“Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment” /ËŒkÊŠblÉ™
Some of Coleridge’s contemporaries denounced the poem and questioned his story of its origin. It was not until years later that critics began to openly admire the poem. Most modern critics now view “Kubla Khan” as one of Coleridge’s three great poems, along with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. The poem is considered one of the most famous examples of Romanticism in English poetry, and is one of the most frequently anthologized poems in the English language. A copy of the manuscript is a permanent exhibit at the British Library in London.
In September 1797, Coleridge lived in Nether Stowey in the south west of England and spent much of his time walking through the nearby Quantock Hills with his fellow poet William Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy; (His route today is memorialised as the “Coleridge Way“.) Throughout the autumn, he worked on many poems, including “The Brook” and the tragedy Osorio. Some time between 9 and 14 October 1797, when Coleridge says he had completed the tragedy, he left Stowey for Lynton. On his return, he became sick and rested at Ash Farm, located at Culbone Church and one of the few places to seek shelter on his route.
Coleridge described how he wrote the poem in the preface to his collection of poems, Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep, published in 1816:
In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in ‘Purchas’s Pilgrimes:’ ‘Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto: and thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.’
The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter:Then all the charm
Is brokenâ€”all that phantom-world so fair
Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread,
And each mis-shape the other. Stay awhile,
Poor youth! who scarcely dar’st lift up thine eyesâ€”
The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon
The visions will return! And lo! he stays,
And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
Come trembling back, unite, and now once more
The pool becomes a mirror.
Yet from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him. but the to-morrow is yet to come.
As a contrast to this vision, I have annexed a fragment of a very different character, describing with equal fidelity the dream of pain and disease.
Sources â€“ Purchas and Marco Polo
The book Coleridge was reading before he fell asleep was Purchas, his Pilgrimes, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present, by the English clergyman and geographer Samuel Purchas, published in 1613. The book contained a brief description of Xanadu, the summer capital of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. The text about Xanadu in Purchas, His Pilgrimes, which Coleridge admitted he did not remember exactly, was:
In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.
This quotation was based upon the writings of the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who is widely believed to have visited Xanadu in about 1275. In about 1298â€“1299, he dictated a description of Xanadu which includes these lines:
And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned (Cambalu, or modern Beijing), between north-east and north, you come to a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan now reigning. There is at this place a very fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.
Round this Palace a wall is built, inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gerfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew. …
Marco Polo also mentioned a large portable palace made of gilded and lacquered cane or bamboo which could be taken apart quickly and moved from place to place. He described it this way:
Moreover at a spot in the Park where there is a charming wood he has another Palace built of cane, of which I must give you a description. It is gilt all over, and most elaborately finished inside. It is stayed on gilt and lackered columns, on each of which is a dragon all gilt, the tail of which is attached to the column whilst the head supports the architrave, and the claws likewise are stretched out right and left to support the architrave. The roof, like the rest, is formed of canes, covered with a varnish so strong and excellent that no amount of rain will rot them. These canes are a good 3 palms in girth, and from 10 to 15 paces in length. They are cut across at each knot, and then the pieces are split so as to form from each two hollow tiles, and with these the house is roofed; only every such tile of cane has to be nailed down to prevent the wind from lifting it. In short, the whole Palace is built of these canes, which (I may mention) serve also for a great variety of other useful purposes. The construction of the Palace is so devised that it can be taken down and put up again with great celerity; and it can all be taken to pieces and removed whithersoever the Emperor may command. When erected, it is braced against mishaps from the wind by more than 200 cords of silk.
The Lord abides at this Park of his, dwelling sometimes in the Marble Palace and sometimes in the Cane Palace for three months of the year, to wit, June, July, and August; preferring this residence because it is by no means hot; in fact it is a very cool place. When the 28th day of the Moon of August arrives he takes his departure, and the Cane Palace is taken to pieces.
This was the “sumptuous house of pleasure” mentioned by Purchas, which Coleridge transformed into a “stately pleasure dome”.
In 1934, a copy of the poem written by Coleridge himself sometime before its publication in 1816 was discovered in a private library. The so-called Crewe Manuscript was sent by Coleridge to a Mrs. Southey, who later gave it or sold it to a private autograph collector. It was auctioned in 1859 and purchased by another autograph collector for the price of one pound fifteen pence.[clarification needed] It passed to the Marquess of Crewe, who donated it in 1962 to the British Museum, where it is now on display.
A note written on the back of the Crewe manuscript by Coleridge gave a shorter and slightly different description of how the poem was written than the version published in 1816.  Coleridge attributed the poem’s origins to one of his stays at Ash Farm, possibly the one that happened in October 1797: “This fragment with a good deal more, not recoverable, composed, in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium taken to check a dysentry, at a Farm House between Porlock & Linton, a quarter of a mile from Culbone Church, in the fall of the year, 1797”.
The Crewe Manuscript has some small changes and three notable differences from the final version published in 1816. For example, Coleridge changed the size and description of the garden:
So twice six miles of fertile ground
With Walls and Towers were compass’d round. (Crewe Manuscript)
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round. (1816 text)
Coleridge also changed his description of the chasm:
From forth this Chasm with hideous Turmoil seething (Crewe Manuscript)
was changed to:
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething (1816 published text)
The most significant change came in the lines:
It was an Abyssinian Maid,
And on her Dulcimer she play’d
Singing of Mount Amara. (Crewe Manuscript)
Which, in the published version, became:
It was an Abyssinian Maid,
And on her Dulcimer she play’d
Singing of Mount Abora. (1816 published text)
This was notable, because in the Crewe Manuscript she sang of Mount Amara, mentioned in Paradise Lost by John Milton:
…Nor where Abassin Kings thir issue Guard,
Mount Amara, though this by some suppos’d
True Paradise. (Paradise Lost, iv. 280-2)
Whereas in the final published version, Mount Abora was purely imaginary, evidently chosen simply for the beauty of its sound.
Unlike Coleridge’s usual approach to his poetry, he did not mention the poem in letters to his friends. The first written record of the poem is in Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal, October 1798. It is possible that the poem was recited to his friends during this time and was kept for private use instead of publication. However, the exact date of the poem is uncertain because Coleridge normally dated his poems but did not date Kubla Khan. Coleridge did write to John Thelwall, 14 October 1797, to describe his feelings related to those expressed in the poem:
I should much wish, like the Indian Vishna, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotos, & wake once in a million years for a few minutes â€“ just to know I was going to sleep a million years more … I can at times feel strong the beauties, you describe, in themselves, & for themselves â€“ but more frequently all things appear little â€“ all the knowledge, that can be acquired, child’s play â€“ the universe itself â€“ what but an immense heap of little things? … My mind feels as if it ached to behold & know something great â€“ something one & indivisible â€“ and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns give me the sense of sublimity or majesty!
The thoughts expressed in Coleridge’s letter date “Kubla Khan” to October 1797, but two alternatives have been postulated by Coleridge’s biographers: May 1798 and October 1799. These were both times he was in the area, and, by 1799, Coleridge was able to read Robert Southey‘s Thalaba the Destroyer, a work which also drew on Purchas’s work. It is possible that he merely edited the poem during those time periods, and there is little evidence to suggest that Coleridge lied about the opium-induced experience at Ash Farm.
The work was set aside until 1815 when Coleridge compiled manuscripts of his poems for a collection titled Sibylline Leaves. The poem remained buried in obscurity until a 10 April 1816 meeting between Coleridge and Lord Byron, who persuaded Coleridge to publish Christabel and “Kubla Khan” as fragments. Leigh Hunt, the poet and essayist, witnessed the event and wrote, “He recited his ‘Kubla Khan’ one morning to Lord Byron, in his Lordship’s house in Piccadilly, when I happened to be in another room. I remember the other’s coming away from him, highly struck with his poem, and saying how wonderfully he talked. This was the impression of everyone who heard him.” Byron arranged for John Murray to publish the poem with Christabel and “The Pains of Sleep” along with prefaces to the works. A contract was drawn up on 12 April 1816 for 80 pounds.Charles Lamb, poet and friend of Coleridge, witnessed Coleridge’s work towards publishing the poem and wrote to Wordsworth: “Coleridge is printing Xtabel by Lord Byron’s recommendation to Murray, with what he calls a vision of Kubla Khan â€“ which said vision he repeats so enchantingly that it irradiates & brings Heaven & Elysian bowers into my parlour while he sings or says it”. Coleridge stayed in London to work on the poem and also to try and break his opium addiction. However, not everyone was happy with the idea of the poem’s being published, as Coleridge’s wife, who was not with him, wrote to Thomas Poole, “Oh! when will he ever give his friends anything but pain? he has been so unwise as to publish his fragments of ‘Christabel’ & ‘Kubla-Khan’ … we were all sadly vexed when we read the advertisement of these things.”
The collection of poems was published 25 May 1816, and Coleridge included “A Fragment” as a subtitle to the 54 line version of the poem to defend against criticism of the poem’s incomplete nature. The original published version of the work was separated into 2 stanzas, with the first ending at line 30. Printed with “Kubla Khan” was a preface that claimed an opium induced dream provided Coleridge the lines. The poem was printed four times in Coleridge’s life, with the final printing in his Poetical Works of 1834. In the final work, Coleridge added the expanded subtitle “Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment”. In some later anthologies of Coleridge’s poetry, the Preface is dropped along with the subtitle denoting its fragmentary and dream nature. Sometimes, the Preface is included in modern editions but lacks both the first and final paragraphs.
The poem is different in style and form from other poems composed by Coleridge. While incomplete and subtitled a “fragment”, its language is highly stylised with a strong emphasis on sound devices that change between the poem’s original two stanzas. The first stanza of the poem describes Khan’s pleasure dome built alongside a sacred river fed by a powerful fountain. The second stanza of the poem is the narrator’s response to the power and effects of an Abyssinian maid’s song, which enraptures him but leaves him unable to act on her inspiration unless he could hear her once again. Together, they form a comparison of creative power that does not work with nature and creative power that is harmonious with nature.
The poem according to Coleridge’s account, is a fragment of what it should have been, amounting to what he was able to jot down from memory: 54 lines. Originally, his dream included between 200 and 300 lines, but he was only able to compose the first 30 before he was interrupted. The second stanza is not necessarily part of the original dream and refers to the dream in the past tense. The rhythm of the poem, like its themes and images, is different from other poems Coleridge wrote during the time, and it is organised in a structure similar to 18th-century odes. The poem relies on many sound-based techniques, including cognate variation and chiasmus. In particular, the poem emphasises the use of the “Ã¦” sound and similar modifications to the standard “a” sound to make the poem sound Asian. Its rhyme scheme found in the first seven lines is repeated in the first seven lines of the second stanza. There is a heavy use of assonance, the reuse of vowel sounds, and a reliance on alliteration, repetition of the first sound of a word, within the poem including the first line: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan”. The stressed sounds, “Xan”, “du”, “Ku”, “Khan”, contain assonance in their use of the sounds a-u-u-a, have two rhyming syllables with “Xan” and “Khan”, and employ alliteration with the name “Kubla Khan” and the reuse of “d” sounds in “Xanadu” and “did”. To pull the line together, the “i” sound of “In” is repeated in “did”. Later lines do not contain the same amount of symmetry but do rely on assonance and rhymes throughout. The only word that has no true connection to another word is “dome” except in its use of a “d” sound. Though the lines are interconnected, the rhyme scheme and line lengths are irregular.
The first lines of the poem follow iambic tetrameter with the initial stanza relying on heavy stresses. The lines of the second stanza incorporate lighter stresses to increase the speed of the meter to separate them from the hammer-like rhythm of the previous lines. There also is a strong break following line 36 in the poem that provides for a second stanza, and there is a transition in narration from a third person narration about Kubla Khan into the poet discussing his role as a poet. Without the Preface, the two stanzas form two different poems that have some relationship to each other but lack unity. This is not to say they would be two different poems, since the technique of having separate parts that respond to another is used in the genre of the odal hymn, used in the poetry of other Romantic poets including John Keats or Percy Bysshe Shelley. However, the odal hymn as used by others has a stronger unity among its parts, and Coleridge believed in writing poetry that was unified organically. It is possible that Coleridge was displeased by the lack of unity in the poem and added a note about the structure to the Preface to explain his thoughts. In terms of genre, the poem is a dream poem and related to works describing visions common to the Romantic poets. “Kubla Khan” is also related to the genre of fragmentary poetry, with internal images reinforcing the idea of fragmentation that is found within the form of the poem. The poem’s self-proclaimed fragmentary nature combined with Coleridge’s warning about the poem in the preface turns “Kubla Khan” into an “anti-poem”, a work that lacks structure, order, and leaves the reader confused instead of enlightened. However, the poem has little relation to the other fragmentary poems Coleridge wrote.
Theories about the preface and writing
The Preface of “Kubla Khan” began by explaining that it was printed “at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity, and as far as the author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits”. The preface then provided an origin to both the poem and why it was merely a smaller portion of an intended larger work. After reading from Purchas’s book, “The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he had the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two or three hundred lines … On Awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.” The image of himself that Coleridge provides is of a dreamer who reads works of lore and not as an opium addict. Instead, the effects of the opium, as described, are intended to suggest that he was not used to its effects.
There are some problems with Coleridge’s account, especially the claim to have a copy of Purchas with him. It was a rare book, unlikely to be at a “lonely farmhouse”, nor would an individual carry it on a journey; the folio was heavy and almost 1000 pages in size. It is possible that the words of Purchas were merely remembered by Coleridge and that the depiction of immediately reading the work before falling asleep was to suggest that the subject came to him accidentally.
The passage continues with a famous account of an interruption: “At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purpose of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!” The actual person from Porlock mentioned could be many people, including Wordsworth, Joseph Cottle, John Thelwall, Coleridge’s wife, or merely a literary device. As a symbol within the preface, the person represents the obligations of the real world crashing down upon the creative world or other factors that kept Coleridge from finishing his poetry. The claim to produce poetry after dreaming of it became popular after “Kubla Khan” was published. The person from Porlock later became a word to describe interrupted genius, and the literary critic Walter Jackson Bate recounted that while John Livingston Lowes taught the poem, he told his students “If there is any man in the history of literature who should be hanged, drawn, and quartered, it is the man on business from Porlock.” The literary critic D. F. Rauber claimed that the man was “necessary to create the illusion of the cut short rather than the stopped”. This would have allowed Coleridge to purposely write the poem as a fragment.
The Preface to the poem suggests that the poem was not supposed to be printed, that it was a fragmentary work that he was unable to complete, and that the work itself was provided to him through involuntary inspiration. When the Preface is dropped, the poem seems to compare the act of poetry with the might of Kubla Khan instead of the loss of inspiration causing the work to have a more complex depiction of the poetic power. Taken together, the Preface could connect with the first half of the poem to suggest that the poem is from the view of a dreaming narrator, or it could connect with the second half of the poem to show how a reader is to interpret the lines by connecting himself with the persona in a negative manner. The Preface and the poem are different in their locations, as the Preface discusses Coleridge’s England while the poem discusses ancient China, but both discuss the role of the poem and his abilities. The poet of the Preface is a dreamer who must write and the poet of the poem is a vocal individual, but both are poets who lose inspiration. Only the poet of the poem feels that he can recover the vision, and the Preface, like a Coleridge poem that is quoted in it, The Picture, states that visions are unrecoverable.
The poem begins with a fanciful description of Kublai Khan’s capital Xanadu, which Coleridge places near the river Alph, which passes through caverns before reaching a dark or dead sea. Although the land is one of man-made “pleasure”, there is a natural, “sacred” river that runs past it. The lines describing the river have a markedly different rhythm from the rest of the passage:
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. (lines 1â€“5)
The land is constructed as a paradisical garden, but like Eden after Man’s fall, Xanadu is isolated by walls. The finite properties of the constructed walls of Xanadu are contrasted with the infinite properties of the natural caves through which the river runs.
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. (lines 6â€“11)
There are some small variations in different versions of this text. The version published in 1816 reads:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
While the holograph copy handwritten by Coleridge himself (the Crewe manuscript, shown at the right) says:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
The poem expands on the gothic hints of the first stanza as the narrator explores the dark chasm in the midst of Xanadu’s gardens, and describes the surrounding area as both “savage” and “holy”. Yarlott interprets this chasm as symbolic of the poet struggling with decadence that ignores nature. It may also represent the dark side of the soul, the dehumanising effect of power and dominion.
But oh! 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! (lines 12â€“16)
From the dark chasm a fountain violently erupts, then forms the meandering river Alph, which runs to the sea described in the first stanza. Fountains are often symbolic of the inception of life, and in this case may represent forceful creativity. Since this fountain ends in death, it may also simply represent the life span of a human, from violent birth to a sinking end.
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 reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean: (lines 17â€“28)
Kubla Khan hears voices of the dead, and refers to a vague “war” that appears to be unreferenced elsewhere in the poem. Yarlott argues that the war represents the penalty for seeking pleasure, or simply the confrontation of the present by the past:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war! (lines 29â€“30)
Though the exterior of Xanadu is presented in images of darkness, and in context of the dead sea, we are reminded of the “miracle” and “pleasure” of Kubla Khan’s creation. The vision of the sites, including the dome, the cavern, and the fountain, are similar to an apocalyptic vision. Together, the natural and man-made structures form a miracle of nature as they represent the mixing of opposites together, the essence of creativity:
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! (lines 31â€“36)
The narrator turns prophetic, referring to a vision of an unidentified “Abyssinian maid” who sings of “Mount Abora”. Harold Bloom suggests that this passage reveals the narrator’s desire to rival Khan’s ability to create with his own. The woman may also refer to Mnemosyne, the Greek personification of memory and mother of the muses, referring directly to Coleridge’s claimed struggle to compose this poem from memory of a dream.
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! (lines 37â€“47)
The subsequent passage refers to unnamed witnesses who may also hear this, and thereby share in the narrator’s vision of a replicated, ethereal, Xanadu. Harold Bloom suggests that the power of the poetic imagination, stronger than nature or art, fills the narrator and grants him the ability to share this vision with others through his poetry. The narrator would thereby be elevated to an awesome, almost mythical status, as one who has experienced an Edenic paradise available only to those who have similarly mastered these creative powers:
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. (lines 48â€“54)
Theories about meaning
One theory says that “Kubla Khan” is about poetry and the two sections discuss two types of poems. The power of the imagination is an important component to this theme. The poem celebrates creativity and how the poet is able to experience a connection to the universe through inspiration. As a poet, Coleridge places himself in an uncertain position as either master over his creative powers or a slave to it. The dome city represents the imagination and the second stanza represents the relationship between a poet and the rest of society. The poet is separated from the rest of humanity after he is exposed to the power to create and is able to witness visions of truth. This separation causes a combative relationship between the poet and the audience as the poet seeks to control his listener through a mesmerising technique. The poem’s emphasis on imagination as subject of a poem, on the contrasts within the paradisal setting, and its discussion of the role of poet as either being blessed or cursed by imagination, has influenced many works, including Alfred Tennyson’s “Palace of Art” and William Butler Yeats’s Byzantium based poems. There is also a strong connection between the idea of retreating into the imagination found within Keats’s Lamia and in Tennyson’s “Palace of Art”. The Preface, when added to the poem, connects the idea of the paradise as the imagination with the land of Porlock, and that the imagination, though infinite, would be interrupted by a “person on business”. The Preface then allows for Coleridge to leave the poem as a fragment, which represents the inability for the imagination to provide complete images or truly reflect reality. The poem would not be about the act of creation but a fragmentary view revealing how the act works: how the poet crafts language and how it relates to himself.
Through use of the imagination, the poem is able to discuss issues surrounding tyranny, war, and contrasts that exist within paradise. Part of the war motif could be a metaphor for the poet in a competitive struggle with the reader to push his own vision and ideas upon his audience. As a component to the idea of imagination in the poem is the creative process by describing a world that is of the imagination and another that is of understanding. The poet, in Coleridge’s system, is able to move from the world of understanding, where men normally are, and enter into the world of the imagination through poetry. When the narrator describes the “ancestral voices prophesying war”, the idea is part of the world of understanding, or the real world. As a whole, the poem is connected to Coleridge’s belief in a secondary Imagination that can lead a poet into a world of imagination, and the poem is both a description of that world and a description of how the poet enters the world. The imagination, as it appears in many of Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s works, including “Kubla Khan”, is discussed through the metaphor of water, and the use of the river in “Kubla Khan” is connected to the use of the stream in Wordsworth’s The Prelude. The water imagery is also related to the divine and nature, and the poet is able to harness tap into nature in a way Kubla Khan cannot to harness its power.
Towards the end of 1797, Coleridge was fascinated with the idea of a river and it was used in multiple poems including “Kubla Khan” and “The Brook”. In his Biographia Literaria (1817), he explained, “I sought for a subject, that should give equal room and freedom for description, incident, and impassioned reflections on men, nature, and society, yet supply in itself a natural connection to the parts and unity to the whole. Such a subject I conceived myself to have found in a stream, traced from its source in the hills among the yellow-red moss and conical glass-shaped tufts of bent, to the first break or fall, where its drops become audible, and it begins to form a channel”. It is possible that the imagery of Biographia Literaria followed the recovery of the “Kubla Khan” manuscript during the composition of the book. Water imagery permeated through many of his poems, and the coast that he witnessed on his journey to Linton appears in Osorio. Additionally, many of the images are connected to a broad use of Ash Farm and the Quantocks in Coleridge’s poetry, and the mystical settings of both Osorio and “Kubla Khan” are based on his idealised version of the region. “Kubla Khan” was composed in the same year as This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, and both poems contained images that were used in 14 October 1797 letter to Thelwall. However, the styles are very different as one is heavily structured and rhymed while the other tries to mimic conversational speech. What they do have in common is that they use scenery based on the same location, including repeated uses of dells, rocks, ferns, and a waterfall found in the Somerset region. The Preface uses water imagery to explain what happens when visions are lost by quoting a passage from his poem The Picture. When considering all of The Picture and not just the excerpt, Coleridge describes how inspiration is similar to a stream and that if an object is thrown into it the vision is interrupted.
Tatars and paradise
The Tatars ruled by Kubla Khan were seen in the tradition Coleridge worked from as a violent, barbaric people and were used in that way when Coleridge compared others to Tatars. They were seen as worshippers of the sun, but uncivilised and connected to either the Cain or Ham line of outcasts. However, Coleridge describes Khan in a peaceful light and as a man of genius. He seeks to show his might but does so by building his own version of paradise. The description and the tradition provide a contrast between the daemonic and genius within the poem, and Khan is a ruler who is unable to recreate Eden. There are also comparisons between Khan and Catherine the Great or Napoleon with their building and destroying nations. Though the imagery can be dark, there is little moral concern as the ideas are mixed with creative energies. In the second stanza, Khan is able to establish some order in the natural world but he cannot stop the forces of nature that constantly try to destroy what he made. Nature, in the poem is not a force of redemption but one of destruction, and the paradise references reinforce what Khan cannot attain.
Although the Tatars are barbarians from China, they are connected to ideas within the Judaeo Christian tradition, including the idea of Original Sin and Eden. The account of Cublai Can in Purchas’s work, discussed in Coleridge’s Preface, connects the idea of paradise with luxury and sensual pleasure. The place was described in negative terms and seen as an inferior representation of paradise, and Coleridge’s ethical system did not connect pleasure with joy or the divine. As for specific aspects of the scene, the river and cavern images are used to describe how creativity operates in a post-Edenic reality. The river, Alph, replaces the one from Eden that granted immortality and it disappears into a sunless sea that lacks life. The image is further connected to the Biblical, post-Edenic stories in that a mythological story attributes the violent children of Ham becoming the Tatars, and that Tartarus, derived from the location, became a synonym for hell. Coleridge believed that the Tatars were violent, and that their culture was opposite to the civilised Chinese. The Tatars were also in contrast to the concept of Prester John, who may have been Prester Chan and, in Ludolphus’s account, chased out of Asia by the Tatars and, in John Herbert’s Travels, was Abyssinian.
The land is similar to the false paradise of Mount Amara in Paradise Lost, especially the Abyssinian maid’s song about Mount Abora that is able to mesmerise the poet. In the manuscript copy, the location was named both Amora and Amara, and the location of both is the same. There are more connections to Paradise Lost, including how Milton associates the Tatar ruler to the Post-Edenic world in Adam’s vision of the Tartar kingdom. In post-Milton accounts, the kingdom is linked with the worship of the sun, and his name is seen to be one that reveals the Khan as a priest. This is reinforced by the connection of the river Alph with the Alpheus, a river that in Greece was connected to the worship of the sun. As followers of the sun, the Tatar are connected to a tradition that describes Cain as founding a city of sun worshippers and that people in Asia would build gardens in remembrance of the lost Eden.
In the tradition Coleridge relies on, the Tatar worship the sun because it reminds them of paradise, and they build gardens because they want to recreate paradise. Kubla Khan is of the line of Cain and fallen, but he wants to overcome that state and rediscover paradise by creating an enclosed garden. The dome, in Thomas Maurice’s description, in The History of Hindostan of the tradition, was related to nature worship as it reflects the shape of the universe. Coleridge, when composing the poem, believed in a connection between nature and the divine but believed that the only dome that should serve as the top of a temple was the sky. He thought that a dome was an attempt to hide from the ideal and escape into a private creation, and Kubla Khan’s dome is a flaw that keeps him from truly connecting to nature. Maurice’s History of Hindostan also describes aspects of Kashmir that were copied by Coleridge in preparation for hymns he intended to write. The work, and others based on it, describe a temple with a dome. Purchas’s work does not mention a dome but a “house of pleasure”. The use of dome instead of house or palace could represent the most artificial of constructs and reinforce the idea that the builder was separated from nature. However, Coleridge did believe that a dome could be positive if it was connected to religion, but the Khan’s dome was one of immoral pleasure and a purposeless life dominated by sensuality and pleasure.
The narrator introduces a character he once dreamed about, an Abyssinian maid who sings of another land. She is a figure of imaginary power within the poem who can inspire within the narrator his own ability to craft poetry. When she sings, she is able to inspire and mesmerise the poet by describing a false paradise. The woman herself is similar to the way Coleridge describes Lewti in another poem he wrote around the same time, Lewti. The connection between Lewti and the Abyssinian maid makes it possible that the maid was intended as a disguised version of Mary Evans, who appears as a love interest since Coleridge’s 1794 poem The Sigh. Evans, in the poems, appears as an object of sexual desire and a source of inspiration. She is also similar to the later subject of many of Coleridge’s poems, Asra, based on Sara Hutchinson, whom Coleridge wanted but was not his wife and experienced opium induced dreams of being with her.
The figure is related to Heliodorus‘s work Aethiopian History, with its description of “a young Lady, sitting upon a Rock, of so rare and perfect a Beauty, as one would have taken her for a Goddess, and though her present misery opprest her with extreamest grief, yet in the greatness of her afflection, they might easily perceive the greatness of her Courage: A Laurel crown’d her Head, and a Quiver in a Scarf hanged at her back”. Her description in the poem is also related to Isis of Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, but Isis was a figure of redemption and the Abyssinian maid cries out for her demon-lover. She is similar to John Keats’s Indian woman in Endymion who is revealed to be the moon goddess, but in “Kubla Khan” she is also related to the sun and the sun as an image of divine truth.
In addition to real-life counterparts of the Abyssinian maid, Milton’s Paradise Lost describes Abyssinian kings keeping their children guarded at Mount Amara and a false paradise, which is echoed in “Kubla Khan”.
In the Crewe manuscript, the earlier unpublished version of the poem, the Abyssinian maid is singing of Mount Amara, rather than Abora. Mount Amara is a real mountain, today called Amba Geshen, located in the Amhara Region of modern Ethiopia, formerly known as the Abyssinian Empire. It was a natural fortress, and was the site of the royal treasury and the royal prison. The sons of the Emperors of Abyssinia, except for the heir, were held prisoner there, to prevent them from staging a coup against their father, until the Emperor’s death.
Mount Amara was visited between 1515 and 1521 by the Portuguese priest, explorer and diplomat Francisco Alvares (1465â€“1541), who was on a mission to meet the Christian king of Ethiopia. His description of Mount Amara was published in 1540, and appears in Purchas, his Pilgrimes, the book Coleridge was reading before he wrote “Kubla Khan”.
The custome is that all the male child of the Kings, except the Heires, as soone as they be brought up, they send them presendly to a very great Rock, which stands in the province of Amara, and there they pass all their life, and never come out from thence, except the King which reignith departeth their life without Heires.
Mount Amara also appears in Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Near where Abessian Kings their issue Guard,
Mount Amara, though this by some suppos’d
True Paradise under the Ethiop line.
Mount Amara is in the same region as Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile river. Ethiopian tradition says that the Blue Nile is the River Gihon of the Bible, one of the four rivers that flow out of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis, which says that Gihon flows through the Kingdom of Kush, the Biblical name for Ethiopia and Sudan. In fact the Blue Nile is very far from the other three rivers mentioned in Genesis 2:10â€“14, but this belief led to the connection in 18th and 19th century English literature between Mount Amara and Paradise.
There are many sources attributed to “Kubla Khan” for the style, imagery, and topic. As noted above, the description of the size and landscape of Xanadu and of the Pleasure Dome was taken directly from Purchas, who took it from the description of Marco Polo, who had visited Xanadu. Coleridge may also have been influenced by the surrounding of Culbone Combe and its hills, gulleys, and other features including the “mystical” and “sacred” locations in the region. He admitted that he was directly influenced by Purchas’s Pilgrimes, but there are additional strong literary connections to other works, including John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Chatterton’s African Eclogues, William Bartram’s Travels through North and South Carolina, Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Short Residence in Sweden, Plato’s Phaedrus and Ion, Maurice’s The History of Hindostan, and Heliodorus’s Aethiopian History. The poem also contains allusions to the Book of Revelation in its description of New Jerusalem and to the paradise of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As for specific places, the main character is Kublai Khan the Tartar king from China, the river is Alpheus in Greece and is similar to the Nile, and the Abyssinian woman sings of Mount Amara, and the caves are like those in Kashmir. Also, the name “Alph” could connect to the idea of being an alpha or original place. The sources used for “Kubla Khan” are also those used in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Much of the poem could have been influenced by Coleridge’s opium dream or, as his friend and fellow poet Robert Southey joked, “Coleridge had dreamed he had written a poem in a dream”. If Coleridge’s dream did originate ideas within the poem, then the dreams are related to those experienced by contemporary opium eaters and writers, Thomas de Quincey and Charles Pierre Baudelaire. It is possible that the dream affected Coleridge’s later mood and caused him to enter into a depression, influencing the ideas in his writing that followed the dream night. Of these ideas, Coleridge’s emphasised the vastness of the universe and his feeling overwhelmed by how little the universe seemed to him. Also, Charles Lamb provided Coleridge on 15 April 1797 with a copy of his “A Vision of Repentance”, a poem that discussed a dream containing imagery similar to those in “Kubla Khan”. The poem could have provided Coleridge with the idea of a dream poem that discusses fountains, sacredness, and even a woman singing a sorrowful song. The poem’s use of original names and disorganised use of action can also be attributed to an opium induced state of mind. In terms of spelling, Coleridge’s printed version differs from Purchas’s spelling, which refers to the Tartar ruler as “Cublai Can”, and from the spelling used by Milton, “Cathaian Can”. His original manuscript (as reproduced above) spells the name “Cubla Khan” and the place “Xannadu”.
The Abyssinian maid is derived from many figures in Coleridge’s life, including women who Coleridge admired in some way: Charlotte Brent, Catherine Clarkson, Mary Morgan, and Dorothy Wordsworth. Although Asra/Hutchinson is similar to the way Coleridge talks about the Abyssinian maid, Hutchinson was someone he met after writing “Kubla Khan”. The person who was the closest match to the figure was Evans, the subject of Coleridge’s Lewti. The poem’s claim that the narrator would be inspired to act if the song of the maid could be heard was a belief that Coleridge held regarding Evans after she became unattainable to him.
According to some critics, the second stanza of the poem, forming a conclusion, was composed at a later date and was possibly disconnected from the original dream.
Before the poem was published, it was greatly favoured by Byron, who encouraged Coleridge to publish the poem, and it was admired by many people including Walter Scott. However, the immediate response to the 1816 collection was to ignore Christabel and “Kubla Khan” or simply to attack “Kubla Khan”. The work went through multiple editions, but the poem, as with his others published in 1816 and 1817, had poor sales as a result of hostile critics who went so far to attack Coleridge’s integrity. Many of the attacks started as a new generation of critical magazines, including Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Edinburgh Review, and Quarterly Review, were established at the beginning of the 19th century. The critics were more provocative than those of the previous generation, and much of the bad reception was based on Coleridge’s timing of publication and his own political views, much of which contrasted with those of the critics, than actual content. Another reason for negative reviews was a puff piece written by Byron about the Christabel publication. Not all of the negative comments were public, as Charles Lamb, friend of Coleridge, expressed his fears of a negative response as he wrote: “Coleridge repeats so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and elysian bowers into my parlour while he sings or says it; but there is an observation: ‘never tell thy dreams,’ and I am almost afraid that ‘Kubla Khan’ is an owl that won’t bear daylight. I fear lest it should be discovered by the lantern of typography and clear reducing to letters, no better than nonsense or no sense.”
The first of the negative reviews was written by William Hazlitt, literary critic and Romantic writer. He reviewed the collection of poems for 2 June 1816 Examiner, and, in his analysis, he attacked the fragmentary nature of the work and argued, “The fault of Mr Coleridge is, that he comes to no conclusion … from an excess of capacity, he does little or nothing” and that the poem revealed that “Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verse than any man in English.” In conclusion, Hazlitt admitted, “We could repeat these lines to ourselves not the less often for not knowing the meaning of them.” Following in the June 1816 Eclectic Review, Josiah Conder dismissed the poem: “As to ‘Kubla Khan’, and the ‘Pains of Sleep’, we can only regret the publication of them, as affording a proof that the Author over-rates the importance of his name. With regard to the former, which is professedly published as a psychological curiosity, it having been composed during sleep, there appears to us nothing in the quality of the lines to render this circumstance extraordinary.” He then continued by focusing on the manner in which the poem was composed, ‘We could have informed Mr. Coleridge of a reverend friend of ours, who actually wrote down two sermons on a passage in the Apocalypse, from the recollection of the spontaneous exercise of his faculties in sleep. To persons who are in the habit of poetical composition, a similar phenomenon would not be a stranger occurrence, than the spirited dialogues in prose which take place in dreams of persons of duller invention than our poet, and which not unfrequently leave behind a very vivid impression.”
Coleridge’s statements on the origin of the poem were considered again by various critics with an emphasis on how the origins affected the merits of the poem. In an anonymous review for the July 1816 Literary Panorama, the reviewer claimed, “‘Kubla Khan’ is merely a few stanzas which owe their origin to a circumstance by no means uncommon to persons of a poetical imagination … It should however be recollected, that in sleep the judgment is the first faculty of the mind which ceases to act, therefore, the opinion of the sleeper respecting his performance is not to be trusted, even in his waking moments.” The review does praise the work as it continues, “Still if Mr. Coleridge’s two hundred lines were all of equal merit with the following which he has preserved, we are ready to admit that he has reason to be grieved at their loss.” Another July 1816 anonymous review, for the Anti-Jacobin, discussed the origin of the poem but dismissed the poem with lukewarm praise: “These have none of the wildness or deformity, of ‘Christabel’; and though they are not marked by any striking beauties, they are not wholly discreditable to the author’s talents.” Another July 1816 anonymous review, in the Augustan Review, claimed that the poem’s descriptions “have much of the Oriental richness and harmony” but also said, in response to the preface, “There seems to be no great harm in dreaming while one sleeps; but an author really should not thus dream while he is awake, and writing too.”
Reviews following months after publication contained limited positive appraisal of the poem. William Roberts’s review, for the August 1816 British Review, was more positive than previous analysis but with no detail about the work: “passing over the two other poems which are bound together with ‘Christabel’, called ‘The Fragment of Kubla Khan’, and ‘The Pains of Sleep’; in which, however, there are some playful thoughts and fanciful imagery, which we would gladly have extracted if our room would have allowed it.” The next review came in the January 1817 Monthly Review, with the anonymous reviewer questioning: “Allowing every possible accuracy to the statement of Mr. Coleridge, we would yet ask him whether this extraordinary fragment was not rather the effect of rapid and instant composition after he was awake, than of memory immediately recording that which he dreamt when asleep? By what process of consciousness could he distinguish between such composition and such reminiscence? Impressed as his mind was with his interesting dream, and habituated as he is … to the momentary production of verse, will he venture to assert that he did not compose, and that he did remember, the lines before us?” The review then concluded, “His ‘psychological curiosity’, as he terms it, depends in no slight degree on the establishment of the previous fact which we have mentioned: but the poem itself is below criticism. We would dismiss it with some portentous words of Sir Kenelm Digby, in his observations on Browne’s religio Medici: ‘I have much ado to believe what he speaketh confidently; that he is more beholding to Morpheus for learned and rational as well as pleasing dreams, than to Mercury for smart and facetious conceptions’.”
Positive analysis of the poem came from Leigh Hunt, in 21 October 1821 Examiner when Hunt wrote a piece on Coleridge as part of his “Sketches of the Living Poets” series. When coming to “Kubla Khan”, he pointed out: “instead of being content to have written finely under the influence of laudanum, recommends ‘Kubla-Khan’ to his readers, not as a poem, but as ‘a psychological curiosity’ … Every lover of books, scholar or not, who knows what it is to have his quarto open against a loaf at his tea … ought to be in possession of Mr. Coleridge’s poems, if it is only for ‘Christabel’, ‘Kubla Khan’, and the ‘Ancient Mariner’.” When talking about the poem on its own, Hunt claimed it “is a voice and a vision, an everlasting tune in our mouths, a dream fit for Cambuscan and all his poets, a dance of pictures such as Giotto or Cimabue, revived and re-inspired, would have made for a Storie of Old Tartarie, a piece of the invisible world made visible by a sun at midnight and sliding before our eyes … Justly is it thought that to be able to present such images as these to the mind, is to realise the world they speak of. We could repeat such verses as the following down a green glade, a whole summer’s morning”. The work went without major notice until John Bowring reviewed Coleridge’s Poetical Works for the January 1830 Westminster Review. When discussing the work along with the origins of the poem, Bowring stated, “The tale is extraordinary, but ‘Kubla Khan’ is much more valuable on another account, which is, that of its melodious versification. It is perfect music. The effect could scarcely have been more satisfactory to the ear had every syllable been selected merely for the sake of its sound. And yet there is throughout a close correspondence between the metre, the march of the verse, and the imagery which the words describe.” When concluding about the work, he declared, “The elements of this melody are only the common and well-known ones of English versification; our author is always felicitous in their management, but no where has he blended them in so perfect a combination as in this instance.” Another emphasis on the musicality of the poem came in August 1834, with Henry Nelson Coleridge‘s analysis in the Quarterly Review: “In some of the smaller pieces, as the conclusion of the ‘Kubla Khan’, for example, not only the lines by themselves are musical, but the whole passage sounds all at once as an outburst or crash of harps in the still air of autumn. The verses seem as if played to the ear upon some unseen instrument. And the poet’s manner of reciting verse is similar.”
Victorian critics praised the poem and some examined aspects of the poem’s background. John Sheppard, in his analysis of dreams titled On Dreams (1847), lamented Coleridge’s drug use as getting in the way of his poetry but argued: “It is probable, since he writes of having taken an ‘anodyne,’ that the ‘vision in a dream’ arose under some excitement of that same narcotic; but this does not destroy, even as to his particular case, the evidence for a wonderfully inventive action of the mind in sleep; for, whatever were the exciting cause, the fact remains the same”. T. Hall Caine, in 1883 survey of the original critical response to Christabel and “Kubla Khan”, praised the poem and declared: “It must surely be allowed that the adverse criticism on ‘Christabel’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ which is here quoted is outside all tolerant treatment, whether of raillery or of banter. It is difficult to attribute such false verdict to pure and absolute ignorance. Even when we make all due allowance for the prejudices of critics whose only possible enthusiasm went out to ‘the pointed and fine propriety of Poe,’ we can hardly believe that the exquisite art which is among the most valued on our possessions could encounter so much garrulous abuse without the criminal intervention of personal malignancy.” In a review of H. D. Traill’s analysis of Coleridge in the “English Men of Letters”, an anonymous reviewer wrote in 1885 Westminster Review: “Of ‘Kubla Khan,’ Mr. Traill writes: ‘As to the wild dream-poem ‘Kubla Khan,’ it is hardly more than a psychological curiosity, and only that perhaps in respect of the completeness of its metrical form.’ Lovers of poetry think otherwise, and listen to these wonderful lines as the voice of Poesy itself.”
Critics at the end of the 19th century favoured the poem and placed it as one of Coleridge’s best works. When discussing Christabel, Rime of the Ancient Mariner and “Kubla Khan”, an anonymous reviewer in the October 1893 The Church Quarterly Review claimed, “In these poems Coleridge achieves a mastery of language and rhythm which is nowhere else conspicuously evident in him.” In 1895, Andrew Lang reviewed the Letters of Coleridge in addition to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, Christabel and Rime of the Ancient Mariner, saying: “all these poems are ‘miraculous;’ all seem to have been ‘given’ by the dreaming ‘subconscious self’ of Coleridge. The earliest pieces hold no promise of these marvels. They come from what is oldest in Coleridge’s nature, his uninvited and irrepressible intuition, magical and rare, vivid beyond common sight of common things, sweet beyond sound of things heard.” G E Woodberry, in 1897, said that Christabel, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and “Kubla Khan” “are the marvelous creations of his genius. In these it will be said there is both a world of nature new created, and a dramatic method and interest. It is enough for the purpose of the analysis if it be granted that nowhere else in Coleridge’s work, except in these and less noticeably in a few other instances, do these high characteristics occur.” In speaking of the three poems, he claimed they “have besides that wealth of beauty in detail, of fine diction, of liquid melody, of sentiment, thought, and image, which belong only to poetry of the highest order, and which are too obvious to require any comment. ‘Kubla Khan’ is a poem of the same kind, in which the mystical effect is given almost wholly by landscape.”
The 1920s contained analysis of the poem that emphasised the poem’s power. In Road to Xanadu (1927), a book length study of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and “Kubla Khan”, John Livingston Lowes claimed that the poems were “two of the most remarkable poems in English”. When turning to the background of the works, he argued, “Coleridge as Coleridge, be it said at once, is a secondary moment to our purpose; it is the significant process, not the man, which constitutes our theme. But the amazing modus operandi of his genius, in the fresh light which I hope I have to offer, becomes the very abstract and brief chronicle of the procedure of the creative faculty itself.” After breaking down the various aspects of the poem, Lowes stated, “with a picture of unimpaired and thrilling vividness, the fragment ends. And with it ends, for all save Coleridge, the dream. ‘The earth hath bubbles as the water has, and this is of them.’ For ‘Kubla Khan’ is as near enchantment, I suppose, as we are like to come in this dull world. And over it is cast the glamour, enhanced beyond all reckoning in the dream, of the remote in time and space â€“ that visionary presence of a vague and gorgeous and mysterious Past which brooded, as Coleridge read, above the inscrutable Nile, and domed pavilions in Cashmere, and the vanished stateliness of Xanadu.” He continued by describing the power of the poem: “For none of the things which we have seen â€“ dome, river, chasm, fountain, caves of ice, or floating hair â€“ nor any combination of them holds the secret key to that sense of an incommunicable witchery which pervades the poem. That is something more impalpable by far, into which entered who can tell what tracelesss, shadowy recollections … The poem is steeped in the wonder of all Coleridge’s enchanted voyagings.” Lowes then concluded about the two works: “Not even in the magical four and fifty lines of ‘Kubla Khan’ is sheer visualizing energy so intensely exercised as in ‘The Ancient Mariner.’ But every crystal-clear picture there, is an integral part of a preconceived and consciously elaborated whole … In ‘Kubla Khan’ the linked and interweaving images irresponsibly and gloriously stream, like the pulsing, fluctuating banners of the North. And their pageant is as aimless as it is magnificent … There is, then … one glory of ‘Kubla Khan’ and another glory of ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ as one star differeth from another star in glory.” George Watson, in 1966, claimed that Lowes’s analysis of the poems “will stand as a permanent monument to historical criticism.” Also in 1966, Kenneth Burke, declared, “Count me among those who would view this poem both as a marvel, and as ‘in principle’ finished“
T. S. Eliot attacked the reputation of “Kubla Khan” and sparked a dispute within literary criticism with his analysis of the poem in his essay “Origin and Uses of Poetry” from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933): “The way in which poetry is written is not, so far as our knowledge of these obscure matters as yet extends, any clue to its value … The faith in mystical inspiration is responsible for the exaggerated repute of “Kubla Khan”. The imagery of that fragment, certainly, whatever its origins in Coleridge’s reading, sank to the depths of Coleridge’s feeling, was saturated, transformed there … and brought up into daylight again.” He goes on to explain, “But it is not used: the poem has not been written. A single verse is not poetry unless it is a one-verse poem; and even the finest line draws its life from its context. Organization is necessary as well as ‘inspiration’. The re-creation of word and image which happens fitfully in the poetry of such a poet as Coleridge happens almost incessantly with Shakespeare.” Geoffrey Yarlott, in 1967, responds to Eliot to claim, “Certainly, the enigmatic personages who appear in the poem … and the vaguely incantatory proper names … appear to adumbrate rather than crystalize the poet’s intention. Yet, though generally speaking intentions in poetry are nothing save as ‘realized’, we are unable to ignore the poem, despite Mr Eliot’s strictures on its ‘exaggerated repute’.” He continued, “We may question without end what it means, but few of us question if the poem is worth the trouble, or whether the meaning is worth the having. While the feeling persists that there is something there which is profoundly important, the challenge to elucidate it proves irresistible.” However, Lilian Furst, in 1969, countered Yarlott to argue that, “T. S. Eliot’s objection to the exaggerated repute of the surrealist “Kubla Khan” is not unjustified. Moreover, the customary criticism of Coleridge as a cerebral poet would seem to be borne out by those poems such as This Lime-tree Bower my Prison or The Pains of Sleep, which tend more towards a direct statement than an imaginative presentation of personal dilemma.”
During the 1940s and 1950s, critics focused on the technique of the poem and how it relates to the meaning. In 1941, G. W. Knight claimed that “Kubla Khan” “needs no defence. It has a barbaric and oriental magnificence that asserts itself with a happy power and authenticity too often absent from visionary poems set within the Christian tradition.” Humphrey House, in 1953, praised the poem and said of beginning of the poem: “The whole passage is full of life because the verse has both the needed energy and the needed control. The combination of energy and control in the rhythm and sound is so great” and that Coleridge’s words “convey so fully the sense of inexhaustible energy, now falling now rising, but persisting through its own pulse”. Also in 1953, Elisabeth Schneider dedicated her book to analysing the various aspects of the poem, including the various sound techniques. When discussing the quality of the poem, she wrote, “I sometimes think we overwork Coleridge’s idea of ‘the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.’ I have to come back to it here, however, for the particular flavor of “Kubla Khan”, with its air of mystery, is describable in part through that convenient phrase. Yet, the ‘reconciliation’ does not quite occur either. It is in fact avoided. What we have instead is the very spirit of ‘oscillation’ itself.” Continuing, she claimed, “The poem is the soul of ambivalence, oscillation’s very self; and that is probably its deepest meaning. In creating this effect, form and matter are intricately woven. The irregular and inexact rhymes and varied lengths of the lines play some part. More important is the musical effect in which a smooth, rather swift forward movement is emphasized by the relation of grammatical structure to line and rhyme, yet is impeded and thrown back upon itself even from the beginning”. She then concluded: “Here in these interwoven oscillations dwells the magic, the ‘dream,’ and the air of mysterious meaning of “Kubla Khan”. I question whether this effect was all deliberately through [sic?] out by Coleridge, though it might have been. It is possibly half-inherent in his subject … . What remains is the spirit of ‘oscillation,’ perfectly poeticized, and possibly ironically commemorative of the author.” Following in 1959, John Beer described the complex nature of the poem: “‘Kubla Khan’ the poem is not a meaningless reverie, but a poem so packed with meaning as to render detailed elucidation extremely difficult.” In responding to House, Beer claimed, “That there is an image of energy in the fountain may be accepted: but I cannot agree that it is creative energy of the highest type.”
Critics of the 1960s focused on the reputation of the poem and how it compared to Coleridge’s other poems. In 1966, Virginia Radley considered Wordsworth and his sister as an important influence to Coleridge writing a great poem: “Almost daily social intercourse with this remarkable brother and sister seemed to provide the catalyst to greatness, for it is during this period that Coleridge conceived his greatest poems, ‘Christabel,’ ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ and ‘Kubla Khan,’ poems so distinctive and so different from his others that many generations of readers know Coleridge solely through them.” She latter added that “Of all the poems Coleridge wrote, three are beyond compare. These three, ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ ‘Christabel,’ and ‘Kubla Khan,’ produced an aura which defies definition, but which might be properly be called one of ‘natural magic.'” What sets apart the poem from the others is its “verbal enactment of the creative process” which makes it “unique even among the three poems of high imagination.” To Radley, “the poem is skilfully wrought, as are all the poems of high imagination. The opposites within it are diverse and effectively so. In tone, the poem juxtaposes quiet with noise … Action presents its contrasts also … These seemingly antithetical images combine to demonstrate the proximity of the known and the unknown worlds, the two worlds of Understanding and Imagination.” In concluding about the poem, she argued, “In truth, there are other ‘Fears in Solitude’ than that written by Coleridge and there are other ‘Frosts at Midnight’; but there are no other ‘Ancient Mariners’ or ‘Kubla Khans,’ nor are there likely to be. In evaluating Coleridge’s poetry, it can readily be seen and accepted that for the poems of high imagination his reputation is eternally made.”
In the same year as Radley, George Watson argued that “The case of ‘Kubla Khan’ is perhaps the strangest of all â€“ a poem that stands high even in English poetry as a work of ordered perfection is offered by the poet himself, nearly twenty years after its composition, as a fragment. Anyone can accept that a writer’s head should be full of projects he will never fulfil, and most writers are cautious enough not to set them down; Coleridge, rashly, did set them down, so that his very fertility has survived as evidence of infertility.” He later argued that the poem “is probably the most original poem about poetry in English, and the first hint outside his notebooks and letters that a major critic lies hidden in the twenty-five-year-old Coleridge.” In conclusion about the poem, Watson stated, “The triumph of ‘Kubla Khan,’ perhaps, lies in its evasions: it hints so delicately at critical truths while demonstrating them so boldly. The contrasts between the two halves of the poem … So bold, indeed, that Coleridge for once was able to dispense with any language out of the past. It was his own poem, a manifesto. To read it now, with the hindsight of another age, is to feel premonitions of the critical achievement to come … But the poem is in advance, not just of these, but in all probability of any critical statement that survives. It may be that it stands close to the moment of discovery itself.” After responding to Eliot’s claims about “Kubla Khan”, Yarlott, in 1967, argued that “few of us question if the poem is worth the trouble” before explaining that “The ambiguities inherent in the poem pose a special problem of critical approach. If we restrict ourselves to what is ‘given’, appealing to the poem as a ‘whole’, we shall fail probably to resolves its various cruxes. Hence, there is a temptation to look for ‘external’ influences … The trouble with all these approaches is that they tend finally to lead away from the poem itself.” When describing specifics, he argued, “The rhythmical development of the stanza, too, though technically brilliant, evokes admiration rather than delight. The unusually heavy stresses and abrupt masculine rhymes impose a slow and sonorous weightiness upon the movement of the iambic octosyllabics which is quite in contrast, say, to the light fast metre of the final stanza where speed of movement matches buoyancy of tone.” Following in 1968, Walter Jackson Bate called the poem “haunting” and said that it was “so unlike anything else in English”.
Criticism during the 1970s and 1980s emphasised the importance of the Preface while praising the work. Norman Fruman, in 1971, argued: “To discuss ‘Kubla Khan’ as one might any other great poem would be an exercise in futility. For a century and a half its status has been unique, a masterpiece sui generis, embodying interpretive problems wholly its own…It would not be excessive to say that no small part of the extraordinary fame of ‘Kubla Khan’ inheres in its alleged marvellous conception. Its Preface is world-famous and has been used in many studies of the creative process as a signal instance in which a poem has come to us directly from the unconscious.”
In 1981, Kathleen Wheeler contrasts the Crewe Manuscript note with the Preface: “Contrasting this relatively factual, literal, and dry account of the circumstances surrounding the birth of the poem with the actual published preface, one illustrates what the latter is not: it is not a literal, dry, factual account of this sort, but a highly literary piece of composition, providing the verse with a certain mystique.” In 1985, David Jasper praised the poem as “one of his greatest meditations on the nature of poetry and poetic creation” and argued “it is through irony, also, as it unsettles and undercuts, that the fragment becomes a Romantic literary form of such importance, nowhere more so than in ‘Kubla Khan’.” When talking about the Preface, Jasper claimed that it “profoundly influenced the way in which the poem has been understood”. Responding in part to Wheeler in 1986, Charles Rzepka analysed the relationship between the poet and the audience of the poem while describing “Kubla Khan” as one of “Coleridge’s three great poems of the supernatural”. He continued by discussing the preface: “despite its obvious undependability as a guide to the actual process of the poem’s composition, the preface can still, in Wheeler’s words, lead us ‘to ponder why Coleridge chose to write a preface … ‘ What the preface describes, of course, is not the actual process by which the poem came into being, but an analogue of poetic creation as logos, a divine ‘decree’ or fiat which transforms the Word into the world.”
During the 1990s, critics continued to praise the poem with many critics placing emphasis on what the Preface adds to the poem. David Perkins, in 1990, argued that “Coleridge’s introductory note to “Kubla Khan” weaves together two myths with potent imaginative appeal. The myth of the lost poem tells how an inspired work was mysteriously given to the poet and dispelled irrecoverably.” Also in 1990, Thomas McFarland stated, “Judging by the number and variety of critical effort to interpret their meaning, there may be no more palpably symbolic poems in all of English literature than “Kubla Khan” and The Ancient Mariner.” In 1996, Rosemary Ashton claimed that the poem was “one of the most famous poems in the language” and claimed the Preface as “the most famous, but probably not the most accurate, preface in literary history.” Richard Holmes, in 1998, declared the importance of the poem’s Preface while describing the reception of the 1816 volume of poems: “However, no contemporary critic saw the larger possible significance of Coleridge’s Preface to ‘Kubla Khan’, though it eventually became one of the most celebrated, and disputed, accounts of poetic composition ever written. Like the letter from the fictional ‘friend’ in the Biographia, it brilliantly suggests how a compressed fragment came to represent a much larger (and even more mysterious) act of creation.”
In 2002, J. C. C. Mays pointed out that “Coleridge’s claim to be a great poet lies in the continued pursuit of the consequences of ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ ‘Christabel’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ on several levels.” Adam Sisman, in 2006, questioned the nature of the poem itself: “No one even knows whether it is complete; Coleridge describes it as a ‘fragment,’ but there is a case for doubting this. Maybe it is not a poem at all. Hazlitt called it ‘a musical composition’ … Though literary detectives have uncovered some of its sources, its remains difficult to say what the poem is about.” In describing the merits of the poem and its fragmentary state, he claimed, “The poem stands for itself: beautiful, sensuous and enigmatic.” During the same year, Jack Stillinger claimed that “Coleridge wrote only a few poems of the first rank â€“ perhaps no more than a dozen, all told â€“ and he seems to have taken a very casual attitude toward them … he kept ‘Kubla Khan’ in manuscript for nearly twenty years before offering it to the public ‘rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the grounds of any supposed poetic merits'”. Harold Bloom, in 2010, argued that Coleridge wrote two kinds of poems and that “The daemonic group, necessarily more famous, is the triad of The Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and ‘Kubla Khan.'” He goes on to explain the “daemonic”: “Opium was the avenging daemon or alastor of Coleridge’s life, his dark or fallen angel, his experiential acquaintance with Milton’s Satan. Opium was for him what wandering and moral tale-telling became for the Mariner â€“ the personal shape of repetition compulsion. The lust for paradise in ‘Kubla Khan,’ Geraldine’s lust for Christabel â€“ these are manifestations of Coleridge’s revisionary daemonization of Milton, these are Coleridge’s countersublime. Poetic genius, the genial spirit itself, Coleridge must see as daemonic when it is his own rather than when it is Milton’s.”
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