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Xanadu: Nelson & Coleridge


Ted Nelson's "Xanadu" project is important to those of us interested in the
history and poetics of cyberspace and its linkages -- it was Nelson, after
all, who coined the term "hypertext" -- and I am grateful to Andrew Pam,
<avatar@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>, for the time and trouble he took in compiling the
Xanadu FAQ, which I ran across again today at:


It is accordingly in a spirit of gratitude that I wish to point out that
entry 7B in the FAQ, which gives us crucial data on the early history of
the name "Xanadu", is not entirely accurate:

::  Samuel Taylor Coleridge published the poem "Kubla Khan",
::  considered the sexiest in the English language, in the early 19th
::  century. Supposedly Coleridge wrote a thousand lines in his
::  mind while in an opiate trance, but was interrupted while trying
::  to write it down by the infamous "person from Porlock" who
::  bothered him on trivial business and made him forget the rest of
::  the poem. This has been disputed by scholars who didn't believe
::  there actually could have been any more to the poem. Coleridge
::  was inspired by the autobiography of Marco Polo mentioned in
::  answer 7a above, which he was reading.

All of which gives me a delightful chance to comment...


Calling Coleridge's poem the sexiest in the language is a matter of taste,
after all: what concerns me more is that Coleridge was reading "Purchas his
Pilgrimage" at the time, not Marco Polo's autobiography -- so Purchas
requires an entry before the entry for Coleridge:

::  Purchas his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and the
::  Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered, from the
::  Creation unto this Present... By Samuel Purchas.  London, 1617.

...on page 472 of which, Coleridge would have found the words:

::  In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace, encompassing
::  sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile
::  Meddowes, pleasant springs, delightfull Streames, and all sorts
::  of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a
::  sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from
::  place to place...

...and so it is that we now read, in Coleridge's dream-variant on Purchas'

          In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
          A stately pleasure-dome decree...


But yet more interesting from a hypertextual point of view is the book by
John Livingston Lowes, "The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the
Imagination", Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1927, which really deserves a
very special mention.

Lowes' book traces an amazing hypertext -- the reading of Samuel Taylor
Coleridge -- by starting from Purchas' book and any others which Coleridge
mentions in his journals, letters, etc., and moving on from there to any
books mentioned in the text or footnotes of these books, and so onwards
through yet other books that Coleridge may well have consulted -- because
we know he consulted others which recommended or mentioned them...

Along the way, Lowes discovered many instances of the workings of what
Coleridge himself termed "the *hooks-and-eyes* of the memory" -- hyperlinks
again: for this is Coleridge's own term for them.

It appears that Coleridge read very widely in the travel literature of his
day, and did indeed tend to obtain many of the books referenced in books he
was reading... and that as he went, his memory was saturated with the more
striking phrases from these many books, and then *linked* them


Let us take two verses from "The Ancient Mariner" for example:

In the manner of Conan Doyle, Livingston Lowes leads his readers through
the various texts that Coleridge is known to have read, and must surely
have read, which may in turn have fed into these two verses.  He shows us
first Joseph Priestley's chapter on 'Light from Putrescent Substances' in
his "Opticks", then Father Bourzes' letter on 'Luminous Appearances in the
Wakes of Ships', which Coleridge would have read in the "Philosophical
Transactions" since Priestly quotes it, and thence via Cook's "Voyages",
Bartram's "Travels", Sir Richard Hawkins as quoted in "Purchas", Captain
William Dampier's "New Voyage round the World", Basil Ringrose's account of
the "dangerous Voyage... of Capt. Bartholomew Sharp", and Leemius' "De
Lapponibus", to Falconer's poem "The Shipwreck"...

>From each of these, Coleridge took a phrase or phrases which vanished into
the "deep well" of memory and there in the depths merged with other
phrases, images merging with other images -- until the solution was
saturated, the moment ripe -- at which point, in Lowes' words:

::  The fishes which Father Bourzes saw in tropical seas and
::  Bartram in a little lake in Florida, and the luminous blue and
::  green protozoa which Captain Cook observed in the Pacific, and
::  the many-hued, ribbon-like creatures that Sir Richard Hawkins
::  marvelled at off the Azores, and Dampier's water-snakes in the
::  South Seas, and Leemius's coiling, rearing marine serpents of the
::  North, and Falconer's gambolling porpoises and dolphins -- all of
::  them or some of them -- have leaped together like scattered dust
::  at the trumpet of the resurrection, and been fused by a flash of
::  imaginative vision into the elfin creatures of a hoary deep that
::  never was and that will always be...

So that Coleridge may write, and we may read:

          Beyond the shadow of the ship,
          I watched the water-snakes:
          They moved in tracks of shining white,
          And when they reared, the elfish light
          Fell off in hoary flakes.

          Within the shadow of the ship
          I watched their rich attire:
          Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
          They coiled and swam; and every track
          Was a flash of golden fire.


This is a far cry indeed from Falconer's dull phrase

          Their tracks awhile the hoary waves retain

-- but the word "hoary" seems to have come from a memory of Falconer's
line..  linked by the word "tracks" in Coleridge's incomparable memory to
Father Bourzes' phrase "but fishes also in swimming leave behind 'em a
luminous Track", while Bourzes' phrase "Fishes playing in the Sea" would
have called to mind Leemius' "in mare ludens", whence comes also the
"serpens marinus" or water-snake which figures also in Dampier and in
Ringrose's narrative of Captain Sharp, in which "Water-Snakes of divers
Colours" are mentioned twice... and thus back to the "Snakes, Greene,
Yellow, Blacke, White, and some partie-coloured" of Purchas, while it is in
Bartram that Coleridge finds a fish "of a pale gold (or burnished brass)
color", which at the gills has a spatula "of silver, and velvet black".

The images coalescing deep in Coleridge's mind, leaving a phosphorescent

And the hypertext, the bead game which is Lowes' slow unfolding of these
and so many other readings, phrases, images and associations as they are
slowly hooked together in the mind of the poet, must itself be read to be
enjoyed and believed: Livingston Lowes, "The Road to Xanadu", Chapter III,
The Deep Well.  This chapter opens on page 38 of my edition, and there are
400 pages more to follow it, not counting the almost 150 pages of notes...


And the book, the book itself is a gigantic hypertext, linking sources in
Coleridge's reading not only for "The Ancient Mariner" by also for "Kubla
Khan" -- and along the way touching on an extraordinary variety of topics.
As Lowes writes:

::  We shall meet on the way with as strange a concourse as ever
::  haunted the slopes of Parnassus -- with alligators and albatrosses
::  and auroras and Antichthones; with biscuit-worms, bubbles of
::  ice, bassoons, and breezes; with candles, and Cain, and the
::  Corpo Santo; Dioclesian, king of Syria, and the daemons of the
::  elements; earthquakes, and the Euphrates; frost-needles, and fog-
::  smoke, and phosphorescent light; gooseberries, and the Gordonia
::  lasianthus; haloes and hurricanes; lightnings and Laplanders;
::  meteors, and the Old Man of the Mountain, and stars behind the
::  moon; nightmares, and the sources of the Nile; footless birds of
::  Paradise, and the observatory at Pekin; swoons, and spectres,
::  and slimy seas; wefts, and water-snakes, and the Wandering Jew.

I do not know whether Ted Nelson had read Livingston Lowes' book, or
whether perhaps like the snippets of Coleridge's readings which that book
describes, it had passed briefly through his awareness and been dissolved
in the "deep well" along with other things.  But I see it surfacing,
nonetheless, in his choice of the name "Xanadu" for his own work of
intellectual synthesis.  For Lowes' book is, when all is said and done, one
of the greatest detective and scholarly hypertexts of all time...


There's a very reasonably priced copy of Lowes' book currently available on
the Web from The Ink Well, incidentally -- see item 522:

::  Lowes, John Livingstone. The Road To Xanadu, [1927] VG ndj,
::  vsl wn corners, insc. $12

(plus  $4.00 shipping) in their catalogue at


With best wishes,

Charles Cameron <hipbone@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
hipbone games: http://idt.net/~davehuge/
mirror site: http://home.earthlink.net/~hipbone/