To celebrate 200 years since the publication of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s extraordinary poem, ‘Kubla Khan’, we ask poet and Coleridge expert Gregory Leadbetter to tell us more about the history of this mesmerizing work.
Some poems change your life. Reading ‘Kubla Khan’ when I was seventeen changed mine. I was studying Coleridge for my English Literature A Level, and remember vividly the moment when my teacher dropped the Selected Poems of S.T. Coleridge onto my desk. There was Coleridge on the cover, enigmatic in a black and white reproduction of a portrait made in 1795, when he was twenty-two. We were eye to eye for the first time – and inside, there were the poems. There’s some truth in saying that as a poet and a critic, I’ve been trying to understand the power of their effect upon me ever since.
Coleridge wrote some of the most luminous poems in the English language, but ‘Kubla Khan’ is distinguished not just by its verse: it is surrounded by its own mythology, raising far-reaching questions not only about the way poetry is conceived and written, but also the way it is read and understood.
Composed sometime between October 1797 and May 1799 – when Coleridge was in his mid-twenties – the poem was not published until 25 May 1816, when it appeared alongside ‘Christabel’ and ‘The Pains of Sleep’. When he published the poem, Coleridge wrote an accompanying Preface, in which he somewhat modestly presented the poem “rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits”.
He went on to give one of the most famous accounts of poetic creation ever to appear: withdrawing to “a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton” in 1797, he took an “anodyne” – opium – for a “slight indisposition”, and fell asleep while reading Samuel Purchas’s Pilgrimage of 1614, over the passage where Purchas describes the great palace of “Cublai Can”. Coleridge “continued for about three hours”, he writes, “in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses”, in which a poem between two and three hundred lines were composed, “if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort”.
Waking, Coleridge immediately took up his pen and paper, writing down what he recalled from this dream – until a now legendary knock on the door: “a person on business from Porlock” kept him from his desk “above an hour” – after which the rest of the dream-poem had gone. As a final touch to his tale, Coleridge writes that he had often thought of finishing “what had originally, as it were, been given to him” – “but the tomorrow is yet to come”.
“Why did he rush to let him in?” asked Stevie Smith in her poem ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’: “He could have hid in the house”. And why, we might ask, didn’t Coleridge actually ‘finish’ the poem, like he said he often thought of doing? Could it be – as I think – that despite being described as a ‘fragment’, ‘Kubla Khan’ is best read as a complete poem? Readers have to judge for themselves – and it is part of the poem’s power to make us think about this, as well as asking many other questions.
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.
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!
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.
The rhythmic force of the verse carries its images into the nervous system of those who read or hear it: its chant itself is a form of enchantment.
With its energies flowing through you, your conscious mind starts to try and wake up to what is happening. This is where the pleasures of interpretation begin. As Ted Hughes said of ‘Kubla Khan’ and the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: “Poems of this kind can obviously never be explained. They are total symbols of psychic life. But they can be interpreted – a total symbol is above all a vessel for interpretations: the reader fills it and drinks”.
The poem took some time to achieve its high status in English poetry. When it appeared in 1816, opinion was often ambivalent, or simply baffled. In April 1816, Coleridge’s old friend Charles Lamb wrote in a letter:
he repeats [the vision] so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and Elysian bowers into my parlour while he sings or says it, but there is an observation ‘Never tell thy dreams,’ and I am almost afraid that Kubla Khan is an owl that won’t bear day light, I fear lest it should be discovered by the lantern of typography and clear reducting to letters, no better than nonsense or no sense.
“While he sings or says it”: Lamb’s wonderfully evocative description casts Coleridge as the magus of his own poem, in the moment of enchantment – while going on to worry that, without Coleridge to speak it, the poem might lose its very substance. The critic William Hazlitt took precisely this view – Hazlitt wrote that “Kubla Khan, we think, only shows that Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verses than any man in England. It is not a poem, but a musical composition”.
Hazlitt also wrote that the poem’s verses “smell strongly, it must be owned, of the anodyne” referred to in Coleridge’s Preface – that is, opium. Hazlitt knew of Coleridge’s addiction to the drug, and his gossipy allusion to it was intended to sting his target further. For better or worse, ‘Kubla Khan’ raised the possibility for a post-Enlightenment audience that there might be a powerful link between creativity and the use of mind-altering substances.
There is more to ‘Kubla Khan’ than opium, however: poetry is the real mind-changing agent here. The poet, Coleridge once declared, is the “morning star of Philosophy – the guide & pioneer”. In defining “the Poet” as one for whom “Images become a satisfying world of themselves” by virtue of “creative Power”, Coleridge could be describing the daemonic visionary of ‘Kubla Khan’. The poem itself keeps on creating, in and through its readers. It still has the power to alter and amplify your consciousness – and so, perhaps, change your life.
If you want to explore the world of Coleridge and ‘Kubla Khan’ still further, check out the Khubla Khan/ Imaginary Worlds Poetry Competition, which is now open for poems responding to the theme ‘Imagined Worlds’. For young people aged 10-17, entry is completely free. Closing date: 31 August.
About the author
Gregory Leadbetter’s debut full-length poetry collection, The Fetch, will be published by Nine Arches Press in October 2016. A pamphlet, The Body in the Well, was published by HappenStance Press in 2007. He is a regular contributor to The Poetry Review, and his poems appear widely in journals and anthologies. His book Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) won the University English (formerly CCUE) Book Prize 2012. He has written radio drama for the BBC, and was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013. He is Reader in Literature and Creative Writing at Birmingham City University, where he leads the MA in Creative Writing and the Institute of Creative and Critical Writing.