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Kubla Khan -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

       
(Poem #30) Kubla Khan
(or, a Vision in a Dream, a Fragment)

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.

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!
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:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

  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!

  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!
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.
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
published in 1816, with the following

Author's Preface:

"In the summer of the year 1797, the author, then in ill health, had
retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor
confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight
indisposition, an anodyne [opium, most likely] 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
Purcha's Pilgrimage: '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 sense, 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 purpot 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!"

If I had to name my single favourite poem, there's a good chance that
this would be the one (and before you ask, yes, I will indeed mention
the other contenders when I get around to sending them). 'Kubla Khan' is
sheer magic, in its language, its images, its utter *poetry* (there's no
other word for it).

And yet... what is it that makes the poem wonderful? Admitted, the first
five lines and the last two are sublimely perfect, but the poem as a
whole? To tell the truth, I don't know. I cannot (for myself) dissect
the magic of 'Kubla Khan; I'm content to be entranced every time I read
it.

If you're interested in an extremely detailed analysis of this poem (and
of other works by Coleridge), do read John Spencer Hill's 'Coleridge
Companion', available online at
[broken link] http://aix1.uottawa.ca/~phoenix/ccomp.htm

And for those of you without fast net access, here are a few (long but
interesting) extracts from the book:

<extracts>

... Kubla Khan is a fascinating and exasperating poem. Almost everyone
has read it, almost everyone has been charmed by its magic, almost
everyone thinks he knows what it is about -- and almost everyone, it
seems, has felt impelled to write about it. It must surely be true that
no poem of comparable length in English or any other language has been
the subject of so much critical commentary. Its fifty-four lines have
spawned thousands of pages of discussion and analysis. Kubla Khan is the
sole or a major subject in five book-length studies; close to 150
articles and book-chapters (doubtless I have missed some others) have
been devoted exclusively to it; and brief notes and incidental
comments on it are without number. Despite this deluge, however, there
is no critical unanimity and very little agreement on a number of
important issues connected with the poem: its date of composition, its
"meaning", its sources in Coleridge's reading and observation of nature,
its structural integrity (i.e. fragment versus complete poem), and its
relationship to the Preface by which Coleridge introduced it on its
first publication in 1816...

... In a moment of rash optimism a notable scholar once began an essay
by declaring that "We now know almost everything about Coleridge's Kubla
Khan except what the poem is about". The truth of the matter, however,
is that we know almost nothing conclusive  about Kubla Khan, including
what it is about.This flower plucked in Paradise (or on Parnassus) and
handed down to us by Coleridge is, indeed, a miracle of rare device; but
like all miracles it is largely elusive...

... By far the most intriguing question about this most intriguing of
poems is "What does it mean?" -- if, indeed, it has or was ever intended
to have any particular meaning. For the overwhelming majority of
Coleridge's contemporaries, Kubla Khan seemed (as Lamb foresaw) to be no
better than nonsense, and they dismissed it contemptuously.   "The poem
itself is below criticism", declared the anonymous reviewer in the
Monthly Review (Jan 1817); and Thomas Moore, writing in the Edinburgh
Review (Sep 1816), tartly asserted that "the thing now before us, is
utterly destitute of value" and he defied "any man to point out a
passage of poetical merit" in it...

... While derisive asperity of this sort is the common fare of most of
the early reviews, there are, nevertheless, contemporary readers whose
response is both sympathetic and positive -- even though they value the
poem for its rich and bewitching suggestiveness rather than for any
discernible "meaning" that it might possess. Charles Lamb, for example,
speaks fondly of hearing Coleridge recite Kubla Khan "so enchantingly
that it irradiates & brings  heaven & Elysian bowers into my parlour
while he sings or says it"; and Leigh Hunt turns hopefully to analogies
in music and painting in an effort to describe the poem's haunting but
indefinable effect:

"Kubla Khan 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."...

... Throughout the nineteenth century and during the first quarter of
the twentieth century Kubla Khan was considered, almost universally, to
be a poem in which sound overwhelms sense. With a few exceptions (such
as Lamb and Leigh Hunt), Romantic critics -- accustomed to poetry of
statement and antipathetic to any notion of ars gratia artis --
summarily dismissed Kubla Khan as a meaningless farrago of sonorous
phrases beneath the notice of serious criticism. It only demonstrated,
according to William Hazlitt, that "Mr Coleridge can write better
nonsense verses than any man in England" -- and then he added,
proleptically, "It is not a poem, but a musical composition"...

... For Victorian and Early Modern readers, on the other hand, Kubla
Khan was a poem not below but beyond the reach of criticism, and they
adopted (without the irony) Hazlitt's perception that it must properly
be appreciated as verbalised music. "When it has been said", wrote
Swinburne of Kubla Khan, "that such melodies were never heard, such
dreams never dreamed, such speech never spoken, the chief thing remains
unsaid, and unspeakable. There is a charm upon [this poem] which can
only be felt in silent submission of wonder". Even John Livingston Lowes
-- culpable, if ever anyone has been, of murdering to dissect --
insisted on the elusive magic of Coleridge's dream vision: "For Kubla
Khan is as near enchantment, I suppose, as we are like to come in this
dull world."   While one may track or attempt to track individual images
to their sources, Kubla Khan as a whole remains utterly inexplicable --
a "dissolving phantasmagoria" of highly charged images whose streaming
pageant is, in the final analysis, "as aimless as it is magnificent".
The earth has bubbles as the water has, and this is of them...

... Generally speaking, however, the most popular view by far is that
Kubla Khan is concerned with the poetic process itself.   "What is Kubla
Khan about?   This is, or ought to be, an established fact of
criticism:   Kubla Khan is a poem about poetry"...

... The dream of Xanadu itself is an inspired vision...  the artist's
purpose is to capture such visions in words, but in attempting to do so
he encounters two serious difficulties:   first, language is an
inadequate medium that permits only an approximation of the visions it
is used to record, and, second, the visions themselves, by the time the
poet comes to set them down, have faded into the light of common day and
must be reconstructed from memory.   Between the conception and the
execution falls the shadow.... the vision of Kubla's Xanadu is replaced
by that of a damsel singing of Mount Abora -- an experience more
auditory than visual and therefore less susceptible of description by
mere words...

</extracts>

Of course, if you want to know what the poem *really* means, and also
who the 'person on business from Porlock' *really* was, you have only to
read Douglas Adams' (truly amazing) book, 'Dirk Gently's Holistic
Detective Agency' :-)

Oh, and (before I forget), the rock music connection: Rush (and if you
haven't heard Rush you haven't lived) did a terrific song called
'Xanadu', based on this poem. I like the live version on the album
'Exit... Stage Left' best. Well worth a listen.

Another rock music connection (I'm really spoiling you here): Frankie
Goes To Hollywood used this poem as the basis for their debut album,
'Welcome To The Pleasuredome'.

And finally, no less a personage than Martin DeMello (Hi Martin!) asked
me what the rock connection was for my previous poem. I had thought it
too obvious to mention, but evidently you can't be too careful these
days... anyway, the poem's structure is based on the hoedown, a
traditional song pattern and the basis for half the rock-and-roll
numbers ever written; the final verse

"You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out,
You take the human being and you twist it all about"

is, of course, a direct take on an r-and-r standard.

thomas.

32 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Martin DeMello said...

Eclipsed by the Pleasure Dome: Poetic Failure in Coleridge's 'Kubla
Khan'
by David S. Hogsette

[broken link] http://users.ox.ac.uk/~scat0385/eclipsed.html

Worth a read; some nice quotes from Coleridge's contemporaries too.

m.

nolan_mark_e said...

Inspired by this and Marco Polo's account of his travels, William
Dalrymple followed the newly re-opened southern spice route in 1986. On
reaching Xanadu, he and his companion stood there and recited the poem!
An account of his journey is published in the book "In Xanadu".

Kit O'Meara said...

I think Kubla Khan is mainly about seeking love through pleasure. Aspirations of love can be so intense, developing -- 'that deep romantic chasm' --- 'A savage place --- unknown underworld --- 'caverns measurless to man' --- 'sunless sea' --- 'five miles of fertile ground' --- here it all starts to grow. It is a love that does not bring union but destruction --- 'haunted by woman wailing for her demon lover'. And the earth throws up ' huge fragments' --- does not open as Mother Earth: Up comes the 'Sacred River' --- the image is 'Anti Life' --- the One who rules in this underworld place --- 'And sank in a tumult to a lifeless ocean.' The result of integration in a destuctive relationship, (non awareness of this within that place), but seen perhaps from being outside away from the tumult.

The poet reflecting--- 'the sunny dome, those caves of ice.' He is thinking of the damsel--- he is attracted --- and feels himself drawn in, but one must 'Beware!' 'And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 'Circle' him out, for the demon lives on his union with evil and for him it is the ' milk of Paradise.' But what is it? This milk of Paradise?

The poet leaves us questioning? He has already warned us. Dare we investigate? 'A stately pleasure -dome decree.' A savage place'--- I think I would close my eyes with 'Holy Dread.'
Patricia O' Meara.

kenman said...

Maybe not the music of choice for you all, but Electric Wizard (a rock band) of the UK have been credited with bridging centuries in invoking the spirit of Coleridge more vividly than any band in metal' s history. Definately like that sunless sea part.

kenman said...

Maybe not your music of choice, but Electric Wizard (a doom rock band) of the UK have been credited with bridging centuries in invoking the spirit of Coleridge far more vividly than any band in metal's history, Maiden and Rush included. Definately like that sunless sea part.

kenman said...

Maybe not the music of choice for you all, but Electric Wizard (a doom metal band) of the UK have been credited with bridging centuries in invoking the spirit of Coleridge far more vividly than any band in metal's history, Maiden and Rush included. What is their working relationship to his works? Drug culture. Down the caverns measureless to man to a sunless sea.

Dibakar Sarkar said...

"Kubla Khan" is good no doubt, however, it no longer draws regard from a poet as a poem. To say in a nutshell, it is a better try against writing a good poem. To say from the bottom of my heart, it's a mantle of hallucination. No poem can be drawn (or withdrawn) under the 'addicted' hex of narcotics.

Dibakar Sarkar

18 April 2006

Christina Kaye said...

Re: Kubla Khan, by S. T. Coleridge

There is a fragment of this poem quoted in a biography of Peter Finch; this book alleges that one of the speeches made by the mad character Howard Beale, in the movie "Network", one of the speeches towards the end of the film, used the cadences of this poem as an underpinning to the speech.

I haven't seen the movie for a while, but will rent it soon to check this out. I love this beautiful poem; it has a sonority to it, and the pictures unleashed in my mind are beautiful. I love Coleridge.

Christina Kaye
Chicago, IL

Vivian Connell said...

Hello. I'd like to share your comments and Kubla Khan posts with my senior
English class tomorrow. I am hopeful that your enthusiasm...well...and your
references to Rush might coax a few out of their final semester stupor.

Could you share just a bit about who you are. (Age/major or field of
study/expertise and what inspired you to create the site)

Thanks from a desperate teacher who is just sick of the vacant
expressions...

Vivian Connell,
Charlotte, NC

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