Bonus Points, poetic memes

From: William Benzon (
Date: Thu 22 May 2003 - 01:53:51 GMT

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    I've got a long-term interest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." I've copied part of the poem below. After that I've copied a section I've cut from an essay I'm working on. That section quotes from some of the books Coleridge is likely to have read prior to writing the poem.

    What memes are in those passages and how did they get from those books into Coleridge's poem?


    Lines 1 - 28 (out of 54) of "Kubla Khan":

    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 e¹er 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, Of chaffy grain beneath the thresher¹s flail: And Œmid 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 taverns endless to man, And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:


    Cut from an essay:

    Now I would like to step away from the poem itself and consider Livingston Lowes¹ The Road to Xanadu, an early twentieth-century investigation into the putative sources of ³The Rime of the Ancient Mariner² and ³Kubla Khan.² I agree with the modern judgment that Lowes¹ investigation into Coleridge¹s notebooks and library tells us relatively little about how Coleridge¹s poems work in our minds and hearts, nor is his loose associationist psychology very convincing. Nonetheless, I find his display of evidence quite fascinating and would like to suggest a way of ³salvaging² it.

    His method is quite simple. Lowes examined books Coleridge is known or likely to have read ­ either because it is explicitly referenced in Coleridge¹s notes or because it is very much like something Coleridge has referenced and was likely available to him at the time ­ and found passages similar to lines and phrases in ³The Rime of the Ancient Mariner² and in
    ³Kubla Khan.² Lowes then reproduced these passages, some at considerable length, and provided suitable contextual and connective tissue relating them to Coleridge¹s interests and habits and, of course, to his poems.

    Here are a few of the passages Lowes marshals in contemplation of ³Kubla Khan.² I have reproduced them as Lowes did, with certain phrases italicized. The first passage is from Purchas His Pilgramage, originally published in the early seventeenth century. This is the passage that Coleridge cites in his preface to the poem, though he misquotes it there (p. 326 of Lowes):

    In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddows, pleasant springs, delightfull Streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place.

    The next passage is by a contemporary of Coleridge¹s, William Bartram, and is from his Travels through North and South Carolina . . . (p. 335 of Lowes):

    Just under my feet was the inchanting and amazing chrystal fountain, which incessantly threw up, from dark, rocky caverns below, tons of water every minute, forming a bason, capacious enough for large shallops to ride in, and a creek of four or five feet depth of water, and near twenty yards over, which meanders six miles through green meadows, pouring its limpid waters into the great Lake George. . . . About twenty yards from the upper edge of the bason . . . . is a continual and amazing ebullition, where the waters are thrown up in such abundance and amazing force, as to jet a swell up two or three feet above the common surface: white sand and small particles of shells are thrown up with the waters . . . when they . . . subside with the expanding flood, and gently sing again.

    The next passage is from James Bruce, who had journeyed to the source of the Nile in the third quarter of the eighteenth century and published his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the fourth quarter (Lowes p. 339):

    The second fountain lise about a stone-cast west from the first: the inhabitants say that this whole mountain is full of water, and add, that the whole plain about the fountain is floating and unsteady, a certain mark that there is water concealed under it; for which reason, the water does not overflow at the fountain, but forces itself with great violence out at the foot of the mountain. The inhabitants . . . maintain that that year it trembled little on account of the drought, but other years, that it trembled and overflowed so as that it could scare be approached without danger.

    While we have good reason to believe that Coleridge had read Purchas, Bartram, and Bruce, we do not know that he had read F. Bernier¹s Voyage to Surat, from the seventeenth century (Lowes p. 352):

    Out of all these mountains do issue innumerable sources and rivulets. . . . All these rivulets, descending from the mountains, make the plain and all those hillocks so fair and fruitful, that one would take this whole kingdom for some evergreen garden. . . . The lake hath this peculiar, that Œtis full of little isles, which are as many gardens of pleasure, that appear all green in the midst of the water. . . . Beyond the lake, upon the side of the hills, there is nothing but houses and gardens of pleasure . . . . full of springs and rivulets.

    William L. Benzon
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