Apocalyptic Visions of Literature

Both Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Coleridge’s Kubla Khan illustrate instances in which visions of apocalyptic nature occur within other visions in the scenes of the Arab knight and the “damsel with a dulcimer” (line 37), respectively. Wordsworth recounts a tale of a dream vision of a friend – presumably Coleridge, to whom The Prelude is addressed – encountering the “semi Quixote” (V, 142) and experiencing what can be classified as a cathartic moment during which both the friend and Wordsworth are suddenly made aware of the importance of literature and the impossibility of its impermanence. Holding a stone representing Euclid’s Elements and a sonorous shell symbolizing a book of poetry, the knight is arguably the paradigm of liberal arts intellect which Wordsworth, though he disliked university, deems important. This representation intensifies the character’s apocalyptic vision in that it suggests the continuation of education, despite the impending end of civilization. It is evident that Wordsworth prefers the subtleties of language to mathematics, for the knight terms the shell as “something of more worth” (90) that also emits a “loud prophetic blast of harmony” (96) at the culmination of the apocalyptic vision. In this regard, the dream in its entirety serves as a reinforcement of Wordsworth’s own hopes that literature far surpasses both the physical and intellectual apocalypses.

Similarly, in the Kubla Khan, Coleridge himself experiences a renewed appreciation for literature in an opium-induced dream that transports him to Xanadu. Just as Wordsworth’s friend was leisurely reading Don Quixote before his dream of the Arab knight, so too was Coleridge reading; the latter’s story serves as the opening lines of the poem: “in Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree, / Where Alph, the scared river, ran” (lines 1-3). It is important to note that both dreams were directly influenced by the narrators’ current readings that built the foundation that literature is held to the highest regard in the visions themselves. In this instance, Coleridge envisions an “Abyssinian maid” playing a guitar-like instrument, the memory of whom could possibly mirror Coleridge’s inability to finish composing the poem from memory. The apocalyptic moment here occurs in Coleridge hearing “ancestral voices prophesying war”(line 30), followed by the lines “the shadow of the dome of pleasure / Floated midway on the waves, / Where was heard the mingled measure / From the fountain and the caves; It was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” (lines 31-35). The paradoxical image of both sun and ice symbolizes the supernatural characteristics of this apocalyptic moment, in particular. Because this proclamation seems a bit disjointed from the rest of the poem, it reflects both the difficulty Coleridge had in recalling the verses as well as the sudden occurrence of the vision. Thus, it can be said that in both visions, the dreamers’ love of literature catalyzed the apocalyptic moments because of literature’s power to supersede other intellectual forms. Perhaps Wordsworth and Coleridge would posit that literature itself is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, the only thing surviving after the end of the world.

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~ by apocalypse122112 on September 13, 2012.

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