24. John Livingston Lowes – The Road to Xanadu (1927)

William Burroughs studied under John Livingston Lowes at Harvard in the 1930s. Every biography of Burroughs cites Lowes as one of his most inspirational lecturers. It was Lowes that Burroughs looked back on fondly when he thought of Harvard.

Some biographies even cite The Road to Xanadu in their descriptions of Lowes; his most famous book, and one that would have been essential reading to any Romantic poetry scholar at the time Burroughs studies under him.

And yet, reading these biographical studies, I’m not sure any of his biographers ever read the book.

Why? Well, because not only is Lowes exploring the creative process of Coleridge (a “notorious opium user” as Caveney describes him), but, in the process, he is also laying out a model of creative genius that Burroughs himself appears to aspire to and embody for the rest of his life.

I am only a quarter way through my Burroughs Syllabus and I already know that Lowes’ book will form the core of my own book’s introduction. It is a model that Burroughs mimicked and I, too, am mimicking here. I am the Lowes to Burroughs’ Coleridge!

The Road to Xanadu, despite its title, is almost exclusively about The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Only after 350 pages of analysis does it move on to “Kubla Khan”.

It is old school literary criticism, full of passionate exclamations about Coleridge’s genius and extended quotations demonstrating the brilliance and majesty of his verse. It’s also exhaustingly granular.

Lowes noted that Coleridge had not only never been to sea, but probably had never even seen the sea when he wrote his maritime poem. It must, therefore, have been entirely inspired by other writers’ work. Lowes therefore set out to read every book that Coleridge ever read.

As Coleridge was a famously prolific reader, Lowes’ task is not a simple one. These are also the days before Amazon, when one had to track down rare books instead of ordering them (like I did Lowes’) for £2.50 online.

And Coleridge’s taste was for the rarest of the rare. Some of the works he cites, like the cosmological crank who theorises the world bloomed from ice, were never published; existing only as manuscripts.

Most are a curious mix of traveller’s tales, geographical and botanical reports, sea shanties, Neoplatonist demonologies, captain’s logs and medieval compendia.

Lowes goes through the Mariner, picking out element after element, then quoting from numerous books – theorising about how and when Coleridge might have encountered each – before finally marvelling at the mind that could assemble all these parts into one complete poetical whole.

The first hundred pages analyse Coleridge’s scribbled-in notebook, finding in the mess of lines, figures and page numbers a key for the sources Coleridge would later draw from for his tale. These included poems and books the poet abandoned, material from which also ended up in the mariner.

Then comes the question of Wordsworth and his influence – who Lowes commends for his provocations but does not ultimately ascribe with “creating” the albatross and dead sailors, as Wordsworth says he did – and the influence of opium.

Lowes’ dealings with the question of opium are tremendously nuanced. First, he corrects the record by stating that, even though the first mention of opium in Coleridge’s letters comes twenty years after the Mariner, it’s almost certain he was doing it since his teenage years.

However, he also notes that the tremendous efforts necessary to amass the raw material needed for the Mariner meant that Coleridge could not have been actively using opium throughout this period. He was not an “addict”. At best, it was a prompt. The same with “Kubla Khan”.

Again we see a remarkable consistency with Burroughs’ own experiences, recalled in “A Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs”.

Ultimately, Lowes creates a model of genius based upon three elements: the Well, the Vision, and the Will.

The Well consists of the vast array of sources that have been made available to the creative mind through expansive reading and are stored and recalled through an ear for memorable lines.

Burroughs recalls lines in his final journals from books he read in his early teens. When an image struck him – latahs, aphrodisiac flies, Mayan priests – it would recur over and over throughout his writings. Even obscure elements, as I am discovering, had their place in his poetics.

The Vision is the moment of inspiration; when manifold elements from the Well are drawn before the eye as a consistent poetic whole. They do so without the poet’s contrivance. For Coleridge, dreams and opium were their typical initiators.

Burroughs’ own experience of the Vision is recalled in The Yage Letters and through his experiments with Brion Gysin. We get a definite sense that Burroughs lived his universe the same way the young Coleridge truly looked upon the stately pleasure domes and caverns measureless to man.

Finally, there is the crucial element of the Will. As Lowes shows throughout The Road to Xanadu, it is not simply enough to have the reading and see the vision; one must labour if one is to represent the experience in art and make it accessible to others.

Lines from the Mariner are seen to be compiled from numerous sources and then revised four or five times prior to publication, then a few times afterwards too.

Burroughs was a persistent reviser of his works. His journals show the same stories being retold over and over on paper, trying to find the right telling. Biographical accounts show him acting out “routines”; perfecting his delivery by acting things out with collaborators in front of audiences. His Scientology phase appears to be primarily concerned with “running” materials over and over through auditing, possibly with a final publishable version as an end goal (despite his auditors’ reprimands).

Even his published works are, like Coleridge and Wordsworth’s, liable to constant revision. Harris’ analysis of the cut-up trilogy have shown that there were really two trilogies, and the first book of the second trilogy, The Soft Machine, was released in two almost entirely different versions.

For both Coleridge and Burroughs, creativity cycled through these phases in synchrony with their habitual drug use. Sober reading and journeying fills the Well, drugs provoke the Vision, and then a renewed sobriety restores the Will (and capacity) to write.

It’s this pattern that separates Burroughs from so many of his imitators. Too many Beats are all Vision and no Well. The Will – the superego element in all this – depends upon a balance of the other two elements if it is to have anything of value to work upon at all.

Having read this book, I now consider it essential reading if one is to understand Burroughs’ artistic approach. It’s a testament to the power of a good lecturer that they could provide a model to which, consciously or not, the student would go on to live by for the rest of their life.