Kubla Khan "Caverns Measureless To Man"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"Caverns Measureless To Man"

Context: By his poetry, Wordsworth put magic into ordinary situations. His friend Coleridge tried to make exotic and supernatural situations sound real. They collaborated in Lyrical Ballads (1798–1800), a work that ushered in the English Romantic Movement. Coleridge needed to be pressured into writing. The sight of Wordsworth's activity did serve as a spur, and most of his poetry was produced while he lived near Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy in the lovely Lake Region of England. Coleridge's greatest work was "The Ancient Mariner" included in Lyrical Ballads. The story of another of his poems has often been told. One day in 1797, he had taken a dose of the opium to which he had become accustomed for his pain. Then while endulging in his other opiate, reading, he fell asleep. He had been reading Purchas, His Pilgrimage (1613), into which an English clergyman named Samuel Purchas (1577–1626) had gathered stories of peoples and religions of the world. He had finished a chapter dealing with the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan (1215?–1294), grandson of Jenghiz Khan, and the palace he had built at Cambaluc, now Peiping, which Marco Polo saw and described. Sleeping profoundly, Coleridge dreamed out a long poem, as John Masefield reported he had seen in a dream and set down later one of his masterpieces. However, Coleridge did not have the same good fortune. He opened his eyes and began feverishly to write down all he could remember. While working, he was interrupted by a caller from the town of Porlock, probably a creditor. By the time Coleridge could send him away, the rest of the poem had slipped from his mind. Only the fragment that he had put onto paper remained. Critics ever since have raged against the interruptor. Yet in its present state, the fifty-four lines of "Kubla Khan" make one of the most magical poems in the English language, full of exquisite music and haunting phrases. Byron used one of the lines: "And woman wailing for her Demon Lover," as the motto for his Heaven and Earth (1823). Perhaps it is even two poems, because after the pause at line 35, the poet is reminded of a vision he once had of an Abyssinian maid playing her dulcimer. He cries that if he could only re-create within himself her music, he could rebuild that ancient pleasure-dome and cave of ice to be so real that people would be frightened and believe him some spirit come from Paradise. Scholars have found the inspiring paragraph that supplied some of Coleridge's phrases. It occurs in the 1626 edition, Book IV, chapter xiii, p. 418: "In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately palace encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile meadowes, pleasant Springs, delightful Streams, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure." This is the way Coleridge transmuted the prose into poetic beauty:

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 here 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.