This post examines the scholarly implications of the unique circulation history of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Specifically, this post asks what is lost when we privilege the material history of poetry? What role should the recitation history of a work like Kubla Khan play in our readings of the poem? What does the act of recitation represent to Coleridge himself?
In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge relies upon Plotinus to describe the labor of the philosopher. Addressing the concept of philosophical creation, Coleridge quotes from Plotinus’s Third Ennead, “My contemplation creates what is contemplated, as the geometricians draw figures as they contemplate. But it is not in drawing figures but in contemplating that the lines of the forms are settled” (144). Coleridge agrees with Plotinus’s claim that “contemplation” gives rise to “the lines of the forms.” The lines exist in the mind of the geometrician before they are put onto paper. The paper, for Plotinus as well as for Coleridge, becomes simply the means through which the contemplation of the geometrician can have material existence. The excerpt that Coleridge chooses speaks to Plotinus’s concept of the hypostases, or stages of emanation. In The Enneads, Plotinus describes a central, unified divinity called the One that emanates outward to become part of all things in existence. However, some things are closer to and more intimately connected with the One. The human soul, for example, is much closer to the One than material objects. In fact, according to Plotinus, material things are at the greatest possible distance from the One. Yet, all art must exist in something. The sculptor, painter, and poet all must rely upon material in order to express what they contemplate. Plotinus’s Fifth Ennead provides a context for better understanding what the transformation of an immaterial speech act to a printed text means for Coleridge.
At the start of The Fifth Ennead, Plotinus describes the current condition of humanity.The philosopher asks, “What can it be that has brought the souls to forget the father, God, andthough members of the Divine and entirely of that world, to ignore at once themselves and It?’ (Mackenna 1). Despite the fact that human souls are “members of the Divine,” humanity has forgotten its own divinity as well as the source of that divinity, God. Plotinus argues that exertion of “self – will” leads human souls away from “the Divine” (Mackenna 1). It is this distance from the source of all divinity that hinders the development of individual souls: “ A child wrenched young from home and brought up during many years at a distance will fail in knowledge of its father and of itself: the souls, in the same way, no longer discern either the divinity or their own nature” (Mackenna 1). Souls fail to develop properly because they do not recognize their own worth. Rather than admiring their own inherent divinity, souls “misplace their respect, honouring everything more than themselves” (Mackenna 1). Plotinus believes that the soul must study itself in order to once more recognize its connection to the One. Plotinus posits that the One is “all things and no one of them; the source of all things is not all things; all things are its possession – running back, so to speak, to it – or, more correctly, not yet so, they will be” (Mackenna 16). The One is the source and owner of all things. It does not belong to or have the characteristics of anything in the world but everything in the world exhibits, to a greater or lesser degree, some aspects of the One. According to Plotinus, the soul who wishes to regain the honor of her rank will begin “running back” to its divine source, back to the One.
The philosopher goes on to argue that there are three initial hypostases or stages that proceed outward from the One. The first, and therefore the closest to the One, is the “Divine Intellect” (Mackenna 16). Plotinus locates the “Divine Intellect” not in the sensory of material world, but in “what Plato calls the Interior Man,” or the soul (Mackenna 14). For Plotinus, the intellectual part of the soul remains pure: “The reasoning phase of the soul, needing no bodily organ for its thinking but maintaining, in purity, its distinctive Act that its thought may be uncontaminated – this we cannot err in placing, separate and not mingled into body, within the first Intellectual” (Mackenna 14). In this passage, there is a clear division between the sensory world and the pure realm of “the first Intellectual.” “The reasoning phase of the soul” needs “no bodily organ for its thinking” because the One has already bestowed upon it, in the words of M.H. Abrams, the “totality of the fixed Platonic forms” (Abrams 147). The forms are, for Plotinus, the “permanent Right” that guides that “reasoning in our soul” (Mackenna 14). The Soul, the second hypostasis, springs from the Divine Intellect: “The Soul arises as the idea and act of the motionless Intellectual – Principle” (Mackenna 16). The Soul “takes fullness by looking at its source,” namely the Intellectual – Principle or Divine Intellect. Abrams rightly points out that, “These hypostases descend along a scale of ever increasing “remoteness” from the One” (147). That is, the divine intellect directly springs from the One and the Soul in turn springs from the Divine Intellect.
The material universe is the third and most remote stage. While there are many issues that Plotinus’s discussion of material raises, I want to focus on the relationship between art and the material that it occupies. Plotinus sets out to understand the ways that the objects produced by intellectual labor can guide individuals back to the One. At the start of On the Intellectual Beauty, the Eighth Tractate of The Fifth Ennead, the philosopher imagines an individual moving through the three hypostases to return to the One: “It concerns us, then, to try to see and say, for ourselves and as far as such matters may be told, how the Beauty of the divine Intellect and of the Intellectual Cosmos may be revealed to contemplation” (174). Through the “contemplation of art,” progress through the hypostases is possible. Plotinus seeks to separate the idea behind a piece of art from the materials that it manifests itself in. According to the philosopher, a sculpture is not beautiful because of the stone that it is made out of but “in virtue of the Form or Idea introduced by” it (174). Although the artist must use materials, the “Idea or Form” that these materials express makes the art objects potentially beneficial. Yet, it is important to recognize that the idea that leads to the creation of art belongs to a higher hypostasis: “Then again every prime cause must be, within itself, more powerful than its effects can be: the musical does not derive from an unmusical source but from music; and so the art exhibited in the material work derives from an art yet higher” (175). A musical derives from music and a poem derives from poetry. The ideal form or idea of each type of art belongs to and resides with the One.
Plotinus’s desire to draw a distinction between objects of art and the ideas behind them becomes more evident as On the Intellectual Beauty progresses. The immaterial idea of a work of art is more beautiful than any embodiment of it: “Now we can surely not believe that, while the made thing and the Idea thus impressed upon Matter are beautiful, yet the Idea not so alloyed but resting still with the creator – the Idea primal, immaterial, firmly a unity – is not Beauty” (176). In this passage, Plotinus emphasizes the action of an artist. While the “Idea” itself rests “still with the creator,” artists must labor to make their materials manifest their Idea. The “primal” and “immaterial” Idea is not beautiful; it is serene and resting “Beauty.” Ultimately, Plotinus concludes that “One way, only, remains: all things must exist in something else” (180). He then attempts to make all matter the result of an Idea. The material world emerges as “an Idea – the lowest – all this universe is Idea and there is nothing that is not Idea” (180). Although the material world is “the lowest” expression of a form or idea, it still has potential. For Plotinus, material that is sculpted, painted, or written on has the capacity to help wayward souls rediscover their value and connection to the One.
Plotinus’s hypostases and thoughts regarding artistic material provide us with a context for interpreting the recitation history of Kubla Khan. Commenting on the attraction to the reciter, Coleridge writes in his Biographia, “For this is really a species of animal magnetism, in which the enkindling reciter, by perpetual comment of looks and tones, lends his own will and apprehensive faculty to his editors. They live for a time within the dilated sphere of his intellectual being” (283). According to the OED, enkindle means “to cause a flame, to blaze up.” The phrase “enkindling reciter,” then, invites two principal readings. First, the reciter becomes the source, the catalyst that is able to ignite feelings of sympathy in his/her audience. Second, and more important, the reciter is a consuming force. Through recitation, the material object of the poem is consumed and becomes an immaterial speech act. The “enkindling reciter” also utilizes his “looks and tones” in order to perpetually “comment” on the words he/she is speaking and further engage his/her audience. The shift from material object to spoken, “enkindling” performance enables the reciter to lend “his own will and apprehensive faculty to his editors.” The auditory editor is able to become part of the expanded “sphere” of the poet/reciter’s “intellectual being.” Instead of the artist conveying meaning to a passive audience, Coleridge’s framework suggests that artist and auditory editors, at least temporarily, inhabit the same intellectual space. In the context of Plotinus, this shared space means the reciter and the listener contemplate the idea behind the poem together.
The live recitation and publication of Kubla Khan, therefore, result in very different experiences for the audience as well as for Coleridge himself. The “enkindling reciter” consumes the manuscript materials of poetry and turns them into an immaterial speech act. From 1798 to 1816, Coleridge himself functioned as the vehicle through which the poem circulated. The physical presence of the reciter in the room allows for lively discourse and, according to Coleridge, the sharing of intellectual space. In the context of Plotinus, Coleridge and his audience are able to discuss and contemplate the idea or form behind the poem together. The transformation from immaterial recitation to published text exposes the problems inherent in artistic materials. The “lantern of typography” reduces the poem to mere letters on a page. While the recitation of the poem brings “heaven and Elysian bowers” to Lamb, contemporary readers confront what they believe to be “nonsense.” Also, when he recites his work, Coleridge occupies a higher hypostasis. The poet does not rely upon the materials of art and is able to use his “looks and tones” to help guide his audiences to the idea behind his poetry. In other words, there is one less layer of mediation to overcome on the journey back to the divine One. By not relying on the materials of poetic creation, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan can remain “a miracle of rare device.”
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. Ed. George Watson. New York: Dutton, 1962.
______. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. Eds Nicholas Halmi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano. New York: Norton, 2004.
Plotinus. The Divine Mind, Being the Treatises of the Fifth Ennead. Trans. Stephen Mackenna. Boston: The Medici Society, 1926.
_______. “The Fifth Ennead: Eighth Tractate On the Intellectual Beauty.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, and Jeffrey Williams. New York: Norton, 2001. 171-185.
R. A. Sessler