My beloved convinced me to watch Dead Poets Society last weekend. A great movie, for the most part. The story was a little jumpy in places, but far better than modern films in terms of narrative coherency. I finally understand a lot of references I’d seen a thousand times before, as well as what must be the founding idea of one of my favorite bands. And seeing the meme of Boomers—when they were still teens, in this case—only ever resisting authority when nothing is on the line so poignantly illustrated was enlightening.
Movie night also spurred me to get back to the Great Books task with gusto. The Romantic period provided many works that earned permanent places in the Western canon, even if the official list is missing many notables. (Seriously, just one Byron work? Nothing by Shelley—either one of them—or Tennyson? Whitman is overrated and a tyrant’s loyal pet besides, but even he didn’t make the cut!) Fortunately, I found a couple of good choices and gave them a shot. With that in mind, enjoy the Coleridge special.
Great Books 3: Kubla Khan
There’s no boat
There’s no river
— Blind Guardian, “Sacred Mind”
First up is “Kubla Khan”, which doesn’t put the “book” into “Great Books” at all. The entire poem is 54 lines, and could easily fit on a single page. According to Coleridge himself, it was supposed to be at least 5 times longer, but he was interrupted during his furious recollection of a drug-induced hallucination, and the vision faded before he could write any further.
What we did get is inspiring. I mean that literally. Lines 4-5, “Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea,” are the direct inspiration for not only the name, but the entire setting of one of my favorite games. The name and idea of Xanadu gave rise to numerous songs, from the execrable 80s hit to the fairly decent Blind Guardian track I quoted above. And history tells that none other than Teddy Roosevelt, when he was near death in the Amazon, lay in his tent reciting the opening stanza to keep himself conscious.
Over the course of only a few lines, Coleridge describes what is very much an otherworldly vision. Certainly nothing the Mongols could have—or would have—built even in their heyday. Authenticity isn’t the point, however; this is all about painting a picture with words. And what a beautiful picture it is.
My long hours playing Sunless Sea led me to see the games setting of the “Unterzee” everywhere I looked in the poem. The game overtly references this, too; one of the major “enemy” factions of the Hollow Earth sea is the Khanate, and it is very heavily implied that they inhabit the remnants of Xanadu.
Great Books 4: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The sea has never been friendly to man.
At most, it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.
— Joseph Conrad
Since “Kubla Khan” was so short, and I was still the only one awake, I knew I had time to read a little more. So why not go to the other Coleridge poem on the Great Books list? “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is much longer, totaling over 600 lines, and it tells a much deeper story. In seven parts, it runs the gamut from folktale to exploration to horror, perfectly capturing the Romantic spectrum in a single work.
The Mariner was the sole survivor of an expedition that got blown off course, ending up in what we now call the Southern Ocean. He’s telling his tale to a random guest at a random wedding, and his audience of one grows increasingly amazed and concerned by the story he hears. Of course, when that story involves a voyage through the icy maze of the far South, a vengeful spirit, and a crew being killed and then having their bodies inhabited by angels, well, how would you react?
In a few places, the rhyme and meter are a little suspect. The story itself, on the other hand, is downright fun in places. It’s very clear that this is one source of a lot of “ghost ship” stories in modern media, such as Pirates Of The Caribbean. Whalers in the early 19th century, who may have been the true discoverers of Antarctica, probably looked around for an albatross when they were lost in the ice and fog—and knew better than to kill it.
Yes, this is a poem that can best be described as cinematic.
Oh, sweet Christabel, share with me your poem
— Nightwish, “Beauty of the Beast”
The woman of my dreams was still lost in hers when the Ancient Mariner finished his tale, so I continued perusing the Coleridge collection I downloaded from Project Guterberg. Not far from the two poems I’d already read, I saw “Christabel” in the table of contents. That name jogged my memory, reminding me of a line in a song, which I’ve quoted here. A minute or two of research, and I discovered that this poem was indeed the inspiration of the Nightwish song. Not surprising, since they often reference the Romantics, directly or indirectly.
Deciding that there was nothing to lose, I gave it a shot. Now, I have to admit some confusion. The tale of Christabel makes very little sense to me. It’s clear that she finds another woman, Geraldine, in the woods near her father’s manor. Geraldine was abducted and, for some reason, left behind by her captors. Christabel takes her in, they spend the night together, and they meet with the baron in the morning. He realizes who his uninvited guest is: the daughter of a fellow lord, an estranged friend from long ago.
That part was easy. It’s everything else that left my mind spinning. There are so many references to “a woman’s sin” that I have to assume Coleridge was implying either some serious envy or an actual sexual encounter between the two women. The way Christabel reacts when her father speaks his intent to send Geraldine back home could point to either possibility.
But that’s the mark of good poetry, isn’t it? It doesn’t come right out and tell you what’s happening. It leaves room for interpretation. Poets, like the bards of old, tell a tale in a different way than the historian. That is what Robin Williams’ character was trying to teach in Dead Poets Society. Poetry isn’t something that can be calculated or rationalized. It’s inherently irrational and subjective. Different people will find different meaning, and that’s okay.