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Featured Poem: ‘Kubla Khan’ by S.T. Coleridge

Written by Chris Routledge, 18th May 2009

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) is celebrated as one of the great poets of the Romantic period, and Kubla Khan is one of his most famous , and best, poems. A brief preface written by Coleridge usually accompanies this poem, outlining the events of its composition. Coleridge claimed that Kubla Khan was inspired by an opium-induced dream, in which events detailed within the poem were first imprinted on his mind. The moment Coleridge woke from this dream:

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.

Kubla Khan

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.
S.T. Coleridge, 1816.

Coleridge's explanation of his inspiration for the poem may clarify some of its more unusual aspects. The opening lines ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree' immediately immerses the reader in a strange and unfamiliar environment, which the poem then goes on to explore in more detail as it progresses. Images of majestic ‘greenery' in the poem soon give way to the supernatural, and a chasm ‘Haunted / By woman wailing for her demon-lover!', before concluding with a warning to ‘Beware!' the ‘flashing eyes' of the demon, and to receive him with holy dread'. The subtitle: ‘A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment' reminds the reader that the poem is not completed exactly as Coleridge had envisaged: the alleged interference from someone calling at his house left the dream ‘scattered' within Coleridge's mind: the remnants of which make up the entirety of Kubla Khan.

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