The other day, I watched the film, “Pandemonium” (2000) which was about the deterioration of the friendship between the British poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge (played by Linus Roache) and William Wordsworth (played by John Hannah). It was one of those beautifully done British productions where moody landscapes, historical buildings, and period-accurate costumes and sets combined to show a realistic view, warts and all, of what life was like at the time (1795 – 1815). I must admit that I do not know enough about the lives of either poet to speak to the biographical accuracy of the film; no doubt, creative liberties were taken, as is typically the case with biopics. I was also confused and mystified by the film maker’s intercutting into several scenes in the film a shot of a partly cloudy sky anachronistically streaked with the contrail of a roaring jet. ???
Although I felt the film was a little overheated and claustrophobic in places, and despite Linus Roache’s tendency to flop about and chew up the scenery while portraying Coleridge in the throes of his opium induced visions, I liked the film overall. I especially liked the scene which purports to show how Coleridge was inspired to write “Frost at Midnight” and the scene that has Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy traipsing about through the countryside so that Nature can incite Wordsworth to commit poetry. As Wordsworth crests a hill, he declaims, “I wandered lonely as a cow. . .” to which his sister quietly replies, “‘Cloud’ would be a better choice, William.”
In the opening scene of the film, Coleridge arrives at a gathering to which he has been invited but was not expected to attend. The purpose of the gathering is to celebrate Wordsworth’s presumed nomination to Poet Laureate — they are expecting a messenger to arrive shortly with royal confirmation. Coleridge is ushered in and proceeds to crash about like a bull in a china shop. Though claiming to be his friend, Wordsworth is plainly embarrassed by the obvious physical and mental toll laudanum (opium) addiction has taken on Coleridge. The story of how their friendship unraveled is then told as a long succession of flashbacks that eventually returns full circle to the party in the closing scenes of the film. When the royal messenger finally does arrive, it is Robert Southey, Coleridge’s brother-in-law, who has been appointed Poet Laureate, much to Wordsworth’s chagrin. Lord Byron, one of the guests, makes Coleridge an offer to publish “Kublai Khan” which Byron greatly admires. Wordsworth and Coleridge have a confrontation over the offer in which Wordsworth berates Coleridge as being responsible for Dorothy’s current health condition — she is now only able to gibber meaninglessly and is confined to a wheelchair. Wordsworth alleges that it is her own opium use that has physically and mentally destroyed her. Wordsworth tells Coleridge that he should not allow Byron to publish “Kubla Khan” because it is nothing more than opium-induced rubbish. Guilt-stricken, Coleridge throws the manuscript into the fire and tells Byron that he has just burnt it. As Byron bemoans the loss of such great poetry, Dorothy spontaneously begins making repeated attempts to articulate the opening line of the poem. As the room full of people looks on in amazement, she begins to recite the poem from memory. They listen raptly as first she, then Coleridge, continue to recite the poem. In the final scene, the recitation is taken up and continued by the same voice over that recites the Coleridge poems as they were referenced in other scenes.
As I said, I liked the film overall, but it gave me a serious earworm. Usually when I get an earworm, it’s from some piece of music, but this time it was the third and fourth lines of “Kubla Khan” that kept rumbling around in my mind,
“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.”
“A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!”
That’s some pretty hot stuff for 1797 . . . .