Daily Trivia : Coleridge and 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 begins one of the most famous poems in the English language. Coleridge attributed this poem to a dream vision that he had when he fell asleep one day after reading a story in which Kubla Khan commanded the building of a new palace. Coleridge claimed that while he slept, he had a vision and he composed —while sleeping—some two or three hundred lines of poetry.

When he woke up , he seized a pen and began writing furiously. But after writing down the first three stanzas of this dream  poem—the first three stanzas of the current poem as we know it—he was interrupted by a “person on business from Porlock,” who detained him for an hour.

After this interruption, he was unable to recall the rest of the vision or the lines of poetry he had composed in his opium induced dream. The final stanza of the poem which talks of a vision in which he saw “a damsel with a dulcimer” who played and sang of “Mount Abora” were written after the interruption.

The poem as it we know it today is a mere 54 lines long and haunting and beautiful as it is, it leaves you with a sense that there is much more to be said.

 

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Today is the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was born in Ottery St. Mary, England and he was the youngest of 14 children. He studied at Cambridge, but he struggled there, and he dropped out to join the cavalry. He did as poorly as a soldier as he had as a student, and his brothers ended up getting him discharged by reason of insanity.

At Cambridge, Coleridge had struck up an intense friendship with the poet Robert Southey, and the two men devised a plan to move to Pennsylvania and start a utopian community. Marriage was key to this utopia, so when Southey got engaged, Coleridge married the sister of Southey’s fiancée.

Then Southey abandoned his utopian ideal and decided to become a lawyer instead. Coleridge was devastated. He wrote to Southey: “You have left a large void in my heart — I know no man big enough to fill it.” He was depressed for a while, but shortly after that, Coleridge struck up a friendship with William Wordsworth and they became close friends.

The two men went for daily walks over the hills, discussing poetry, and together they wrote the book, Lyrical Ballads  in 1798 ,which opens with Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and ends with Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey.

Between the fall of 1797 and the spring of 1798, a period when he saw Wordsworth daily and smoked a lot of opium, Coleridge wrote his most famous poems: Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Christabel, and Frost at Midnight.

He said, “A great poet […] must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child.”

In addition to being a poet Coleridge was a literary critic and a lecturer of some repute. He was a highly respected thinker and philosopher. But despite all his achievements, Coleridge always seemed to fall just short of his full potential. He was a habitual oversleeper. He broke plans and missed deadlines. He often left his mail unopened in case it contained bad news and he spent  half his life he battlling a crippling opium addiction that made him feel worthless and ashamed.

He never got some of his best ideas down on paper, leaving other, more diligent friends to write the poems Coleridge only talked about. He spent years working on a massive book of philosophy, but he never finished it. Coleridge spent most his life trying to bridge the chasm between the inside world and the outside one, the mind and physical reality. He was tremendously passionate. When he fell in love with an idea or a woman, he fell hard.

His marriage was unhappy from the start but he complicated matters for himself by falling in love with Sara Hutchinson (Wordsworth’s sister in law). He tried to stay faithful to his wife and to maintain a friendship with Sara, but it was too difficult and when Sara distanced herself from him, he was heart-broken. He blamed Wordsworth for advising her to keep her distance and they quarreled.

He separated from his wife and spent the rest of his life giving lectures and writing literary criticism. He continued to write poetry as well, but his best years as a poet were behind him. He finished his major prose work, the Biographia Literaria 1817. It is a volume composed of 23 chapters of autobiographical notes and dissertations on various subjects, including some incisive literary theory and criticism.

He composed some poetry and had many inspirations – a few of them from opium overdose. Perhaps because he conceived such grand projects, he had difficulty carrying them through to completion, and he berated himself for his “indolence”. It is unclear whether his growing use of opium (and the brandy in which it was dissolved) was a symptom or a cause of his growing depression.

He published other writings around this time notably Sibylline Leaves (1817), Hush (1820), Aids to Reflection (1825), and On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830). He died in Highgate, London on 25 July 1834 as a result of heart failure compounded by an unknown lung disorder, possibly linked to his use of opium.

 

Sources:

writer’s almanac

shoomp.com

spark notes.com

wikipedia

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Daily Trivia : Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

These are lines from what has to be one of the best known poems ever written. Published in 1923, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, continues to resonate with readers even today. It was first published in The New Republic magazine. It was Frost’s favourite of his own poems, and he called it “my best bid for remembrance.” Though it’s a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. He’d stayed up the night before working on a long and difficult poem called New Hampshire.

It was morning when he finally finished it. Feeling relieved he went outside and watched the sunrise. While he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page. He said, “It was as if I’d had a hallucination.” He struggled with the ending, until he decided to repeat the famous last line, “And miles to go before I sleep.”

Sources : Writer’s almanac

 

Book Review : The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

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This is a book about a book, De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things written by Titus Lucretius Carus over 2,000 years ago. Lucretius was born nearly a century before Christ and nothing much is known about him. He was an accomplished poet; he lived during the first century BC and he was devoted to the teachings of Epicurus all of which he wrote eloquently about in his magnificent poem, De Rerum Natura. 

The Swerve is an account of the rediscovery of this poem after it had been forgotten for centuries after the birth of Christ and the revolutionary impact it had on the writers, artists and scientists of the time when it was discovered in a monastery in 1417. This epic poem is presented in six books and it undertakes a full and completely naturalistic explanation of the physical origin, structure, and destiny of the universe. Included in it are ideas such as the atomic structure of matter and the emergence and evolution of life forms over the millennia.

On the Nature of Things laid out what is a strikingly modern understanding of the world. Every page reflected a core scientific vision—a vision of atoms moving constantly in an infinite universe, coming together to form first one thing and then another. The poem claimed that atoms are at the core of everything in the universe, from the trees to the oceans to the animals to the stars to human beings. It claimed that there is no such thing as an afterlife, no heaven or hell and that it is foolish to believe in an all powerful, all seeing God who is so minutely concerned with human affairs that he sees everything we do and will eventually reward us or punish us for it.

All of these ideas were of course, considered heresy back in the 15th century and the Church tried its best to denounce Lucretius and to prevent the circulation of his epic poem. But despite their best efforts the poem was copied again and again and it was circulated fairly widely. The ideas in the poem inspired the Renaissance. It influenced artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

That, briefly, is the story behind this book. It is interesting in itself, but it becomes more so in the hands of Stephen Greenblatt who takes a tremendous amount of information and brings it all together in a very engaging narrative. Despite the wealth of information here and the many different threads of the same story, the narrative never gets dense or heavy.

Greenblatt paints a vivid picture of pre-rennaisance Europe. There is a reason why that period is referred to as the dark ages. It was a time when every word and every thought had to be censored and where intellectual curiosity was deemed a crime…The author writes about it all very casually and that more than anything else, makes it a chilling portrait.

We all know that Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake and that Galileo was persecuted for stating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. All of that is brought to life vividly here. And when taken against the thought of all the knowledge and wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome that was lost for over a thousand years and had to be painstakingly learned and rediscovered …it is almost as if the world went backwards for a thousand years before it found its way again.

I knew all of this already, but Stephen Greenblatt paints such a vivid picture of the people and the time that I found myself feeling an acute sense of loss.

I took my time in reading this book, forcing myself to go slow because I didn’t want to miss anything. But much as I learned, it made me want to learn more…both about ancient Greece and Rome and about the Renaissance. This is a wonderful book and must read for anyone interested in history.

Daily Trivia : Tennyson

The Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire, England on 6th August 1809. He was the fourth of twelve children and grew up in an isolated rectory in Lincolnshire. He was unhappy at school and his father was an alcoholic, so young Alfred took refuge from his unhappiness in writing.

He went on to Cambridge, where he began to make a name for himself as a poet. While he was there, he published his first book of poetry, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830). His closest friend was a young man named Arthur Hallam.

Hallam’s sudden death in 1832 sent Tennyson into a depression, out of which came some of his most famous works, including Morte d’Arthur and In Memoriam (1850). 

In Memoriam became hugely popular, and led Queen Victoria to appoint Tennyson the Poet Laureate. His later works include The Idylls of the King (1859), The Holy Grail and Other Poems (1870) and Tiresias and Other Poems. (1885).

Among his most famous individual poems are ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ (1854) and ‘Crossing the Bar’ (1889), which Tennyson requested be placed at the end of all editions of his poems.

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
          And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
          When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
          Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
          Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
          And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
          When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
          The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
          When I have crost the bar.