At our meeting on September 29, the Romanticist Reading Group discussed visionary poetry. Our discussion encompassed the works of Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth as we threshed out the concepts of vision and the visionary as they apply to Romantic poetry, starting with a set of questions: how do we begin to define vision and the visionary? Do these definitions vary from poet to poet and from poem to poem? How are we as critics to negotiate the fact that vision serves as a central trope as well as a generic classification during the period? While Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Marinere or Kubla Khan, Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion—or any of his prophecies—or even Byron’s apocalyptic masterpiece Darkness may seem more appropriate to the topic, we found ourselves preoccupied with Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour. July 13, 1798.” More particularly, we found the similarities between the framing of the “Tintern Abbey” poem and the framing of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” intriguing. In both cases, the writer increasingly distances himself from the visionary portions of the poem.
In “Kubla Khan,” the poet says he had a vision of “A damsel with a dulcimer” but he cannot describe or even recall the vision; he says, “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song,” acknowledging the impossibility of actually reviving the vision. The section of the poem containing the reference to the vision is set off from the rest of the poem by its change in meter. The poet is distanced from the poem by events of the paratext referenced in the title, “Kubla Khan: Or a Vision in a Dream.” The poem recounting the vision is ostensibly the result of a dream he had during a “profound sleep, at least of the external senses” in which he “composed” a long poem, of which the printed poem is but a fragment, produced before he was interrupted by the man from Porlock. He describes the composition process as an almost magical moment: “all the images rose up before him [Coleridge] as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions.” This unlikely framing of the poem’s genesis is countered by another story found in Coleridge’s note to the Crewe manuscript of the poem, in which he says the fragment was “composed, in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium, taken to check a dysentery.” While considerably less mysterious, that the poem was composed during an opium high is considerably more credible than the preface’s account of it being composed during a dream. However, these changing accounts of the poem’s composition reveal the poet’s anxiety about recounting the visionary experience as the poet increases the distance between writer and the visionary moment.
Wordsworth displays a similar pattern of distancing in his revisions of “Tintern Abbey”. Over the course of its publication history, “Tintern Abbey” undergoes some subtle but crucial changes. When it first appeared as part of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, the full title of the poem was “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798.” In 1815, Wordsworth changed the lengthy title to “Lines Composed” instead of “Written.” Andrew Bennett reads the change in title as the poet’s attempt to disengage “the site of composition from that of inscription” (Wordsworth Writing 45). In the poem, the poet’s thoughts receive far more description than what the poet sees from his location on the Wye. In this case, ‘vision’ is more an act of the mind than of the eyes. Wordsworth wants to create distance between his experience of the River Wye and the act of writing. “Tintern Abbey” was actually written in Bristol and Bennett makes the provocative suggestion that a more accurate title would be “The Bristol Poem.” In the context of this discussion, we see two poets carefully presenting how their respective works came to be.
Both poems demonstrate their authors’ skepticism about writing their visions. Through various paratextual additions and alterations, Wordsworth and Coleridge increase the distance between themselves as authors and the visionary moments represented in their texts. Tintern Abbey was published in the 1798 Lyrical Ballads, and although it wasn’t published in print until 1816, Kubla Khan was written in the autumn of 1797 and circulated through recitation for several years, so both poems partake of a historical moment which may have contributed to their skepticism regarding the possibility of accurately recording or reporting individual perception. What might account for this anxiety about recounting visions, whether of sensory perception, mental reflection, or revelatory imagination? What about England in the 1790s promotes this skepticism?