Saturday, 12 May 2012

A Summer in Xanadu: Revisiting Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"

This would have been a post in the A to Z Challenge if I'd gotten closer to the end (X is for Xanadu, after all)... but that ship has sailed, and as *shameless plug* my poetry ebook As The Moon And The Sun is free for the weekend (May 12-13) on Kindle,* what better time could there be to revisit the world of dreams and fantasy that Samuel Taylor Coleridge crafted so well in his poem "Kubla Khan"?:)

Kubla Khan is a poem that intrigued me, fascinated me, from the first moment I read it. Said to have been written under the influence of an opium-induced dream, the gradual descent into the supernatural takes place very quickly within Coleridge's imagined pleasure dome. He is after all the creator of the now famous 'suspension of disbelief', so I suppose this was to be expected:)

We are first given a depiction of Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan), which is imagined as an utopian realm with a sacred river, measureless caverns, fertile ground, gardens and ancient forests... But Coleridge doesn't stop there. A reader enters utopia only to succumb to an otherworldly, savage version of Nature shortly after. There is, you see, a certain dark chasm neighbouring the pleasure dome, from which bursts a powerful fountain that travels through the sacred plains of nature, leaving chaos in its wake, only to sink ‘in tumult to a lifeless ocean’.

The chaotic tug of war between Nature and Man - Man and Nature - in Kubla Khan seems reasonable enough when seen against Coleridge’s views of reality impinging on man’s ability to transcend it; I believe his own creative imagination was frequently at war with the demands of a non-creative reality in his lifetime.

But of course, the intrusion of reality into the creation of Kubla Khan was more marked than usual if Coleridge is to be believed; it seems that Kubla was an unfinished poem, a ‘fragment’ as Coleridge called it, due to the interruption of an unexpected visitor while Coleridge was in the midst of writing his opiate-induced dream down. Once the infamous Person from Porlock left, Coleridge was sadly unable to recollect his entire vision of Xanadu. And so, instead of the apparent 200-300 plus lines that should supposedly have made up Kubla Khan, we are left with a measly 54...

Suffice to say, 'the Man from Porlock'  (or 'Person from Porlock') has since became symbolic of unwanted disruptions of creativity. No doubt many of us will always wonder just who the notorious - and unnamed - visitor really was, and what his visit to Coleridge deprived us of. Certainly, I believe the poem's final stanza expressed Coleridge's own wistful yearning for inspiration to revisit him just one more time with visions of his fantastical Xanadu...

Well, at least we still have those 54 lines, lines which are full of imaginative power and strange allusions to creativity, imagination, Man, inspiration, prophets and Nature...

I could go on; there is a lot to be read into - and out of - Kubla Khan... But I should let the poem speak for itself. So here it is in all its glory, the famous poem Kubla Khan for your reading pleasure; I hope it captures your imagination and curiosity as it did me the first time I read it:

Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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.

*The free promotion for my poetry ebook has been cancelled/postponed due to a glitch in the Kindle US system this weekend. Apologies!

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