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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 5 May 2016

"The Road to Xanadu" by John Livingston Lowes

Despite the title, the bulk of this book is about the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Lowes seeks to explain where each element of the story came from before it percolated in what he calls the "deep well" of Coleridge's imagination to emerge as classic poetry. This book is a brilliant feat of scholarship: he leaves no stone unturned and every image (so it seems) is traced to its source (and often multiple sources). It is an extraordinarily impressive work, although obsessive, exhaustive but sometimes a little exhausting.

I was interested initially because of my work on liminality but well before the end I was determined to read more of Coleridge, his biography, his criticism, and of course his great poems. This man was so much better than Wordsworth!

Mariner is all book work: he had never been to sea before he write the work. He seems to have been a voracious reader with a prodigious memory: he talks about ocular images which suggest that he had a photographic memory. He was also extreme when he talked: he seems to have subjected his listeners to a stream of consciousness that ranged from subject to subject demonstrating an incredible breadth of knowledge and understanding: he was interested in everything. He would have been an amazing person to have met (but perhaps a bit of a bore and certainly a monopoliser of conversations).

For example, the Ancient Mariner experiences:
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch's oils,
Burnt green and blue, and white
and Lowes finds the sliminess is a description of Captain Cook, which Coleridge read; the oiliness from voyages of Father Bourzes; the burning from Purchas; the witches from Macbeth (and they go "about, about"); the death-fires from Priestley's Opticks when he describes light from putrescence and Will o' the Wisps in burial grounds; and the crawling things from Frederick Martens accounts of a voyage to Greenland and Spitzbergen!

In another example the poem talks of "snowy clifts" and Lowes tracks down travelogues which talk of cliffs or clefts or even clifts until he finds a Captain Wood who writes of 'snowy clifts'.

Lowe also speculates about the famous Albatross. This, he suggests, is not the huge white bird most people know but the rather smaller black 'albitross' which is mentioned in another travelogue and is of a size where it might be possible to be hung around someone's neck.

Far from being a fantasy, the Ancient Mariner has science woven deep into its fabric. The very journey could be traced on a map; he sails down into the South Atlantic, rounds the Horn, is becalmed in the Doldrums near the Equator, crosses the line twice and circumnavigates the globe.

The Ancient Mariner himself, Lowe shows to be partly based on The Wandering Jew ("the deathless stranger passes still, like night, from land to land") , an old myth and a key part in The Monk which was a best seller as Coleridge was writing the Mariner (pp 225 - 228). But Coleridge also knew the Sicilian's Tale, in which a Franciscan monk holds the guests at a wedding spell-bound (p 229) and mesmerism was in fashion (p 231) and he tried writing with Wordsworth a poem about the Death of Abel and of course Cain is a killer doomed to wander the earth (pp 233 - 235). Don't forget the Flying Dutchman (p 253). All of these influences merged together in Coleridge's mind. There is the scary bit in the poem where male and female demons, Death and Life-in=Death, play dice for the soul of the Mariner and Life-in-Death wins: "For the Mariner's fate at the fall of the dice is the fate of the Wandering Jew - the doom of the undying among the dead." (p 256) Finally, of course, the Mariner is Ulysses (p 262).

Coleridge read and read and read.

Lowes describes the imagination as an "incongruous, chaotic and variegated jumble" (p 4) which waits for "the informing spirit which broods over chaos ... the formlessness out of which eventually form was wrought." (pp 6 - 7); "Chaos precedes cosmos ... surging and potent chaos" (p 12). What Coleridge called the hooks-and-eyes of the memory "will lead us to the very alembic of the creative energy." (p 41). This then is a journey through "chartless tracts" (p 51) which "assumes the existence of what Coleridge called 'the twilight realms of consciousness' [in Biographia Literaria 2: 120]" (p 51); to find the origins we need to disengage "the strands of an extremely complex web" (p 51). "The web of creation, like the skein of life, is of a mingled yarn" (p 60): we separate the threads and lose the integrity of the whole (p 60) And Coleridge talked of the streamy nature of association , which thinking curbs and rudders [Anima Poetae, p46]. But "the difference between art, in whatever sphere, and the chaotic welter of the stream of consciousness lies not in their constituents, but in the presence or absence of imaginative control." (p 85)

Most true it is that I have look'd on truth
Askance and strangely.
Shakespeare Sonnet 110

"The imagination is an assimilating energy. It pierces through dissimilarity to some underlying oneness in which qualities the most remote cohere." (p 105)

"Not only on the fascinating fringes of early maps, but universally, the advancing territory of the known is rimmed and bounded by a dubious borderland in which the unfamiliar and the strange hold momentary sway." (p 105)

"The borderland between the unknown and the known keeps merging on its hither edge with the familiar, at the same that its outer edge is pushing on into the unexplored." (pp 105 - 106)

A dead dog at a distance is said to smell like musk [so scandal viewed from afar isn't too bad; Coleridge's Notebooks]

That which is firme doth flit and fall away,
And that is flitting doth abide and stay.
Spenser Ruines of Rome 3
There are two forces in life: the deliberate and the chance: Epictetus says that one should carefully and skillfully make use of what is thrown ... Outward things are not in my power. To Will is in my power.
Epictetus  The Encheiridion Book 2 Chapter 2

He mentions Setebos, a demon first described by Magellan. In further reading (Coleridge was always looking up his sources!) I have discovered that Setebos, who is also mentioned by Shakespeare in The Tempest and Robert Browning in Caliban Upon Setebos, was one of twelve demons who appeared when a Patagonian 'giant' died.

It seems that every image in the Ancient Mariner has been traced to its source material. Then he does the same with Xanadu, a much shorter poem and one avowedly based on a dream. We learn about the Old Man of the Mountains who allegedly gave his followers hashish and transported them while asleep into a pleasure garden and when they awoke convinced them they had been in Paradise so they would go and murder anyone he asked even at the expense of their own lives and that is why we get the word assassin from hashish. He explains why the damsel with a dulcimer came from Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, where the Nile (a sacred river) was supposed to be sourced near a kingdom called Amhara which might have melded into Mount Abora. And the man with floating hair is taken from a memoir of Speke about an Ethiopian Ras on the warpath.

And Lowe more or less debunks the idea that Coleridge wrote poetry under the influence of opium. The meticulous research that lies behind each of the images of the Mariner (perhaps not so much Xanadu) suggests a tightness of control that drug addicts can rarely achieve. The essence of creativity is the remixing of ideas. We all do it. The difference with a genius is the obsessive research, the intense control and, perhaps, the ability to select the word that encapsulates all the ideas in one extraordinarily vivid image.

This is a superb book. May 2016; 397 pages

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