Friday, November 8, 2013

"Kubla Khan" and "This Lime-Tree Bower" Compared

“Kubla Khan” (KK) and “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (LTB) are very different poems, so different that if we didn’t know they were by the same poet we might not associate them with one another. LTB is like others of the so-called Conversation Poems (“Eolian Harp,” “Frost at Midnight,” etc.), but KK is unlike any other poem Coleridge wrote, exthough it shares a sense of the exotic and fantastic with “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the unfinished “Christabel”. But they’re are narratives, not lyrics.

However, we DO know that KK and LTB are by the same poet and comparisons have been made between them (e.g. Wheeler 1981).


First of all, KK and LTB share thematic material. The dialectic of sight and sound that is so critical to KK becomes in LTB an the image of a creeking rook flying across the sun (l. 74). We might also consider the invocation of the sun in lines 32-37 as an analogue to Kubla's decree opening decree: an imagined “let there be a pleasure dome” vs. “…slowly sink…Shine in the slant beams…richlier burn…Live in the yellow light…And kindle…” The language is certainly that of command. And what is commanded is the workings of Nature itself. While we might wonder at the hubris or megalomania implicit in such a decree, it does not seem so odd in one absorbed in mystic rapture contemplating the natural world, for that is surely what Coleridge is depicting.

Let us further note that the lime-tree bower is a garden, paralleling the gardens of Xanadu, and that LTB begins with the issue of confinement—“ my I remain,/This lime-tree bower my prison!”—even as the fact of borders, boundaries, and walls is explicitly depicted in the opening of KK. Others have noted a similarity between the “deep romantic chasm” of KK and the “roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep” of LTB (Wheeler 1981, p. 126) These two poems, in fact, inhabit the same poetic world. But they structure that world in radically different in different ways.

Now I would like to consider three images that appear in both poems: the dell, the garden, and the sun. My purpose is simply to characterize the different uses to which they are put. My point is that they cannot be treated as symbols with fixed significance. Rather, their significance varies according to their use.

The Garden: The image of the garden, of course, is an ancient one, charged with religious and mythological significance. In LTB it is the physical anchor of the poem’s poetic voice and, along with the sun, one of the two major poles of the poem’s poetic universe. In the first part of KK the poetic voice is not anchored to any part of Xanadu, where the garden figures most prominently. The second movement of the poem does not present any geography at all, just people and visions. Thus, while the poetic voice is anchored, first in the poet and finally in his auditors, we have no sense of the physical relationships among them other than proximity nor do we have any sense of the background and their relationship to it.

Nor is the topography of Xanadu clear. Are the chasm and the fountain something within the pleasure gardens or are the gardens are in one place in the topography of Xanadu and the fountain and chasm are in some other place? We cannot tell, though we do know that the dome itself is within reflecting distance of the river at a point between the chasm and the caves. The fact is, for all the vividness of KK’s imagery, the topography is obscure. By contrast, the general lay of the land is clear enough in LTB. In particular, there is a very clear contrast between the world inside the garden and the world outside. We know where in the world that bower was and where Coleridge’s friends walked.

What is important in LTB is how the garden articulates the relationship between the poet and his friends: the poet is in the garden, they are outside. BUT, we are shown how, through the co-presence of intimate acquaintances in both these domains, those domains are continuous with one another. That co-presence is both symbolized and enacted by the sun, which is visible to friends in both realms though they may not be visible, much less within conversing distance, of one another.

The Dell: When then do we make of the dark, damp, wooded glade as it appears in both texts? In KK it appears as a deep chasm presided over by a woman wailing for her demon lover and home to a surging fountain. The sexual undertones are unmistakable, though one can easily gloss over them if one wishes to avoid them. Are we then to see sexual undertones in the more decorous, though wondrous and mysterious dell in LTB?

If so, I find it difficult to see what such sexual undertones would be doing in the poem. I suppose one could then see his concern for Charles as homosexual in nature, but that seems to me rather a stretch. Coming early in the poem as it does, are we now to see this homosexual undertow as something that extends through the rest of the poem to the very end or does its influence attenuate by the end of the first movement? I see no principled way to argue this. Thus, I am inclined to take the dell’s presence in LTB at place value.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania—if I may indulge in autobiographical revelation—I rambled in the woods quite a bit. Me and my friends were quite attracted to woody glades and creeks. I particularly remember a small hill-side ravine near a summer camp not far from Altoona. It was dark and, even in the heat of mid-summer, relatively cool. A small stream ran down the middle, cascading over rocks and small hillocks and then flowing into a small river that was some fifty-yards wide. As near as I recall, walking into that ravine, down it, and then out onto the exposed bank of the river felt much like what Coleridge has described in the first movement of LTB. Just why I found such spaces attractive is not entirely clear, but I do think much of it has to do with the dark, the coolness, and the sound of the water. Beyond that, there is mystery. But, while sex may be mysterious, it is not the only mystery that attracts us. Those wooded glades are one of those many other mysteries.

Thus, I believe that the dell in LTB is non-sexual, but that it became so in KK because that is what Coleridge—unconsciously no doubt—required of it. In LTB the primary function of the image would seem to be to distract one’s attention from the piquant grief of being left alone. It is something to be explored and examined, but no more.

The Sun: Strictly speaking, the sun does not appear in KK at all; rather, we are given a pleasure-dome that is also and prominently described as “sunny.” In particular, in the second movement that sunny dome is described as being somehow in air where others could see it, thus it serves as a link between the poet and his auditors. It is what he creates and what they apprehend, thus:

xKK poet-auditors

The sun in LTB is the symbol and vehicle of the mutual relationship between the poet and his gentle-hearted friend.


As it functions in the second part of the poem, the sunny-dome is the vehicle of a coercive relationship between the poet and his auditors, who actively resist his powers by shutting their eyes against the sun.

Ontological vs. Narrative Grouping

Like KK, LTB unfolds in two movments. But the overall organization of the poems is different. LTB tells a story, a little one about what a poet thinks and feels in the afternoon, following his friends in his imagination and then attending closely to his own surroundings. KK lacks a narrative thread and is in fact hard to follow at first.

It’s worth noting that the edition I first studied from – Coleridge: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Elisabeth Schneider (Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1951) – had a brief note “what the poem actually says.” Schneider prefaced the note by pointing out that KK “has often been read as a piece of pure music or pure magic without any rational meaning.” There ARE narrative chunks, and you can piece them together, which is what Schneider did. But it takes a bit of work.

The principle articulating the structure of KK seems ontological in kind. Each of the six major sections – three in each of the two movements – is set in a different kind of world. Section 1.1 (first in the first movement) is visual, spatial and is dominated by Kubla’s decrees. Section 1.2 is auditory, temporal, and is dominated by the fountain. The first movement ends (1.3) ends with a conjunction of the first two, but neither Kubla nor the fountain are directlly present in it. The second movement (2.1) opens with the poet reminiscing; then (2.2) he engages is in hypothetical thought (“Could I revive within me…º).The movement ends (2.3) with the voice having “migrated” into the poet’s audience, who are in awe of him and his creation.

In contrast, the two movements of LTB have the same ontology. The same kinds of things exist in both movements and the same kinds of things happen. We’ve got plants and animals, shade and light, the sun, and, of course people. The worlds are the same, but one is on a larger scale than the other.

Consider this crude diagram, with LTB on the left and KK on the right:


What it shows is that the space of KK is a “global transformation” of the space of LTM such that objects in the LTB space are mapped to their counterparts in KK space. Notice that each movement has red, blue, green, and black objects, but that the first movement of KK has only red and blue objects while the second movement of KK has only green and black objects.

Do I believe that? Sorta. I’d have to work that out using items that are actually in the text, and that’s going to be tricky. Consder the sun. It’s the same sun in both movements of LTB. What’s it mapping to in the two movements of KK, for there are sunlike objects in both movements of KK? Note that I don’t believe that every object in LTB space has a counter part in KK space, nor that every object in KK space has counterparts in LTB. But there are some objects and both spaces and sorting that out will prove tricky. And, I suspect, interesting.

Sound and Sense

Now I wish to shift gears and consider the way in which these two poems handle the relationship between sense and sound. The sound structure of KK obviously is elaborately patterned, what is not so obvious is that that patterning is systematically related to the constituent structure of the poem’s semantics, something I dicuss in considerable detail in “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind. Before considering that, however, I want to look at LTB. While the poem is without rhyme it does exhibit an interesting relationship between constituent boundaries and line boundaries. In LTB thirteen out of fifteen section breaks happen in mid-line (e.g. ll. 2, 5, 16, 20 etc.), even including the break between the poem’s two movements in line 43. This contrasts quite dramatically with KK, where all the section breaks save one (at line 49) are between lines.

The following diagram illustrates consistency between structural units and lines:


In the upper diagram each individual line is entirely within a single higher-level structural unit. In contrast, the lower diagram show a major structural break in the middle of a line, thus introducing inconsistency between lines and larger structural divisions.

The impact of this effect, traditionally known as a caesura, is not entirely clear to me. In any event, it must be considered in conjunction Coleridge’s pervasive enjambment, i.e. constructions that run over from one line to the next. In fact, the caesura section breaks often force an enjambment at the beginning of the new section. Consider just the five opening nine lines of the poem:


The section breaks occur in lines two and five while lines two, three, four each runs over to the next line, while five runs over to six and six, arguably, all the way through to eight if not nine. The joint effect of these two devices is to weaken the effect of the line as a privileged unit of poetic construction (see Cureton 1992, pp. 8-11, but also 430-432).

Now let us consider the first eleven lines of KK:


Note first of all that all of the section breaks are cleanly between lines, not only the major break between sections 1.11 and 1.23, but also between subsections of those. Still, line one runs over to line two, three to four and five, and six to seven. Thus, enjambment remains within Coleridge’s tactical repertoire, but the use of caesura to mark section breaks seems to have disappeared. If we scan the rest of the poem we will see that there is only one section break that happens within a line and that is in line 49, “And all should cry, Beware! Beware,” where the break comes between “cry” and “Beware.”

The most obvious fact, however, is the fact that KK is rhymed, while LTB is not. What is more, KK’s rhyme scheme is closely coordinated with the overall constituent structure, as I discussed in “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind. Units of rhyme are aligned with constituent boundaries. But this alignment is disturbed in two regions of the poem, sections 1.22 and 2.22. The disturbances happen in the structural middle of each movement, the point where the fountain erupts into Xanadu and “That sunny dome, those caves of ice” force their way into the minds of the auditors. As I have given a complete analysis of this in the “Kubla Khan” essay (see the section on “Sound and Sense”), I won’t repeat it that here.

Poetic Being in Time

What I would like to do now is focus specifically on time, for poetry is necessarily a temporal art. We can only speak one word at a time, word after word, time after time, and we can only read by the phrase. To be sure, we can skip around in the text as we please, we are not bound to the order on the page, but we cannot evade time. Whatever their differences in theme and imagery, “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” and “Kubla Khan” exhibit, above all else, two different ways of conducting the trajectory of consciousness through time, one narrative, one ontological. Here I am specifically concerned about the relationship between verse technique and semantic trajectory, between sound and sense.

LTB’s trajectory is a first-person narrative; we follow the perceptions, thoughts, and feelings of the poet as they occur to him, one after the other. We are presented with a cleanly identified authorial consciousness shifting its attention here and there about the world in a coherent way. The passage of time is explicitly marked and noted within the poem itself. In this poem Coleridge’s verse technique emphasizes temporal continuity. By placing major attention shifts in the middle of the line Coleridge emphasizes an underlying continuity of consciousness: one’s gaze has a new focus, it is still one’s gaze. By running clauses across line boundaries, the repetitive recurrence of line ends is muted. The temporal course of the poetic act itself is muted so as to “dissolve” into the virtual time depicted in the poem.

KK is different; it lacks a narrative frame. Thus it cannot register either narrative movement or a self that experiences such movement. Things and scenes are juxtaposed in a way that is sometimes hard to grasp. Yet, as we have seen, there is a rigorous logic to the poem. At the same time it has an elaborate rhyme scheme and other sound features as well. What has this to do with its “ontological” semantic trajectory?

I suggest that the confluence between sound and sense in “Kubla Khan” is, in effect, a surrogate for the lack of a narrative frame, and hence the impossibility of a narrative trajectory. The key point is that rhyme adds an element of predictability to the verse; one knows that sounds will repeat at regular intervals and so can anticipate them. Thus the predictability that has been “lost” because the poem does not have a narrative flow is “restored” or “compensated for” though elaborate rhyme. The temporal structure of the poem itself becomes the frame for its semantic trajectory.

Recall that while rhyme is coordinated with structure in KK, it also works against structure in two critical regions of the poem. But this very fact tends to create an “affinity” between those two regions simply by virtue of the fact that they are the only regions of the poem with this feature. Thus, what is a deviation on at the local scale of a half-dozen lines or so becomes, on the scale of the whole poem, a structural marker. Another such marker consists of the repetition of line initial sounds in lines 28 and 29 and in lines 48 and 49; both of these come after the mid-points of their respective movements. Finally we have the rhymes on device, ice, Paradise, and thrice linking lines 35, 36, 47, 51 and 54; these set up long distance relationships in the poem which, by that fact, help bind it together. All of this is consistent with the notion that elaborate sound patterning serves to induce a sense of coherence in the absence of narrative.

If THAT, or something like it, is correct, than it means that verse technique is not ornamental, it is fundamental. The ontological content of KK would not work, as a poem, without the elaborate sound patterning to hold it together. The same kind of sound patterning would, however, interfere with the narrative flow and drive of LTB by breaking the narrative into discrete chunks that would thereby become disconnected.

That all is speculative guesswork and it is descriptive guesswork at that. What we’d really know is how the mind-brain works to do that. We haven’t got a clue. But the comparison of these two poems gives the neuroscientists something to look for. What differences would show up in brain imaging of people reading these poems?

Note finally that, however different versification and meaning are to us–versification, after all, is simply the arrangement of dumb sounds–they are the same thing at the neural level. The neural tissue for sound is the same as that for semantics. It’s just waves of activity whirling through the brain. But poetry yokes these two oceans, otherwise separated by the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, into the same patterns of flow.

Unity of Being anyone?

* * * * *


William Benzon. Talking with Nature in "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison." PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November, 2004,

William Benzon. “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, PsyArt: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, November 29, 2003,

Cureton, R. D. (1992). Rhythmic Phrasing in English Verse. London and New York, Longman.

Wheeler, K. M. (1981). The Creative Mind in Coleridge's Poetry. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

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