What happens when…
a poet reads William Bartram’s Travels, Part 2, Chapter 5, and then…
What happens when…
a writer-photographer reads Kublai Khan on her iPhone in the Wal-Mart breakroom?
She contends that the poem sings not of Kublai Khan, but rather disguises…
…an ode to William Bartram and his Travels.
A Stately Pleasure Dome…
Let’s start with “a stately pleasure dome did decree”. William, some years prior to his Travels, had a plantation on the San Juan in Florida. Whether Coleridge knew we know not, but if he did, a plantation transforms easily into a pleasure dome, and if he didn’t, the opening extract from William Bartram on the Isle of Palms could easily decree as a stately pleasure dome.
Caverns Measureless to Man…
… from Coleridge, and William Bartram’s description of Salt Springs: “which incessantly threw up, from dark, rocky caverns” the waters of the fountain.
The Sunless Sea of Lake George…
The Sunless Sea, or Lifeless Ocean of Coleridge describes Lake George, a vast inland sea with no tides. I photographed it sunless as well. Lake George has no tides, therefore, Coleridge describes it as lifeless.
Perspiring their mingled odours…
The “incense-bearing trees” of Kublai Khan come from William’s “balmy Lantana, ambrosial Citra, perfumed Crinum, perspiring their mingled odours.” A few pages prior to my reading, Coleridge’s “sensuous rills” make their appearance as Bartram’s “serpentine rivulet, meandering over the meadows”.
The “sunny spot of greenery” of the first verse echos Bartram’s description of the Isle of Palms: “blessed unviolated spot of earth”.
A savage place!
William Bartram’s “stars twinkling with uncommon brilliancy” recall the dark, waning moon, and made it into the following verse from Kublai Khan:
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By a woman wailing for her demon lover!
What on earth? What women populate William’s book—wailing or otherwise? Oh, but the terrifying screams of the Florida Barred Owl, awakening Will in time to fight off the crocodile, bent on dragging him into the water! I would contend that the Barred Owl becomes Coleridge’s the wailing woman and his demon lover, Bartram’s crocodile.
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail,
All of which clearly describes Six Mile Springs, as seen by William Bartram, now known as Salt Springs. Unfortunately when I witnessed Salt Springs things had much changed. While the “caverns measureless to man” exist still, and the water welled up, it did not rise 2 or 3 feet above the surface, indeed it did not rise above the surface at all.
The most disconcerting change in the surrounding environment, instead of surrounded by a grove of Illisium Floridanum, Oranges, Palms, and Magnolias; concrete girded the spring. Yet the springs were still large enough for large shallops to sail in, in fact a yacht moored just outside of them.
And what of
Mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
Well, Willam traveled to the Southeast between 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party, and 1777, returning to Philadelphia 2 years after the first shots of war fired. Distant voices at the time prophesied the American Revolutionary War.
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes in holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Here in the south at Christmas we make a dish called Ambrosia, from William’s “ambrosial Citra”, Nectar of the Gods, the food of Paradise, made from oranges (honey-dew) and coconut (milk of Paradise). As William reports many a meal of oranges throughout his Travels in Florida, I would contend that this last passage refers to this dining upon ambrosia, the nectar of the Gods, oranges and Cocos nucifera (coconut palm) mentioned on the first page of the Introduction of William Bartram’s Travels. Indeed, Bartram mentions Palms throughout Travels, so Coleridge may have associated Palms with coconuts. Coconuts, which grow in Tropical Island Paradises as all know.
Tribes of Fish in Cerulean Ether…
But what of William’s “amazing and delightful scene, though real, appears at first but as a piece of excellent painting; there seems no medium”? The fish, who dive into the “caverns measureless to man”; then re-emerge from the “cerulean ether”?
What can I tell you? Coleridge got Porlocked. In other words, while writing Kublai Khan upon awakening from his opium-induced dream, a man from Porlock stopped by and interrupted his creative process, and he never recovered his train of thought. Unlike this author, he obviously didn’t practice having ideas while working an unrelated job and repeat the idea in the mind so it is not forgotten.
Descent into the abyss…
Or he perhaps felt he could not improve upon this amazing reality. And perhaps he could not. I do know that the water still appears “absolutely diaphanous, or as transparent as ether” and that tribes of fish still move about in peaceful harmony, some laying beds, others descending into the abyss.*Note on recording: Opening stanza from “The Slacks by Trip Shakespeare Alligator bellow from Fish and Wildlife Service Call of Florida Barred Owl from Florida Museum of Natural History