Thursday 7 June 2007

The Greatest Lost Masterpiece of All Time

Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Like Blake, Keats and Shelley, a great conceptualist set free by the fires of the enlightenment, a mind that reached beyond the narrow strictures of the world and let loose pure imagination in his words.

You can keep your Wordsworth, his Daffodils and his shades of the prison house.

Coleridge, one of the most underrated of the romantic poets, classed with Wordsworth and the non-entity Southey as a Lake poet.
What an insult.

Those of us who find our souls lifted by the intensity of 'The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner' can only mourn that one of our greatest poets could never give us his greatest vision.

I feel a sense of loss every time I read Kubla Khan.

For those who do not know the story of this poem, here we go.

Coleridge was an Opium user. Now, there was nothing particularly unusual about that at the time. The Victorians were slightly less judgemental about using drugs to find your muse than we are, and without wishing to sound like an advert for the use of such stimulation, look at the quality (or lack thereof) of our current poet laureate, Mr Motion.

Coleridge had retreated to the Somerset coast for a period of reflection. He had smoked a fair bit of Opium that day, even by his own standards before going to sleep. He had one of those intense dreams, no doubt fuelled by that intense speculation that can come with mind altering drugs.

The East was just being opened up then. The Orient was still a strange world, but one which was slowly making its way into the living rooms of England.
It was still a strange hemisphere and the romance of Kubla Khan, known through the tantalising tales of Marco Polo still enchanted.

Coleridge awoke with a vision. A vision he knew would be the most beautiful he would ever have. This would be the greatest poem he had ever written, and the rest of his life would pale by comparison.
He knew this with absolute certainty.

And here is how he began.

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!

And then there was a knock at the door.
Coleridge ignores it.
The guy is persistent.

I'm sure we can all picture the resigned irritation on Coleridge's face as he opens the door.
It is a salesman from nearby Porlock. I'd love to say Coleridge told him where to stick it, but the great visionary was too polite.
And it cost him.

Half an hour later, the salesman is gone.
But so is Coleridge's vision.

He wracked his brains, but could not bring back his dream.

The obvious solution was try more Opium, but after days of Opium dreams, the vision in question had not returned.

Eventually Coleridge conceded defeat and appended his lament for his lost vision to the glorious lines he had managed to produce.

And so Kubla Khan, as we know it, ends thus;

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.

And so we look forlornly on what promised to be one of the finest compositions in the English language.
And mourn.

Bloody Salesmen!!!


Anonymous said...

I had never rated the guy, until by accident I visited one of his homes in somerset...

It was either the National Trust having bottled something, or there was energy in the air...

I was smitten... and then went to the pub to recover...

Thank you for posting this...


Anonymous said...

It was double glazing right ---?? I Bet it was fucking double glazing - or telephones? This happenstome allthe time.... writing lost masterpieces I mean... not the calls obviously...

Anonymous said...

Coleridge sounds cool. I wonder if he's got the same opium dealer as me?

Anonymous said...

Well, Rod McKuen and Leonard Nimoy never smoked opium, and they really sucked, so perhaps there is something to be said for it.

Anonymous said...

In Bloggersville did Ubermouth
A nasty little site create
And from the north down to the south
She spread her word, vile and uncouth
A diary of hate….

(Oh crap…who’s that tapping, tapping, tapping ay my chamber door ??
Shit, it’s that creepy little Poe fucker from next door…probably looking to mooch some of my opium…)

Anonymous said...

Seriously Crushed...what have you done with my little buddy ??
We have to get her blog back.
There's a lot of my best material in there...

Anonymous said...

damnit citizen kane, we need to get a gate guard at xanadu. today, it's more likely to have a telemarketer to interrupt while in that deep, intense blog moment... preventing that post from being a masterpiece to persist the test of time.

Anonymous said...

Ohhhh....! Wow, it's a good story, and a great vision lost. I enjoyed this post - you educate me..:-)

Anonymous said...

Muse- Coleridge knew how to use words to create vision. Only Keats and possibly Spenser excelled him in this.
Glad you feel his magic too.

Mutley- What he was selling has been lost in the mists of time, but I have a sneaking suspicion, it may not have ben double glazing...
Maybe it was Radioactive Howler Monkeys...

JJ- There is only one way to find out is;
a. Take some Opium.
b. See if you can write a masterpiece.

Zen Wizard- I'm not seeing you HAVE to smoke Opium to write like this.
But in Coleridge's case it was a factor. That's fact.
(May I just point out here, I'm NOT an Opium smoker myself...)

Fingers- There are some much more interesting questions regarding Poe.
I think Ubermouth's blog was one of the finest and often wittiest the bloggosphere had to offer, and like you, I am extremely saddened to lose it.
It is a shame that its satirical irony was not appreciated to the degree it should have been, or that not everybody saw behind the blog identity to the person behind, who is, dare I say it, one of the most compassionate and thoughtful people you could meet.

Raffi- The Bitter Twang of External Reality.
Killer of all Beautiful visions.

Eve- Glad you liked it. I really do think something beautiful was lost here.
Or was it only ever a tantalising dream?

Anonymous said...

Why Crushed...I'm beginning to suspect you might be The Poe Toaster.
As for the other, all well and good, however give your fellow bloggers some credit.
Perhaps we already knew what really lurked behind the deranged facade over at Ubermouth ??
Perhaps, we did get the irony...perhaps it was your friend who didn't 'get it' ??
Did you ever consider that scenario, Conan Doyle...

Anonymous said...

There is much to be said for dreams. They're the stuff of genius, of inspiration. I lost a beautiful song like that once; wrote it while sitting on my balcony late at night, but then my palm top battery died and all the data was erased ;-)

Anonymous said...

Fingers- The Poe Toaster reference is lost on me, I'm afraid.
I'm assuming my interpretation on the other issue is corect because it IS more creditable to other bloggers.
I'd like to leave it there.

Eve- Next time, make sure you put it on your blog first. Then it will remain for all time.

Anonymous said...

Coleridge is someone I have, so far, read far too little of .. .must do more. Great piece.

PS// Arent you a salesman?

Anonymous said...

It's a shame drug use destroys the mind, it does such peculiar things to one's creativity.

Anonymous said...

David- I was just trying to sell him life insurance. How was I to know he was writing Kubla Khan?

Ruthie- It's a fine balance I think. The world would have been a poorer place if so many great artists and poets hadn't used it to reach their muse.
For everything there is a price.

Anonymous said...

Selling Life Insurance to a poet?

Not the wisest of moves...

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post and are quite the romantic aren't you?

Anonymous said...

Why thank you, Freya.
I hadn't really thought of my poem as romantic though...