Wednesday 8 June 2011

Error, Milton, Coleridge and the Opiate of Influence

On the contrary, it means a wandering.
Once upon a time there was a happy little Latin word errare, which meant to wander. That is why a wandering knight is a knight errant, and also why a knight errant is necessarily erratic. Indeed, he is an aberration, so long as he is wandering away from something, which he couldn't reasonably help doing, I suppose. A knight errant is therefore also erroneous, he errs, he is in error.

That's why, back in the seventeenth century, Milton could write in the fourth book of Paradise Lost that streams flowed through the garden of Eden:

With mazy error, under pendant shades

By an extraordinary coincidence Coleridge used mazy to describe the flow of a stream through a garden in Kubla Khan:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Funny that. Not that there's much more connection. I mean, it's true that both poems have a river flowing through a garden and that both rivers flow underground:

Southward through Eden flowed a river large
Nor changed its course, but through the shaggy hill
Passed underneath engulfed


Thence united fell
Down the steep glade, and met the nether flood,
Which from his darksome passage now appears

While Coleridge has:

Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

But there isn't much more in common between the "fertile ground" of Milton's Garden of Eden and the "fertile ground" of Coleridge's poem. I mean, Milton's garden has

Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balms

While Coleridge's is a place where:

Blossomed many an incence-bearing tree

Which is a completely different wording. Nor could Coleridge's

Abyssinian maid . . .
Singing of Mount Abora 

have much to do with Milton's

Nor where Abyssin Kings their issue Guard,
Mount Amara,

Could it? And as for the bit in Milton where a moonlit demon comes across:

...a steep wilderness, whose hairy sides
With thicket overgrown, grotesque and wild,
Access denied; and overhead up grew
Insuperable height of loftiest shade,
Cedar. . .

That couldn't have anything to do with

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.

Kubla Khan is often described as a pure vision that sprang from Coleridge's unconscious. It's not. Most of the imagery, right down to the ancestral voices, comes from Book 4 of Paradise Lost. This is rather important from a critical point of view.

Where is Mount Abora and what does it represent? Is a less perplexing question when you realise that it's just a misspelling of Mount Amara.

Are the river and the chasm Freudian symbols of semen and vagina springing from Coleridge's sex-starved psyche? Well, I admit that Coleridge was a bit screwy on the subject of sex, but the images come from Milton, not from his dreams.

What does it mean to have drunk the milk of Paradise? It means you've read Paradise Lost.

P.S. There's a slight controversy over where errant comes from, which I have ignored.
P.P.S. Full text of Kubla Khan here. Read it!


  1. 'Hallucination' a Dr. Browne neologism, to wander in the mind (errantly/erroneously).

  2. An extraordinary poem, perplexing and mysterious, like a ghost train at the fairground.