The Road to Xanadu is about the poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge—but in a very particular way.
“The title of this volume,” writes Lowes, “is less cryptic than it seems. I propose to tell the story, so far as I have charted its course, of the genesis of two of the most remarkable poems in English, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ and ‘Kubla Khan.’ If that should appear a meagre theme on which to lavish all these pages [the book is 637 pages long], I can only crave of the judicial reader a suspended sentence.”
He then goes on not just to critique Coleridge’s two great poems, but to provide a gloriously intricate epic-length examination of the working-through of the poetic impulse itself, scuttled in the great seas of the unconscious where nascent work of art lies spinning and fuming, and the way the final imaginative product ultimately swims to the surface like a bright mermaid of expression. In this, the book’s closest relation is poet Robert Graves’ The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948).
Two years after the publication of The Road to Xanadu, Lowes, in 1929, Professor Lowes published the text of the commencement address he had delivered, first at Simmons College (June 6, 1924) and then at Radcliffe College (June 18, 1924). Given these dates, he must still have been working on The Road to Xanadu at the time.
One of the surprising aspects of this address (the book is only 37 pages long) is the degree to which Lowes presents our increasingly frenetic culture as the mortal enemy of reading—and therefore as the mortal enemy of contemplation and, ultimately, wisdom. “We live,” he writes on the very first page, “in an age and a land above all things marked by hurried motion.”
Lowes talks urgently and eloquently of the “modern malady” which is killing us with its virulent emptiness: “…one of the consequences of this modern malady of ours is that the gracious things which lend to life and human intercourse the beauty and serenity and comeliness are gone, or on the wane. ‘The wisdom of the learned man,’ wrote the author of Ecclesiasticus long centuries ago, ‘cometh by opportunity of leisure,’ and not wisdom only, but grace, and gentle breeding, and amenity, and poise come so, and only so. And leisure (which is not to be confused with empty time, but which is time through which free, life-enhancing currents flow)—leisure in these days is something to be sought and cherished as a rare and priceless boon; leisure to think, and talk, and write, and read—lost arts else, all of them.”
And this, let us remember, is 1929. I cannot imagine (and don’t want to try very hard) a John Livingston Lowes living here among us now, desperately Blackberrying his civilizing admonitions to a frenetic, heedless crowd.
Does Lowes have a solution to offer us? Indeed he has. “Our salvation, then, lies in the refusal to be forever hurried with the crowd, and in our resolution to step out of it at intervals, and drink from deeper wells.”
The “deeper wells” lie sweetly available to the reader of books (not magazines, newspapers, Wikipedia, etc.). “It is not even scholarship that I shall have in mind,” Lowes adds (being himself a scholar). “It is simply reading, as men and women have always read, for the delight of it, and for the consequent enriching and enhancement of one’s life.”
What follows from this are thirty more pages of recountings of “reading for the sheer delight of it.” The book is dangerous in that it expects of you that you put down whatever buzzy trivia you’re currently busy with and start reading. Reading widely. Lowes wants us to read Montaigne, Goethe. Robert Louis Stevenson, Coleridge, Keats, Shakespeare of course, Charles Lamb, Byron, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (daunting task!), Browning, Chaucer, Mathew Arnold…and the list is long. If he were writing Of Reading Books today, it would be a thousand times longer.
But it isn’t bulk reading that counts and it isn’t bulk reading that saves your soul. What counts is what Professor Lowes calls “delectable epicureanism” (“one of the marks of the true reader”). He cites a passage in Robert Browning wherein, Lowes notes, the poet “remains a human being while he reads”:
Then I went in-doors, brought out a loaf,
Half a cheese, and a bottle of Chablis;
Lay in the grass and forgot the oaf*
Over a jolly chapter of Rabelais
* The books of Northrop Frye (Fearful Symmetry, The Anatomy of Criticism and The Great Code, for example) are like that, as are the books of Marjorie Hope Nicolson (Voyages to the Moon, Mountain Hope and Mountain Glory)
** The poet in his meaningless daily round.