Let’s Go Literary! (watch out for the shoggoths)

In Antarctica the Elder Things, An eldritch city did decree,Where great and loathly shoggoths played,Through caverns carved and strangely made,Down to a sunless sea…

To continue on from my Lovecraftian ramblings of yesterday – am I the only person in the world to notice certain similarities between Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan?

I first got into Coleridge when I read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by the sadly missed Douglas Adams (the same book also got me into Bach). KK is one of the story’s major plot elements (with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner showing its face from time to time) and the somewhat mysterious reference to the poem’s “second, stranger half” motivated me to actually get a hold of a copy and read it (I was somewhat dissapointed to discover that the “second half” doesn’t actually exist – which shows that I kind of missed the point the first time I read the book). In any case I was soon hooked on Coleridge who remains my favourite poet to this day (I still can’t hear someone talk about atheism without thinking of owletts).

(Hmmm, this talk of Dirk Gently reminds me of another piece I’ve been meaning to write about paradoxial information loops in time travel – like the albatross. I propose we call such things cjellis – but back to the matter at hand…)

So, when I cam to read At the Mountains of Madness some years later I was quite familiar with KK, and noticed a number of conceptual similarities between the poem and the novel which led me to wonder if Lovecraft drew some inspiration from Coleridge. Some brief poking around on the net has failed to turn up any discussion of this subject, so I’ve decided to go all literary and write about it here.

Probably the best way to illustrate my thesis is to run through the text of KK inserting my observations as we go. So strap yourself in kids, it’s poetry time!

Kubla Khan, or A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment. By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan,
A stately pleasure-dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river ran,
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea,

(‘At the Mountains of Madness’ involves the discovery of the ruins of a gigantic alien city deep within Antarctica. From the description of this city “…One broad swath, extending from the plateau’s interior, to a cleft in the foothills about a mile to the left of the pass we had traversed, was wholly free from buildings. It probably represented, we concluded, the course of some great river which in Tertiary times – millions of years ago – had poured through the city and into some prodigious subterranean abyss of the great barrier range. Certainly, this was above all a region of caves, gulfs, and underground secrets beyond human penetration…”)

So twice five miles of fertile ground,
With walls and towers were girdled round,

(More about the city – “…I shuddered as the seething labyrinth of fabulous walls and towers and minarets loomed out of the troubled ice vapors above our head… there were truncated cones, sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks… …there were composite cones and pyramids either alone or surmounting cylinders or cubes or flatter truncated cones and pyramids, and occasional needle-like spires in curious clusters of five… …fifty miles of flight in each direction showed no major change in the labyrinth of rock and masonry that clawed up corpselike through the eternal ice…”. )

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree,
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,

(Lovecraft mentions “luxuriant Tertiary vegetation” and “unknown jungles of Mesozoic tree ferns and fungi, and forests of Tertiary cycads, fan palms, and primitive angiosperms” surrounding the city)

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted,
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted,

(Lovecraft describes “…the canyon where that broad river had once pierced the foothills and approached its sinking place in the great range…” and later on “..It appeared that this general region was the most sacred spot of all, where reputedly the first Old Ones had settled on a primal sea bottom”)

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted,
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

(It’s a stretch I know, but these lines remind me of the wind “…through the desolate summits swept ranging, intermittent gusts of the terrible Antarctic wind; whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible…”)

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced,
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst,
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail,
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever,
It flung up momently the sacred river,

(“The vast dead megalopolis that yawned around us seemed to be the last general center of the race – built early in the Cretaceous Age after a titanic earth buckling had obliterated a still vaster predecessor not far distant”)

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion,
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean,

(To quote, “In the course of ages the caves had appeared… with the advance of still later epochs, all the limestone veins of the region were hollowed out by ground waters, so that the mountains, the foothills, and the plains below them were a veritable network of connected caverns and galleries… this vast nighted gulf had undoubtedly been worn by the great river which flowed down from the nameless and horrible westward mountains, and which had formerly turned at the base of the Old Ones’ range… little by little it had eaten away the limestone hill base at its turning, till at last its sapping currents reached the caverns of the ground waters and joined with them in digging a deeper abyss. Finally its whole bulk emptied into the hollow hills… [they] had carved into ornate pylons those headlands of the foothills where the great stream began its descent into eternal darkness…”)

And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far,
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

(The final war between the Elder Things and their shoggoth servants perhaps? This took place in the underground sea. Or just the echoing ‘Tekeli-li!’?)

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!

(By the time of the novel the entire city is buried in the Antarctic ice cap – much of the story takes place in “caves of ice”)

A damsel with a dulcimer,
In a vision once I saw,
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora,
Could I revive within me,
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,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

(I could draw an analogy here between the author rebuilding the city after being charmed by music, and the shogoths building the city after being charmed by hypnosis – but that’s probably pushing it a bit isn’t it? 🙂

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

(This could pass as a description of a shoggoth – “the nightmare, plastic column of fetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward… gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, rethickening cloud of the pallid abyss vapor… a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light…)

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,

(Suggesting that this is a reference to the Elder Sign would just be cheeky 🙂

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise,

So there we go, some notable coincidences (and some not so notable). But probably the best evidence that Lovecraft was at least thinking of Kubla Khan in some capacity while writing At the Mountains of Madness is the following quote…

“Many graphic sculptures told of explorations deep underground, and of the final discovery of the Stygian sunless sea that lurked at earth’s bowels”

OK, it’s a stock phrase, but certainly Lovecraft would have known where it came from and must have considered the similarities between his narrative and the poem – at least in passing.

So yeah. Next week I’ll demonstrate how Dracula is based on Wordsworth’s I wandered lonely as a cloud and the Matrix trilogy on Shelley’s Ozymandius 😉

PS: Questions for the advanced student. Where exactly did Coleridge’s dream come from? And do we really want to know what might be living in Lake Vostok? 🙂

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