“Strange Power of Speech”: A Metaliterary Analysis of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

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Golembiewski, Kathleen
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The author places Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s two poems in the context of her own experience of vision and storytelling. Coleridge’s narrators, she writes, “are unable to convey their experiences, I will argue, not because the sublime lacks power, but because they attempt to use language to order that which cannot be ordered, to explain what cannot be explained but only experienced. Bowra writes that “Coleridge thought that the task of poetry is to convey the mystery of life,” but the mystery of life, the sublime, cannot be conveyed by any human means such as language. As such, “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” explore the inevitable failures of language when faced with the sublime.” She continues, “in both “Kubla Khan” and “Mariner,” the storytellers are the only ones who witness the power of the sublime; their listeners, even if they are affected by what they’ve heard, have not been granted access to the worlds into which the speakers are attempting to invite them. However, even though the speakers have, in the “Kubla Khan” speaker’s case, glimpsed the sublime, or in the Mariner’s case, been nearly consumed by it, they are unable to harness this power and express what they’ve experienced. Ultimately, neither speaker has any real agency; their greatest tool in evoking the sublime, language, fails them every time. Still, they try and try to tell their stories, and we the readers try and try to tell ourselves stories about the stories they’ve tried and failed to tell us.” And she concludes by saying “my research feels like a big slap in the face to literature, saying that it can’t ever win, that at best, language allows you to tell a story that you ultimately had to be there for, man. I tried to make it otherwise. I ecstatically wrote to my advisor one night, claiming that I’d done it, I’d figured it out, I’d found a way to read the poems as having the happy endings for language that I wanted. I sent her the following email: <So I am excited because I think I just realized what the ultimate point of my SIP is and a way to tie it all together and conclude my argument. So far, I've been talking about the shortcomings of literature-- the fragility of poetic inspiration, the inability of literature to properly convey traumatic events, the impotence of neat morals when applied to complex actions, the degree to which the retelling or re-imagining of stories (e.g. the gloss) results in the point getting lost, the way that both the storytellers are transformed for the worst, almost as a penalty for having glimpsed the sublime, and are persecuted and misunderstood. This gives a really negative view of literature, which never totally satisfied me—what's the point to writing about how writing is ultimately powerless and destructive? But then tonight while writing my outline, it hit me: even when the storytellers and poets in "Kubla Khan" and "Mariner" fail to properly tell their stories, the power of literature and of the imagination ultimately triumphs. Even when the "Kubla Khan" poet, who I wish had a name, and the Mariner are unable to properly tell their stories, the inspiration for these stories is potent enough that the narrators are as profoundly affected as their readers would have been. Even though the Mariner isn't able to really make sense of his story and ultimately fails to get the message across to the Wedding-Guest, even though the "Kubla Khan" poet can't remember his brilliant idea for a poem, the sublimity of the ideas that these characters have brushed against is powerful enough to mark them, change them. Literature is powerful enough to have a drastic impact, even when it "fails." I know I'll see you in less than 12 hours and be able to talk about this in person, but I'm a. excited and b. afraid that I'll pull a "Kubla Khan" and forget this moment of inspiration. What say you? Does this hold up? Am I going to look at this again tomorrow and shudder at how obtuse I was? At any rate, see you tomorrow at 10! Kate>
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