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1. A paradise, with fountains and rivers

William Beckford

At 18, William Beckford, son of the Lord Mayor of London, had a dream like the one Coleridge recorded in Kubla Khan:

Meanwhile my thoughts were wandering into the interior of Africa and dwelt for hours on those Countries I love.  Strange tales of Mount Atlas and relations of Travellers amused my fancy.  One instant I imagined myself viewing the marble palaces of Ethiopian princes seated on the green woody margin of Lakes...

Some few minutes after, I found myself standing before a thick wood listening to impetuous water falls...I was wondering at the Scene when a tall comely Negro wound along the slopes of the Hills and without moving his lips made me comprehends I was in Africa, on the brink of the Nile beneath the Mountains of Amara.  I followed his steps thro' an infinity of irregular Vales, all skirted with Rocks and blooming with an aromatic vegetation, till we arrived at the hollow Peak and...a wide Cavern appeared before us....

We entered the Cavern and fell prostrate before the sacred source of the Nile which issues silently from a deep Gulph in the Rock.

(Cited in Lewis Melville, The Life and Letters of William Beckford of Fonthill, London, pp. 62-63).

So here we have another writer enamored of these travelers' tales, dreaming of a visit to the source of the Nile.  But this record of his dream was not published until 1910, and even Lowes does not argue that Coleridge had stumbled on this tale so like his own. But Lowes does suppose that Coleridge read a novel that Beckford wrote a few years later.

At 22, Beckford wrote The History of the Caliph Vathek in French, in the course of two days, and three nights, nonstop. Beckford had absorbed the Arabian Nights, and in his novel, invented a similar story, with even more fantastic imaginings, some of which spoofed English politics of the period, in this indirect way. So this Voltairian tale played in the uncertain realm between pure fiction and true satire.

Ironically, someone stole his manuscript, and had a man named Henley translate it into English, in 1784.  Beckford issued his French original three years later. (And in 1789, Beckford witnessed the storming of the Bastille.)

Retreating to his home at Fonthill, in England, Beckford devoted himself to building a three-hundred foot tower, which collapsed. 

In preparing for his hymns to the moon and the sun, Coleridge was reading travel literature for interesting tidbits about natural phenomena, weather lore, and pagan ceremonies. Lowes confesses that he cannot prove Coleridge read Vathek:

I wish I could say, with the complete assurance which is based on evidence, that Coleridge had read Vathek. As it is, I have neither doubt nor proof. 398

Vathek, The history of the Caliph Vathek, (trans. Henley) London, 1786.

Other sources

William Bartram
F. Bernier
James Bruce
Thomas Burnet
William Collins
Herodotus
Athanasius Kircher
Jerome Lobo
Thomas Maurice
John Milton
Pausanias
Samuel Purchas
Major James Rennell
Seneca
Strabo
Virgil

Mary Wollstonecraft

 

 

1. A paradise, with fountains and rivers

Lowes has picked up various phrases, from pages 23 to 37 in the original, but he only gives us one continuous paragraph. Certainly images of a paradise with palaces of the five senses, "pleasure houses," with cedars and fragrant trees, and fountains, plus an "immense gulph," or "chasm." All of those details bear some resemblance to Kubla Khan, but the most coherent passage comes when a strange creature disappears into that abyss, and Vathek looks over the edge, hearing, he thought, voices coming from the depths. Perhaps these led to the ancestral voices in Kubla Khan. Lowes says of this chasm:

That a reminiscence of it flashed through the interweaving fancies of the vision is well within the bounds of possibility. 399

Possible, yes, proven, no.

In the early pages, Lowes finds a paradise, cedars, incense-bearing trees, and four fountains like the four sacred rivers that watered Eden, at the foot of the hill (2-5, and 23-24). But the central action of the story turns around an "immense gulph or chasm," (35-36) into which an evil spirit persuades him to throw 50 of the sons of his subjects.  Here the Caliph looks into the gulf, hoping to hear the voices of the spirit, who has appeared as an Indian.

Text

The Caliph was the only person that refused to leave the valley. He commanded his tents to be pitched there, and stationed himself on the very edge of the precipice, in spite of the representations of Carathis and Morakanabad, who pointed out the hazard of its brink giving way, and the vicinity to the magician that had so severely tormented him. Vathek derided all their remonstrances, and, having ordered a thousand flambeaux to be lighted, and directed his attendants to proceed in lighting more, lay down on the slippery margin, and attempted, by help of this artificial splendour, to look through that gloom which all the fires of the empyrean had been insufficient to pervade. One while he fancied to himself voices arising from the depth of the gulf; at another he seemed to distinguish the accents of the Indian, but all was no more than the hollow murmur of waters, and the din of the cataracts that rushed from steep to steep down the sides of the mountain. Vathek, 35-37

 
Word Line # Line Sources for word
Cedars

13

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover

 Beckford
 Bruce 1
 Kircher 2
 Milton 1

Chasm

12

But oh! That deep romantic chasm which slanted

 Beckford
 Kircher 1
 Kircher 3
 Strabo 2

 

17

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething

 Beckford
 Kircher 1
 Kircher 3
 Strabo 2

Fountain

19

A mighty fountain momently was forced

 Bartram 4
 Bartram 5
 Bartram 6

 Bartram 7

 Bartram 8
 Beckford
 Bernier 2
 Bernier 4
 Bruce 1
 Bruce 2

 Bruce 3

 Burnet 1
 Herodotus
 Maurice 2
 Milton 4
 Pausanias
 Rennell
 Seneca 1
 Virgil
 Wollstonecraft

 

34

From the fountain and the caves

 Bartram 4
 Bartram 5
 Bartram 6

 Bartram 7

 Bartram 8
 Beckford
 Bernier 2
 Bernier 4
 Bruce 1
 Bruce 2

 Bruce 3

 Burnet 1
 Herodotus
 Maurice 2
 Milton 4
 Pausanias
 Rennell
 Seneca 1
 Virgil
 Wollstonecraft

Hill

13

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover

 Beckford
 Bernier 1
 Bruce 1
 Bruce 2
 Bruce 7

 Bruce 9

 Milton 3
 Milton 4

 Purchas 5

Incense-bearing

9

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree

 Bartram 2
 Bartram 3
 Bartram 4
 Beckford
 Bernier 2
 Milton 2
 Milton 4

 

Paradise

54

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 Beckford
 Bruce 1
 Burnet 1
 Kircher 1
 Milton 1
 Milton 2
 Milton 4
 Milton 5
 Milton 6

 Purchas 4

River

3

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

 Bartram 3
 Bartram 6
 Beckford
 Bernier 1
 Bernier 2
 Bernier 3
 Bernier 5

 Bruce 2

 Bruce 4
 Bruce 6

 Burnet 1
 Kircher 1
 Kircher 3
 Maurice 1
 Milton 4
 Pausanias
 Rennell
 Seneca 1
 Strabo 1
 Strabo 2

 Virgil

 

24

It flung up momently the sacred river

 Bartram 3
 Bartram 6
 Beckford
 Bernier 1
 Bernier 2
 Bernier 3
 Bernier 5

 Bruce 2

 Bruce 4
 Bruce 6

 Burnet 1
 Kircher 1
 Kircher 3
 Maurice 1
 Milton 4
 Pausanias
 Rennell
 Seneca 1
 Strabo 1
 Strabo 2

 Virgil

 

26

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran

 Bartram 3
 Bartram 6
 Beckford
 Bernier 1
 Bernier 2
 Bernier 3
 Bernier 5
 
 Bruce 2

 Bruce 4
 Bruce 6
 Burnet 1

 Kircher 1
 Kircher 3
 Maurice 1
 Milton 4
 Pausanias
 Rennell
 Seneca 1
 Strabo 1
 Strabo 2

 Virgil

Sacred

3

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

 Beckford
 Burnet 1
 Maurice 1
 Maurice 2

 

24

It flung up momently the sacred river

 Beckford
 Burnet 1
 Maurice 1
 Maurice 2

 

26

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran

 Beckford
 Burnet 1
 Maurice 1
 Maurice 2

Tree

9

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree

 Bartram 3
 Beckford
 Bernier 2
 Bruce 2
 Bruce 8
 Milton 2
 Milton 4
 Purchas 3

Voices

30

Ancestral voices prophesying war!

 Beckford
 Bruce 8

   

 

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