Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

Friday Imaginary Review: ‘Kubla Khan Completed (Part 1)’

Context

This week’s ‘Friday Imaginary Review’ is not a review (which will, of course follow, when the book itself is published), but an extract. It relates to the discovery, by Professor Mira Theign, of what appears to be — we await the results from the Neuchâtel tests on the manuscript and ink, of course , but all the evidence points towards — Coleridge’s actual completed version of ‘Kubla Khan’.

Why Coleridge published only a fraction of this, together with its celebrated preface blaming ‘The Man from Porlock’ for the poem’s incompletion, is a separate, though fascinating question. For now it is enough that we have these eighteen MS pages, in STC’s hand. The first three cantos of Coleridge’s seven-canto poem are printed below.

:Canto 1:

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.

:Canto 2:

Tis Taindu’s golden square and street
And Xandu’s spacious vales and trees
Where many pilgrim travellers meet
All chanting for an end to peace.
“To war!” they cry
“All glory ay!
Where shields ring and arrows fly!”

Proud Kublai on a throne of jet
Beneath a canopy of gold
Nods one
Nod all
And ever and far off still grinds the sound
Of that unseen and mighty river
Whose deep sublime full fall
Passing far beneath the ground
Where rock and darkness aye dissever
To drive with force along its course
And gush unseen into unknown abysses
Black with forgetfulnesses of human wishes.
Kubla himself approaches
Astride a Mongol steed
And eighty wooden coaches
Follow his imperial lead.

Who taught thee thus to venture down th’ abyss
And ope the regions of primeval bliss?
A song, a song
Is borne along!
With melody as fine as its through-pulse is strong!
Whether Chinee orgies I behold,
Or Arimaspian rich with conquer’d gold;
Hymalian heights whereon delusive sprites
Of bitter frost and vagrant tempest play
Spout smoaks of snow throughout the day
And lead the wandering to their doom by nights
Where’er
This air
Will travel there
And thrill my mind’s true ear and lift me past despair!

The woodsman stands beneath the arch
Of drooping birch and feathery larch,
Or mountain-ash, that o’er it bends,
And sees some streamlet as it wends;
Some brook whose tune its course betrays,
As it is drawn to feed the hidden ways
Of mighty Alph, the hidden.
The woodsman has his new command
To fell the trees that peg the land
To hew the timbers into mighty strips
That best can fit a navy’s ships.
To planks of oak and planks of pine;
And water gives itself to brine.
All as the Khan has bidden.

To trace the rivers where they flow,
Serenely brawling, fiercely slow
Down to the sea where all streams go.
Streams that over summits leap,
Or in rock-scooped basins sleep;
Pools that deeper are than deep.
Bursting foam in bright cascade,
Thronged with lotus in the shade
Freighted with vessels timber-made.

Till earth and sky themselves grow mute,
The maiden’s floating songs salute
The Khan’s great armys route:
Such the flow and such the dance
Where soldiers strut and horses prance
Astrologer and Necromance
Provisioner and Royal Scribe
Forsworn and tied to Kublai’s tribe
Advance! Advance!

A million men! A million men!
Dance stately out and through the glen
And pass beyond the homeland’s ken.

Ten thousand ships! Ten thousand craft!
From galleon-yacht to simple raft,
With Kublai’s horde as cargo draught!

***

Wouldst thou know the true most truly,
More than middling mortals find?
Drink close fragrance from the lily
Than faint odour on the wind?
Wouldst thou know why sunlight pauses
To cast its shadows on the mind?
Know of what the moon discourses
Looking down on humankind?
Then strike the cithar and the timbrel!
Pound at drums and shake the cymbal
Cast thy voice o’er the restless sea
Of aye-surging infinity!
Grief shall ope the founts of truth,
And heaven sing the truth to thee.
We knew this at our earliest birth
And will again when we quit this earth
And if, between, our memory
Cannot quite grasp such mystery
We need but patience, patience now
Await aye still th’ immortan How.
Patience child of grief
The weary unrelief
Patience who is strong
From grief that is lifelong.
Grief in darkling manner freeing.
Wouldst thou yet unriddle of Being
Further than others can?
Sorrow shall give thine eyes new lustre
Sorrow’s trumpet is thy muster
That Providence and Mars thus toy with man
To end what it began.

To Love and Sorrow all Nature draws;
If the riddle be read,
The code behind eternal laws
And each divergent thread
Of its mazy texture, and discover:
Whence the ravel spread.

Beside the summer sea I stand,
Where slow billows swelling shine.
How beautiful this pearly sand!
That waves, and winds, and years refine!
Be this delicious quiet mine —
The joy of youth, so sweet before,
When I could thus my frame recline,
And watch th’ entangled weeds ashore!

:Canto 3:

The Khan’s Armada jostled in the bay
Barge, Warship, Doww,
Each keel, each prow
And chiming hollow hull
Clanging flank to flank
Innumerable in rank:
Whilst the tide strains full
Red marks the grisly sky at break of day
And gongs make signal to speed the boats away
Cutting sea as earth is cut by plough.

Depart! Depart!
For the far Nipponian shore
And war!
Anchors upstart!
In long procession, more and more.
The last boat lingers on the breaking tide.
Three soul-expanding shouts the skies divide;
Three wild, responsive cheers re-echo wide.
All sweet vibration
Tremble in the ear
As if in holy fear
Approaching the human mind

In humblest prostration.
The last delightful sounds they’ll ever hear!

Still the white signal, fading, strains the eyes,
Still the lorn lover with his hand replies:
Till melting into air — the object lost
And duty sternly calling to his post,
Twixt him and joy th’eternal curtain’s drawn,
No more of bliss to know returning dawn.

Sailing a stilly sea, the fleet as one

Turns backward stern upon the setting sun.

How beautiful this ocean night!
Dewy stars supply the light,
No mist obscures, no little cloud
Breaks the whole serene of sky.
In full-swarmed glory starlights now
Flit firefly-like about the prow
As Kubla’s fleet skim silvery by:
Close hugging every warlike ark
The ocean’s bosom girdled with the dark.
How beautiful is night!

But, eye, descend, O descend!
To where the depths of water end
Bitumen-black bed of ocean’s ground
Unlit, unseen, opaque to sound:
Descend!
Leave far above the never ceasing roar
Of titan-waves whose grip will break the shore
From rock to boulder and so to sand.
Descend to where air, sky and land
And merely phantasmic dreams:
To where all drowning bodies tend
To where hot seabed chasms rend
In utter silence and dark
Descend!
Blackening in ultimate deep
To where a timeless oozeing swells
To where ebon Atar, spirit, dwells
Compressed of ancient malice, half-asleep
Half-dreaming of all ruin’s creep
That spreads a boneless tentic arm
And wills man’s harm.

Ancestral spirits, they that drave
And urged proud Kublai on to war
Appearing flitting-wise in dreams
That sank, as all sinks, through ocean’s streams
Down to the monster in its cave
Within his dreaming dire and huge
With magick power of subterfuge
And mingling with the roar
Of the portentous tides
That under upper waters pour
Water slides and aye backslides.
Atar half-woke to half-declaim
In abysmal growl a spell infame:
He pronounced the deep unholy name.
Pronounced it thrice, pronounced it dire
To stir a whirlpool in that mire
That rose to where the waves aspire.

Whence enmity arose between
Th’ancestral powers of Xanadu
And this far-sunken power marine
None can tell the story true.
We only know Atar stands gainst
The Chinee empire pressing east:
And makes their coast impermious fence
Barring imperial ambition hence
Vowing they never be released.

Summoned by deep art, storms appear
Swift from the breezy north’s assertive gales:
A raging hurl of tidal atmosphere
T’impel the course and swell the yielding sails
A rush the trembling craft past power to steer.

Before the sightless breeze the vessels fly
Clambers the mountain sea, t’approach the sky
And plunge again into the wave-trough nigh.
That now the refluent fleet evades the sight,
High-briny peaks and plunging water vales

Or thund’ring down the depths that foam below,
Ploughs up the surging brine with dashing prow.
The rattling cordage whirls, the sail-yards strain,
The winding pipe re-echoes o’er the main:

Firm in their stations ply the obedient crew,
To trim the lines, and strain the rudder
Haul on the beating sheets with sinew’d force,
Wrestling the vast machine’s unsteady course
Whist wind and magic make the beams shudder
And darkness palls
As wind heaps walls
Of water side on side to block all view.

A mast is rent
A keel is cracked
And down is sent
Ruined and racked
Warship and barge, small and large.
As gales crash in and fierce rebound
Ship after ship staggers and is drowned

*******

Far round the globe
Th’Abyssin mantissa rolls to white her eyes
And moans a magnifying chant.
She seats herself upon the earth,
Bows her head, tucks tight her robe
While hairgirt dwarfs their queen attend
Keeping holy distance til the trance doth end.*

Phantoms of sublimity flit
Death and rebirth
A vision of a mighty fo’csle split
And crashed into the ocean
Reverberating through the depths
She sees how the winds bursting through
From ev’ry point are whirl’d, and still renew
Their circuit: rapid torrents gushing spray
In rivers that their tribute to the Ocean pay,
Whose vast will never overswell its shores.
For strait, in vapours, by the Sun exhaled
Or through Earth’s secret caverns, it restores
All back again in misty cloudhead veiled.
So does the maiden’s hymn
Encircle back into its source
Web’d mystic beauties brim
Paths intricately retrouse.
The circled dome, the whirlpool’s grip!
Lamenting each engulféd ship.

He who crossed the waters
For rich Nippon’s land
With his many Sons and Daughters
And Armies to command.
Found them all the Children
Of one great Lord of Love
Whose Mercy from a thunderhead
Strikes scorpion-lightning in a spread

White antlers from above.
What the meed of her Song?
That the ceaseless on-flow
And myriad Echo
Which from the welcoming Hearts of the Pure
Repeats and works ever to prolong
Each difference Tone all meanings Just
Until in still-harmonious notes all crumbles into dust.

— —

* ‘In the middle of Abyssinia there are men called Pyganmies, who speak the same language as the other inhabitants of the country. They are very short, the tallest being only two cubits in height, most of them only one and a half. Their hair is very long, going down to the knees and even lower, and their beards are larger than those of any other men. When their beards are full grown they leave off wearing clothes and let the hair of their head fall down behind far below the knees, while their beard trails down to the feet in front. When their body is thus entirely covered with hair they fasten it round them with a girdle, so that it serves them for clothes. Their sheep are no bigger than lambs, their oxen, asses, horses, mules, and other beasts of burden about the size of rams. 3000 of them attend on the monarch of Abyssinia.’ Ctesius INDIKA [Coleridge’s note]

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.