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Kubla Khan

Dreamed summer 1797 by Samuel Coleridge

(Though written in third person, this is Coleridge's own explanation of the poem)

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 [southwest England]. 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 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 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. 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 has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

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.


Two contradictory thoughts:

  1. While often regarded as a drug-trip, this seems to me a genuine case of dream-composition. Opiates are not famed for stimulating feverish creativity, nor lending clarity; and the swift fading of memory after waking is a classic sign of REM, not drug-stupor. Assuming Coleridge is telling the truth--and speculation that he's not is just that, speculation--the notorious "person from Porlock" really did interrupt the transcription of a dream-generated poem, and the structure fits his claim: the first thirty lines would be fresh-wakened dream-recording, the indented lines 31-36 ("The shadow of the dome of pleasure" to "A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice"; perhaps starting as early as 29) would be assembled from stray lines and couplets recalled after the Porlockian Invasion--doesn't this part seem like a fast-forward film?--and 37-54 (from "a damsel with a dulcimer" to the end) are later work to cap off the fragment.

  2. On the other hand, does Kubla Khan really warn us to lock the door and write down every dream, dreading interruption? Did the world lose another 250 brilliant lines? Kubla Khan seems pretty complete as is. In fact, the weakest lines are in the middle; 17-29 are competent, but the passion of the opening ("In Xanadu" to "demon lover") fades to mere scenic description filling in details. Was the Person from Porlock framed? Maybe Coleridge's own brain didn't helplessly lose the other lines for biochemical reasons, but mulled them over while his conscious spoke to the Dreaded Porlockian, and then played editor, cutting more expository details that couldn't sustain the tone of that bold first scene. Thus his conscious was forced to splice on an ending before Kubla Khan ran out of steam--and note that the end he came up with gets stronger as he goes; the last lines are just as brilliant and visionary as the first mad sixteen.
--Chris Wayan

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