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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Aesthetic Knowledge


With modern egalitarianism, the  existence of the rich is regarded as an offense to the poor, the smart to the dumb, and the good looking to the plain. Pure resentment drives this phenomenon – resentment being a combination of admiration, envy and hatred. Wanting to be rich, handsome and smart, and failing to be, these things are then hated.

Many high schools are now apparently doing away with prize-giving ceremonies and the notion of a valedictorian to spare the feelings of other students.

Moral subjectivism, or relativism, reduces morality to feelings and personal opinion. This renders moral knowledge and disputes meaningless. Aesthetic subjectivism likewise insists that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and nothing more. I encountered raised voices and outrage in a class when I recently suggested otherwise. The reaction was stronger than anything I had experienced before and seemed out of proportion to the claim. Far more contentious-seeming moral issues had not inspired any such protests. My essay Aesthetic Knowledge published at the Sydney Traditionalist Forum is my argument for aesthetic objectivism.

Letter to My Son: What is Postmodernism?

My Son,

I’m not using your name because the Web is public and I want to minimize the chance that your privacy will be invaded. But this letter is written mainly for you. Other people may benefit from it, but that’s just a fortunate byproduct.

As a young man, your most important task is to come to understand the world.  A man cannot live well if he does not know what’s happening.

The contemporary world has been disrupted. But the disruptors (the liberals) are a wicked bunch, and their disruption, which is really destruction, threatens you and everything you love (or should love.) You are just one person and you cannot stop the destruction by yourself. But as a first step you can understand the disruption by understanding how the world really works, and how humans should behave.

That’s what I want most to get across: What reality really is, and how humans should behave. There’s a lot to say, but I can only write one letter at a time. This letter concerns postmodernism.


Postmodernism is one of the defining features of the modern world, so we must understand it. We don’t need to understand everything about it; we’ll leave that to the scholars. But we have to understand its essence, the thing that makes it what it is. Continue reading

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

Fugue Image 02

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

Profane Hierarchies are Bound to Work Evil

A hierarchy that is not consecrated and thus ordered in all its parts to the vision of the Good vouchsafed by the common cult is as likely to work good as is a broken clock to display the correct time. A profane institution is finally, and thus fundamentally, and thus thoroughly misdirected away from the proper mundane end of all human acts: the achievement, maintenance, repair and restoration of that proper harmony among and within things under and toward heaven, in virtue of which alone is there any health, prosperity, propagation, contentment, wisdom.

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First-Day Lecture to the Lit Crit Students

Lecture Hall

Ideal, Free-Range College Students

Let us begin with two questions – what is literary criticism and who or what is a literary critic?  The true answers to these questions might surprise someone who attends college and who associates literature almost solely with what is called academic or scholarly interest.  Very possibly, only a few academicians or scholars are today genuinely deserving of the title literary critic.  The humanities departments, having become all at once thoroughly and fanatically political and thoroughly and fanatically bureaucratic, what passes in them for literary criticism is largely the imposition of predetermined and stereotyped ideological matrices on novels, plays, poems, and stories such that, in the main, the novels, plays, poems, and stories disappear and all that remains is the ideological matrix.  Practices still calling themselves literary and critical will work themselves out as though they were self-actuating algorithms (“apps” in contemporary parlance), in the functioning of which, no human intervention is necessary.  The sole interests are hierarchy, which everyone knows to be “bad” and which everyone therefore loves to denounce, and the somatic attribute, conceived in the narrowest way, and assumed to distribute itself according to a moral hierarchy. * Such a practice can only issue in a debilitating self-contradiction, which is exactly what happens.  Missing in the “deconstructive,” “postmodern,” “feminist,” “classist,” and related English-Department discourses concerning novels, plays, poems, and stories is any scintilla of Eros – that is to say of passion, desire, or love – and any sense that the critic might be far less significant than the object of his interest.  We have, of course, not yet answered the two questions, but clearing away certain misconceptions is a necessary prequel to furnishing those answers.

Literary criticism – to tackle the first question – is best grasped as a subject’s passion, desire, or love for novels, plays, poems, and stories.  The passion, desire, or love is so great that the subject, gradually forming himself into a critic, relinquishes his ego entirely to his transcendent project of understanding the object as itself, in its beauty, its meaning, and, as entailed by those, in the total organic relation of its parts to its whole.  More than that, literary criticism, nourishing itself on individual items that inflame its ego-dissolving passion, develops an interest in the generic relation of one item to another, thus also in the distinctions of the genres, and in the history of those genres.  The ultimate object of literary criticism would be literature in itself, or the essence of the literary, but the ultimate object would not be identical to the ultimate aim, the telos, of literary-critical vitality.  The ultimate aim or telos of that activity would constitute itself in the transformation of the subject – his raising of himself to a higher level of conscious awareness.  There is an old saying that intelligent readers never, in fact read books; rather, intelligent readers let the books read them.  No serious person who reads a serious book should expect to be the same person afterwards.  Reading, supposed by college students on the basis of their secondary school experience to be a tedious obligation, has been understood by bibliophiles since the Fourth Century BC to resemble mystic initiation, a rite de passage, one of many such in the unwinding journey between birth and death.  We must return to these themes, Eros and so forth, reading as a rite de passage, but let us first tackle the second of the two questions, who or what is a literary critic.

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