I went for a walk in Ebbor Gorge yesterday. It’s a deep dank wooded gash in the Mendip Hills, about 45 minutes drive south of Bristol. Hunter gatherers used to live here. I kind of envy them. Walking up the slippery slimy rocks on the ever enclosing path up through the limestone cliffs, I could just imagine them squatting under one of the overhanging rocks and trading hunting stories while they waited for a deer thigh to roast over the fire. I have no truck with all that ‘Quest For Fire’ savage flesh eating ancestor nonsense. In my imagination, our hunter gatherer forbears would have been gentle folk who only savage and aggressive when they needed to, in other words, in the face of a tribal enemy or a dangerous animal. Otherwise I’m sure they were quite calm and hospitable. Nomads and hunter gatherers usually are. It’s a conceit of Christian Missionaries and ‘Civilized’ folk to portray cave dwellers as beasts.
But much as my imagination was stirred by the brittle winter forest, the rotting sludge of leaves of the ground, the towering limestone precipices of the gorge, and the incredible views over the Somerset levels and Glastonbury Tor, I didn’t fly quite as high as our great poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge managed to do when he visited this place two hundred years ago whilst off his head on opium. Or was he high as a kite when he actually wrote the poem. Maybe both. My wandering mind managed to concoct imaginings that were perhaps far-fetched but still anchored firmly to the crazy rock formations and quiet woods that lay all around me. Coleridge built something a thousands times more fantastic from his wanderings:
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,
so twice five miles of fertile ground
with walls and towers were girdled round.
and there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree.
And here were forests as ancient as the hills,
enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But O! That deep romantic chasm which slanted,
down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover.
A savage place! As holy and enchanted
as e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
by woman wailing for her demon lover.
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.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion,
through wood and dale the sacred river ran.
Then reach’d the caverns measureless to man,
and sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean.
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from afar
ancestral voices prophesying war!
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.
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!
and all who heard should see them there!
and all should cry, Beware! Beware!
his flashing eyes! his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
and close your eyes with holy dread!
for he on honey-dew hath fed,
and drunk the milk of Paradise.
The poet was on a roll when he was disturbed by “a man from Porlock”, maybe the gas meter reader. When he got back to his desk, the drugs, or the inspiration, or maybe both had worn off and his head was empty. If he’d lived in 21st century Hackney, with easy access to his supplier, we might have been bequeathed a lengthy epic. As it is, all we have are these few lines. But what imagination! With a little effort I can related almost all the poem to my experience of walking in the gorge yesterday. It was most definitely “holy and enchanted.” To build a pleasure dome, however, with a sacred river that flows through unfathomable caves to a sea on which the sun never shines…that was quite something.
It was only this morning that a chill and cynical question entered my mind. How much of it was Coleridge, and how much was it the opium? I mean, I’ve often composed epics in my mind whilst off my tree, usually on weed or hash of somekind. And of course, they’ve always disappeared into thin air come the next morning. Many my mistake has been not to say “Laters” and just rudely squirrel myself off into some corner to write my psychedelic opus there and then. Or maybe I’m not Coleridge. Well, definitely. But the question remains: do drugs help the creative process? I’ve always believed the answer is ‘No’. Ebbor Gorge made me think again.
Andy Morgan, (c) 2010