Writing about Literature Revisited (Coleridge)


“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan…”

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. –

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Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!


“Half sunk, a shattered visage lies.”

My department pays me fairly handsomely to teach a particularly futile course – one among no few others – that styles itself as “Writing about Literature.”  The course is futile at both ends: Public education produces nowadays only an uneducated public, many individuals of whom, including those who are invited to college or university to matriculate, write only at the level of functional illiteracy; and none of whom has ever read anything that might qualify as literature.  I approach the course as a fully remedial one because that, in effect, is what it must be.  Dedicating the first half of the semester to “writing about poetry,” I offer up as fare for mental nourishment short poems, mostly sonnets, by writers of the Romantic generations of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries.  I run the class-sessions as workshops in careful reading, or close reading, for which a sonnet by William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats or Percy Bysshe Shelley is meet.  I ask the students to begin by noticing the periods or full stops that divide the poem into its sentences and to notice, for example, that, in verse, lines and sentences do not necessarily correspond, so that their interaction must be carefully worked out.  I ask them to notice the grammatical features of each poem.  In what person is the poem couched?  Whom does the speaker address?  What setting is implied? What argument does the speaker make in his sequence of figures and images?  I want students to see that language can function at a higher level than it does in a campus newspaper article or in the instructions for the latest cell phone.  Readers of poems must slow down their thought processes so as to notice everything and they must let the poem provoke them into thinking word by word and line by line.

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Linguistic Subscendence

Dunce - Let's Play Dunce

No Caption Necessary

It is the end of the term, so my life consists of tall stacks of student papers, which I must read and evaluate.  A number of patterns – or maybe a better term would be grammatical de-patternings – have forced themselves on my attention.  There is, for example, the almost invariable “they” employed as the subsequent of a singular subject in a sentence.  A half-dozen of these, at least, appear in every four-page theme, even in papers written by English majors.  Twenty years ago, in a journal article, I referred to this as gemination – the one and only child miraculously becomes a set of twins.  Many among the English professoriate no longer bother to correct this, but I do, insistently.  While English is a latitudinous language in terms of its regularity, the logic of its pronominal system is rigorous.  Someone is, precisely, one, not two people or more.  Ditto anyone, everyone, and no one or none, the last being the contraction of its syntactic precursor in the sentence.  In the real world, neither a person nor the man can suddenly become they or them.  To write so, however, is surely to think so; and to think so is bad arithmetic even in the first grade.  It is perhaps not an unrelated fact that when I give my students the instruction to subtract the number of questions they answered wrongly on the quiz from the total number of questions and to post the result as their score – they reach that result with glacial slowness through grimacing, dull effort.

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Atheist Mass Murderer

The Texas killer, whose name I omit, was a proselytizing atheist, which puts him in the same circle as Lenin, Stalin, the Austrian demon Schickelgruber, Mao, Pol-Pot, and Che Guevara, to name but a few, and not merely for his atheism.  As Richard Cocks pointed out to me in an email exchange earlier today, main-stream media have let the homicide’s religious convictions go unmentioned, but even the alternate sources of information seem not to know how to deal with it.  I am struck by a couple of additional details.

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A Roman Fresco from Pompeii

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Roman Fresco from Pompeii

The wall is a limen or boundary.  On the hither side of the wall is Nature, free and luxuriant.  On the hither side of the wall is the cultivated ornamental tree.  The fruit seems to produce itself on the thither side of the wall.  The ornament is beautiful, but Nature, the fecund lady who feeds men and women and their children, is bountiful. She responds to the farmer’s bargain: Let me understand your cycles and placate your demands and I will increase your fecundity.  Agriculture is the productive compromise between Nature and Culture, to the benefit of both.  The two-thousand-year-old wall-painting from a middle-class house in Pompeii speaks magnificently of the Western idea of Nature, with whom humanity partners, for the sake of her survival, and its — that is to say, our — survival.  Christ does not disrupt this discipline.

The hither side of the wall might be brought into the thither side, to form a garden or grove.  In Augustine’s Confessions, Original Sin finds its analogue in the autobiographer’s  penitential divulgence that when an adolescent he joined with a gang of miscreants to trespass a neighbor’s orchard-garden and steal his apples, or peaches, or plums, or whatever the edible fruit might have been.  Instead of consuming their booty, the trespassers petulantly discarded it, as though it was offal. Augustine begs forgiveness.

Augustine’s story is the germ of the Twenty-First Century’s ecological sensitivity, although the Twenty-First Century ‘s ecological sensitivity has no notion of Augustine or of confession or of the historical archive, witting knowledge of which tells us who we are.

To the west of Oswego, my adoptive civitas, the apple-orchards have benefited from three thousand years of Western horticultural science.  These orchards nowadays resemble olive- or grape-orchards.  The apple-trees are close to the ground, rounded, compact, and the fields of them look like vineyards or oleo plantations.  The work of the harvest is much eased. The cultivated changes in apple-tree morphology entail a dramatic decrease in the price of harvesting apples.  Respect for Nature is a boon.  It is a Western boon.


Jodeln ist Cool (I Get a Kick out of Yodeling)

Ja, Jodeln ist cool und Melanie Oesch von Oesch die Dritten ist die coolste. Jodeln ist ja wirklich cool. Cooler, sage Ich, als Hip-Hop oder weibliche-männliche Stimme “Coffee House” Musik. Oesch die Dritten ist drei Generationen einer einzigen Familie von traditionellen Schweizer Instrumentalisten und Sängern.

More below —

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I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 2

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Abstract Image of the Fugal Phenomenon

In the first part of this essay, we traced the origin of the musical form known as fugue to the period of the religious wars in Europe, advancing the anthropological explanation of fugue as being representative in a purely abstract way of the patterns of social breakdown characteristic of the time and place.  Fugue in its classical form, as perfected by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1759), has prototypes in the Late-Renaissance caccia and ricercar, but it comes into prominence, as a musical form of forms, only in the decades of the sectarian conflicts that followed in the wake of the Reformation.  Fugue, we recall, is a musical procedure in which successive voices imitate an initial voice, the theme assuming the role of an object of contention among the voices, subjected by them to development through breaking it down into its constituent motifs, and at last resolving the strife by its resumptive unison restatement, typically as a chorale.  The great exemplar is the second half of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, the whole of which was made famous, in Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement, by its inclusion in Walt Disney’s animated feature Fantasia, just before World War II.  Incidentally, in a work such as Bach’s “D-Minor,” there is no real reason to separate the initial toccata or prelude – or whatever it might be called – from the fugue proper.  The introductory matter serves to expose the basic material out of which the fugue (as it were) will compose itself.

Previously we traced the itinerary of fugue from the Seventeenth to the Late Nineteenth Century, ending with Franz Liszt’s homage to Bach, his Prelude and Fugue on B.A.C.H. (1855; revised 1870).  Liszt’s score, in versions for piano or organ, would seem to be something of a non plus ultra in the development of the fugal art, but this is not, in fact, so.  We also speculated on the anthropological meaning of fugue, suggesting that it corresponded to a ritual pattern of crisis, pursuit, and salvation; and we remarked that fugue had its beginnings in the era of the religious wars in Northern Europe, when indeed many people found themselves overwhelmed by crisis, fleeing under pursuit, and seeking although not always finding asylum or refuge.  Fugue has a rich history in the period from Liszt’s death (1886) through the middle of the Twentieth Century, another historical period marked by the breakdown of societies and war.  In this second part of our two-part essay, we will explore fugue’s new lease on life from the Victorian Era to 1950.

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I Get a Kick out of Fugue, Part 1

Bach Art of the Fugue

J. S. Bach: Art of the Fugue (Illuminated Score)

The most famous fugue – we shall come to a definition of the term in good time – is Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugue from his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, intended for the organ.  Supposing Bach (1685 – 1750) to have written the score and not someone else, as a number of modern scholars have claimed, the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor dates probably from the last decade of the composer’s life, when his longstanding interest in fugal procedure intensified, yielding latterly the immense and daunting Art of the Fugue, its final quadruple fugue remaining unfinished at the master’s death.  Uniquely among the innumerable representatives of its genre, Bach’s “D Minor” succeeded in penetrating popular awareness.  It did so in connection with the Walt Disney film Fantasia (1940), for the opening sequence of which the überromantic conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, adapted his arrangement of Bach’s organ-score for an immense modern symphonic ensemble.  Stokowski’s version dates back to the late 1920s.  He had been performing it in his concerts as a “curtain raiser,” which it undeniably is, for a decade when Disney lured him to the immortalizing Fantasia “gig.”  The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor stands out in Fantasia, coming right at the beginning, for being the only sequence in the film whose visual accompaniment avoids the naively picturesque in favor of purely coloristic and geometrical effects.  It is the only sequence that is not Kitsch. The “D Minor” turns up in another Disney film fifteen years later.  Captain Nemo of the submarine Nautilus plays it for Professor Arronax in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1954).  In one of the 1950s Hammer Studios vampire ventures, Count Dracula lets on his affection for the same piece in an impromptu keyboard recital for his guests. Continue reading