Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Sound of Prose - Part II

Today I'm going to use a poem that I think has a great example of diction. It's really long so there won't be much room for my inept analysis, but is that really such a bad thing?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan in 1797 after a dream he had about the Tartar Emperor that was allegedly heavily influenced by his use of opium. According to history that part is disputed, but I think the poem makes it clear that such a thing is highly possible. Whether or not it's true takes nothing away from the text.

It sat unpublished and did not become available for public consumption until Coleridge was urged by George Gordon, Lord Byron (another of my favorite English poets who may come up this week) to make it so in 1816.

It should be pointed out that this poem was not appreciated by Coleridge's contemporaries except when he read it aloud - so perhaps it's a good example of cadence as well, but we pretty much covered that yesterday. So without further ado, the poem:


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 twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

There is some great diction in this poem. Some of it has to do with the language of the time, such as sinuous rills, which is a great turn of phrase in my opinion. Sinuous is a word we still use today but as far as I know rills has fallen out of fashion. Apparently it is either a small stream or a valley on the moon. Either one of those fits quite nicely here.

Other times it almost seems as if he makes words up, like mazy for example. It actually is a word, an adjective meaning maze-like but I have never seen it before or since this poem. Momently is also technically a word, but I don't believe that is used in modern speech or writing either.

Just another couple of examples of great diction, not only because of their rhyme and reason, but also because of the unique ring to the way the words sound:

- Mingled measure.
- Miracle of rare device.
- Damsel with a dulcimer.

The poem was apparently cut short after having been originally planned to be 200-300 lines long. It seems as though Coleridge was interrupted by a visitor, and we all know what a bummer that can be when in the midst of a groovy opium trip. I'm kdding, of course.

I wouldn't normally point people to Wikipedia for analysis of poetry but there is actually a halfway decent article on this poem here.

Anyway that's it for today, I hope you all enjoyed it and thanks as always for visiting, but especially for commenting!


Emily White said...

That's a beautiful poem.

Vicki Rocho said...

One reason I like reading classics is for their word choice. They had a much richer vocabulary than you can find in your average book nowadays. I get that some of those words 'died' out, and a hundred years from now someone might be in awe of OUR word choices...but now I'm just rambling so I'm going to stop.

Will Burke said...

Didn't Shakespeare make up words?

S.A. Larsenッ said...

I was touched by the sinuous rills, too. That's what I was going to mention. It's refreshing to read poetry. I think we need to do it more often.

Thanks, Matt.

Joanne Brothwell said...


In Noah Lukeman's book The First Five Pages, he recommends studying poetry to improve the "sound" quality of writing. This is an excellent example of sound, and the impact it has on the reader.

Matthew MacNish said...

Joanne, that's exactly what I was saying yesterday!

Candyland said...

OMG sooooo beautiful. And sexy :P

Jonathon Arntson said...

That poem looks like a topiary.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It's storytelling at its best.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Poetry, even groovy poetry like this, isn't usually my scene. But methinks I should read more of it, for word choice (as Vicki says) if nothing else.

Thanks for sharing! :)

Eric W. Trant said...

Ah, one of the most infamous interruptions in all of literature.

The other one resulted in an axe-attack (The Shining).

- Eric

Christina Lee said...

wow what talent!

Old Kitty said...

I am salivating at this poem - one of my all time favourites so great to see it here and read it again!

I wish I could write something as sublime as this while under the influence! LOL! Not that I am much these days - LOL!

But seriously - complete mind explosion of a poem! Lovely!

take care

Unknown said...

Sorry I'm so late! I knew this was a longer post so I had to hold out and wait until I had time to read it!

What a beautiful poem! Candylands sexy comment made me laugh!

Matthew MacNish said...

@Jen - hah! She was actually talking about an inside joke - about butterflies! See her post from today for more.

Tessa said...

This was always one of my favorite poems. There's a dreamlike quality of it - perhaps evoked in part by the choice of imagery, and the rhythm of the words.