes discovered, it looks like a pretty standard creative process, that will be familiar to most writers, even if we don’t necessarily experience the ‘inspiration’ stage in such an intense and sustained form, (possibly because we are sensibly not taking opium), and even if we don’t typically produce results as good as ‘Kubla Khan’.

Whatever we write, it’s informed by a vast amount of reading; it’s impossible to be a competent writer, let alone a great one, without being a voracious reader yourself. All writers have sources, even if they aren’t conscious of them; what counts is how the source material is transformed into something new.

Another aspect of long term preparation that doesn’t get so much attention in relation to ‘Kubla Khan’ is practice. By the time Coleridge wrote ‘Kubla Khan’ he had been writing poetry, and specifically metrical, rhyming verse, for years, and he had developed considerable skill in it. So in some moments, when his writing was going well, it could very likely have felt like an automatic facility.

Endless writers, and especially Coleridge and Wordsworth, have talked about walking as an aid to writing, with new compositions coming into being while walking or shortly afterwards – only last month, we heard Wordsworth’s account of composing ‘Tintern Abbey’ in his head while walking to Bristol. The same goes for illness, which produces an altered state that some writers find very conducive to creativity.

And just about every poet, probably every writer, has experienced a moment of inspiration, when a line comes into your mind unbidden, as if from nowhere. If you’re lucky you may get a few lines or even a whole verse or two. After that, it’s up to you – you have to figure out the rest of the poem, by trial and error and craft.

So if you put all of these things together – wide reading, years of practice, strenuous walking, a touch of fever – and you add a couple of grains of opium by the fireside, I don’t find it remotely hard to believe that Coleridge experienced the composition of ‘Kubla Khan’ pretty much as he describes it, as a vivid hallucinatory experience, in which he saw the vision and heard the lines ‘without any sensation or consciousness of effort’.

And I would absolutely expect him to have looked at the manuscript later and tweaked it here and there. And I’m guessing he would have done this the way most poets do – not with the intention of improving it with new ideas, but by trying to get back to the original source of inspiration, which he felt he hadn’t captured accurately when he scribbled it down.

And then, of course, there’s the person on business from Porlock. The most famous interruption in literature. It feels like a scene from a parable: the poet writing his visionary stanzas being interrupted by the business of the world.

Over the last two hundred years a lot of readers have been very annoyed with that person – ‘If only you hadn’t bothered Coleridge with your vulgar commerce, we could have had the rest of “Kubla Khan”, damn you!’

In the 1960s, Stevie Smith gave us another perspective, in a hilarious poem called ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’, where she claims that Coleridge was actually relieved when the Person from Porlock knocked on his door, because he was already stuck with ‘Kubla Khan’, and the interruption became a convenient excuse for not finishing it.

But a more poetic explanation is that ‘Kubla Khan’ doesn’t really feel like the beginning of a 300-line poem. So Kubla Khan was a 13th century Mongol emperor, as well as the founder of the Yan Dynasty of China. And the opening lines do sound like they might be the beginning of a traveller’s tale or legend about the great Khan:

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.

But before long we find ourselves going not forward but round in circles, and lingering in a gorgeous but static description of the palace and its grounds:

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.

Because Coleridge isn’t telling a story. He is casting a spell. And it’s a spell that works on several levels.

On one level, the poem is simply charming, in the everyday sense of ‘delightful’, ‘entrancing’ or ‘entertaining’. It makes for an agreeable diversion, like listening to a favourite song or reciting a nursery rhyme or a piece of nonsense verse.

For some reason Coleridge didn’t publish ‘Kubla Khan’ for many years, but it became one of his party pieces to recite the poem at gatherings. Here’s an account by his friend William Hazlitt:

There was a chaunt in the recitation both of Coleridge and Wordsworth, which acts as a spell upon the hearer, and disarms the judgment… Coleridge’s manner is more full, animated, and varied; Wordworth’s more equable, sustained, and internal. The one might be termed more dramatic, the other more lyrical.

Another friend, Charles Lamb, wrote that Coleridge recited ‘Kubla Khan’, ‘so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and Elysian bowers into my parlour while he sings or says it’.

So Hazlitt says that Coleridge ‘chaunts’ or ‘chants’ the poem, and Lamb says he ‘sings or says it’, so he clearly made the most of the musical properties of the verse. And it’s easy to imagine onlookers seeing the ‘flashing eyes’ and ‘floating hair’ in Coleridge himself when he was in full flow.

Like me, Coleridge grew up in Devon, but unlike me he had a West Country accent, so his recital would have sounded quite different to my boring old received pronunciation.

So for instance, when I read the opening lines, ‘Kubla Khan’ is definitely not a full rhyme for ‘ran’ or ‘man’; but Coleridge of course, would have said ‘Kubla Khaan’, which he would have pointed out, is a purrfect roime for ‘raan’ and ‘maan’.

So Coleridge’s version may have sounded a bit like this:

[IN WEST COUNTRY ACCENT]

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 even if Coleridge’s own magical recital is lost to history, it’s still very enjoyable to sit back and read ‘Kubla Khan’, or listen to it, and allow the poem to irradiate our day and bring heaven and Elysian bowers into our own parlour, just as it did Charles Lamb’s.

So how does Coleridge weave his spell?

Well, clearly, ‘Kubla Khan’ is a very different kind of poetry to the austere pleasures of blank verse that we have become accustomed to in recent episodes.

Remember that ‘blank verse’ means ‘unrhymed verse’, and the Puritanical Milton in particular was very anti-rhyme, which he described as ‘the jingling sound of like endings’. So maybe we could picture English blank verse as a plain honest woollen cloth, worn by the kind of God-fearing folk who spent their Sundays in the chapel rather than the tavern or the boudoir.

And what we have in ‘Kubla Khan’, with the seductive and bewitching interplay of its complex rhymes and pulsing rhythms, is more like an exotic silk robe, full of lavish colours and iridescent patterns, extravagantly beautiful and ornamental and exotic. The kind of robe that is worn with disrobing in mind.

And if we extend our analogy from the sartorial to the gastronomic, I’ve previously said that Milton’s suspicion of rhyme was all of a piece with the Puritans’ aversion to ‘cakes and ale’. Well, ‘Kubla Khan’ is positively brimming with milk and honey, so dessert is very much back on the menu.

Starting with the rhyme. Traditionally, most rhyming poetry had a regular pattern to the rhyme, called a rhyme scheme. And once the poet establishes the rhyme scheme, we can usually expect it to stay the same for the rest of the poem, whether it’s two or three stanzas or two or three volumes.

But the rhymes in ‘Kubla Khan’ do not start as they mean to go on. Their patterning is constantly changing in unexpected but also delightful ways. The effect is like a melody that keeps changing, teasing us with echoes and repetitions that sound tantalisingly familiar but are constantly evolving.

I could spend a long time describing the rhyming patterns within ‘Kubla Khan’, and they are so complex and subtle and variable, that I’d really need a set of diagrams to do it. If you want to see them for yourself, I recommend printing the poem out and drawing lines to connect all the rhyming words at the end of the lines. If you do this, prepare to be dazzled by the patterns!

Turning to the metre, this is basically iambic, which as we know, goes ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM. And the poem is divided into four verses, or three in some printings. For my money, the first verse and the last one are the best bits, and I think it’s no coincidence that these are the verses with the most variation and complexity in both rhyme and metre.

The first verse starts off with four lines of iambic tetrameter, in other words the ‘ti TUM’ gets repeated four times in each line, ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM, followed by a trimeter, of just three ti TUMs, in the fifth line:

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.

Can you hear the effect of that shorter line, ‘down to a sunless sea’, with just three beats? It creates a little pause, where we gather our breath for the rest of the stanza.

Then we get another couple of tetrameters and the verse ends with five iambic pentameters, so it’s settling down into a more conventional rhythm. And this continues for most of the middle verse, a solid block of iambic pentameter, and it still rhymes but the rhyme patterns aren’t as varied and dazzling as the rest of the poem; there’s a run of rhyming couplets, which feels like Coleridge is coasting a bit:

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.

Then we get another little verse, which is sometimes joined up with the long paragraph of pentameter, which has a sprinkling of tetrameters, and sets us up nicely for the final flourish, the ‘mingled measures’, of tetrameter and trimeter, and the dazzling rhyme patterns of the final verse.

    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.

I don’t know about you, but I can really hear the ‘symphony and song’ of the Damsel with the Dulcimer in the musical patterns of the verse.

So I think we can agree that Coleridge’s technique is superlative, and the results are spectacular. But after a while we might find ourselves asking, ‘OK, but what’s it about? Is it just delightful froth or is he making a serious point?’.

One popular interpretation is that ‘Kubla Khan’ is about the poetic imagination – the ‘mighty fountain’ and ‘sacred river’ that emerge from the ‘deep Romantic chasm’ represent the source of divine inspiration, and later in the poem Coleridge is lamenting the loss of his inspiration and hopes to ‘revive’ it.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this reading, but I think we should be wary of reducing any poem to a single interpretation.

And if you asked me what I think ‘Kubla Khan’ is about, I would say that’s the wrong question. Because as I said, Coleridge isn’t telling a story, or even just writing a poem, he is casting a spell. And when we encounter a spell, we don’t ask, ‘What’s it about?’ we ask, ‘What does it do?’.

Well, to start with, it looks like a summoning spell. It conjures a vision. It invokes ‘Alph, the sacred river’, and the river duly appears, with the pleasure dome and caverns and walls and towers and gardens and trees and forests and the deep Romantic chasm caves of ice and so on.

It also summons up ‘ancestral voices’ and the ‘mingled measure’, the musical sounds of the fountain and the caves, and finally, the ‘damsel with a dulcimer’, the ‘Abyssinian maid’, who sings so hauntingly and seductively. But no sooner does she appear, than we realise she is disappearing:

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:

In one line, Coleridge introduces her, and we see her clearly in our mind’s eye, but the next line, ‘in a vision once I saw’ relegates her to the past tense. So no sooner does the poet glimpse her, than he is mourning her loss.

    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!

So he is now lamenting her loss, and wishing he could revive the song he has only just started describing. And then the mood shifts again at the end, and gets darker:

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.

Note the shift in perspective – we’ve gone from the poet saying ‘I would build that dome in air’ to people talking about him in the third person, and saying ‘Beware… his flashing eyes, his floating hair’.

And with that shift of perspective the spell has shifted, from summoning to binding, or attempting to bind, the supernatural forces that have been unleashed:

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.

Weaving a circle round him thrice is unequivocally a magical operation. And judging by the urgency and alarm in the tone, this is a magical emergency.

It’s like the moment in the movie when the apprentice has opened his master’s book of spells and started reading and at first he’s delighted that the spell has worked, and he’s entranced by the spirits that come when he calls, but then of course he becomes terrified that he can’t control them and he doesn’t know how to stop the magic. And at the last moment the master reappears in a fury and casts the counter-spell and slams the book shut with relief.

But when we look again at ‘Kubla Khan’, we can see with horror that it’s too late. The spell has worked its magic and the speaker is changed. That must be why the poem doesn’t say ‘weave a circle round her thrice’, i.e. the damsel with a dulcimer, who only a few moments before was the source of the music and the magic. It says ‘weave a circle round him thrice’:

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The poem explicitly says that the counter-spell, the binding spell, is necessary, ‘for’, in other words ‘because’, he has eaten honey dew and drunk the milk of paradise.

Now why should that be a problem? Because, as every child in 18th century Devon could have told you, if you find yourself in faeryland, the one thing you must never do is eat the faeries’ food or drink their drink, however tempting it looks. Because if you do, you will be changed. You will be under the faeries’ spell forever.

And if that happens, the all that the rest of us can do is weave a circle round you thrice and close our eyes in holy dread, and hope the magical contagion doesn’t spread.

Of course, we could easily find an analogy here with the opium addiction that blighted Coleridge’s life. But I think the magic of ‘Kubla Khan’, and the tragedy of Coleridge’s life, runs much deeper than such an obvious interpretation. And we can maybe find some illumination by contrasting Coleridge with his great friend, and poetic collaborator and rival, William Wordsworth.

Last month I compared Wordsworth’s verse to the sustained and steady flow of river winding between hills. There’s a sense of equanimity about Wordsworth and his writing, that may well have been bolstered by his domestic circumstances – he was happily married to Mary (maiden name Mary Hutchinson), and he also had the companionship of his sister Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary’s sister Sara Hutchinson.

Within a couple of years of writing ‘Kubla Khan’, cracks had appeared in Coleridge’s marriage and he had fallen in love with Sara Hutchinson, an unrequited love that was behind his heart-rending poem ‘Dejection: an Ode’.

So coupled with Wordsworth’s professional success as a poet, which Coleridge had done a lot to help with, it’s not hard to see how Coleridge ended up feeling a deep sense of inferiority and jealousy towards Wordsworth.

Compared to Wordsworth’s steadiness, Coleridge looks flighty and unreliable – as a friend, as a husband, as a narrator, as an opium and alcohol addict, and even as a poet who famously failed to finish not only ‘Kubla Khan’ but also many other writing projects.

In poetic terms, it’s undeniable that Wordsworth’s work is superior to Coleridge’s in some respects, but the opposite is also true. Coleridge may have been flighty, but he was capable of flights of fancy into realms where Wordsworth could never hope to follow.

As we saw last month, there is a deep vein of mysticism in Wordsworth’s poetry. But there is nothing in Wordsworth that is as magical as ‘Kubla Khan’ or the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge is a more spellbinding poet than Wordsworth, and a more dangerous one.

It actually feels quite dangerous to recite ‘Kubla Khan’. By the time I get to the end of it, I really feel it starting to take over, there’s a sense of unstoppable momentum and energy that I can’t control, and it feels like a relief to get to the end of it. I’m tempted to close my eyes in holy dread. And maybe open the windows to let the spirits disperse.

You know I usually encourage you to read the poems on the podcast out loud for yourself? Well in this case, I would advise caution! You might want to leave this one and read out a bit of Wordsworth instead. And then go for a nice walk in the country to clear your mind.

So to me, the ending of ‘Kubla Khan’ encapsulates the genius and the tragedy of Coleridge. There’s something of the Ancient Mariner about the figure of the poet with his flashing eyes and floating hair, who we are warned to beware of. There’s a sense that this is someone who has been to places and seen things that are beyond the ken of mortals – which makes it impossible for him to rest easy or return to normal life afterwards.

The poem is undoubtedly magical and charming in the everyday sense. But it also feels like a genuine magical charm, full of barely controlled power. In fairy stories, there is usually a price to be paid for magical powers, and in Coleridge’s case, I can’t help wondering if the price was too great.

 


Kubla Khan

Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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.

 


Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge portrait painting

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English Romantic poet, literary critic and philosopher who was born in 1772 and died in 1834. With his friend William Wordsworth he co-authored Lyrical Ballads, one of the most influential books of English poetry ever published. During his lifetime he was overshadowed by the poetic achievements of Wordsworth, and afflicted with opium and alcohol addiction. But he is now regarded as a great poet, with phrases from his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner having entered the language and become proverbial. He was also an influential critic, especially on Shakespeare and in his major prose work Biographia Literaria.

 


A Mouthful of Air – the podcast

This is a transcript of an episode of A Mouthful of Air – a poetry podcast hosted by Mark McGuinness. New episodes are released every other Tuesday.

You can hear every episode of the podcast via Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favourite app.

You can have a full transcript of every new episode sent to you via email.

The music and soundscapes for the show are created by Javier Weyler. Sound production is by Breaking Waves and visual identity by Irene Hoffman.

A Mouthful of Air is produced by The 21st Century Creative, with support from Arts Council England via a National Lottery Project Grant.

Listen to the show

You can listen and subscribe to A Mouthful of Air on all the main podcast platforms

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Related Episodes

The Sun Rising by John Donne

Episode 40 The Sun Rising by John Donne Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne.Poet John DonneReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessThe Sun Rising by John Donne         Busy old fool, unruly Sun,        Why dost thou thus,Through...

At Peckham Rye by Clare Pollard

Episode 39 At Peckham Rye by Clare Pollard  Clare Pollard reads ‘At Peckham Rye’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.This poem is from: Incarnation by Clare PollardAvailable from: Incarnation is available from: The publisher: Bloodaxe Books Amazon: UK |...

In an Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti

Episode 38 In an Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ by Christina Rossetti.Poet Christina RossettiReading and commentary by Mark McGuinnessIn an Artist’s Studio by Christina Rossetti One face looks out from...

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 + six =

Arts Council England logo