memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for July 28, 2011

A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw

I quickly discovered, as a new father all those years ago, the solution to the thorny problem of reading-matter for Baby’s bedtime story. With Thomas the Tank Engine Baby would have to stay alert and do some more thinking (after a hard day) whereas with Kubla Khan he could just call it a day and zonk out immediately.

Kubla Khan is a poetic masterpiece by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1798 he was living alone in a small rented cottage in the West Country. To combat life-long depression he was experimenting with large draughts of laudanum, an opium-based mixture, and one morning he sank into a trance wherein he dreamt a vision of a long epic poem about the Mogul Emperor, Kubla Khan; unfortunately he was interrupted by a knock on the door; it was a «person from Porlock» on business – probably one of the most intrusive interruptions in all of English Literature, for when, after about half an hour,  the man left, Coleridge returned to his room and found to his profound chagrin he had forgotten large tracts of his ballad and these fragments are all he could recall; (personally I think we owe a debt to the gentleman from Porlock – I can’t be doing with all these long ballads, meself).


Of course one doesn’t tell Baby all this, one simply asks XANADU? And on his sleepy nod off we go:

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.

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