The story that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was in an opium-inspired fugue state while writing Kubla Khan, and that after the postman rang and interrupted him he “lost” the poem and could not finish it, is the stuff of such literary legend that it found its way to my little high school english class, as told as an amusing end of the day anecdote by our teacher Mr. Johnston, in deepest darkest rural Nova Scotia. I don’t know if it’s true or not; the poem has always felt unfinished to me, but this just may be because I was conditioned early to think it was. Either way, Kubla Khan seems so essential to me now it seems impossible to think that anyone ever actually wrote it. It seems always to have existed. I know exactly what Coleridge meant when he subtitled it ‘a vision on a dream, or a fragment’. Like a powerful dream, the poem is rich in imagery, seamless, full of portent and allusion and wonder. And yet, upon awaking from it, you realize it is meaningless; it doesn’t convey, it simply presents us with a fragment on the fantasy world, using some of the most original images and perfectly constructed poetic stanzas in the English language. I have on occasion championed Coleridge as the best writer in English next to Shakespeare. Usually I am laughed out of the room by those who would champion Shelley, or Byron, or Austen, or even Dickens over poor Samuel. But, even if they still don’t agree, they should read Coleridge’s complete and collected works, not just for the poetry, but for the essays; I can think of no other poet as sharp, and erudite in essays or works outside their poems as he. (The pleasure dome above was painted by Victorian illustrator Patten Wilson (1869-1934) for an illustrated edition of Coleridge’s works.)
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.