Along with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Kubla Khan is one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s two most famous and most-quoted-from poems. Originally written in either 1797 or 1798, it was not published until 1816 (along with Christabel). The long note by Coleridge explaining the circumstances of its composition ought to be considered a part of the poem too. There he explains that he is publishing it at the behest of a great and celebrated poet—Lord Byron, who had used his great fame to intervene with his own publishers on Coleridge’s behalf—despite the fact that it is only a fragment. The reason it is a fragment, he says, is that the whole poem, which came to him in a dream after taking medicine for a slight indisposition, was some 300 lines long, and he began writing it down when he was interrupted by the famous and unnamed “person on business from Porlock.” An hour later, he had forgotten almost the entirety of the rest of the poem.
The medicine Coleridge took was laudanum, a combination of opium and alcohol, and his addiction to it would intermittently but severely ruin his health and his ability to work over the next two decades. Thus, the poem was the fruit of an opium trance. Like so many of Coleridge’s great poems, including Christabel, it presents itself as a fragment, but we may ask whether it really is a fragment of anything greater than itself. Without the interruption from Porlock, would there have been a complete, or at least a longer poem? Or is visitor from Porlock part of the story that the poem tells: the story that romantic poets tell so often of the fall into the mundane world from visionary heights, perhaps never to be regained?
In a 1955 essay on inspiration, writing in the romantic tradition, the great French critic Maurice Blanchot, observed that we usually think of inspiration as the pathway to literary work, but that, in fact, the work is a pathway that seeks to regain and to understand the inspiration that it has lost. Coleridge awakened from his reverie and tried to return to it in his poem. That return only half succeeded: As Coleridge notes in the preface, the poet sought “to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him” but failed. He quotes, and in a later revision misquotes, the Greek poet Theocritus: The misquotation may be translated as “I shall sing you a sweeter song tomorrow” (and not the originally correct “another day”), a subtle allusion to the quotation from the Roman poet’s Virgil’s own allusion to Theocritus in the Eclogues that William Wordsworth put at the head of the 1807 publication of his Intimations Ode: “Paulo majora canamus” (“Let us sing of loftier things”). Coleridge says in his preface to “Kubla Khan” that this “‘tomorrow is yet to come,’” which means both that it will never come and that it belongs to the futurity, which is just what poetic inspiration promises and where it promises to be found.
The question, then, is: To what extent is this what the poem is about, or to what extent is the preface in accord with the poem? Here we should look to poem’s ending, to the dream vision that occurs within the poet’s dream vision. If we take seriously the framing narrative presented by the preface, we have to say that Coleridge never did see the Abyssinian maid he describes in the last stanza. The poem came to him as a whole, and so while it may be an experience it does not represent other experiences external to itself. “All the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort,” he says in the preface, so that what arose before him with such vividness includes not the Abyssinian maid but the fragmentary memory of the Abyssinian maid.
The full title of the poem should be recalled: Kubla Khan: Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment. That fragmentary vision or memory occurs in his dream; the maid not as present but as a lost vision is what has come to him in the opium reverie or dream. The poem which he claims came to him whole, unbidden, and utterly without effort included, in what turns out to be its climactic passage, an unfulfilled desire to revive just the sort of vision that the preface laments Coleridge has not been able to revive after the visit of the person from Porlock. For what the last stanza says is that if he could revive the vision of the maid, he could write—“with music loud and long”—a poem like the poem about Xanadu that he wishes to write now, and that he is failing to write. Remember that that poem is not, in the fiction the fragment presents, the poem that we have or would have had without the interruption. Even in its unavailable finished state, “Kubla Khan” as it supposedly was at one time in Coleridge’s mind would have been a poem about not being able to write the great poem of which he had a failing vision. And that is just what “Kubla Khan” is: It is a fragment of a poem about only being able to write a poetic fragment.
In this sense, the poem should be compared to other great romantic poems, in particular Coleridge’s own Dejection: An Ode and Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode and The Prelude, which begins with Wordsworth lamenting that he is unable to write the poem that he wishes to write, and that The Prelude will exist to some extent, but only to the extent that the failure it recounts is real, and so it fails to be the poem he wishes to write. This is not an arid paradox but a deep and central element of the romantic conception of poetry: that what makes it haunting is an absence or phantom that can never be grasped or attained, and that this phantom is itself the spirit of poetry—that is, the “Spirit of Solitude” (as Percy Bysshe Shelley puts it in Alastor, his own reworking of Kubla Khan).
We can therefore identify the maid with a dulcimer as the muse herself, the source of poetic inspiration. She appears to Coleridge in a vision, and her symphony and song gives him something not that he can keep but that he can attempt to revive. The half-memory of the music is what causes him to write; his writing is an attempt to bring that memory to an unattainable fullness. His poem is about the intense experience of trying to remember the intensity of a lost experience of poetry. Were he to succeed, he would return to the lost paradise of pure poetry or pure aesthetic experience; but there is no such paradise, even in the poetry of John Milton, because all aesthetic experience is predicated on loss. As the French poet Charles-Pierre Baudelaire will say, the only paradises are lost ones. Loss is the condition and, in fact, the substance of poetry, especially when the poetry laments loss.
The preface of Kubla Khan gives a demonstration of this just in its account of the actual words that elicited the poem: the sentences from the book Coleridge was reading when he nodded off, Samuel Purchas’s 1613 book of explorers’ tales, Purchas His Pilgrimage. The passage from Purchas (which Coleridge quotes from memory) elicits the poem and is the fact behind the dream poem, a literal fact which, were the dream to recover, would be entirely deflating. We have the original words that sparked the poem; what makes it great is the way it forgets those words, even as it laments that forgetting. It becomes instead a poem about trying to recover them, or trying to recover how the soul felt in first responding to them. The soul hears “ancestral voices prophesizing war” (l. 30), not because the poem is about war but because it is about a tumult that can never be put to rest by the attainment of its object. The poet will always experience tumult, always hear the prophecies that give him or her no peace. Kubla Khan’s creation of Xanadu is itself an image of the creation of the poem, the “miracle of rare device” (l. 35) that contains within it the unplumbable caverns and sunless seas of the parts of the mind that the mind cannot reach. (Coleridge is thinking of the Greek philosopher Plato here, but we may think of Sigmund Freud’s similar invocation of the platonic myth of forgetfulness of all but dim intimations left to the soul.)
It is therefore telling that Coleridge invents a river, Alph, based probably on the Sicilian river Alpheus, which features prominently in classical mythology (particularly Ovid) but which, Coleridge knew, had no connection whatever with Xanadu or any other place frequented by Kubla Khan. The sacred river that runs through caverns measureless to man and all the way to the sunless lifeless sea of death is the alphabet (the word comes from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet); so Xanadu is the creation of the letters that come together so mysteriously to make the poem. It is not a real place but a place that can only exist in the words that describe it, and not even there. The phantom that haunts the poet and makes him seek to follow the river does not lead him back to Xanadu, but, through it, to the poem that tries and fails to describe it.
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