Saturday, December 06, 2014

Accept No Substitutes

I finally got around to reading Milton’s Comus the other night, through the simple expedient of spending all night reading at Sydney airport so as to save money on accommodation before my flight home. I have been meaning to read Comus because of the mentions of it in Alex Waugh’s ‘Loom of Youth’, which I read because I read Evelyn Waugh’s autobiography. 

Near the end of Comus I suddenly had a feeling a deja vu.

The song is being sung to Sabrina, incarnation of the river Severn:

May thy lofty head be crowned
With many a tower and terrace round
And here and there thy banks upon
With groves of myrrh and cinnamon
(lines 934-937)

And there echoed in my head these other four lines about the vicinity of Alph, the sacred river:

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense bearing tree

In form and content that is just too close to be coincidence, methinks.

Line 926 of Comus ends with ‘rills’, by the way. And line 990 contains the word ‘cedarn’, which the notes to the poem say is a uniquely Miltonic word that the blind poet made up, but I had only ever met in Kubla Khan. A few lines down (941) is ‘With some other new device’,  which is echoed by ‘It was a miracle of rare device’. Line 1002 of Comus has an Assyrian queen, which is echoed in Kubla Khan by an Abyssinian maid. Wikipedia tells me Mount Abora was originally Mount Amara, which is mentioned in Paradise Lost. We can safely assume Coleridge, like any educated Englishman of his time, to be thoroughly steeped in Milton.

Here’s my theory.

Coleridge didn’t dream any old poem. He dreamt an alternate ending to Comus. Which of course, being a paean to the glory of chastity, suggests a very obvious alternate ending. Instead of the virgin Sabrina, we have Alph, the sacred river (which is probably a reference to the lecherous Alpheus of the Pellopennese). You will remember how it was ‘flung up momently’ in a ‘mighty fountain’ ‘with ceaseless turmoil seething, as if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing.’

Here's the corollary to my theory. 

Any analysis of Kubla Khan that does not mention Comus (which is all of them that I can find so far) is a load of toss.

Ending 1, Sabrina:
Mortals, that would follow me,
Love virtue; she alone is free.
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the sphery chime;
Or, if Virtue feeble were,
Heaven itself would stoop to her.

Ending 2, Alpheus:
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

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