Saturday, June 6, 2009

Such A Vile Short Plumpness

From the very beginning Samuel Taylor Coleridge was obsessed with the sounds of words.

"From my earliest years I have had a feeling of Dislike and Disgust connected with my own Christian Names: such a vile short plumpness, such a dull abortive smartness in the first Syllable, and this so harshly contrasted by the obscurity and indefiniteness of the syllable Vowel, and the feebleness of the uncovered liquid, with which it ends--the wabble it makes, and staggering betweeen a di--and a tri-syllable--and the whole name sounding as if you were abeeceeing S.M.U.L.--altogether it is perhaps the worst combination, of which vowels and consonants are susceptible."

Quoted from

While he developed many other criterion for judging his own poetry or the work of others (he was one of the great literary critics and theorists of his time) it was still sounds more than anything else that ruled his heart. Were it not for the sounds, his unfinished poem KUBLA KHAN would be merely an unfinished work, and would be unlikely to get published, let alone remembered. But the sounds, the sounds are incredible, glorious, perfect. The sense of it all is insignificant; it is unfinished anyway, but even were it finished the sense would play a secondary part in the glory of the poem. The sound is all.


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.


James Owens said...

Hi there. Nice blog.

I agree that the sound of "Kubla Khan" is magnificent. But don't you think C is having us on a bit about it being unfinished? As a poem about the Romantic imagination, it seems pretty complete. The Romantic poets had a fetish for fragments, and I think he may be catering to that by presenting the poem as "unfinished." It has always seemed to me that his prefatory note about the dream and the "person from Porlock" is part of the poem, meant to give a reader bearings in C's thinking on fancy and the imagination....

Doug P. Baker said...


I had always taken him at his word here, but you may very well be right. After all, there was something like a decade between its writing and its publication, if I remember correctly. That should have been time enough to finish it. His excuse, of course, was that it was all from that dream that you mention, and that by the time he got rid of his visitor he had forgotten the rest of the dream. Still, what you say sounds pretty likely. In presenting it as "unfinished" and as a "fragment," he was also presenting it as written in one spurt in the rush of remembering the dream. This is most certainly a fiction, so likely you are correct that the "fragment" part is fictional too.

I will be more circumspect next time I speak of this being a fragment. . . Thanks for turning that light on!

Devika said...

So much for me to read...

Coleridge-- besides the sound and choice of words...the rich imageries from nature in his poems are so appealing,