Beware! Beware!

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.

I just wrote a paper for my Romantic Tradition class, and I’m in a poetical mood; plus I had too much coffee and so am still awake at 2:30 AM. Hence this post.

The above is an excerpt from “Kubla Khan”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a celebration of raw poetic power. The first half of the poem is simply a description of an incredibly sublime scene, Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome, with its sacred river Alph that “ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea”, and assorted other wonders. The second half, reproduced above, reveals that this description is a vision the poet had.

What I love about this poem is how, with its irregular rhyme scheme, lilting rhythm, and constant use of alliteration, it propels the reader forward, almost as if it were a magic spell or incantation. Its power is irresistible, sweeping us along whether we want it or not. And that’s what the poem is about; how poetry is power, how the poet is a magician whom all others should “beware! beware!”

What I can’t understand is how the same poet that wrote the above also wrote poems like “Frost at Midnight” or “This Lime-tree Bower my Prison” – poems which, though well-written, are not at all sublime or powerful. I can’t really enjoy them as poems, because, well, they don’t strike me as poetic; I may sound like a philistine saying this, but they’re for the most part just prose descriptions of not that interesting events with line-breaks every ten syllables.

I don’t insist that poetry must rhyme or alliterate, but I do think it has to use words as if they were something magical, as if words had power, or else its words will not have power, the form of the poem will not matter as much as the content, and it will not be poetry. Perhaps that’s how I define poetry – as something written so that the way the words fit together is as important to the meaning as the literal meaning of the words.


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