Kevin Saving on

'Kubla Khan' 
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge 
(1772-1834)
 
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.
[....]
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 would 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.
 
No one can be sure exactly when 'Kubla Khan' was composed (there is evidence for several contradictory dates). Coleridge referred to it as 'a vision in a dream' and as a 'fragment'. In a note to the printed poem he described how 'In the summer of the year 1797 the Author, then in ill-health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton'. In another note to the MSS copy Coleridge stated that it had been written 'a quarter of a mile from Culbourne Church, in the fall of the year 1797' -though this would still be the geographical region around Exmoor. The author was notoriously vague regarding dates. Evidence from his correspondence seems to indicate early October, when he was away from home trying to complete his tragedy, Osorio. Coleridge later claimed that the poem had its genesis 'in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of opium taken to check a dysentry'. 'The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than two to three hundred lines; if that can be called composition in which the images rose up before him [...] without any sensation of consciousness of effort'. Upon waking the writer began transcribing his vision before -in one of the most infamous interruptions in literary history- being disturbed by 'a person on business from Porlock' who detained him for upwards of an hour. Once rid of this distraction he found to his chagrin that though the 'vague and dim memory of the general purport' of the composition remained, coupled with 'some eight or ten scattered lines or images', the rest had vanished, leaving him only 54 completed lines and -one may surmise - the resolution never more to purposelessly procrastinate in propinquity to persons from Porlock!
  'Kubla Khan' was first published in Biographica Literaria in 1817. Coleridge published it (he said) 'at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity...[Byron]...and as far as the author's own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the grounds of any supposed poetic virtue'. The book, printed by Byron's publisher John Murray, was not well-received. The Edinburgh Review commented 'Forth steps Mr Coleridge, like a giant refreshed from sleep...[it had been nearly twenty years since he'd aired a collection of his poetry. The giant had produced, however] ...one of the most notable pieces of impertinence of which the press has lately been guilty'.
  Coleridge would have been in his mid-twenties when he wrote 'Kublai Khan'. The youngest of ten children born to a Devonian vicar and his wife, Samuel attended Jesus College, Cambridge, between 1791 and 1794. There was an intermission in his studies of a few months when, due to a thwarted love affair, he enlisted in the Royal Dragoons: his brothers had to arrange his discharge due to 'Insanity'. In 1795 he married Sarah Fricker, sister-in-law to his friend, Robert Southey, with whom he'd planned to establish a utopian and egalitarian community in Pennsylvania. The marriage was to prove an unhappy one and ended in divorce. Between 1797/98 he lived in Nether Stowey, Somerset (Wordsworth rented 'Alfroxton Park', three miles away). His Laudanum-dependence, which had commenced around a year earlier, can be ascribed, initially, to self-medication for both facial-neuralgia and persistent toothache.
  The draft MSS of 'Kubla Khan' displays well-configured writing with few deletions. 'Alph' is probably named after the river Alpheus (in Western Greece) which flows close to the historic site of Olympia. 'Rills' are meandering streams. 'Mount Abora' may refer to Asmara in Eritrea. Kublai Khan (1215-1294) of the Yuan Dynasty, was grandson to Genghis Khan and had his summer-palace at Shangdu (otherwise known as Xanadu). Marco Polo had returned to Europe with stories of his extravagance. Only the Emperor (or persons designated by him) had the right to drink milk from the imperial herd of horses -he owned around ten thousand. The concluding line of the poem 'drunk the milk of Paradise' is a reference to this. A quotation from the American, William Bartram (1739-1823) has been identified as a possible source for 'Kublai Khan': imagery from that author's Travels (1792) detailing his exploration of the North American continent, appears to present parallels. The words 'In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace' occur in Purchas' Pilgrimage (1613).
  The late Seventeen Nineties were a period in which Coleridge and his gifted, egotistical friend, William Wordsworth, worked in close collaboration. 'Kublai Khan' is anomalous both in that it was written without reference to Wordsworth and that it was not selected for their joint-production, Lyrical Ballads of 1798. By the time of the poem's belated publication, twenty years later, the two had become estranged and Wordsworth was noticeably reticent -in public- about Biographia Literaria as a whole: he had found little to enjoy there. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was to die in Highgate aged 61 - probably as a consequence of his addiction - his later life something of an anti-climax after his meteoric youth.
 
Further reading:
Holmes,R., Coleridge: Early Visions, HarperCollins (1990)
Holmes,R. (Ed.), Selected Poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Penguin (1996)
Holmes,R., Coleridge: Darker Reflections, HarperCollins (1997)
Sisman,A. Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Friendship, Harper (2006)

Kevin Saving © 2009