Tuesday 7 June 2011

The Kubla Khan Crescendo

Yesterday, I wrote a rather puerile parody of the last section of Kubla Khan. The original contains one of the greatest crescendos in English poetry, which is all down to meter. It goes like this:

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 honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The crescendo to which I refer is in the lines

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,

The trick is in the trimeter.

Most of Kubla Khan is in tetrameters, that there are four beats to each line.

te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw
It was an Abysinnian maid
And on her dulcimer she played
Singing of Mount Abora.

But then Coleridge very cleverly drops down to the trimeter. He starts by merely missing off that last stressed syllable:

Could I revive within me,

'Ooh,' feels the reader, 'There's something missing here.' And then Coleridge cuts off the last unstressed syllable.

Her symphony and song.

We're down to three beats and only six syllables. We are noticeably short. And the reader, whether or not he can explain why, feels a frustration and a desire to break back into the proper rhythm. It is all much too short, too compressed, too stuffy and claustrophobic. Will we never be set free? Will the line never get its last syllable back? Yes, it will. Ready for the release? Here goes!

To such a deep delight 'twould win me,

Not only do you get back to the four-beat tetrameter, but you have beautiful release of a whole extra unstressed syllable. The dam has been broken, the torrent is flowing freely again. The compression was necessarily followed by an explosion, and the famine by a feast.

That with music loud and long...

Now, we're back to the tetrameter, and perhaps something should be said about the meaning of the words rather than just the rhythm. The change in meter has not happened alone. For starters it's been bound into one sentence. This means that the reader can't think to himself that the differing line-lengths signify different sections of the poem. This is reinforced by the fact that the rhyme scheme runs straight over the metrical variation. Moreover, the two trimeter lines have been part of one conditional clause. And here's the beautiful thing: in terms of meaning he's talking about what he'd like to do and can't (revive within me), in terms of grammar he's talking about a hypothetical condition that can't be fulfilled, and in terms of meter he's nearly getting to the end of the tetrameter, but no quite.

Then he gets into a hypothetical success, a subjunctive reality and a metrical release.

All at once.

Clever, isn't it?

And the lovely thing is that, though not everybody can write Kubla Khan, the metrical trick is infinitely reusable.

If I could only finish
My posts a little quicker,
Your interest would not diminish
Nor would your eyelids start to flicker.

Hail muse etc.

The Inky Fool's main drain


  1. Inky,

    I risk becoming overly verbose in this post. I apologize for that.
    First - I am a lurker. I always enjoy your posts, but never feel I have anything to add other than "Hey! I liked that!". So I don't chime in.
    But today - I think I might finally understand why people love poetry. I'll admit that personally, I never have - I find it often forced and contrite, painful to endure. While I consider myself moderately well-read and love literature, High school English class' poetry sections were a special form of torture.

    But now, I think I might get it.

    I studied music in university, and love that form of expression. Your analysis of this poem reminded me of similar analyses in certain pieces of music - the tone, texture, instrumentation, dynamics, tempi, etc. can all modify the way the notes are felt by the listener, just all the elements you identified above can modify the way the words of a poem are received by the reader.

    This is the first time that I have thought about poetry in that way, rather than a mere cobbling together of rhyming words in trite phrases (admittedly, my school's English curriculum was not the best...).

    Thank you. I will probably still skip over the poems the next time I read Tolkien, but the time after that... maybe not.

  2. Glad to have been of service (as the tennis ball once remarked).

  3. I have just bookmarked this. Thank you for a lovely analysis!