Searching for poetry in literal places

August 15, 1994|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

"At first, his tones were conversational; he seemed to dally with the shadows of the subject and with fantastic images which bordered it; but gradually . . . the stream [of his thought] gathering strength seemed to bear along with it all things . . .; and stretching away among regions tinted with ethereal colours, was lost at airy distance in the horizon of the fancy . . . Then as he repeated the passage, '. . . It was an Abyssinian maid, And on her dulcimer she played,' his voice mounted and seemed to melt into air." This is Charles Lamb's description of Samuel Taylor Coleridge reading from his poem "Kubla Khan."

Caroline Alexander finds that poem compelling. Hoping to approach it "with a heightened poetic vision," Ms. Alexander, a travel writer and college professor, tried in this book to reconstruct the origins of its imagery. She journeyed to diverse places: Asia, Africa, North America. She searched the grassy plains of Inner Mongolia, the fountains of North Florida, an ice cave in Kashmir and a mountain in Ethiopia. She read biographies of Coleridge, literary histories and world histories. She read John Livingstone Lowe's critical study of Coleridge. Then she wrote "The Way to Xanadu: Journeys to a Legendary Realm."

The book begins with the poem "Kubla Khan" and the story behind the poem. After having taken opium, Coleridge fell asleep. He had been reading, "In Xanadu did Cublai Can build a stately palace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a well . . ." in Purchase's "Pilgrimage," a 17th-century compendium of travel stories. As the poet slept, he composed/dreamed "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree/Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man . . ."

In this way, he dreamed 200-300 lines of a poem that, as he said, seemed to rise up before him, without any effort on his part. On awakening, Coleridge eagerly wrote the 55 lines that make up the poem called "Kubla Khan." Coleridge was then interrupted and unable to complete the poem he had dreamed. The lines that were completed, however, contain some exquisite imagery.

This imagery inspires Ms. Alexander's trip. The trip, though, presents many difficulties. Ms. Alexander has trouble with the authorities in several countries, and she becomes seriously ill. Looking for "gardens bright . . . and incense bearing trees," she finds ugliness and violence. Some of the places are ruins: "The decline of the outer walls had produced majestic hulks, which now that we were faced with the prospect of traversing them on foot, seemed immense."

Alph, the sacred river -- possibly Lake George in Florida -- offers "little to view apart from a rough low line on the horizon." The mighty fountain is a bubble or so. After a period of sustained rain, that bubble spurts four inches above the water.

Pilgrims chip away at a rock wall near the cave of ice in India. In Ethiopia, Ms. Alexander takes photographs, not realizing that she is entering sacred waters, making them no longer sacred. Despite this effort, Ms. Alexander has included no pictures or maps in her book, and it needs both.

"The Way to Xanadu" contains some interesting points -- the most interesting being the description of Exmoor, in which Coleridge wrote "Kubla Khan" and the description of Coleridge reading his poem. The premise of the book is flawed, however: It tries to find Wonderland in a rabbit hole. Ms. Alexander herself mentions the flaw:

"One of the dangers of some critical treatments -- as, perhaps of this one -- is that they can be taken to imply that the phenomenon of "Kubla Khan" was the inevitable result of the combination of opium and eclectic readings -- that drug plus travel literature equals masterpiece."

Yet Ms. Alexander falls prey to this very danger, forgetting that Coleridge's poem is not about a legendary realm. The poem's meaning is in the final stanza (which Ms. Alexander dismisses).

The stanza says that if the poet could revive within himself the muse's song, he could create a poem similar to the legendary realm of Xanadu. But the poet is unable to revive this song. Xanadu is merely a metaphor for the lost poem. As such, it is beside the point.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Way to Xanadu: Journeys to a Legendary Realm"

Author: Caroline Alexander

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 205 pages, $23

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