Monday, August 25, 2008

Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"

The Guardian's poetry workshop this month invites readers to write a finish for Kubla Khan, surely the most famous unfinished poem in the English language.

The problem I have with the assignment is that KK doesn't actually strike me as unfinished. Coleridge did say the poem he dreamed (hallucinated) was much longer; but he may simply have been experiencing dilation. We know that dreams objectively last for minutes or seconds, yet subjectively can go on for hours or days. It makes sense to me that a dream-poem that appears to be 200-300 lines might in fact only have been 50-60 lines (the published version of KK is about 54 lines).

Not to say that Coleridge captured exactly what he had dreamed-- clearly he didn't. But perhaps we may regard KK as incomplete, rather than unfinished; perhaps completion would require something more than tacking extra stanzas onto the end. Anyway, I find the ending perfectly satisfying: the dreamer awakes from his vision changed, and thereby an object of awe and dread to his fellows.

Nonetheless, I've made two attempts at "finishing" KK.


For he has slept beneath the oculus
Of Kubla's dome, that stares beyond the sun
And still he burns with holy afflatus.
The sacred Alph is mingled with his blood
Like trumpet music with the crash of guns
Like shattered ice afloat in springtime flood!
From Xanadu is no return,
Choose the flood, or choose to burn,
Who loves on Abora will spurn
All earthly loves.
I'll spend my life a slave
To echoes from the sunless cave
Of river's birth and daylight's grave
And hemlock groves.


One who has slept beneath the oculus of Kubla's dome
beneath the burning eye of Kubla's dome
staring into the sun like a bird of prey
is blind to earthly light and at home
in the sunless caverns of unlit Alph and the dead ocean
and the hemlock grove of Mount Abora.
I sang to my love of Mount Abora
but he was wakened to the living day
losing the taste of honey-dew in favor
of mortal loves and earthly savor.

The second piece is more in synch with the spirit of the assignment, which says "don't try to imitate the language of the Romantic era; write the way your imaginary character sounds" It's probably the one I'll submit. We'll see what happens.

Collection available! Knocking from Inside

No comments: