Poet's Pick April 16
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Kubla Khan"
Selected by Rachael Allen
National Poetry Month 2018

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Rachael Allen's Poetry Month Pick, April 16, 2018

"Kubla Khan"
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)

    Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

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.

 

* Rachael Allen Comments:
I first read Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ when I was 15 and it left a deep impression. I had a lust for horror fiction, and at this point in my teenage reading I was deep into Edgar Alan Poe, trashy Point-Horror novels for teens and Dracula, when we were prescribed the poem in school. It was my introduction to poetry as a mystical and imaginative exercise that drew me in because of the horror of its language, and its visionary aspects. As an adult, ‘Kubla Khan’ is the poem I carry closest to me as I write my own poems. It is an example of a poetry that can exist unanswered and unanswerable. The origin story of the poem interests me as much as anyone, but I feel whatever external factors coalesced in the making of this poem, they don’t truly reflect on its imaginative power, an imaginative power that is uncapturable and immortal, irreducible to a context. It speaks to me of both the possibilities and the limits of description. The landscape of the poem seems unlimited by any margins of an imagination – mystical, expansive, ranging and otherworldly; I diminish the poem with my own limited summary of it – although of course it is, we will never know the limits of our own imaginations. The urgency of the vision, to describe the dream, and for that description to itself be hemmed by the limits and structures of life and poetry: the page, metre, and of course, by the visitor from Porlock; all these things we know and all the things we don’t combine to make this poem’s visionary force. The motto from Thomas Burnet that begins Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ speaks to all I love about his poems, and so many others – ‘I can easily believe that there are more Invisible than Visible beings in the Universe’ – that of the inexplicable, the unseen, dreams and altered landscapes and our attempts to translate them into language.


About Rachael Allen:
Rachael Allen is the poetry editor at Granta magazine, co-editor at the poetry press Clinic and of the online journal Tender. A pamphlet of her poems was published as part of the Faber New Poets scheme, and her first collection will be published by Faber in 2019. She has published two books in collaboration with visual artists, Jolene with Guy Gormley (Matchsticks Books) and Nights of Poor Sleep with Marie Jacotey (Test Centre). She is the recipient of an Eric Gregory award and New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse award.


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