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Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and Colderidges’ Kubla Khan Essay

When comparing William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, and Samuel Colderidge’s “Kubla Khan”, one notices a distinct difference in the use of imagination within the two poems. Even though the two poets were contemporaries and friends, Wordsworth and Colderidge each have an original and different way in which they introduce images and ideas into their poetry. These differences give the reader quite a unique experience when reading the works of these two authors. Through the imagination of the poet, the reader can also gain insight into the mind and personality of the poet himself. These ideas will be explored through analysis and comparison of the two poems, with the intent to better understand the imagination of each poet, and therefore, to possibly better understand the poet himself.

In Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth begins with a lengthy description of the Wye river and the woods surrounding its banks. He paints a wonderful picture of the area in general within the following lines:

The wild green landscape. Once again I see

These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines

Of supportive wood run wild; these pastoral farms

Green to the very door; and wreathes of smoke

Sent up, in silence, from among the trees (15-19)

Wordsworth takes these colorful physical descriptions and begins to associate these images with the spirit of man and all that is good and pure. This idea is reached in the climax of the poem where he goes on to describe nature as being:

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being. (110-112)

The effect is one where Wordsworth takes a humble and beautiful setting and expands the ideas until the same images become cosmic and sublime, relating to the very nature of man and to life itself. Colderidge uses a different type of imagery in “Kubla Khan”. He takes an almost super-natural and dreamlike setting, and brings the reader to a grand conclusion much the way that Wordsworth does in his poem. Colderidge begins his poem with the lines:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through the caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea. (1-5)

These lines paint a fantasy based image and set the tone for the rest of the poem which brings the reader to a magical far away land where there exists a “deep romantic chasm” and “caves of ice”. Even though these images are not necessarily of this earth, Colderidge makes a point about art and its effects on man which is stated in the ines:

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, (43-46)

As well as in the line, ” And all who heard should see them there,”(48) which is suggesting that certain images and/or sounds can cause the mind to recreate past memories and experiences. Both Wordsworth and Colderidge are similar in that they each use the description of a place and setting to make a point that has a far deeper meaning than the actual setting does on its own. The poems differ in the images and setting that are used to take the rader to the point that the poet is trying to make.

Both Wordsworth and Colderidge use the image of a river to some similarity within each of their poems. The river symbolizes the main force within each poem, as well as being a thematic element which ties together certain images and ideas. The images of the river also helps to solidify the formal structure and bring coherance to the works as a whole. To Wordsworth, the river represents the strength and backbone, if you will, of the setting which he is depicting. Wordsworth also makes an interesting reference to the river in the line, ” O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods, How often has my spirit turned to thee!” (57-58), which suggests that Wordsworth might even be using the image of the river as a metaphor for himself. In the lines that follow this quote he goes on to describe his forest experiences with nature, and how his understanding of life and nature itself has grown from being a “wanderer through the woods”, the same description used for the river.

Colderidge sets the description of his poem on the banks of a river as well, but the river of this poem represents the imagination or creative flow of the poet. In the introduction of the poem, Colderidge describes how while in an opium induced dream, he has a vision of Kubla Khan commanding a place to be built. Upon awakening, he set about to write down his vision but was interrupted by a visitor. When he returned to finish his work, he had only a vague recollection of the dream to which he likens as “the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast”. It is this description of his imagination within the introduction to the poem which give the clues as to Colderidge’s metaphorical use of the river within the poem. To re-examine the first four lines of the poem also gives us insight into this idea.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through the caverns measureless to man (1-4)

Colderidge believed the imagination to consist of three parts. The primary imagination, which was the divine source of all inspiration and ideas. The secondary imagination, which works together with the primary imagination, and is in a sense the manifestation or attempted creation of those ideas that have come from the primary imagination. The third is fancy, which is mearly a mimicking of something that has already been seen. The “sacred river” of the poem is representative of the secondary imagination, while the “caverns measureless to man” are representative of the primary imagination through which the “sacred river” or secondary imagination flows or draws inspiration from. The pleasure dome which Kubla Khan is building on this river is a metaphorical description of the growth of an idea from the primary and secondary imaginations.

The use of forests as images is common to both poems, though again the meaning behind the use within each poem is different. Colderidge uses the image of a forest as a dark, mysterious place and describes it as:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover! (14-16)

From out of the forest comes turmoil as well, which causes the “sacred river” to go into a tumultuous state. This can be seen as the forest representing ideas that are kept hidden within the subconcious, and when released can become a “mighty fountain” which stimulates the imagination. Where Colderidge’s river seem to represent a disturbance to the river, Wordsworth’s forest is a peacful calm that surrounds the river. In Tintern Abbey, the woods bring a “tranquil restoration” to the poet when he remembers them. The woods in this poem are a metaphorical mirror of the enlightened and pure mind of mankind. The power of the woods can best be described in the lines:

…for she can so inform

The mind that is within us, so impress

With quietness and beauty, and so feed

With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,

Rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men, (126-130)

Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb

Our cheerful faith that all which we behold (133-134)

Wordsworth is suggesting that if we understand nature and reflect upon her, we shall become uplifted and undisturbed by the “din of towns and cities”. Nature can lead us to an enlightened place. In both the Wordsworth and Colderidge poems, the woods symbolize something that brings about a type of change. The difference between the two being that in Tintern Abbey, the woods are a place where one goes to seek change and enlightenment. In “Kubla Khan”, the woods are a place of turmoil that bring about change forcefully.

The imagination displayed in each of the two poems is a representation of how the minds of Wordsworth and Colderidge percieve themselves and the world around them. Colderidge believed “that there are more invisible than visible things in the universe”, and that in pursuing these thoughts it keeps the mind from becoming “accustomed to the trivial details of daily life”. The poem “Kubla Khan” reflects this idea in that it explores the extraordinary, and through that exploration the poet is able to describe imagination and inspiration, and how the two might come to work together.

Wordsworth is a firm believer in the power of nature, and is keen to take a simple country setting and turn it into a window through which we can view our own souls. Through nature, Wordsworth is able to teach us about life and about the greater forces that are at work within life. In Tintern Abbey, a simple setting by the side of a river becomes the seed which allows Wordsworth’s imagination to grow forth images which allow him to connect nature and its laws to the essence that controls the well being of the minds of man.

Wordsworth was a man who in examining the ordinary, could bring about a profound sense of the extraordinary. Colderidge prefered to take the extraordinary and make it seem not only more common place, but significant to an aspect of human nature. Even though the two poets’ imaginations worked very differently from one another, their poems both worked towards the same goal, which was to allow the reader to enter their world, so to speak, and then leave the reader feeling as though they had learned something about themselves and the nature of life itself.

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