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To present of a sudden to the mind a signal thought, which springs unexpectedly but appropriately out of another, the meeting of the two striking a light that flashes a new and brilliant ray upon the attention, — to do this is to perform a high poetic feat. The sacred river running through wood and dale, then gliding into the earth through caverns measureless to man, to sink “in tumult to a lifeless ocean:" this mysterious picture sets the mind a brooding, awakens its poetic sensibility. Suppose the passage had stopped here. Regaled by such a fresh, impressive presentation, the mind would have grasped it as an inward boon, to be held tightly hold of by the susceptible reader, awakening in him, through quick affinities, thoughts of human fate and woe. But the passage does not stop here; in the poet's mind, as in the capable reader's, are generated associations with human destiny: and so, instead of a full stop at “ocean,” there is only a colon, the poet's thought springing forward into the two wonderful lines, –
“And mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war.” And the passage, instead of leaving on the reader an impression of calm, strange beauty,
kindles into a startling splendor. The physical tumult passes into human tumult; the vague, hoarse swell of a torrent grows articulate, the “caverns measureless to man" deepen into the abode of former kings, who, from the subterranean darkness to which their warriorambition has doomed them, throw upon the ear of their Sardanapalean descendant doleful, menacing predictions. All this, and more, is in those two lines, so laden with meaning and music, whereby the physical picture is magnified, deepened, vivified, through psychical par-· ticipation. The poetical is ever an appeal to the deepest in the human mind, and a great burst of poetic light like this lays bare, for the imagination to roam in, a vast indefinite domain.
In another part of the short poem is a similar sudden heightening of effect by the introduction of humanity into a scene of purely terrene features :
“But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted” These lines could have been written only by a poet with the finest ear, an internal ear. When
we come to the last word of the fourth line, we pass into a higher region : "haunted !” Haunted by what?
“By woman wailing for her demon lover." On this single line is stamped the power of a great poet; that is, a poet in whom breadth and depth of intellectual and sympathetic endowment give to the refining aspiring poetic faculty material to wotk upon drawn from the grander, subtler, remoter resources of the human soul, — material beyond the reach of any but poets of the first order, whose right, indeed, to a place in this order rests upon their power of higher spiritual reach united to wider intellectual range. How much is involved in this short passage ! A landscape gift, to present in two lines a clear picture of the “savage place;" then, by a leap of the poet's imagination, the scene is overhung by an earthly atmosphere that makes it so holy and enchanted that (and here the poet takes the final great leap) it is fit, “under a waning moon,” to be haunted
“By woman wailing for her demon lover.” That is a poetically imaginative leap of the boldest and most beautiful. What an ethereal springiness, what an intellectual swing, in the mind that could make such a leap! That particular one Coleridge's friend Wordsworth could not have made, strong as he was in poetic imagination. It implies almost something spectral, superearthly, something uncanny. And what an exquisitely musical rhythm the thought weaves about itself for its poetic incarnation
Kubla Khan is a fragment, just as is a much longer, and his greatest, poem, Christabel. In the autumn of 1797 Coleridge, then in poor health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse on the confines of Somerset and Devonshire. One day, from the effect of an anodyne, prescribed to him, he fell asleep in his chair while reading in Purchas's Pilgrimage a passage like this : “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto; and thus ten miles of fertile ground were enclosed with a wall.” He slept about three hours. When he awoke he seemed to have composed two or three hundred lines describing what, in this sleep of the outward senses, he had inwardly seen and heard. So vivid was his recollection that immediately on awaking he seized a pen and began to write as
one would when dictated to. In the midst of his writing he was called out on business. And he went out! Suppose a great statesman and orator, in the full swing of a grave momentous speech before a public assembly, to be suddenly interrupted and asked to listen to a young lady's dream! Not more impertinent were this than the interruption of Coleridge by a call of outward business. Nay, it were so much the less impertinent as the poetic dreams of Coleridge were more freighted with wisdom and enduring thought than any statesman's oration. To permit himself to be arrested in an immortal flight, as was this of Kubla Khan! to lay down his pen and go out to talk to some intruder, from a small neighboring town, about a prosaic, insignificant, transitory, delusive matter of fact! And he who was a bungler at these every-day opacities, and was an expert at translucent ideals. The business of Coleridge was to dream poetic dreams, not to act. So grand and new and beautiful and significant were his dreams that, like works of Art, they become stimulative and generative of high thoughts in others. In Coleridge there was so deep an inwardness that, when abstracted from the outer world,