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

 

Daily Trivia : Walt Whitman

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Today is the birthday of Walt Whitman born on Long Island, New York in 1819. Whitman was working as a carpenter and living with his mother in Brooklyn, when he read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” which claimed the new United States needed a poet to properly capture its spirit. Whitman decided he was that poet. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman later said. “Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Whitman began work on Leaves of Grass, crafting an American epic that celebrated the common man. He did most of the typesetting for the book himself, and he made sure the edition was small enough to fit in a pocket, later explaining, “I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air.” He was 37 years old when he paid for the publication of 795 copies out of his own pocket.

Many of Whitman’s poems were criticized for being openly erotic. One of Whitman’s earliest reviews had called the book “a mass of stupid filth,” accusing Whitman of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians.” But rather than censoring himself, Whitman added 146 poems to his third edition.

He began to grow a literary reputation that swung from genius to moral reprobate, depending on the reader. Thoreau wrote, “It is as if the beasts spoke.” Willa Cather referred to Whitman as “that dirty old man.” Emerson praised Whitman’s collection as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed,” and the critic William Michael Rossetti proclaimed that Whitman was a talent on par with Shakespeare.

Whitman left New York when his brother was wounded in the Civil War, traveling to Virginia and then to Washington, D.C., to serve as a volunteer Army hospital nurse. He had a reputation for unconventional clothing and manners.

With the help of well-placed friends, Whitman eventually found work as a low-level clerk in the Department of the Interior. But when former Iowa Senator James Harlan discovered Whitman worked in his department, he had him dismissed, proclaiming Leaves of Grass was “full of indecent passages,” and that Whitman himself was a “very bad man” and a “free lover.”

Whitman’s friend William Douglas O’Connor immediately came to his defense. He arranged for Whitman to be transferred to the attorney general’s office, and he published a pamphlet refuting Harlan’s charges. Titled The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, the small book praised Whitman’s “nobleness of character” and went on to quote from positive reviews — and to ridicule Harlan as an under-read philistine.

The pamphlet became more than a vindication: it helped to radically alter the average reader’s perception of Whitman as both a writer and as a man: Out with the image of the bawdy nonconformist and in with the “good gray poet,” the nickname for Whitman that is still popular to this day.

Whitman spent the last 20 years of his life revising and expanding Leaves of Grass, issuing the eighth and final edition in 1891, saying it was “at last complete — after 33 y’rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old.”

Today, most scholars agree that Whitman was likely gay. When he was asked directly, toward the end of his life, Whitman declined to answer. But he did say, shortly before he died, that sex was “the thing in my work which has been most misunderstood — that has excited the roundest opposition, the sharpest venom, the unintermitted slander, of the people who regard themselves as the custodians of the morals of the world.”