I wrote previously about student responses in my “Writing about Literature” course to Percy Shelley’s famous sonnet “Ozymandias,” which I set them to interpret on the basis of workshops in identifying the formal and meaningful elements of poems. Last week I set the same students to write up in class an interpretation of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1797), a rather more challenging poem than “Ozymandias,” although Shelley proved challenge enough, but at the same time possibly easier to interpret because its phantasmagoria allows for considerable play on the part of the reader. Coleridge’s poem has its origin in a bizarre and unrepeatable incident. In September 1797 while a house guest of his friend William Wordsworth, who had taken him in because he found himself in a phase of indigence, Coleridge one morning took a dose of opium, as was his wont, and fell into a visionary trance. A major ode of some two hundred lines manifested itself to Coleridge, complete, during the psychedelic phase, and as he returned to ordinary consciousness he began to transcribe it. At that moment, one of Coleridge’s creditors came knocking loudly at Wordsworth’s door, and in the shock of hearing it, the majority of those two hundred finished lines slipped away from the poet’s grasp into oblivion. Coleridge could rescue only thirty-six lines, which constitute Part I of the poem as it was published, finally, in 1816.
The poem appears in its paradoxical truncated entirety below. –
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.
Coleridge’s poem divides itself neatly into two parts, the first part ending with the two lines, “It was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”; and the second part beginning with the lines, “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw.” The major differences between Part I and Part II are grammatical, in that Part I eschews the first person, confining itself to the third-person description of the mythopoeic events that at last yield the “sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice,” while Part II restores lyric subjectivity in the first person. “Kubla Khan” is recognizably psychedelic, but especially in Part I it tries to find metaphors for those mysterious processes of the poetic faculty that amaze even the poet and beyond that for the processes of consciousness. Coleridge furnishes for his readers those sublime “caverns measureless to man” and a deal of Edenic imagery, along with his description of the seemingly geological exertions that follow on Kubla’s godlike and alphaic decree. Part II, reverting to lyricism, contains an image even more disturbing than those whose sequence tells the story of how the pleasure dome came to be. Coleridge blends the poetic ambition of his lyric speaker with the fate of the Biblical prophets: To be accused of fantastic crimes and set upon homicidally by the circle of offended parties.
“Kubla Khan” makes no few demands on vocabulary, but knowing student limitations I glossed every word that struck me as lying beyond the typical limits of undergraduate diction. I posed questions to help in interpretation. For what is Kubla Khan a symbol? For what are the “caverns measureless to man” a symbol? For what is the pleasure dome a symbol? Such questions have the intention to launch students beyond the denotative meanings of the persons and phenomena in Coleridge’s poem.
As I have asserted elsewhere on many occasions, the phrase public education is not merely a misnomer but an outright lie. Modern primary and secondary education together set as their goal not the fostering of the lively intellect and acculturation to the bounty of tradition, but rather the deliberate laming of consciousness. Students no longer learn how to read except in a basely functional way – and no one has ever bothered to help them in cultivating a sense for the figurative aspect of language. Students are as a result – and through no fault, really, of their own – perfect literalists. Indirection is not even a concept for them and just about the only figure of speech available to them is sarcasm. (They all seem to know what sarcasm is, possibly because they have been accused of perpetrating it, but as to irony, or the range of subtler figures – they remain clueless.) The batch of responses to the latest assignment provides an absolute jewel of literalism. Addressing Part I of Coleridge’s poem, a male student writes: “Kubla Khan… builds a palace in a beautiful, fertile land called Xanadu. This land is fertile due to the presence of a volcano.”
This student’s prose is, in fact, a cut above average. The occasional awkwardness disables a sentence, but on the whole the prose adheres to normative and comprehensible patterns. The student also identifies the geological metaphors for what they are except that he never really grasps that, as metaphors, they must constitute an attempt to transcend themselves in a non-geological way. The student continues: “The volcano… erupts… spewing ash and fire, which covers Kubla’s palace. But Kubla survives by seeking shelter underground. […] Here, the caves of ice… protected Kubla from the volcanic eruption.” Turning to Part II of “Kubla Khan,” the student guesses that “Mount Abora must be the volcano that erupted in the poem.” The song of the “damsel with a dulcimer” must be the commemoration of Kubla’s brave escape from the ravening pyroclasm. One gets the impression of the hero in a George Lukas movie running through a cavernous labyrinth just ahead of his impending doom.
A second student, also male, in referring to “Kubla Khan,” Part II, finds himself of the opinion that “Part II is a lot more happy” than Part I. This second student, like the first student, tends to think literally; for him, sadly, connotation is a closed horizon. “This is all just a dream,” he writes, “and… none of this really happened.” In a subsequent sentence, the student attempts to construct something like a syllogism, which gives evidence of a mind struggling to think yet badly and no doubt permanently disabled from doing so by the low quality of his preparation: “If the narrator tries to take the dream for what it is, they [sic] would have learned a valuable lesson. If the narrator just forgets about the dream, then the dream was for nothing and nothing was learned.” Nothing really happens; no one learns anything because there is nothing to learn. And that in itself constitutes “a valuable lesson.” I have noticed that the majority of undergraduates rarely reflect. I would link this, once again, to a pedagogical regime that finds the inward glance, perhaps due to its partial identity with conscience, inimical to its program of indoctrination, which is what contemporary schooling really offers. “Kubla Khan,” the record of Coleridge’s symbol-rich self-apocalypse, and therefore a representation of the profoundest type of reflection, vanishes into a lesson about nothingness. The student meanwhile cannot conceive of his own inward life.
A coed contents herself merely with paraphrasing the poem. Piquantly, the prose has merit. I offer a sample sentence: “It is almost as if the first section is written with the initial, raw reaction in the moment the vision occurred, while section two is the more thought through processed version.” Yes – that passive “is written” might benefit from the activation of its verb; but compared to the sentences of other student writers, it is not bad. At one point, this writer approaches a breakthrough into comprehension beyond the flatness of the literal dimension. She writes, “It is unclear whether the pleasure dome is a physical object or perhaps a sense of being,” but beyond her vacillation no sequel appears. She returns to paraphrase. Another coed, whose conversation in discussion is pleasantly lively and who quite clearly has intellectual potential, remains hobbled by the stinginess of her K-12 curriculum. “Within the poem ‘Kubla Khan,’” she writes, “written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797, there is a story which unfolds the multifaceted layers of expression and beauty.” That peculiar and pretentious within circulates ubiquitously in undergraduate prose. Whence comes it, in its pretentiousness? I remark in this, too, a type of literalism. The student conceives of the poem as a vessel that contains something, the way a jar of marmalade contains its bitter-sweet jam. Upend the jar and the fruity mass out-spills itself.
This same student writes how “the only way meaning can be created and therefore expressed is within the bounds of a dream or vision,” a sentence that strikes her mentor as modestly promising, despite that overlarge within elbowing its way into the syntax. Even so, for this young woman, “vision” brings with it “bounds” (she means “boundaries,” of course) rather than the transcendence of boundaries. The student’s worldview remains almost entirely physical. She has only the most tenuous sense of the metaphysical. She ends on a note as nihilistic as her male counterpart: “The creation of meaning, in order to express meaning, is lost in translation, time and context. Therefore the process itself is a tragedy, as well as the poem.”
From yet another coed: “Right from the first line in the poem, ‘in Xanadu did Kubla Khan,’ the reader can infer that the location is the Mongolian Empire. The poem then goes on by basically saying how beautiful the grounds were, near the sacred river.” For this student, Coleridge’s “demon lover” becomes an “evil lover.” The young lady writes, “All of the evil eventually made its way towards the sacred river, which is not good because it is sacred.” Like the male respondent who proposes a volcanic theory of the poem, this student allegorizes, but note that allegory is a form of literalism. Allegory never really interprets; at most, it displaces things from one context to another, perhaps permitting those things to reveal themselves in a different light, but only when the allegorist is subtle. The coed has, of course, never heard of allegory and has no notion that she is allegorizing. She has something else in common with the vulcanologist: It never occurs to her, as it never occurred to him, that the events, as described in Part I of the poem, take place in an inner world that she, and he, share with Coleridge. Typically, she fails to grasp the imagery of Part II, with its implication of human sacrifice. Not one student in the entire enrollment understood that the poet, identifying his role with that of the prophets, expects to die by violence.
In yet another sample, the vocabulary of the writer shows its narrow range, but a few sentences give evidence of an actual reaction to Coleridge’s lines. The student writes: “In the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge the narrator speaks of a vision they [sic] have had. From reading the poem, I get a sense of fear.” This writer is one of the few who tries to grapple with the poem’s “woman wailing for her demon lover.” The writer writes, “To me this line means the narrator has killed a man who is less than him [sic] or he considers demonic.” It is a type of swinging the bat in the dark in hopes of hitting something, but it is not unrelated to the “sense of fear” that the poem’s diction has inspired. Here again we see an instance of a mind vaguely aware of meaning beyond its own ego which a lack of intellectual equipment prevents from fulfilling its quest. By “lack of intellectual equipment” I mean the most basic equipment, such as competency in grammar and a vocabulary sufficient in its extent to permit the analysis of causality. In causality, one thing exerts an effect on another, but when the mind lacks knowledge of the things, it cannot grasp causal connections between them.
To struggle is good. My students, no matter how poorly their previous education has equipped them, will at least be better readers, in some small degree, at the end of the semester than they were at the beginning. Whether they will have acquired a sense for indirect language or a capacity for reflection must remain an open question. I ask my students to write spontaneously in the classroom, which adds a level of difficulty to the assignment. It is a necessary arrangement, however, because when I let them write the first such assignment on a take-home basis, they all immediately Googled Wordsworth’s “Nutting,” called up the first link, and turned in the same dubious interpretation — one that had been cooked up by a high-school English teacher somewhere who had evidently taken far too many courses in the Women’s Studies Program.