Kubla Khan

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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.

This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, which we discussed yesterday, was the first of the three poems that framed the composition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Kubla Khan: or, a Vision in a Dream, was the second.  The first publication of the poem contained a note in which Coleridge linked it’s inspiration to an opium induced sleep:

The Author . . . had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effect of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment 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 [sic] with a wall.” The author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, 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 awakening 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 had been cast, but alas! without the after restoration of the latter.

Malcolm Guite’s commentary here is masterful:

If writing Kubla Khan had been the experience of the twin streams of Being and Imagination, flowing through Coleridge’s mind from their unknowable and unimagined Source in “caverns measureless to man,” then much of his later prose writing was done in the effort to follow these twin streams back to their sacred source. As Coleridge himself wrote in a notebook of 1814:

“I have read of two rivers passing through the same lake, yet all the way preserving their streams visibly distinct. In a far finer distinction, yet in a subtler union, such, for the contemplative mind, are the streams of knowing and being. The lake is formed by the two streams in man and nature as it exists in and for man; and up this lake the philosopher sails on the junction-line of the constituent streams, still pushing upward and sounding as he goes, towards the common fountain-head of both, the mysterious source whose being is knowledge, whose knowledge is being—the adorable I AM IN THAT I AM.”

Whatever he subsequently came to feel about this poem, and whatever made him hold back until he finally published it at Byron’s instigation in 1816, simply to have composed it at all must have given Coleridge some lift and confidence. He had seen the mysterious river of his own creative imagination emerge suddenly and powerfully into the light; he had indeed, for himself and for his readers, “built that dome in air”; he had in some sense both inwardly and outwardly confirmed his vocation as a poet, as that mysterious, perhaps dangerous figure with flashing eyes and floating hair who appears at the end of Kubla Khan. The same figure would emerge in the wild looks, the glittering eye, at the beginning of The Ancient Mariner.

Have you ever been inspired by a vision or dream?



Rick Wilcox is Editor in Chief


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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life