What’s the lesson here?
The anthology I use in my Interpretation of Poetry classes divides poems up by form and by theme. Since it’s an introductory class, I tend to work with thematic similarities more than formal ones–sophomores, I’ve discovered, aren’t as entranced with the sonnet the way I can be, but they can get into a group of poems about, say, politics or war or nature.
The section we’re working on now is a bit meta–poems on poetry and poets in dialogue. The usual suspects have appeared: “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “Tell All the Truth but tell it slant–,” “Ars Poetica.” And then there are the poems that make me wonder just what Joe Parini was thinking when he put them into this section.
Like “Kubla Khan.” I mean, I get the connection based on the story behind the writing of the poem. Coleridge, in a laudanum fueled fit of inspiration, begins this epic work only to be interrupted by a knock at the door, and when he returns, the muse has deserted him. I guess I can make that work as a poem about poetry.
But the lesson I really get from it is this: a poem that attempts to describe the sublime will always fall short. Xanadu, after all, is a wonderland, another version of Eden “where Alph the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.” And the more Coleridge tries to describe the scene, the more he falls back on generalities: “that deep romantic chasm,” and “the sacred river. / Five miles meandering with a mazy motion,” and again, the “caverns measureless to man.”
Dante had the same problem with Paradiso. Heaven is far less interesting than hell or purgatory, because there are only so many ways one can say that something is eternally beautiful, or can be so overwhelmed that one cannot hope to describe it before the reader tells you to piss off. Coleridge falls into the same trap when he tries to describe the song of the Abyssinian maid.
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–
If I could only remember, if I only had the skill, I could make it appear before you and you would see the splendor. I think what Coleridge teaches us, although I don’t think he does so intentionally, is that some stuff is too big for language to encompass. We get more from smaller bites, well-chewed. And besides, dirty stuff is way more interesting than the pure.
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