The Road to Xanadu – Review

John Livingston Lowes. The Road to Xanadu. 1927; Boston: Houghton, 1955. Print.

A few years ago a colleague asked me what was the best work of literary criticism I had read. Without hesitation I replied The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes. Though I had read it many years before in college, the book still stood out.

Some time ago I had obtained a copy of the book—it has been out of print for some time—to give to this colleague who had moved. Alas, I could not find a new address for him. The book sat around my house for over a year, and I decided to re-read it. Would my assessment hold up?

The Road to Xanadu is a unique work. It is subtitled A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. That is a perfect description. Very simply, the book is a study on the literary influences in the writing of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The book is better than I remembered it.

The Road to Xanadu documents Coleridge’s reading and demonstrates how images, ideas, and even certain turns of phrase from his reading entered into those two poetic masterpieces. Coleridge’s prose introduction to “Kubla Khan,” of course, tells us that he read Samuel Purchas’s 1617 Purchas his Pilgrimage. But Coleridge read such travelogues widely, as we know from his letters, notebook entries, library records, and accounts of others. Lowes leaves no stone unturned to demonstrate the influence of writers like early American naturalist William Bartram, African explorer James Bruce, Captain Cook, Hakluyt’s Navigations, Antarctic explorers Armand Rainaud and George Shelvocke, Arctic explorers Frederick Martens and Willem Barents, among others. It is fascinating and virtually impossible to explain. “You had to have been there.” The reader has to see for himself or herself.

One simple example will illustrate the detail. Two lines in The Ancient Mariner tell us that the narrator observed

The hornèd Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip. (ll. 210,211)

Coleridge had read about this phenomenon in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of 1794 and another in British Critic of June 1795. Similar observations were mentioned in Captain Cook, James Bruce, and likely at least two or three other sources Coleridge likely read (The Strange and Dangerous Voyage of Captain Thomas James, Hawkins’ Voyage to the South Seas, the astronomer Edmond Halley, and/or Cotton Mather). The language of the last two phrases quoted is nearly identical with several of the sources.

Although Lowe recognizes that Coleridge’s prose introduction to “Kubla Khan” is not entirely accurate (for example, the year should be 1798), he does take Coleridge’s account at face value, that the poem was written in a frenzy after a vivid dream. Since Lowes wrote, it has been fairly well proven to the satisfaction of many that there are a number of details in the account are questionable. Professor D. D. Perkins asserts, for example, that “Kubla Khan” is a work in two parts, the prose introduction and the poem, and both parts are imaginative. Indeed, this is why science fiction writer Douglas Adams in his Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency “hypothesizes” that the “visitor from Porlock” must have been a time traveler in order to make all the details fit!

One could call The Road to Xanadu a research paper. Indeed, it is research-based in a way that few works of literary criticism are apart from author biographies. Still, it is not biographical, it is literary. Even when looking at “Kubla Khan” as a dream, Lowes eschews psychoanalysis or other interpretative approaches. The book is truly a study of how the imagination works—and it effectively illustrates Coleridge’s own understanding of the imagination, that is, the confluence of the objective (in this case, Coleridge’s reading) with the subjective (his talent to transform them into stories with vivid imagery). Lowes compares it to Newton’s observing an apple fall and his “leap of the imagination” to “architectonic conception cosmic in its scope and grandeur.” (395) Jacob Bronowski’s essay “The Creative Mind” cites Newton and Coleridge as his main examples. Did this nuclear physicist read Lowes? Or was Coleridge’s own Biographia Literaria enough?

Would my friend like this book? I do not know. It does not take any special position on what good literature is or how to interpret it. Someone looking for that kind of literary criticism would do better with Aristotle, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge’s prose, Arnold’s prose, Eliot’s prose, or, a favorite of mine, Yeats’ Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse.

One thing that I appreciate about The Road to Xanadu that I was unable to appreciate when I read it before is just how beautifully it is written. Like much of the best poetry written in the 1920s, it is full of allusions. I lost track of the number of allusions to the Bible, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, and others. And they really amplify the author’s meaning, they are not just there to impress us. I am sure that I missed many this time. I suspect that to appreciate the book fully, one must have read as widely as Coleridge.

Apart from that, it is clear that Lowes not only admires good poetry but loves what the language can do. Listen to and picture in your own mind these choice words of the author:

And the goal of the shaping spirit which hovers in the poet’s brain is the clarity and order of pure beauty. Nothing is akin to its transforming touch. “Far or forgot to [it] is near; Shadow and sunlight are the same.” Things fantastic as the dicing of spectres on skeleton-barks, and ugly as the slimy spawn of rotting seas, and strange as a star astray within the moon’s bright tip, blend its vision into patterns of created beauty. (396)

Indeed, art and discovery are capable of such things. It is a reminder that we humans, however broken or fallen, still retain something of the image of the Creator in our beings.

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