Ask Rufus: Was Kubla Khan's Sacred River the Tombigbee?


In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's masterpiece of English poetry,

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's masterpiece of English poetry, "Kubla Khan," the "sacred river" that was "five miles meandering with a mazy motion" is probably the Alabama River or lower Tombigbee River. Photo by: Courtesy photo


The blooming of daffodils brings to mind some of the world's most famous poems and their connection to the landscape and flora of the Tombigbee River Valley.

The blooming of daffodils brings to mind some of the world's most famous poems and their connection to the landscape and flora of the Tombigbee River Valley.
Photo by: Courtesy photo



Rufus Ward



Connections are always interesting. With the recent blooming of daffodils and jonquils I could not help but think of one of my favorite poems: 




"I wandered lonely as a cloud 


That floats on high o'er vales and hills 


When all at once I saw a crowd 


A host of golden daffodils  


Beside the lake, beneath the trees 


Fluttering and dancing in the breeze." 




William Wordsworth wrote those lines in about 1804 and the poem "I wandered lonely as a Cloud" was first published in 1807. The May 4, 1839, New Yorker published the poem with an interesting twist: it credited "Louisa Ann Twamley" as the poet. 


In an interesting local connection, the mid to late 1830s Mississippi agent for The New Yorker was Henry Gibson, whose address was given as Choctaw Agency, Mississippi. The Choctaw Agency at that time was southeast of present day Starkville. Gibson was John Pitchlynn's son-in-law and had purchased the farm of Yo Ka Tubbe, a Choctaw who was living near present day Artesia. During the Creek Indian War of 1813-1814, Yo Ka Tubbe's house had served as a safe house for the Pitchlynn children when Creek warriors threatened Pitchlynn's fort at Plymouth Bluff. 


When one thinks of famous poems with a Mississippi or Alabama connection, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's classic poem "Kubla Khan" immediately comes to 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.  


So twice five miles of fertile ground  


With walls and towers were girdled round;  


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."  




Few people realize that some of the landscapes, flowers and plants described in Coleridge's masterpieces, "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and in Wordsworth's poem "Ruth" are actually places in Florida and the rivers and forests of the Mobile/Alabama/Tombigbee River valley.  


That part of the story begins with William Bartram, who in March of 1773, began a four-year trek that would carry him across Georgia, through Florida and across present day Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans. Of great interest to Bartram were limestone caverns and associated springs in Florida in which water rose up like a fountain and flowed into the St. Johns River and the flowers, plants, forest and rivers of what is central and south Alabama. 


In 1791 Bartram published a book of his journey, "Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, Etc." The book included vivid descriptions of the Southern landscape. It is still considered a classic account of the natural history of the early American South and is still in print, simply called "Bartram's Travels."  


As Bartram traveled across the American Southeast he collected specimens and made drawing of the fauna and flora that he encountered. During his journey he described 358 plants and trees. He collected many specimens or made drawings of others which he sent to London. Today the Natural History division of the British Museum has 247 botanical specimens collected by Bartram during his travels.  


Bartram's book of his travels included descriptions and drawings of many plants, including the Oak Leaf Hydrangea which he discovered along the Alabama River. Of the plants described by him I recognized several that are still common in Mississippi and Alabama. Among those local flowers he described in the 1770s are the Primrose, Oak Leaf Hydrangea, Celestial Lily, Climbing Aster, Flaming Azalea, St John's Wort, Hooded Pitcher Plant, Lupine, several Rhododendrons, Mountain Camellia, Purple Milkweed, Spider Lilly, Savannah Pink, Sebastian Bush, Pawpaw, Spider Flower, Yucca and Yaupon Holly.  


He also described finding the Alabama/Mobile River valley landscape to be "a magnificent and pleasing sylvan landscape of primitive, uncultivated nature. Crossed several very considerable creeks, their serpentine courses being directed across the plain by gently swelling knolls perceptible at a distance but which seem to vanish and disappear as we come upon them."  


The renown British poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth obtained copies of "Bartram's Travels" and became interested in the new country of America. Both pulled many images of the American Southeast from the book which they incorporated into their poems. This is especially evident throughout Coleridge's masterpiece "Kubla Khan" which he was said to have written after reading Bartram's book. In one example Bartram had described the lower Alabama/Tombigbee/Mobile river system as "a serpentine rivulet meandering over the meadows." In "Kubla Khan" Coleridge wrote: 




"Five miles meandering with a mazy motion 


Through wood and dale the sacred river ran" 




In another example Bartram had written: "The evening cool, we encamped on the banks of a glittering rivulet amid a spicy grove of Illicium Floridanum." These spicy groves were found in "...detached groves, contrasted by swelling ridges and vales supporting grand forests of trees." (The tree was the anise tree whose leaves have a sweet smell but whose flowers when ripe have a fishy odor. The tree is found along the Gulf Coastal Plain and within the Black Prairie.)  


In Kubla Khan Coleridge wrote: 




"Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;  


And here were forests ancient as the hills,  


Enfolding sunny spots of greenery."  




Such similarities with the book occur throughout the poem and in such number it would not be a coincidence. Who would have ever thought that many of the images in "Kubla Khan" and other masterpieces of British poetry are taken from descriptions of a 1770s journey from Florida across Alabama and Mississippi to New Orleans?


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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