Augustan Review (review date 1816)

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SOURCE: Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, edited by J. R. de J. Jackson, p. 226. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1970.

[In the following excerpt orginally published in the Augustan Review in 1816, the unsigned reviewer remarks on Coleridge's ostensible dream composition of “Kubla Khan” and decries the lack of poetic merit in this “psychological curiosity.”]

It is said of Milton, that often when he awoke from a night's repose, he would write down to the amount of twenty or thirty verses, inspired during the night. But, this, it seems, is nothing to the liberality of Mr. Coleridge's muse, who, in the short space of three hours, brought, not a train of poetical ideas, to be afterwards embodied in appropriate verse, but a corps of well-appointed able-bodied lines, ready, without further training or discipline, for the service of Messrs. Bulmer and Co., Cleveland-Row. Mr. C. tells us, that the few lines (about fifty) which the intrusions of the man of business left him, “are published rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.” But it was poetry, and not psychology, which the public were likely to expect from him; and his vision, with all its concomitants and consequences, might have been suppressed without any public detriment. There seems to be no great harm in dreaming while one sleeps; but an author really should not thus dream while he is awake, and writing too.

The lines in this psychological curiosity, descriptive of the palace and garden of Kubla Khan, although somewhat in the style of the “Song by a Person of Quality” [Swift's parody, ‘Flutt'ring spread thy purple pinions’], have much of Oriental richness and harmony.


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“Kubla Khan” Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The following entry presents criticism of Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan” (1816). See also, Samuel Taylor Coleridge Criticism.

An image-laden lyric that evokes romanticized Oriental landscapes, “Kubla Khan” is—along with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and “Christabel” (1816)—widely acclaimed as one of Coleridge's most significant works. While Coleridge himself referred to “Kubla Khan” as a fragment, the vivid images contained in the poem have garnered extensive critical attention through the years, and it has long been acknowledged as a verse representation of Coleridge's theories of the imagination and creation. Although it was not published until 1816, scholars agree that the work was composed between 1797 and 1800. At the time of its publication, Coleridge subtitled it “A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment” and added a prefatory note explaining its unusual origin. The poet remarked that after taking some opium for medication, he grew drowsy while reading a passage from Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage. concerning the court of Kubla Khan. In his semi-conscious state, Coleridge composed a few hundred lines of poetry, and when he awoke, immediately began writing the verses down. Unfortunately, a visitor interrupted him, and when the poet had a chance to return to his writing, the images had fled, leaving him with only vague recollections and the remaining 54 lines of his unfinished poem. While a number of critics have since challenged Coleridge's version of the poem's composition, critical scholarship on “Kubla Khan” has frequently focused on the fragmentary nature and dreamlike imagery of the work, which is considered demonstrative of Romantic poetic theory.

Plot and Major Characters

The poem begins with a description of a magnificent palace built by the Mongolian ruler Kubla Khan during the thirteenth century. The enormous “pleasure-dome” of the poem's first few lines reflects the Khan's sovereign power, and the description of the palace and its surroundings convey the grandiosity and imperiousness of his character. In contrast to the structured dome and its gardens, the landscape surrounding Kubla's domain is wild and untamed, covered by ancient forests and cut by a majestic river. While it initially appears that harmony and cohesion exist between these two worlds, the narrator then describes a deep crack in the earth, hidden under a grove of dense trees. In the second stanza, the tenor of the poem shifts from the balance and tranquility in the first few lines to an uneasy suggestion of the preternatural. A woman calls to her daemonic lover and the Khan hearkens to “Ancestral voices prophesying war.” Soon, the vast distance between the ordered domain of Kubla's palace and the savagery of nature—the source of the fountain that feeds the river flowing through the rocks, forests, and ultimately, the stately garden of Kubla Khan—becomes apparent. As the river moves from the deep, uncontrolled chasm of the earlier lines back into Kubla's world, the narrative shifts from third to first person. Afterwards, the poet relates his vision of a dulcimer-playing Abyssinian maiden and recounts the sense of power that exudes from successful poetic creation.

Major Themes

Despite the plentiful criticism it has elicited, most assessments of “Kubla Khan” remain unable to answer with any degree of certainty the question of the poem's ultimate meaning. In part due to its status as a verse fragment and the continued controversy surrounding its origins, “Kubla Khan” has tended to discourage final interpretation. Nevertheless, most critics acknowledge that the juxtaposed images, motifs, and ideas explored in the poem are strongly representative of Romantic poetry. As such, critics have found numerous indications of a thematic reconciliation of opposites in the poem. Similarly, “Kubla Khan” is thought to be principally concerned with the nature and dialectical process of poetic creation. The work is dominated by a lyrical representation of landscape—a common feature of Romantic poetry, in which landscape is typically viewed as the symbolic source and keeper of the poetic imagination. Guided by Coleridge's complex rhyming and metrical structure, “Kubla Khan” first describes the ordered world of Kubla's palace and then—with an abrupt change in meter and rhyme immediately following—depicts the surrounding natural world that the Khan cannot control, even as it provides the foundation of his power. This pattern of contrast between worlds continues throughout the poem, lending it both a purpose and structure that, critics suggest, represents Coleridge's ideal of a harmonious blend of meaning and form in poetic art.

Critical Reception

When Coleridge first issued “Kubla Khan” in 1816, it is believed that he did so for financial reasons and as an appendage to the more substantial “Christabel.” The work had previously been excluded by William Wordsworth from the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads and there is little evidence that Coleridge himself claimed it as one of his more significant compositions. When first published, many contemporary reviewers regarded the apparent poetic fragment as “nonsense” or “below criticism.” In the years since, the poem and the story of its creation have been widely analyzed, and much critical scholarship has concentrated on the sources of the work's evocative images. Pivotal among these works of criticism is John Livingston Lowes's pioneering The Road to Xanadu. The 1927 book-length study—devoted solely to “Kubla Khan”—details the poem's symbolic imagery based upon Coleridge's own readings of travelogues and other works. Although the limitations of this critical method have since been widely acknowledged, The Road to Xanadu continues to be a watershed in criticism of the poem and has done much to elevate the work's reputation as a subject for scholarly inquiry. More recent interpretations of the poem have explored both its fragmentary nature and the harmonious vision of poetic theory it proposes. Other estimations have focused on “Kubla Khan” as a poem that relates the account of its own creation, thus stressing its tendency to foreground itself as a work of Romantic art. Overall, “Kubla Khan” is widely acknowledged as a technically complex poem that reflects many of its author's poetic and creative philosophies. Despite its ostensible incompleteness, the work's thematic texture, intricate rhymes, and carefully juxtaposed images are thought to coalesce into a harmonious whole that encapsulates Coleridge's subsequently expressed ideas of poetic composition.

Scourge and Satirist (review date 1816)

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SOURCE: Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, edited by J. R. de J. Jackson, pp. 273–77. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1970.

[In the following excerpted review originally published in Scourge and Satirist in 1816, the unsigned critic launches a diatribe against Coleridge's eccentric literary sensibility occasioned by the poet's offering of “Kubla Khan” as a fragmentary dream vision.]

If [the poetic lines of “Christabel”] be the effusions of Mr. Coleridge's waking faculties, what must be expected from the fragment of “Kubla Khan,” a production conceived, arranged, and finished in his sleep. He informs us that in the summer of the year 1797, being then in ill health, he had retired to a lonely farmhouse 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 effects of which he fell asleep in his chair, at the moment when 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 enclosed with a wall.” Mr. Coleridge 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 or 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 awaking 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 eventful and ever to be lamented moment, he was unfortunately called out by a person on business (business, indeed! when poetry is in the way) and this person detained him above an hour. On his return to his room he found to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purpose of the vision, yet with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the reflections on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, “but, alas! without the restoration of the latter.” The account above given is but a poor excuse for obtruding on the public a hasty and unintelligible performance, which atones by no striking and pre-eminent beauty for its imperfection as a fragment. If Mr. Coleridge have neither the talent, the industry, nor the inclination to finish his performances, and to render them consistent and interesting in a connected fable, he should confine them to his escritoire till he acquires the energy and the determination to please, which can alone excuse his repeated appeals to the notice of the public. By publishing his hasty and imperfect fragments, he evidently implies that their excellence, trifling as they are, is sufficient to atone for the absence of arrangement, of an interesting and consistent fable, and the sustained portraiture of well drawn characters acting and thinking in their appropriate spheres and with their appropriate peculiarities through a long series of trials and vicissitudes. As it is, these fragments display neither fable, incident, nor character, and the diction, the metre, and the imagery, possess no excellence that will atone for these defects. Yet that we may not be accused by Mr. Coleridge of doing wilful injustice to him merits, we shall insert his own apology for writing as he lists.

A little child, a limber elf,
Singing, dancing to itself,
A fairy thing with red round checks,
That always finds, and never seeks,
Makes such a vision to the sight,
As fills a father's eyes with light,
And pleasures flow in so thick and fast,
Upon his heart that he at last,
Must needs express his love's excess,
With words of unmeant bitterness.
Perhaps 'tis pretty to force together,
Thoughts so all unlike each other:
To mutter and smack a broken charm
To dally with wrong that does no harm,
Perhaps 'tis tender too, and pretty,
          At each wild word to feel within
A sweet revival of love and pity.
          And what if in a world of sin
(Oh sorrow and shame if this be true!)
          Such giddiness of heart and brain
          Comes seldom save from rage and pain,
So talks as it's most used to do.

The querulous sensibility of Mr. Coleridge, and of many of his brethren, presents an additional proof that the genus irritabile vatum, retain even in this philosophical and cultivated age their wonted misanthropy and impatience of temper. Yet it might at first sight be supposed by those who are engaged in the bustle of business, exposed to the dangers of war, or involved in the mazes of political intrigue, that the habits and pursuits of a gentleman author are peculiarly favorable to content of mind, and to the repose of all the afflicting passions. What, indeed, on a superficial view, can raise the admiration and envy of the brave and the busy higher than the contemplation of individuals who receive the laurels of honor without being exposed to hazards, or to personal inconvenience; who rise to eminence without danger, and almost without exertion; and in solitude and comparative idleness, receive those rewards which are seldom attained by the rest of the human race without the most arduous exertions, and at the risk of life.

If any one has been deceived by these two plausible delusions into a belief that such gentlemen as Messrs. Coleridge and Rogers are the happiest of mankind, let him peruse the restless and impatient tone with which the author of “Christabel” records his own suspense of animation, and appeals to the good-nature of the public. He has found that the profession (if we may so express it) of a gentleman author, like all others, when tried, fails to yield that satisfaction, or that happiness which it promises. Those who pursue it find unexpected obstacles present themselves to sight, and no sooner are they conquered than new ones rise to view, which become the precursor of others: like many of those who at first set forward with enthusiasm, grow tired of their journey, and descend from the eminence they have in part attained, disappointed in their hopes, and wearied by their labour. Of those who have entered the republic of literature with the hope of admiration, or even the expectation of moderate praise, few have had their hopes gratified or fulfilled by ultimate success. The irritability always attending on poetical genius, produces a morbid sentiment of despondency in the most successful of these literary adventures; and the slightest censure of contemporary criticism, effaces the exulting sentiments occasioned by legitimate eulogy. He who ventures into the lists of learning has undertaken an enterprise of which the reward depends upon the caprices of mankind; and the minds and feelings of the votaries of the muse are so unfortunately constituted that they are always more sensitively alive to censure than to praise. The merit of a book is to some men but a cause for its author being attacked: every effect of opposition and every artifice of cunning is used by his enemies to decrease the estimation of that man, whose excellence has rendered him worthy of their envy, and every principle of false criticism is employed to censure that work which cannot be rivalled. He who hopes by his labours to transmit his name to posterity, must expect the commendation of the literary world to bear no proportion to its censure. It may be doubted whether if Milton had been able to foresee with what obstinacy of argument, and perseverance of repetition, even by those who professed to honor him, he would have been branded with the titles of a promoter of rebellion and an abettor of sedition, he would have thought these reproaches sufficiently compensated for by a crown of Parnassian laurels; and whether if Johnson could have prophesied the malignant hostility of recent critics, he would not have resigned all claim to the title of lexicographer, and on his pittance of fourpence halfpenny a day, to waste his life in solitary penury, unknown to the learned, unreverenced by the good. The very officiousness, however, and austerity of criticism, should be regarded by such men as Mr. Coleridge as the strongest stimulus to the cultivation of poetical taste and to the most strenuous mental exertion. If the most elaborate excellence, and the most arduous efforts will not secure the poet from attack, what hope of mercy can he expect who produces after the lapse of nineteen years, a fragment of forty-eight widely printed pages, absurdly designed and feebly executed. His ascription of his negligence to rage and pain, can only excite a smile in the friends by whom his talents and virtues are most respected and admired. Of all men in existence, he has least experienced the vicissitudes of life, and had the least temptation to indulgence in the violent passages. The pangs of jealousy, the lust of gain, the bitterness of revenge, have never, we are convinced, agitated his bosom, or invaded his peaceful habitation. Yet in the midst innumerable blessings, he exhibits a morbid sensibility of mind, and a determination to be unhappy, at once distressing and ridiculous. …

Principal Works

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*Poems on Various Subjects [with Robert Southey and Charles Lamb] 1796

Ode on the Departing Year 1797

Fears in Solitude, Written in 1798 During the Alarm of an Invasion. To Which are Added, France, an Ode; and Frost at Midnight 1798

Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems [with William Wordsworth] 1798

Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep 1816

Sibylline Leaves: A Collection of Poems 1817

The Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 3 vols. 1828

The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols. 1912

The Fall of Robespierre. An Historic Drama [act 1 by Coleridge, acts 2 and 3 by Robert Southey] (play) 1794

Osorio [revised as Remorse. A Tragedy, in Five Acts in 1813] (play) 1797

Wallenstein [translator; from the plays Die piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller] (play) 1800

The Statesman's Manual; or, The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon (essays) 1816

Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (essays) 1817

Zapolya: A Christmas Tale in Two Parts (play) 1817

Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality, and Religion: Illustrated by Select Passages from Our Elder Divines, Especially from Archbishop Leighton (essays) 1825

On the Constitution of Church and State, according to the Idea of Each: with Aids toward a Right Judgment on the late Catholic Bill (essays) 1830

Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols. (conversations) 1835

The Literary Remains in Prose and Verse of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 4 vols. (poetry, plays, and essays) 1836-39

Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare and Some of the Old Poets and Dramatists With Other Literary Remains (lectures) 1849

The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 7 vols. (poetry, plays, essays, and translations) 1853

Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 6 vols. (letters) 1956-71

The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 4 vols. (notebooks) 1957-73

The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 13 vols. (poetry, plays, essays, translations, and lectures) 1969-

*This work was revised and enlarged as Poems in 1797 and revised again in 1803.

Thomas Moore (review date 1816)

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SOURCE: Moore, Thomas. Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Edinburgh Review, 27 (September 1816): 58–67.

[In the following review of “Kubla Khan,” originally published in the Edinburgh Review, Moore notes the circumstances of the poem's composition and describes its soporific quality.]

‘Kubla Khan’ is given to the public, it seems, ‘at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity’; but whether Lord Byron the praiser of ‘the Christabel’, or the Laureate, the praiser of Princes,1 we are not informed. As far as Mr. Coleridge's ‘own opinions are concerned', it is published, ‘not upon the ground of any poetic merits', but ‘as a Psychological Curiosity’! In these opinions of the candid author, we entirely concur; but for this reason we hardly think it was necessary to give the minute detail which the Preface contains, of the circumstances attending its composition. Had the question regarded Paradise Lost, or Dryden's ‘Ode', we could not have had a more particular account of the circumstances in which it was composed. It was in the year 1797, and in the summer season. Mr. Coleridge was in bad health; the particular disease is not given; but the careful reader will form his own conjectures. He had retired very prudently to a lonely farm house; and whoever would see the place which gave birth to the ‘psychological curiosity', may find his way thither without a guide; for it is situated on the confines of Somerset and Devonshire, and on the Exmoor part of the boundary; and it is, moreover, between Porlock and Linton. In that farm house, he had a slight indisposition, and had taken an anodyne which threw him into a deep sleep in his chair (whether after dinner or not he omits to state), ‘at the moment that he was reading a sentence in Purchas's Pilgrims', relative to a palace of Kubla Khan. The effects of the anodyne, and the sentence together, were prodigious: they produced the ‘curiosity’ now before us; for, during his three-hours sleep, Mr. Coleridge ‘has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines.’ On awaking, he ‘instantly and eagerly’ wrote down the verses here published; when he was (he says, ‘unfortunately’) called out by a ‘person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour’; and when he returned, the vision was gone. The lines here given smell strongly, it must be owned, of the anodyne; and, but that an under dose of a sedative produces contrary effects, we should inevitably have been lulled by them into forgetfulness of all things. Perhaps a dozen more such lines as the following would reduce the most irritable of critics to a state of inaction.

          A damsel with a dulcimer
          In a vision once I saw:
          It was an Abyssinian maid
          And on her dulcimer she play'd,
          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, &c. &c.

There is a good deal more altogether as exquisite—and in particular a fine description of a wood, ‘ancient as the hills’; and ‘folding sunny spots of greenery’! But we suppose this specimen will be sufficient.


  1. A hit at Southey's changed politics.

Further Reading

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Adair, Patricia A. “‘Kubla Khan’ and the Underworld.” In The Waking Dream: A Study of Coleridge's Poetry, pp. 108-43. London: Edward Arnold, 1967.

Explicates the imagery of “Kubla Khan” with particular emphasis on references to the underworld of Greek mythology.

Beer, J. B. “The River and the Caverns.” In Coleridge the Visionary, pp. 199-229. London: Chatto & Windus, 1959.

Provides an analysis of the symbolic imagery of “Kubla Khan,” in which the river and cavern images in the poem are viewed as representative of “dialectic creativity … in a fallen world” and Kubla is seen as a emblem of the “commanding genius.”

Beer, John. “Remapping the Roads to Xanadu and Highgate: Another Look at Coleridge's Reading.” The Wordsworth Circle 29, no. 1 (winter 1998): 25-30.

Comments on several different types of reading—ranging from “submissive” to “imperious”—and on the limitations of John Livingston Lowes's method of interpreting Coleridge's reading in his 1927 study of “Kubla Khan” entitled The Road to Xanadu.

Drew, John. “‘Kubla Khan’ and Orientalism.” In Coleridge's Visionary Languages: Essays in Honor of J. B. Beer, edited by Tim Fulton and Morton D. Paley, pp. 41-47. Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 1993.

Considers the importance of neo-Platonic and Asian thought to “Kubla Khan.”

Fleissner, Robert F. “‘Kubla Khan’ As an Integrationist Poem.” Negro American Literature Forum 8, no. 3 (autumn 1974): 254-56.

Explores the theme of a reconciliation of opposites in “Kubla Khan,” especially in terms of the poem's imagistic depiction of race.

Hedley, Douglas. “Coleridge's Intellectual Intuition, the Vision of God, and the Walled Garden of ‘Kubla Khan.’” Journal of the History of Ideas 59, no.1 (1998): 115-34.

Points to the element of mystical transcendence in “Kubla Khan” and probes the poem's reference to the Christian image of paradise as a walled garden.

Kennard, L. R. “Kubla Can: Wordplay in Coleridge's Poetry.” The Wordsworth Circle 26, no. 1 (winter 1995): 8-12.

Examines the role of puns and punning in “Kubla Khan,” ascribing these to Coleridge's self-referentiality and modernity as a poet.

Meier, Hans Heinrich. “Ancient Lights on Kubla's Lines.” English Studies 46, no. 1 (February 1965): 15-29.

Reapplies John Livingston Lowes's theory of reading to “Kubla Khan,” uncovering references to the poetry of Milton and Spenser, and to the mythical figure of Adonis.

Ober, Warren U. “Southey, Coleridge, and ‘Kubla Khan.’” JEPG 58, no. 3 (July 1959): 414-22.

Presents biographical evidence concerning Coleridge's association with the poet Robert Southey to suggest that “Kubla Khan” was written in late 1799.

Pearce, Donald. “‘Kubla Khan’ in Context.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 21, no. 4 (autumn 1981): 565-83.

Reads “Kubla Khan” in relation to Coleridge's other romantic evocations of landscape in his earlier poetry and in his Notebooks.

Piper, H. W. “The Two Paradises in ‘Kubla Khan.’” The Review of English Studies 27, no. 106 (May 1976): 148-58.

Notes references to the original and restored Christian paradises in “Kubla Khan.”

Wheeler, Kathleen. “‘Kubla Khan’ and Eighteenth Century Aesthetic Theories.” The Wordsworth Circle 22, no. 1 (winter 1991): 15-24.

Evaluates the imagery and thematic texture of “Kubla Khan” in the context of eighteenth-century theories regarding the aims of poetry, the qualities of artistic genius, and the tension between truth and beauty.

———. “‘Kubla Khan’ and the Art of Thingifying.” In Romanticism: A Critical Reader, edited by Duncan Wu, pp. 123-50. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Highlights ambiguities inherent in “Kubla Khan” and its accompanying preface as these refer to the fundamental nature of poetic creation and the conveyance of truth through aesthetic experience.

Youngquist, Paul. “Rehabilitating Coleridge: Poetry, Philosophy, Excess.” ELH 66, no. 4 (1999): 885-909.

Assesses “Kubla Khan” within a larger study of Coleridge's opium dependency and his career shift from poet to philosopher.

Additional coverage of Coleridge's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 4; British Writers, Vol. 4; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1789-1832; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 93, 107; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 9, 54, 99; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 11; Poetry for Students, Vols. 4, 5; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to English Literature; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; World Literature Criticism; and World Poets.

Monthly Review (review date 1817)

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SOURCE: Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Monthly Review 82 (January 1817): 22-25.

[In the following excerpted review, the unsigned reviewer describes “Kubla Khan” as “below criticism.”]

The fragment of ‘Kubla Khan’ is declared to have been composed in a dream, and is published as the author wrote it. Allowing every possible accuracy to the statement of Mr. Coleridge, we would yet ask him whether this extraordinary fragment was not rather the effect of rapid and instant composition after he was awake, than of memory immediately recording that which he dreamt when asleep? By what process of consciousness could he distinguish between such composition and such reminiscence? Impressed as his mind was with his interesting dream, and habituated as he is (notwithstanding his accidental cessation from versifying) to the momentary production of verse, will he venture to assert that he did not compose, and that he did remember, the lines before us? Were they dreamt, or were they spontaneously poured forth instantly after the dream,

Without stop or stay,
Down the rocky way
          That leads, &c. &c.?

His ‘psychological curiosity', as he terms it, depends in no slight degree on the establishment of the previous fact which we have mentioned: but the poem itself is below criticism. We would dismiss it with some portentous words of Sir Kenelm Digby, in his observations on Browne's Religio Medici: ‘I have much ado to believe what he speaketh confidently; that he is more beholding to Morpheus for learned and rational as well as pleasing dreams, than to Mercury for smart and facetious conceptions.’ …

We close the slight publication before us with unmingled regret. The author of Remorse may perhaps be able to explain our feeling better than ourselves: but that so much superior genius should be corrupted and debased by so much execrable taste must be a subject of sincere lamentation to every lover of the arts, and to every friend of poetry.

John Livingston Lowes (essay date 1927)

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SOURCE: Lowes, John Livingston. “The Sleeping Images.” In The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, pp. 356-402. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927.

[In the following excerpt from his book-length study of “Kubla Khan,” Lowes accepts Coleridge's contention that the poem was the product of an unconscious vision, and explicates the work's dreamlike imagery using evidence of the poet's reading.]

Coleridge's own account of the genesis of ‘Kubla Khan’ is as follows. It was first published in 1816, with the poem. [Coleridge later dreamed another poem—this time a quatrain. For his account of it see the Notes.1]

In the summer of 1797, the Author, then in ill health, 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 effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that 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 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 awaking 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 has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!2

That is all we know. The year 1797, as Ernest Hartley Coleridge has clearly shown, is wrong.3 The one thing which Coleridge seems to have been constitutionally incapable of remembering correctly was a date that concerned himself.4 The visit to the farm house between Porlock and Linton took place in the early summer of 1798, and ‘Kubla Khan,’ instead of preceding ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ closely followed it. That is important, as we shall see.

For ‘the images [which] rose up before him as things,’ rose up from somewhere. And our study of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ has revealed the fact that Coleridge's memory was tenanted by throngs of visual images derived from books. If, then, we can reconstruct, for the moment when Coleridge fell asleep over Purchas His Pilgrimage, the elements, even in part, of that subliminal chaos, we shall have taken a long step towards the clarification of our problem. Those elements, on Coleridge's own testimony, were images with the objective distinctness of things—the ‘ocular spectra,’ in a word, of his favorite terminology. But they had, in the first instance (to employ that terminology once more), ‘flashed’ from words. And it is only through those words that we, in our turn, can arrive at them. Our sole hope, accordingly, of reconstituting any portion of the sleeping imagery which at the moment of the dream was susceptible of movement towards the light, lies again in an examination of the books which Coleridge had been reading. And as in the case of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ that avenue is open. But before we enter on it, I wish to guard against a misunderstanding which may easily arise—the assumption, namely, that the passages which I shall quote are, in themselves and as they stand, the constituents, or even (in the stock sense of the term) the ‘sources’ of ‘Kubla Khan.’ They are not that. Their very words, undoubtedly, were now and then remembered. But that is incidental. What they did for Coleridge was to people the twilight realms of consciousness with images. And the thing they enable us to do is to gain some inkling of what those subliminal ‘atomes crochus’ were—those mysterious elements out of whose confluences and coalescences suddenly emerged the poem. If, then, in this chapter the poem itself should seem far away, it is because we must, as Drayton has it, ‘adventure upon desperate untrodden ways'—must pass, indeed, in very truth

From the presence of the sun,
          Following darkness like a dream.


Most fortunately we know, from Coleridge himself, what it was that struck down into the dark and waked the sleeping images to an intense activity. For he tells us what was before his eyes at the instant when he fell asleep, and the poem begins with the actual words on which his eyes had closed. It would be hard to come closer than that to the point at which waking slips over the verge into sleep. The last conscious impressions had been communicated by these lines:5

In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant springs, delightful Streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place. [There is a singular coincidence to which Henri Cordier has called attention in his edition of Yule's Cathay and the Way Thither. In a thirteenth century Arabic account of Xandu (Shang-tu), which was not translated into any Occidental language until years after Coleridge had dreamed his dream, occurs this statement: ‘On the eastern side of that city a karsi or palace was built called Langtin, after a plan which the Kaan had seen in a dream and retained in his memory.6 In ancient tradition the stately pleasure-dome of Kubla Khan itself came into being, like the poem, as the embodiment of a remembered vision in a dream.]

The images which first rose up ‘as things’ had taken on this correspondent form:

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.

And there, for the moment, we may pause.

Into those thronged precincts, then, ‘just on the vestibule of consciousness,’ where the sleeping images maintain their ‘shadowy half-being,’ there had sunk, at the very instant when conscious control had been suspended, a new and richly suggestive concourse of impressions. That, at least, is clear. But so is something else. Once granted that conjunction, it was inevitable that flashes of association should dart in all directions, and that images endowed with the potentiality of merging should stream together and coalesce. [All that, in one form or another, is common experience. I heard footsteps crunching in the snow beneath my open window as I lay in bed last night, and instantly I was back in a room in the Hotel Vapore in Venice, where, all through a hot midsummer night twelve years ago, disembodied, furtive footsteps padded and slunk and shambled at intervals, like uncanny spawnings of the night, along the Merceria just beneath another open, window. I had heard ten thousand footsteps in the interim, without the remotest echo of that haunted thoroughfare. But some obscure, inexplicable quality in these eminently sober steps struck deep down—somewhere!—and without an instant's warning the familiar, even hackneyed sounds of a midwinter night in Cambridge had coalesced with the goblin noises of a midsummer night in Venice. That gives a hint of what happened, I think, when a page of Purchas, instead of a footstep, likewise struck deep down—where things forgotten are eternally remembered.] I know that these are ‘goings-on’ (to use Coleridge's phrase)7 which ‘matter-moulded forms of speech’ are hard put to it to express. But something not wholly remote from what they adumbrate certainly took place.

For even in the few lines of ‘Kubla Khan’ which I have quoted are details which by no farthest stretch of fancy can be thought of as implicit in the sentence from the Pilgrimage.

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
                    Down to a sunless sea.

The images, for instance, which underlie that startling metamorphosis of Purchas's ‘delightful streames’ had obviously flashed from other pages than the one which Coleridge was reading when he fell asleep. So, with no less certainty, had most of the vividly distinct and concrete imagery of the remainder of the poem. What the impressions from Purchas had done, in a word, was to summon up other images, and set swift trains of association interweaving. And the enterprise before us now is the attempt to reconstruct in part those evanescent operations, which yet builded of their fleetingness a fabric beside which

… rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong.

No mortal can hope to call back all that insubstantial pageant which once moved through a long-vanished dream. Most of it faded on the instant, and left not a rack behind. But some of the elements which streamed together are yet traceable, nor is it impossible even to gather, sometimes, how and why they merged. The sequence, however, in which their coalescences occurred is something which I am not so reckless as to attempt to guess.8 And so the order which we shall follow in the sequel is simply the order which clarity in setting forth the facts demands.


Let us return to the sentence in Purchas which Coleridge was reading. Obviously something else—perhaps even before unconsciousness descended—had flashed back to his memory. For Coleridge knew well not merely Purchas His Pilgrimage, but Purchas His Pilgrimes too. It was in the third volume of the Pilgrimes that he had read of William Barents and of the icefields of the North. And in this same volume was another and more detailed account of Kubla Khan. Whether this parallel account had come back to his memory before or after consciousness lapsed is immaterial; in some form or other it was there. For it betrays its presence. I do not know what edition of the Pilgrimage Coleridge was reading. If by any chance he had taken Wordsworth's copy with him to his retreat, he had before him the edition of 1617.9 In that event the name of Kubla's city as it would meet his eye had the cacophanous form ‘Xamdu'—as was also the case if his edition were that of either 1614 or 1626. If, on the other hand, it was the first, of 1613, the form he saw was ‘Xaindu.’ But the name which lends its euphony to the poem's opening line is neither; it is ‘Xanadu.’ And that is the form which he knew in the Pilgrimes, ‘Xandu'—now ‘unfurled to music suddenly.’

At or after the moment, then, when Coleridge fell asleep, recollections of the Pilgrimes had been stirred to life by the reading of the Pilgrimage. Anything else, indeed, when (as here) the two narratives ran parallel, would have been, even disregarding ‘Xanadu,’ well nigh incredible. Let us see what that involves. In the account of Xamdu (or Xaindu) which Coleridge was reading in the Pilgrimage was a ‘house of pleasure,’ in the midst of ‘fertile Meddowes, pleasant springs, delightful Streames.’ But in the Pilgrimes, in the marginal gloss to the parallel account of Kubla's palace, was a ‘house of pleasure’ too. And just eight pages before this remembered account of Xandu in the Pilgrimes is one of the most unforgettable passages in the book. And in it also are ‘houses of pleasure,’ in the midst of ‘a goodly Garden, furnished with the best trees and fruits.’ There was, then, between the two narratives a palpable associative link. What happened?

The passage in the Pilgrimes is the famous account of the Old Man of the Mountain. [Of which, indeed, as a further link, Coleridge may have just been reading a briefer version only forty pages earlier in the Pilgrimage.10] I shall first quote a couple of sentences from the beginning of it:

His name was Aloadine, and was a Mahumetan. Hee had in a goodly Valley betwixt two Mountaynes very high, made a goodly Garden, furnished with the best trees and fruits he could find, adorned with divers Palaces and houses of pleasure, beautified with gold Workes, Pictures, and Furnitures of silke.11

That the sentence which Coleridge read in the Pilgrimage brought back this definitely linked passage in the Pilgrimes, and that the images which rose up from the two of them blended in the dream, it is difficult to doubt. The ‘fertile Meddowes, pleasant springs, delightful Streames’ and the ‘goodly Garden, furnished with the best trees’ have slipped together, like Martens's snow and Father Bourzes's rainbow in the spray, into an exquisitely lucid whole compact of both—and, as we shall see, of something else:

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree.

But the spell of the Old Man of the Mountain was more potent far than that. And its presence now becomes unmistakable.

For now I shall take up again the account of Aloadine's house of pleasure at the exact point where I broke it off, and shall then set down at once the wonderful last paragraph of ‘Kubla Khan.’ What gave Coleridge the two vivid figures—the damsel with a dulcimer and the youth with flashing eyes and floating hair—who appear in the poem out of nothing, with a dreamlike suddenness and a dream's serene oblivion of their inconsequence? Here, at all events, are the inmates of Aloadine's Paradise:

There by divers Pipes answering divers parts of those Palaces were seene to runne Wine, Milke, Honey, and cleere Water. In them hee had placed goodly Damosels skilfull in Songs and Instruments of Musicke and Dancing, and to make Sports and Delights unto men whatsoever they could imagine. They were also fairely attyred in Gold and Silke, and were seene to goe continually sporting in the Garden and Palaces. He made this Palace, because Mahomet had promised such a sensuall Paradise to his devout followers

Aloadine had certaine Youthes from twelve to twentie yeares of age, such as seemed of a bold and undoubted disposition, whom hee instructed daily touching Mahomets Paradise, and how hee could bring men thither. And when he thought good, he caused a certaine Drinke to bee given unto ten or twelve of them, which cast them in a dead sleepe: and then hee caused them to be carryed into divers Chambers of the said Palaces, where they saw the things aforesaid as soone as they awaked: each of them having those Damosels to minister Meates and excellent Drinkes, and all varieties of pleasures to them; insomuch that the Fooles thought themselves in Paradise indeed. When they had enjoyed those pleasures foure or five dayes, they were againe cast in a sleepe, and carryed forth againe. After which, hee … questioned where they had beene, which answered, by your Grace, in Paradise. … Then the old man answered, This is the commandement of our Prophet, that whosoever defends his Lord, he make him enter Paradise: and if thou wilt bee obedient to mee, thou shalt have this grace. And having thus animated them, hee was thought happie whom the old man would command, though it cost him his life: so that other Lords and his Enemies were slaine by these his Assasines, which exposed themselves to all dangers, and contemned their lives.12

Now let us return to the poem:

          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.

There can be little question of what has happened. Behind the strange and haunting beauty of the dream's imagery recollected fragments of the striking picture of the pleasure-houses flash and fade and cross and interweave: ‘goodly Damosels’ with ‘Songs and Instruments of Musicke,’ seen between sleep and sleep; the milk and honey of Paradise, drunk and eaten at the singing, playing damsels' hands; the desire on waking out of sleep to live again the lost delights (‘Could I revive within me Her symphony and song’); the duped inmates of the palace, fired, that so they may regain a Paradise once tasted and now withdrawn, with a fanatic zeal to kill:

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair! …
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

They are at once the same and not the same, as you and I have known their like to be a hundred times in dreams. Nobody in his waking senses could have fabricated those amazing eighteen lines. For if anything ever bore the infallible marks of authenticity it is that dissolving panorama in which fugitive hints of Aloadine's Paradise succeed each other with the vivid incoherence, and the illusion of natural and expected sequence, and the sense of an identity that yet is not identity, which are the distinctive attributes of dreams. Coleridge's statement of his experience has more than once been called in question. These lines alone, in their relation to the passage which suggested them, should banish doubt.13

Whence, however, slipped into the dream—like journeying stars which enter unannounced—Abyssinia, and Mount Abora, and the dome in air, and the caves of ice, and Alph the sacred river with its caverns and its sunless sea? They are all, I think, distinctly traceable. But to reach them we must first meander with a mazy motion through regions already traversed in our earlier quest.


Is it possible to repeople with its vanished images another corner of Coleridge's unconscious mind into which may have flashed those associations which are the stuff of dreams? With the aid of the Note Book I believe it is.

In April, 1798, Coleridge, who had been suffering from an infected tooth, wrote as follows, in a letter to his brother George:

Laudanam gave me repose, not sleep; but you, I believe, know how divine that repose is, what a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands!14

Now when Coleridge wrote that, he was recalling and echoing, consciously or unconsciously, something else. For in the Note Book (which, as we know, belongs to this same period) appears this memorandum:

some wilderness-plot, green and fountainous and unviolated by Man.15

Is it possible to discover what lies behind this note?

The entry is sandwiched in, together with Hartley's tumble and his tears which glittered in the moonlight, between the two parts of the long note on Bartram's crocodiles. That note, in turn, is transcribed from pages 127-30 of Bartram's Travels. The next entry in the Note Book is from Bartram's 140th page; the next from pages 161-62; the next from pages 132-33. And on page 157, flanked on one side by our old friends the crocodiles and snake-birds, and on the other by the Gordonia lasianthus, stands the following:

I was however induced to … touch at the inchanting little Isle of Palms. This delightful spot, planted by nature, is almost an entire grove of Palms, with a few pyramidal Magnolias, Live Oaks, golden Orange, and the animating Zanthoxilon; what a beautiful retreat is here! blessed unviolated spot of earth! rising from the limpid waters of the lake; its fragrant groves and blooming lawns invested and protected by encircling ranks of the Yucca gloriosa; a fascinating atmosphere surrounds this blissful garden; the balmy Lantana, ambrosial Citra, perfumed Crinum, perspiring their mingled odours, wafted through Zanthoxilon groves. I at last broke away from the enchanting spot … then traversing a capacious semi-circular cove of the lake, verged by low, extensive grassy meadows, I at length by dusk made a safe harbour.

And two pages earlier ‘the dew-drops twinkle and play … on the tips of the lucid, green savanna, sparkling’ beside a ‘serpentine rivulet, meandering over the meadows.’16

Those lines from Bartram, then, are in the very thick of the pages which Coleridge was ardently transcribing in his Note Book, and the picture which they painted made a profound impression on his mind. For he twice came back to it. It inspired the memorandum in the Note Book, for the ‘wilderness-plot,17 green and fountainous and unviolated by Man’ is unmistakably the ‘blessed unviolated spot of earth’ on which Bartram lavished such a wealth of words. It no less clearly underlies the passage in the letter, whose ‘spot of enchantment’ is Bartram's ‘enchanting spot,’ and whose ‘green spot of fountain’ is the ‘plot, green and fountainous’ of the Note Book. And in the letter it becomes the symbol of the ‘divine repose’ induced by opium, and the letter was written not more than a month or two before ‘Kubla Khan.’ Of one thing, then, we may be certain: impressions of Bartram's ‘inchanting little Isle of Palms’ were among the sleeping images in Coleridge's unconscious memory at the time when ‘Kubla Khan’ emerged from it.

But a thousand other impressions coexisted with them there. Did this particular cluster constitute what we have called an atome crochu? Had it, in other words, hooks and eyes which might draw it into the extraordinary complex which was taking form? If it were so equipped, its attraction within the circle was almost inevitable. For it lay, so to speak, just over the threshold of consciousness. Twice already its imagery had recurred to memory and clothed itself with words. And recurrence to memory soon becomes a habit. Conspicuous, now, among its details were ‘grassy meadows,’ a ‘blissful garden,’ ‘fragrant groves,’ and multitudes of trees. And at the moment of the dream, by way of Purchas, impressions of ‘fertile Meddowes,’ conjoined with a ‘goodly Garden’ furnished with trees, were stirring actively in Coleridge's brain. Clearly, then, there were sufficient links between the images from Purchas which were sinking into the Well, and the images from Bartram which were already there.

And they did coalesce. Here are the lovely lines of the fragment once again:

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.

‘As I bent my head,’ wrote Coleridge to Godwin in words which I have quoted once before, ‘there came a distinct, vivid spectrum upon my eyes; it was one little picture—a rock, with birches and ferns on it, a cottage backed by it, and a small stream. Were I a painter I would give an outward existence to this, but it will always live in my memory.18 Even so into the dream had come remembered ocular spectra from Bartram—images which rose up before the dreamer ‘as things.’ There were Bartram's ‘balmy Lantana, ambrosial Citra, perfumed Crinum, perspiring their mingled odours.’ But the dreamer was Coleridge, not Bartram, and so the mass of particulars melted into a single line, redolent of the odours of all spicy shores: ‘Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree.’ Into the dream, moreover, had slipped the image of an image of an image—that luminous visualization in the letter (still only a few weeks old) of the same scene as it came up through the Note Book from Bartram: ‘a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees.’ And so in the dream there are ‘forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.’ And the ‘serpentine rivulet’ meandering through ‘the lucid, green savanna’ sparkling with sunlit dew—that too, merged with another recollection, rose up in the dream as ‘one little picture,’ to which were fitted, ‘without consciousness of effort,’ perfect words: ‘And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills.’ Even ‘enfolding’ is a transmuted flash of memory. For in Bartram's ‘enchanting spot’ are ‘blooming lawns invested … by encircling ranks’ of towering flora. And these ‘blooming’ forest-glades are seen in the blossoming of the incense-bearing trees. Every detail in the four lines which recollections of Purchas leave wanting or incomplete, reminiscences of Bartram have supplied. But neither Travels, nor Pilgrimage, nor Pilgrimes, nor all of them combined, supplied the resultant beauty.


We have by no means finished, however, with the Isle of Palms. For the images which rose from Bartram were furnished with still other powerful links. It will be remembered that in the Note Book Bartram's ‘blessed unviolated spot of earth’ appeared as a ‘wilderness-plot, green and fountainous,’ and that in the letter it reappeared as ‘a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees.’ But there were no fountains in Bartram's Isle of Palms. Yet even before the dream fountains had somehow become fixed in Coleridge's mental picture. How had they entered it?

The account of the Isle of Palms is on Bartram's 157th page. The Gordonia lasianthus is on pages 161-62. Coleridge, then, was still intently reading on. And the entry in the Note Book touching the ‘Siminoles,’ which draws on pages 212-13, and the footnote to ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison,’ which quotes verbatim a sentence from page 221,19 afford ample evidence that he had read still farther. Now on page 165, just three pages beyond the Gordonia lasianthus, is this:

I seated myself upon a swelling green knoll, at the head of the chrystal bason. Near me, on the left, was a point or projection of an entire grove of the aromatic Illisium Floridanum; on my right and all around behind me, was a fruitful Orange grove, with Palms and Magnolias interspersed; in front, just under my feet was the inchanting and amazing chrystal fountain.

The fountain and the Isle of Palms are separated by eight pages only, and a passage entered in the Note Book lies between. They may easily have been read at the same sitting, and the associative links between the two—green knoll, aromatic groves, oranges, palms, magnolias—are patent at a glance. At all events, the Note Book and the letter are evidence that before the dream was dreamed the two green and fragrant spots of trees and flowers had coalesced in Coleridge's memory. And into the picture which was later to haunt the dream had been carried the imagery suggested by ‘the inchanting … chrystal fountain.’

Now let us see a little more of this amazing fountain. The account of it proceeds:

Just under my feet was the inchanting and amazing chrystal fountain, which incessantly threw up, from dark, rocky caverns below, tons of water every minute, forming a bason, capacious enough for large shallops to ride in, and a creek of four or five feet depth of water, and near twenty yards over, which meanders six miles through green meadows, pouring its limpid waters into the great Lake George. … About twenty yards from the upper edge of the bason … is a continual and amazing ebullition, where the waters are thrown up in such abundance and amazing force, as to jet and swell up two or three feet above the common surface: white sand and small particles of shells are thrown up with the waters … when they … subside with the expanding flood, and gently sink again.20

That, then, before the dream, Coleridge had seen in his mind's eye. What did he see in the dream?

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.

The images which rose up in the dream, in conjunction with ‘sunny spots of greenery,’ were images which had risen up before, in similar conjunction, when Coleridge, with that preternatural visualizing faculty of his, was eagerly devouring Bartram. They are that beyond the shadow of a doubt. But they are also, as so often happens in a dream, simultaneously something else. That something else must wait its turn, however, since we have still to do with Bartram.

For Bartram was inordinately fond of letting himself go on the subject of ebullient fountains—which were, indeed, in all conscience, remarkable enough.21 And certain striking details from one or two of these other lively descriptions had fixed themselves in Coleridge's memory. Ernest Hartley Coleridge, who saw so much that has enriched us, missed the ‘inchanting and amazing chrystal fountain’ which reappears in such startling fashion in the dream.22 But he calls attention, in a footnote to the lines of ‘Kubla Khan’ before us, and more fully in a paper read before the Royal Society of Literature in 1906, to ‘William Bartram's description of the “Alligator Hole.”’23 Now that description is only seventeen pages beyond the account of the savanna crane, of which Coleridge quotes half a dozen lines,24 and we may be certain that he read it. And what he read included the story, as told by an eyewitness, of the last eruption from the vast orifice. Here is enough of it to serve our purpose:

On a sudden, he was astonished by an inexpressible rushing noise, like a mighty hurricane or thunder storm, and looking around, he saw the earth overflowed by torrents of water … attended with a terrific noise and tremor of the earth. … He immediately resolved to proceed for the place from whence the noise seemed to come, and soon came in sight of the incomparable fountain, and saw, with amazement, the floods rushing upwards many feet high, and the expanding waters … spreading themselves far and near. … It continued to jet and flow in this manner for several days, forming a large … river, descending and following the various. … windings of the valley, for the distance of seven or eight miles, emptying itself into a vast savanna, where there was a … sink which received … its waters. … At places, where ridges or a swelling bank … opposed its course and fury, are vast heaps of fragments of rocks, white chalk, stones and pebbles, which were … thrown into the lateral vallies.25

The two descriptions could not but recall each other, and in the dream their images coalesced. The sense of a tremendous force is heightened: the ‘white sand and small particles of shells … thrown up’ by ‘the inchanting fountain’ give place to ‘fragments of rocks … thrown’ in vast heaps into the vallies; the ‘terrific tremor of the earth’ now pulsates through the dream, ‘As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing.’ But the concourse of the hooked atoms is not yet complete.

Just eight pages earlier Coleridge had read of still another ‘grand fountain,’ ‘the admirable Manate Spring’:

The ebullition is astonishing, and continual, though its greatest force or fury intermits, regularly, for the space of thirty seconds of time … the ebullition is perpendicular upwards, from a vast ragged orifice through a bed of rocks … throwing up small particles or pieces of white shells, which subside with the waters, at the moment of intermission … yet, before the surface becomes quite even, the fountain vomits up the waters again, and so on perpetually.26

And so there is added, with fresh emphasis on the ‘ceaseless turmoil,’ the suggestion of the ‘swift half-intermitted burst.’ The imagery of the ‘mighty fountain’ in the vision is an amazing confluence of images from these separate yet closely linked reports of actual fountains which Coleridge had read.27 Yet in another sense the confluence is not ‘amazing’; it is the normal mechanism of a dream.28


And now among the elements which blended in the panorama appears a train of imagery stranger and more startling than any which has gone before. For through the dream, mysteriously flooding and subsiding, flows ‘the sacred river.’

One of the books most widely read at the close of the century was James Bruce's Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile. And Coleridge knew it well. He made use of it … in his ‘Religious Musings,’ dated ‘on the Christmas Eve of 1794,’ and in a footnote to the poem he quotes Bruce's graphic description of the Simoom.29 In 1801 he makes a memorandum of his intention to use, in a comparison after the manner of Jeremy Taylor, the idea of ‘seeking the fountains of the Nile.’30 And in 1807 he recommends the last edition of the Travels to Lady Beaumont as ‘a book that [she] ought by all means to have.’31 It was no wonder that he did so. Bruce, in Richard Garnett's words, ‘will always remain the poet, and his work the epic, of African travel.’32 And as the tale of an attempt to penetrate the mystery which had veiled for centuries the sources of the most venerable of all historic streams, the narrative was and is one to stir imagination. Nor should we expect a superb contemporary chapter in the romance of discovery to leave Coleridge's tenacious memory bare of images.

Certainly no one who ever read it would forget the dramatic climax of the story. Bruce, baffled and annoyed by the shifts and evasions of his native guide, lost his temper:

Come, come, said I … no more words; it is now late, lose no more time, but carry me to Geesh, and the head of the Nile directly, without preamble, and shew me the hill that separates me from it. He then carried me round to the south side of the church, out of the grove of trees that surrounded it. ‘This is the hill, says he, looking archly, that … was between you and the fountains of the Nile; there is no other; look at that hillock of green sod in the middle of that watery spot, it is in that the two fountains of the Nile are to be found: Geesh is on the face of the rock where yon green trees are: if you go the length of the fountains pull off your shoes … for these people are all Pagans … and they believe in nothing that you believe, but only in this river, to which they pray every day as if it were God.’ … Half undressed as I was by loss of my sash, and throwing my shoes off, I ran down the hill towards the little island of green sods; … the whole side of the hill was thick grown over with flowers, the large bulbous roots of which appearing above the surface of the ground, and their skins coming off on treading upon them, occasioned two very severe falls before I reached the brink of the marsh; I after this came to the island of green turf, which was in form of an altar, apparently the work of art, and I stood in rapture over the principal fountain which rises in the middle of it.

It is easier to guess than to describe the situation of my mind at that moment—standing in that spot which had baffled the genius, industry, and inquiry of both ancients and moderns, for the course of near three thousand years.33

We need not pursue Bruce's meditation farther; but in that thrilling moment the ‘little island of green sods’ held, both for him and for his readers, the answer to a question older than the riddle of the sphinx. And for two long chapters this other ‘wilderness-plot, green and fountainous,’ is in the foreground of the narrative.

Now Bruce, in his attempt to prove himself the first European to reach the sources of the Nile, discusses at great length the narrative of Father Peter Paez, who claimed to have discovered the two fountains on April 21, 1618. And he quotes, on the authority of Athanasius Kircher, Paez's description of the fountains, in which, after declaring that he ‘saw, with the greatest delight [summaque animi mei voluptate], what neither Cyrus king of the Persians, nor Cambyses, nor Alexander the Great, nor the famous Julius Cæsar, could ever discover,’ he mentions certain striking details which have for us peculiar interest:

The second fountain lies about a stone-cast west from the first: the inhabitants say that this whole mountain is full of water, and add, that the whole plain about the fountain is floating and unsteady, a certain mark that there is water concealed under it; for which reason, the water does not overflow at the fountain, but forces itself with great violence out at the foot of the mountain. The inhabitants … maintain that that year it trembled little on account of the drought, but other years, that it trembled and overflowed so as that it could scarce be approached without danger.34

It would be hard to imagine ‘hooks and eyes of the memory’ more effective than those which link the description of that fountain with the accounts of its congeners in Florida. The ‘hillock of green sod,’ like the ‘swelling green knoll’ by the ‘inchanting fountain’; the hillside ‘thick grown over with flowers’; the plain about the fountain that ‘trembled’; the water that ‘forced itself out with great violence’: every detail recalls some parallel in Bartram. But there is a further correspondence so close as to verge on the uncanny. The Nile, just after it has left the fountain, ‘makes so many sharp, unnatural windings, that it differs,’ says Bruce, ‘from any other river I ever saw, making above twenty sharp angular peninsulas in the course of five miles.35 The stream thrown up by Bartram's ‘amazing chrystal fountain’ ‘meanders six miles through green meadows.’36 Coleridge being Coleridge, with that prehensile associative faculty of his, it was really the inevitable which happened. ‘Five miles meandering with a mazy motion'—so ran the sacred river which the mighty fountain in the dream flung up. And that is Bartram and Bruce in one. The vivid images of fountains in Florida and Abyssinia, with their powerfully ejected streams, have coalesced in the deep Well and risen up together, at once both and neither, in the dream. And by virtue of that incomprehensible juggling with identities which is the most familiar trick of dreams, ‘the sacred river’ is the Nile—while at the same time it is not. Only in a dream, I once more venture to believe, could the phantasmagoria which now for the first time it is possible to estimate, have risen up.


And now certain other mysterious features of the dream fall into place. Why was the damsel with a dulcimer ‘an Abyssinian maid’? The answer is not far to seek. The fountains of the sacred river are in Abyssinia; almost from beginning to end the scene of Bruce's narrative is laid in Abyssinia; and Abyssinia hovered in the background of the vision, to become suddenly explicit in this seemingly unaccountable detail. And for still another instant Abyssinia held the foreground of the dream:

It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.

What was Mount Abora, unknown to any map, I think, since time began?

The account which I have quoted of Bruce's rapturous plunge down the flowery hillside to the fountains of the Nile is on pages 596-97 of his third volume. Between pages 580 and 588 occurs fifteen times—six times on page 587 alone—a name which has not appeared before. It is that of the river, or valley, or plain of Abola. ‘The river Abola'—a tributary of the Nile—‘comes out of the valley between [the] two ridges of mountains of Litchambara and Aformasha,’ which Bruce at once identifies with ‘the Mountains of the Moon, or the Montes Lunæ of antiquity, at the foot of which the Nile was said to rise.’37 No reader of Bruce could reach the story of the fountains of the Nile without ‘Abola’ ringing in his ears. And ‘Abola’ was itself amply sufficient to suggest the dream-word ‘Abora,’ as ‘Xamdu’ or ‘Xaindu’ suggested ‘Xanadu.’38 But there was another name in Bruce which with little doubt blended in Coleridge's memory with ‘Abola,’ to bring about the metamorphosis.

Only eight pages beyond Bruce's account of his thrilling discovery is a description of the island of Meroë: ‘That island … having a twilight of short duration’ (a remark peculiarly adapted to catch Coleridge's eye) ‘was placed between the Nile and Astaboras.39 In the next chapter (still the ‘Description of the Sources of the Nile’) the name turns up repeatedly again. ‘It seems very clear that the Atbara is the Astaboras of the ancients’; ‘Meroë … was inclosed between the Astaboras and the Nile’; ‘Pliny says, Meroë … is called Astaboras. … “Astabores lævo alveo dictus.”’40 Moreover, the first appearance of the Astaboras in the narrative is not without suggestion: ‘this prodigious body of water … tearing up rocks and large trees in its course, and forcing down their broken fragments scattered on its stream, with a noise like thunder echoed from a hundred hills … is very rightly called the “terrible.”’41 ‘Astaboras,’ then, can scarcely have failed to print itself on Coleridge's memory, and the accented element of the name is ‘abora.’ And the obvious relation between the modern ‘Atbara’ and the ancient ‘Astaboras’ would serve to fix attention on this central element. Between ‘Abola’ and ‘Astaboras,’ accordingly, Coleridge's ‘Abora’ seems to have slipped into the dream.42

But why should hints from the names of two rivers have contributed a mountain to the dream? Whatever the suggestion, it doubtless flashed for an instant and was gone, ‘impalpable as the wind, fleeting as the wings of sleep'—par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno. Yet to recapture it (if recapture it we can) we must traverse with heavy feet the labyrinth through which it fled like light. But we have long been doing that.

Some years ago, Professor Lane Cooper suggested, in an article on ‘The Abyssinian Paradise in Coleridge and Milton,’43 that Coleridge's ‘Mount Abora’ was really Milton's ‘Mount Amara.’ In the sense in which ‘the sacred river’ at the same time is and is not the Nile, I think he is right; and in the light of the facts already presented … his suggestion takes on new significance. Mount Amara closes the bead-roll of those enticing earthly Paradises which Milton, in the fourth book of Paradise Lost, sets over against his glowing account of the true Paradise of Eden:

                                        Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered—which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world—nor that sweet grove
Of Daphne, by Orontes and the inspired
Castalian spring, might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive …
Nor, where Abassin kings their issue guard,
Mount Amara (though this by some supposed
True Paradise) under the Ethiop line
By Nilus' head, enclosed with shining rock,
A whole day's journey high.(44)

No one will doubt that Coleridge, who knew his Milton through and through, and who believed that ‘in the description of Paradise itself … [Milton's] descriptive powers are exercised to the utmost,’45 was thoroughly conversant with the lines on Amara, in their passingly lovely context. Had they, however, associations which might blend some fugitive recollection of them with the dream?46

The links are there, not single spies, but in battalions. The setting of Mount Abora in the dream is a flashing stream of reminiscences of that Paradise of the Old Man of the Mountain wherein ‘Fooles thought themselves in Paradise indeed’; Milton's Mount Amara is such another pseudo-Paradise, like Aloadine's, ‘by some supposed True Paradise.’ Through the imagery of the dream ebbs and flows the sacred river, and the sacred river, as we now know, is the Nile; Mount Amara is ‘under the Ethiop line By Nilus' head'—those fountains which by way of Bruce flung up the sacred river in the dream. And by way of Bruce Mount Amara itself might have found, together with the fountains, ready entrance. For Bruce writes of Amhara too, as one of the geographical divisions of Abyssinia:

It is a very mountainous country, full of nobility; the men are reckoned the handsomest in Abyssinia, as well as the bravest. … What, besides, added to the dignity of this province, was the high mountain of Geshen, or the grassy mountain, whereon the king's sons were formerly imprisoned.47

‘Nor, where Abassin kings their issue guard, Mount Amara’! It would be hard for Coleridge to read the first without a flash of recollection, on the very threshold of the sacred river, to the second. Into the dream, moreover, had poured the imagery of that enchanting spot in Bartram, where balmy trees ‘perspir[ed] their mingled odours’; ‘Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balm’ precede by only thirty lines the Miltonic Amara. And in the ‘fertile ground’ of Eden, and its ‘many a rill’ that rolled ‘with mazy error,’ and its river which ‘through the shaggy hill Passed underneath ingulfed,’ are correspondences which compel belief that Milton's Paradise, and with it his Mount Amara, lent fleeting touches to the panorama of the dream.48 And in that phantasmagoria ‘Amara’ (well worthy of commemoration in an Abyssinian damsel's symphony and song) has passed, under the spell of sounds more closely associated with the sacred river, through ‘Abola’ and ‘Astaboras,’ into ‘Abora.’ [Mr. Fausset, in his Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1926), pp. 183-84, following, I take it, Professor Cooper (he merely says: ‘as a critic has recently pointed out’), enumerates some of these same details.]

All this is enhanced by the further fact (to which Professor Cooper also calls attention)49 that Purchas has an entire chapter in his Pilgrimage entitled ‘Of the Hill Amara,’50 and it was this chapter which inspired Milton's lines. It is one of the most memorable purple patches of the book, and nobody who knew the Pilgrimage would be likely to forget it. Coleridge, certainly, in that quest of materials for his ‘Hymns to the Sun, Moon, and the Elements’ which led him to Maurice and Quintus Curtius, could not well have overlooked it, for on the hill ‘there are two Temples, built before the Raigne of the Queene of Saba, one in honour of the Sunne, the other of the Moone, the most magnificent in all Ethiopia.’51 And its links with the dream are as obvious as Milton's.52 It is difficult to believe that Coleridge did not know it; and through it, or through both (I think we may be sure), Mount Amara—its name merged with the name of the river that flowed by the Mountains of the Moon—was drawn into that concourse of impressions which, as Coleridge sat sleeping over Purchas, was slipping through the ivory gate.


I am aware that to some of my readers all this ado about a name will be regarded as the veriest trifling. But I beg such readers to remember that nothing is trivial which contributes to our understanding, on the one hand, of the strange workings of the mind in dreams, and on the other, of the waking operations of the creative faculty. There is not, in my judgment, among all existing records of the human mind, an opportunity of studying the two together which is comparable to that afforded by ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan.’ We shall see, I hope, when the materials which it is the formidable business of this … to elucidate are all before us, that the workings of the dream throw welcome light upon the waking processes. If that be so, no clue is too slight to follow where it leads. And there are more for us to follow.

For still other reminiscences of Bruce seem to have blended with the dream—recollections which

          Stream'd onward, lost their edges, and did creep
Roll'd on each other, rounded, smooth'd, and brought
                                        Into the gulfs of sleep.

Let me set down in Bruce's words a few glimpses of the Abyssinian landscape caught as the little caravan approached the fountains of the Nile:

The [whole mountain] was covered with thick wood, which often occupied the very edge of the precipices on which we stood. … Just above this almost impenetrable wood, in a very romantic situation, stands St. Michael, in a hollow space like a nitch between two hills. … The Nile here is not four yards over … [The whole company] were sitting in the shade of a grove of magnificent cedars. … The banks [of the Nile] … are covered with black, dark, and thick groves … a very rude and awful face of nature, a cover from which our fancy suggested a lion should issue, or some animal or monster yet more savage and ferocious. … ‘Strates,’ said I, ‘be in no such haste; remember the water is inchanted.’ … In the middle of this cliff [at Geesh], in a direction straight north towards the fountains, is a prodigious cave. … From the edge of the cliff of Geesh … the ground slopes with a very easy descent due north. … On the east the ground descends likewise with a very easy … slope. … From [the] west side of it … the ascent is very easy and gradual … all the way covered with good earth, producing fine grass.53

And here is the landscape of the dream:

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!

Other impressions, to be sure, after the fashion of the sleeping images, have merged in the dream with the ocular spectra which had flashed from Bruce's panoramic pages. But allowing for the wizardry of sleep, the ‘deep romantic chasm’ of ‘the sacred river’ is essentially the setting of the fountains of the Nile.

One other picture seems to owe its startling vividness to Bruce. Few images in the dream can have risen up more thrillingly as things than that apparition from the ‘bewitched enclosure’ of Aloadine's Paradise:

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

And as one of Aloadine's Tartar damsels becomes, thanks to Bruce, an Abyssinian maid, so, through the same influence, one of Aloadine's fanatic devotees is visualized (it would seem) as an Abyssinian king.

One of the most dramatic scenes in Bruce occurs a few pages after the fountains of the Nile are left behind. Bruce has joined the king of Abyssinia, Tecla Haimanout, who is fighting for his throne. And now the following extraordinary incident takes place:

[The king] had desired me to ride before him, and shew him the horse I had got from Fasil. … It happened that, crossing the deep bed of a brook, a plant of the kantuffa hung across it. I had upon my shoulders a white goatskin, of which it did not take hold; but the king, who was dressed in the habit of peace, his long hair floating all around his face, wrapt up in his mantle, or thin cotton cloak, so that nothing but his eyes could be seen, was paying more attention to the horse than to the branch of kantuffa beside him; it took first hold of his hair, and the fold of the cloak that covered his head … in such a manner that … no remedy remained but he must throw off the upper garment, and appear … with his head and face bare before all the spectators.

This is accounted great disgrace to a king, who always appears covered in public. However, he did not seem to be ruffled … but with great composure, and in rather a low voice, he called twice, Who is the Shum of this district? Unhappily he was not far off. A thin old man of sixty, and his son about thirty, came trotting, as their custom is, naked to their girdle, and stood before the king. … The king asked if he was Shum of that place? he answered in the affirmative, and added … that the other was his son.

There is always near the king, when he marches, an officer called Kanitz Kitzera, the executioner of the camp; he has upon the tore of his saddle a quantity of thongs made of bull's hide … this is called the tarade. The king made a sign with his head, and another with his hand, without speaking, and two loops of the tarade were instantly thrown round the Shum and his son's neck, and they were both hoisted upon the same tree, the tarade cut, and the end made fast to a branch. They were both left hanging. …54

That is not the sort of tale which one forgets. And with images of Tartary and Abyssinia already freely telescoping in the dream, it seems highly probable that some leap of association from Aloadine's assassins called up that sharp-etched picture of the ruthless Abyssinian king whose floating hair precipitated such a tragedy.

And now, with the kaleidoscopic swiftness of a dream, the scene shifts from Abyssinia to Cashmere. But even that surprising shift is not fortuitous. For Abyssinia and Cashmere were linked, for Coleridge, through a circumstance which we have now to see.


I said ‘for Coleridge,’ since Coleridge's associations of ideas are all that count in Coleridge's dream. And among the sleeping images below the threshold of his consciousness there was one of Cashmere which was definitely associated with the Nile. That will be clear, if we turn back to the reading on which Coleridge was intent at the time when he was jotting down matters of interest in Bartram.

In the Note Book, it will be remembered, a few pages after the excerpts from Bartram, appears the following entry:

Hymns Moon

In a cave in the mountains of Cashmere an Image of Ice, which makes it's appearance thus—two days before the new moon there appears a bubble of Ice which increases in size every day till the 15th day, at which it is an ell or more in height: then as the moon decreases, the Image does also till it vanishes.

Read the whole 107th page of Maurice's Indostan.55

Coleridge, that is, was collecting materials for his projected ‘Hymns to the Sun, the Moon, and the Elements—six hymns,’ and was reading Maurice with an eye alert for imagery which he could turn to account in the great work which was never to be.56 The five mathematicians on the lofty tower in Pekin, who were somehow to enliven the Hymn to Air, he made note of from Maurice,57 and Maurice, as we shall see in a moment, gave him a hint for the Hymn to the Sun. Lore associated with the Sun, Moon, or the Elements, accordingly, was unlikely at this juncture to escape a treasure-seeker's vigilant eye.

The passage which he first made note of reads, in its context, as follows:

I have already noticed the remarkable circumstance of 360 fountains … sacred to the moon, at Kehrah, a town in Cashmere; Cashmere, probably the most early residence of the Brahmins, and the theatre of the purest rites of their theology.

In a cave of the same mountainous subah a very singular phænomenon is said, in the Ayeen Akbery, at certain periods to make its appearance. … In this cave, says Abul Fazil, is sometimes to be seen an image of ice, called Amernaut, which is holden in great veneration. The image makes its appearance after the following manner—58

and the rest is substantially as Coleridge sets it down.59

Now the image of ice is on pages 106-07. Keeping in mind the suggestive reference to fountains, let us pass to the next entry in the Note Book:


Hymns——Remember to look at Quintius [sic] Curtius—lib. 3. Cap. 3 and 4.60

But why? On the page in Maurice (105) immediately preceding the cave with its bubble of ice are these two footnotes:

See Quinti Curtii, lib. 3. cap. 3.
Ibid. lib. 3. cap. 4.

It was Maurice, then, who was sending Coleridge to Quintus Curtius, and it is easy to see why Coleridge was anxious not to forget to look him up. For Maurice had just given, on the authority of these two passages, two highly picturesque details which were a godsend to a poet with a Hymn to the Sun obstinately hanging fire:

He [Quintus Curtius] declares it to have been an immemorial custom among the Persians, for the army never to march before the rising of the sun; that a trumpet, sounding from the king's pavilion, proclaimed the first appearance of its beam, and that a golden image of its orb, inclosed in a circle of crystal, was then displayed in the front of that pavilion, which diffused so wide a splendour that it was seen through the whole camp. …

The grooms appointed to train and conduct these horses [one of which was called The Horse of the Sun] … bore in their hands golden rods, or wands, pointed at the end in imitation of the solar ray.61

Coleridge's mind, it is plain, was picking up like a magnet imagery associated with the sun and moon. But (since we are for the moment working backwards) he had just been reading, a couple of pages earlier, a striking account of honours paid to the sun and moon in Egypt. And his eye—as quick to take notice as those of any five Chinese astronomers!—would assuredly catch this:

The whole of the annual magnificent festival of Osiris and Isis was in the most pointed manner allusive to the influence of the Sun and Moon upon the earth. … To the Moon, [The capitals are in Maurice—as are those in the preceding quotations.] or Isis, they were by no means ungrateful for affording, by night, her kindly ray to conduct the mariner … over the boundless ocean, and the benighted traveller over deserts of sands … as well as her immediate utility in swelling the waters of that sacred river, whose annual inundations were the perpetual and abundant source of plenty.62

And for another page the mutations of the Nile are Maurice's theme.

This, then, is clear. The Nile and Cashmere were definitely connected, through the moon, in Maurice. The Image of Ice, accordingly, in the cave in the mountains of Cashmere, sank below the threshold as an atome crochu. And its particular ‘hook of the memory'—that potentiality of junction which it carried with it—was the sacred river. And through their association with the sacred river the caves of ice were drawn into the dream:

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man …
          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 is no fortuitous concourse of atoms. The elements of the dream are knit together through linkages like filaments of steel.63

And now it is possible to take another step. In Maurice's Preliminary Chapter occurs the following sentence:

I have immediately directed my own and my reader's attention to the intelligent Memoir, and very accurate map of Hindostan, presented to the world by Major Rennell, whose unwearied efforts to elucidate her intricate geography, must secure him the applause of all those who are either interested in the commerce, or attached to the literature, of the East.64

That is the sort of thing on reading which Coleridge was apt to find his heart moved more than with a trumpet, and the next entry in the Note Book is brief but pregnant:

Major Rennell.65

We know Coleridge's habit of verifying references, and the memorandum is conclusive evidence of his intentions in the present case. And since at the moment he was on a hot scent of promising materials for his galaxy of Hymns, there is special reason for assuming that his purpose was carried out. [‘I seldom read except to amuse myself, and I am almost always reading. … I compose very little, and I absolutely hate composition’ (Letters, I, 181). When Coleridge meant to read a book, he usually read it. When he meant to write a poem, he generally did not.]

Now the work to which Maurice had referred, the Memoir of a Map of Hindoostan (1793), contains an uncommonly inviting description of the landscape of Cashmere. And in it are certain significant details:

The valley or country of Cashmere, is celebrated throughout upper Asia for its romantic beauties, [and] for the fertility of its soil. … It is … surrounded by steep mountains, that tower above the regions of snow; and … its soil is composed of the mud deposited by a capital river, which originally formed its waters into a lake … until it opened itself a passage through the mountains. … The author of the Ayin Acbaree dwells with rapture on the beauties of Cashmere. … Only light showers fall there: these, however, are in abundance enough to feed some thousands of cascades, which are precipitated into the valley, from every part of the stupendous and romantic bulwark that encircles it. … In a word, the whole scenery is beautifully picturesque; and a part of the romantic circle of mountains, makes up a portion of every landscape. The pardonable superstition of the sequestered inhabitants, has multiplied the places of worship of Mahadeo [whose image it was that appeared in the cave], of Bishen, and of Brama. All Cashmere is holy land; and miraculous fountains abound. … To sum up the account of Cashmere, in the words of [Abul Fazil], ‘It is a garden in perpetual spring.66

Now let us reread a few lines of the poem:

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 …

There are links in plenty to catch up Major Rennell's picture into that stream of images which were rising before the sleeping Coleridge as things—the miraculous fountains, and the fertile ground, and the river that opened a passage through the mountains, and the sunny garden spot. And the landscape of the deep romantic vale of Cashmere and the landscape of the valley of the upper Nile seem to have melted into one another in the dream, and the enchanted territory of the poem becomes ‘holy land.’


Purchas and Bartram and Bruce and Maurice we know beyond peradventure that Coleridge had read. Major Rennell we know that he meant to read, and probably did. Up to this point, whatever may be said of our conclusions, the facts on which they rest admit no question. Coleridge had read these things; and the images which we have just been calling back had sunk into those secret tracts where all that is forgotten waits, keyed to associations at the lightest touch of which the sleeping past may flash up again—like a Venetian thoroughfare—to recollection. For

Zwar ist's mit der [Traum]-Fabrik
Wie mit einem Weber-Meisterstück,
Wo Ein Tritt tausend Fäden regt,
Die Schifflein herüber hinüber schiessen,
Die Fäden ungesehen fliessen,
Ein Schlag tausend Verbindungen schlägt.(67)

But there are two or three other books which I cannot definitely prove that Coleridge had read, yet which, for the strongest reasons, we may be reasonably certain that he had. It is their probable contribution to the dream which I shall now present. And the first is directly connected with the Memoir of a Map of Hindoostan.

At the beginning of his notice of Cashmere, Major Rennell refers as follows to a famous narrative: ‘The reader may collect from Bernier (the most instructive of all Indian travellers), in what mode the emperors travelled to Cashmere; as he has written a full account of his journey, when he travelled thither in the suite of Aurungzebe, in the year 1664.’68 Just two pages beyond the account of the image of ice, moreover, Maurice in his turn, having already whetted his reader's interest in Bernier's journey to Cashmere,69 devotes more than a page to an incident in his travels, ‘so curious and interesting, that,’ as he says, ‘I cannot use the reader so ill as to pass it over.’70 And Mr. F. Bernier's Voyage to Surat, which had given Dryden the materials for Aurenge-Zebe, was easily accessible.71 The normal chances that Coleridge would look it up were heightened, moreover, by the peculiar circumstances of the moment. For (once more) it must not be forgotten that Coleridge was just then avowedly collecting data for his six Hymns; that the scope of the Hymns was appalling, with ‘a sublime enumeration of all the charms and Tremendities of Nature’ as a single item; that their hopeful projector was striking out, as the Note Book shows, from one book to another in directions which seemed to promise contributions; and that from both Maurice and Rennell the guideposts pointed straight and enticingly to Bernier.

Now Bernier, who is as entertaining as he is instructive, and whose account of his experiences en route to Cashmere is diverting to the last degree, gives in his Ninth Letter ‘An exact description of the kingdom of Kachemire … together with an answer to five considerable questions of a friend.’72 It is worth pausing to note that the fifth of the friend's demands is this: ‘That I would at length decide unto you the old controversy touching the causes of the increase of the Nile.73 And in his answer Bernier tells, on the authority of ‘two ambassadors of Ethiopia’ whom he met at Delhi, how the Nile ‘issueth out of the earth at two big bubbling springs,’ and how, as ‘a pretty river … it runs bending’ thence.74 If Coleridge did read Bernier, there was curiously enough a second hook to draw Cashmere and the fountains of the Nile together in the dream.

But he would also find a lively account of Cashmere itself, set down with a wealth of picturesque detail—an account which is extraordinarily rich in its links with that other reading which we know to have poured its imagery into the dream. It is out of the question to give all the parallels. Like Aloadine's Paradise and Kubla Khan's demesnes the vale is a spot of goodly gardens, houses of pleasure, pleasant springs, delightful streams:

Out of all these mountains do issue innumerable sources and rivulets. … All these rivulets, descending from the mountains, make the plain and all those hillocks so fair and fruitful, that one would take this whole kingdom for some evergreen garden. … The lake hath this peculiar, that 'tis full of little isles, which are as many gardens of pleasure, that appear all green in the midst of the water. … Beyond the lake, upon the side of the hills, there is nothing but houses and gardens of pleasure … full of springs and rivulets.75

Like Bartram's Florida, the vale abounds in ebullient fountains:

Thence I went to find out a fountain, which hath something that's rare enough in it; bubling up gently, and rising with some little impetuosity, and making small bubbles of air, and carrying with it, to the top, some small sand that is very fine, which goeth away again as it came, the water becoming still, a moment after it, without ebullition, and without bringing up sand; and soon after beginning afresh as before, and so continuing its motion by intervals, which are not regular.76

That might have come straight out of Bartram. There is, moreover, a cave of ice (‘a grotto of odd congelation’), which is clearly identical with the cave of the bubble of ice in Maurice; and there is a subterranean cavern; and ‘the wall of the world’ slopes down green hills to the plain; and not far away in the story are the fountains of the Nile.77 There are other correspondences, but these must serve. If Coleridge had ever read the Voyage to Surat, its marvels could not but have linked themselves in the dream with the like ‘charms and Tremendities of Nature’ in Purchas and Bartram and Bruce and Maurice.

All this, however, might have found its way into the dream had Coleridge never laid eyes on Bernier. But there is one group of pictures in the Voyage which it is well nigh impossible to believe that he had not seen. The structure which Kubla Khan decreed in Xanadu was ‘a stately pleasure-dome,’ and it stood, in the dream, in close proximity to the fountain which flung up the river:

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.

There is no hint of all that in Purchas or Bartram or Bruce or Maurice. But among Bernier's pleasant little vignette sketches are these:

Returning from Send-brary I turn'd a little aside from the road to go and lie at Achiavel, which is an house of pleasure of the ancient kings of Kachemire, and at present of the great Mogol. That which most adorns it is a fountain. … It breaks out of the earth, as if by some violence it ascended up from the bottom of a well, and that with such an abundance as might make it to be called a river rather than a fountain. … The garden itself is very fine, there being curious walks in it, and store of fruit-bearing trees.78

The most admirable of all these gardens is that of the king, which is called Chah-limar. From the lake, one enters into it by a great canal, border'd with great green turfs. … It leadeth to a great cabinet in the midst of the garden, where begins another canal far more magnificent … and in the midst of it there is a long row of jets of water. … And this canal ends at another great cabinet.

These cabinets, which are in a manner made like domes, [are] situate in the middle of the canal, and encompassed with water.79

I left my way again, to approach to a great lake, which I saw afar off, through the middle whereof passeth the river that runs to Baramoulay. … In the midst of this lake there is an eremitage with its little garden, which, as they say, doth miraculously float upon the water.80

There, without question—together with that ‘great and vast dome of white marble’ which Bernier saw with delight surmounting Shah Jahan's Taj-Mahal at Agra81—are elements which might have risen up, blended and transfigured, in the lovely image of the dream. And in their light the probability that Coleridge had looked up Bernier approaches certainty.

And in the darting play of associations which called up the picture of the floating image of the dome upon the wave, Bartram's fountains (which were, merged with the Abyssinian springs, the very fountain of the dream) may well have had a part. For in the bason of his ‘inchanting and amazing chrystal fountain’ Bartram saw ‘the pendant golden Orange dancing on the surface of the pellucid waters’; and the waters of the Manate Spring ‘appear of a lucid sea green colour … owing to the reflection of the leaves above.’82 A shadow that floated on the wave was printed on the very image of the wave itself as it arose. Admit Bernier's magic touch to set the simulacrum of the dome beside the wave, and the images were foreordained to blend. Dreams do behave in just that fashion, and the suggestion that this dream was no exception at least strains no probabilities.


Our exploration of the crowded antechambers of [“Kubla Khan”] is almost at an end. There remain but two or three cluster-points of imagery the confluence of which in Coleridge's memory we shall attempt to trace. And they are (if I am right) among the most remarkable.

They carry us back from the vale of Cashmere to the idiosyncrasies of the sacred river:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
                    Down to a sunless sea …
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean.

Whence came the ‘caverns measureless to man,’ and the ‘lifeless ocean,’ and the ‘sunless sea’? Above all, what lost suggestion underlies that most mysterious of appellations, ‘Alph’? Let us take up the riddles in their order.

From the day of the Fathers down to Coleridge's own century (and since) one of those still-vex'd questions which have stretched the pia mater of many a subtle brain has been the identity of two of the four rivers—Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Phrath—which, on the authority of Genesis, went out of Eden. That the last two represent the Tigris and Euphrates has always been matter of common consent. As for the other pair, in the dispute which waxed and waned through centuries, Pison was now the Indus, now the Danube, now the Nile, but far more frequently the Ganges; whereas Gihon, in spite of scattering voices raised in favour of the Orontes, or the Araxes, or the Oxus, was almost universally believed to be the Nile. But between Mesopotamia (which, barring a few fantastic guesses, was the accepted site of Paradise) between Mesopotamia and the regions where admittedly the Nile, as mortal eyes behold it, takes its rise, lay the deserts of Arabia and the Red Sea. How, on the venerable and orthodox assumption, did the now doubly sacred river make its way?

There could, of course, be but one answer. It must flow under ground and under sea. And that myth of the subterranean-submarine passage of the Nile from Asia through to Africa Coleridge certainly knew. It is needless to conjecture how often, in ‘the wide, wild wilderness’ of his early reading, he had met it. He could scarcely have escaped it in Pausanias and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana,83 but the book entitled ‘Of the Primæval Earth, and Paradise’ in that Sacred Theory of Thomas Burnet which he twice proposed to turn into blank verse, and later bracketed with Plato—not to mention that other work of Burnet's which gave the motto to ‘The Ancient Mariner’—these two afford evidence enough. The ancients, says Burnet, ‘supposed generally, that paradise was in the other hemisphere … and yet they believed that Tygris, Euphrates, Nile, and Ganges, were the rivers of paradise, or came out of it; and these two opinions they could not reconcile … but by supposing that these four rivers had their fountainheads in the other hemisphere, and by some wonderful trajection broke out again here.’84 ‘To this sense also,’ he remarks again, ‘Moses Bar Cepha often expresseth himself; as also Epiphanius, Procopius Gazéus, and Severianus in Catena. Which notion amongst the ancients, concerning the trajection or passage of the paradisiacal rivers under ground, or under sea, from one continent into another, is to me, I confess, unintelligible.’85 It is Moses bar Cepha, however, who is most explicit, and Moses bar Cepha Coleridge probably knew, if not at firsthand, at least through the learned pages of another then celebrated work.

Bruce's paragraph about the ebullience of the second fountain of the Nile,86 which so strikingly parallels Bartram, is quoted from his translation of pages 57 and 59 of the first volume of Athanasius Kircher's Œdipus Ægyptiacus. I must regretfully forego the opportunity thus afforded of dwelling on the astonishing Athanasius and his still more dumbfounding works.87 It is enough to say that the Œdipus Ægyptiacus is prefaced by dedicatory verses to its patron in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, English, German, Hungarian, Bohemian, Illyrian, Old Slavonic, Serbian, Turkish, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Chaldean, Armenian, Persian, Samaritan, Coptic, Ethiopic, the Brahman alphabet, Chinese, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. It is a book after Coleridge's own heart; his old friend Dupuis has copious references to it; Bruce's long extract would be enough to send him to it, if he had not already gone. And I have no doubt (though this I cannot prove) that he read the fascinating farrago on the subject of the Nile which fills the half-dozen pages just before the account which Bruce excerpts. And Moses bar Cepha heads the list of Kircher's, as of Burnet's, authorities.

And what Moses bar Cepha states is picturesque enough:

The name of the second river is Gihon (which is also called the Nile): it flows through all the land of Chus. For no sooner has it come out of Paradise than it vanishes beneath the depths of the sea and the streams of Ocean, whence, through secret passages of the earth, it emerges again in the mountains of Ethiopia. … But [says bar Cepha] someone will ask, how is it possible that these rivers, when once they have passed out of Paradise, should be precipitated beneath the streams of Ocean and the heart of the sea, and should then at length emerge in this our land?

The obvious answer follows: With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. Whereupon Moses bar Cepha takes up his parable again:

This also we assert, that Paradise lies in a much higher region than this land, and so it happens that the rivers, impelled by so mighty a force, descend thence through huge chasms and subterranean channels, and, thus confined, are hurried away beneath the bottom of the sea, and boil up in this our orb. [The Latin text is appended in the Notes.88]

This is immediately followed in Kircher by an extract from the Geographia Arabica Medicca, in which the plain of the Nile is said to be full of cedars (plena Cedris), and the whole land cavernous within—a region of mighty abysses (est enim tota hæc terra intus cava, et abyssos habens ingentes).89 The Arabic geography now disposed of, Kircher cites as a further witness Odoardus Lopez Lusitanus, who declares that the inhabitants of these quarters affirm with one accord that the Nile, plunging headlong through certain horrible and impenetrable valleys, through chasms inaccessible to man (per præcipitia hominibus inaccessa) and pathless deserts, is swallowed up in valleys so exceedingly deep that it is, as it were, received within the very bowels of the earth, and absorbed by its abysses. After which it reappears, and, passing the cataracts, flows with many meanders (multiplici gyro) into the sea.90 Moreover, to add the crowning touch, between the accounts of Moses bar Cepha and the Arabic geographer, Kircher inserts a ‘True and Genuine Topography of the Fountains of the Nile [Vera et genuina fontium Nili topographia], made by P. Peter Pais on the 21st of April in the year 1618 in the presence of the Emperor,’ in which the two fountains are depicted on the summit of a craggy hill, encompassed with a prim circle of (one hopefully conjectures) incense-bearing trees, whence the Nile, meandering with a conspicuously mazy motion, forms the boundary of a plainly labelled kingdom of Amara (Amhara Regnum). And on the maps of Odoardus and the Arabic geographer engraved on the same plate, the river's maziness rivals that of the Dædalian labyrinth.91 The traditional association of the Nile with mighty caverns (to say nothing of meanderings and chasms) was still plentifully current in Coleridge's day.

And once more the link with Bartram is singularly close. For again and again Bartram might almost be paraphrasing Kircher's Latin. One passage, just before the account of the Manate Spring, will serve to bring out the curious correspondence:

These waters … augment and form … subterraneous rivers, which wander in darkness beneath the surface of the earth, by innumerable doublings, windings and secret labyrinths; no doubt in some places forming vast reservoirs and subterranean lakes … and possibly … meeting irresistible obstructions in their course, they suddenly break through these perforated fluted rocks, in high, perpendicular jets. … Thus by means of those subterranean courses … they emerge … in those surprising vast fountains.92

Bartram's subterranean caverns and the mythical abysses of the Nile are two of a kind. It would be next to impossible for Coleridge to read of either without some reminiscence of the other. And the two were probably associated in his memory long before the moment of the dream.

As for caverns ‘measureless to man,’ Paez states that he twice tried the depth of the second fountain and could find no bottom—‘fundum nullum invenimus … denuo rem tentavimus, sed nec sic fundum tenere potuimus’;93 and Kircher, in his remarks upon Paez's account, refers to the depth of the fountain as ‘inexplorabilis.’94 Lobo asserts95 that ‘we could find no Bottom, and were assured by the Inhabitants, that none ever had been found.’ Whatever Coleridge knew or did not know about these accounts, he knew and had long known his Herodotus.96 And Herodotus has a most interesting tale. He found, he says, no one who professed any knowledge of the source of the Nile, except a single person, a scribe in the city of Saïs. And the scribe's story was this:97

Between Syêné … and Elephantiné, there are two hills with sharp conical tops; the name of the one is Crophi, of the other, Mophi. Midway between them are the fountains of the Nile, fountains which it is impossible to fathom. … The fountains were known to be unfathomable, he declared, because Psammetichus … had made trial of them. He had caused a rope to be made, many thousand fathoms in length, and had sounded the fountain with it, but could find no bottom. [Herodotus learned also that ‘the river wind[s] greatly, like the Mæander.’]

‘Caverns measureless to man’ had been for twenty-three centuries associated with the legend of the Nile. It is little wonder, given what we now know about ‘the sacred river,’ that they turned up in the dream.

The image of the sacred river, then, which rose up before Coleridge as a thing, was a dream-picture, foreshortened and reversed as if it lay in an enchanted crystal, of the tremendous Odyssey of the legendary Nile. Visualized under the spell of Bartram's springing fountains, the river in the vision bursts from immeasurable depths, traverses mazily, its cosmic sweep diminished to a coup d'œil, five miles of wood and dale—then sinks in tumult to immeasurable depths again. ‘From the great deep to the great deep it goes'—to the ‘lifeless ocean’ and the ‘sunless sea’ beneath the upper lands and waters of the world.

And I suspect that with the imagery of these nether seas of ancient story there was merged a conception vaster still, which had long been hovering in Coleridge's restless head. Between the two memoranda in the Note Book in which he dallied with the project of turning the Telluris Theoria Sacra into verse, stand, as we have seen,98 certain entries which show beyond question that he had read, with kindled imagination, the whole of Burnet's ‘grand Miltonic romance.’ Now Burnet's daring cosmogony is built about the central waters and the central fires. Beneath the hollow shell of the earth lay, from the beginning, the waters of the great abyss. At the deluge the fountains of the deep were broken up, and the shattered frame of the earth sank beneath the rush of the ascending floods. Subterranean rivers still pursue their way ‘through the dark pipes of the earth,’ and beneath us still are gathered up, in subterranean lakes and seas, the cataracts of the abyss. And at the end, when the earth shall melt with fervent heat, the water that are under the earth, pent up and turned to steam, will lend their shattering aid again, to bring about the last catastrophe. Had Coleridge ever carried out his chimerical scheme of versifying Burnet's gorgeous prose, a Hymn to Water of epic grandeur would have made his own superfluous. But while the project was stirring in his brain, the Deluge and the Conflagration were storing the cells of memory with images. And Burnet's titanic conception of a dark, illimitable ocean, lurking beneath the unmeasured gulfs and chasms of the world, was present (I think we may safely assume) somewhere in the background of the dream.


There was another storied river which sank beneath the earth, and flowed under the sea, and rose again in a famous fountain. As was inevitable, it was constantly associated with the legendary Nile. And Coleridge, like every schoolboy, knew it:

… Alpheum fama est huc Elidis amnem
occultas egisse vias subter mare; qui nunc
ore, Arethusa, tuo Siculis confunditur undis.(99)

But his sources of information were by no means limited to Virgil.

Burnet has a delightful note about Alpheus,100 but for us the ancients are more to the point. No one who has followed Coleridge's reading will doubt, I think, his acquaintance with Pausanias. Were there no other reason, Thomas Taylor had translated The Description of Greece in 1794, professing to ‘have unfolded,’ in his highly neo-Platonic notes, ‘a theory which seems for many ages to have been entirely unknown.’101 And ‘Taylor the English pagan’ was among Coleridge's ‘darling studies.’102 Here, then, are two excerpts from Taylor's translation of Pausanias:

But the Alpheus appears to possess something different from other rivers; for it often hides itself in the earth, and again rises out of it. Thus it … merges itself in the Tegeatic land. Ascending from hence in Asæa, and mingling itself with the water of Eurotas, it falls a second time into the earth, emerges from hence, in that place which the Arcadians call the fountains, and running through the Pisæan and Olympian plains, pours itself into the sea. … Nor can the agitation of the Adriatic sea restrain its course; for running through this mighty and violent sea, it mingles itself with the water of Arethusa in Ortygia … retaining its ancient name Alpheus.103

From the water of Alpheus, therefore, mingling itself with that of Arethusa, I am persuaded the fable respecting the love of Alpheus originated. Such indeed of the Greeks or Ægyptians as have travelled to Æthiopia … relate that the Nile entering into a certain marsh, and gliding through this no otherwise than if it was a continent, flows afterward through lower Æthiopia into Egypt, till it arrives at Pharos and the sea which it contains.104

The Nile and the Alpheus, then, are immediately associated in Pausanias.

How early Coleridge knew Strabo I do not know. There is every reason to believe that the youngster who translated Synesius at the age of fifteen, and who expounded Plotinus and recited Homer and Pindar in their Greek at Christ's Hospital, had read the Geography during his school days. He certainly was much at home in it later, for he quotes from the Greek text in a notebook of 1806-07, and again in Omniana, in both of which he recognizes Strabo's hand in a noble sentence of Ben Jonson's dedication to The Fox.105 At all events, here are a few remarks of Strabo, who discusses the Alpheus at great length:

People tell the mythical story that the river Arethusa is the Alpheius, which latter, they say, rises in the Peloponnesus, flows underground through the sea as far as Arethusa, and then empties thence once more into the sea.106 … Marvellous tales of this sort are stretched still further by those who make the Inopus cross over from the Nile to Delos. And Zoïlus the rhetorician says … that the Alpheius rises in Tenedos.107

Again, in a context of ebullient fountains and subterranean rivers disappearing in a chasm, Strabo continues:

The territory of the Palici has craters that spout up water in a dome-like jet and receive it back again into the same recess. The cavern near Mataurus contains an immense gallery through which a river flows invisible for a considerable distance, and then emerges to the surface, as is the case with the Orontes in Syria, which sinks into the chasm [χάσμα] … and rises again forty stadia away.

Similar, too, are the cases both of the Tigris in Mesopotamia and of the Nile in Libya … and again, the water near the Arcadian Asea is first forced below the surface and then, much later, emerges as both the Eurotas and the Alpheius.108

Once more, the Nile and the Alpheus are linked together as kindred streams.

That Coleridge, with his tastes, and classical training, and cormorant habits, had read Seneca's Quæstiones Naturales before 1798, is a reasonable assumption. It must not be forgotten that he wrote Thelwall in 1796: ‘I have read almost everything’109—a statement which few who know their Coleridge will seriously doubt! His later knowledge of Seneca has ample attestation.110 And Seneca, whose Quæstiones Naturales are a veritable mine of lore about the elements, has in that remarkable treatise matter of no small interest touching the Alpheus. In the twenty-sixth chapter of Book Three—a chapter which begins with mention of the Nile—Seneca quotes a passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses about Lycus, swallowed up by the yawning earth, and then proceeds:

In the East as well as the West this happens. The Tigris is absorbed by the earth and after long absence reappears at a point far removed, but undoubtedly the same river. … Thence [from the behavior of the fountain Arethusa] comes the belief that the Alpheus makes its way right from Achaia to Sicily, stealing under sea by secret sluice, and reappearing only when it reaches the coast of Syracuse.111

But the most significant passage is in the Sixth Book:

I do not, indeed, suppose that you will long hesitate to believe that there are underground rivers and a hidden sea. From what other cause could the rivers burst out and come to the surface? … And what are you to say when you see the Alpheus … sink in Achaia and, having crossed beneath the sea, pour forth in Sicily the pleasant fountain Arethuse? And don't you know that among the explanations given of the occurrence of the inundation of the Nile in summer, one is that it bursts forth from the ground?112

Whereupon follows the story which Seneca heard himself from the lips of two noncommissioned officers sent by Nero to investigate the sources of the Nile.

But that is not all. For the preceding chapter contains a vivid picture of the ‘lifeless ocean’ and the ‘sunless sea’ out of which such rivers as the Nile and the Alpheus rise, and to which they return:

Now surely a man trusts too much to the sight of the eyes and cannot launch out his imagination beyond, if he does not believe that the depths of earth contain a vast sea with winding shores. I see nothing to prevent or oppose the existence of a beach down there in the obscurity, or a sea finding its way through the hidden entrances to its appointed place. There, too, … the hidden regions being desert without inhabitant give freer scope to the waves of the nether ocean.113

Moreover, that Bernardinus Ramazzinus from whom Burnet quotes in extenso the Abyssinian account of the deluge, links the Nile and the Alpheus on the same page.114 And finally, in the Argonauticon of Valerius Flaccus, the two rivers share a single line:

Ceu refluens Padus aut septem proiectus in amnes
Nilus et Hesperium veniens Alpheos in orbem.(115)

The traditional links between the Nile and the Alpheus are like hoops of steel.

Now some, if not all, of these passages Coleridge without doubt had read. And just as ocular spectra which ‘flashed’ from Bartram's fountains and from the fountains of the Nile had telescoped in the dream, so there seem to have merged linked reminiscences of the Alpheus and the Nile. And by one of those puckish freaks of the dream intelligence which are often so preternaturally apt, ‘Alpheus’ has been docked of its syllabic excess, and dream-fashioned, as ‘Alph,’ into a quasi-equivalence with ‘Nile.’ The artifex verborum of the dream—witness ‘Xanadu’ and ‘Abora'—was no less adept than the waking Coleridge in the metamorphosis of words. [There is abundant evidence of the invention of new words in dreams—see, for example, Havelock Ellis's selvdrolla and jaleisa (The World of Dreams, pp. 43-44, 49). Kraeplin's monograph ‘Ueber Sprachstörungen im Traume’ (Psychologische Arbeiten, Bd. v, 1906, pp. 1-104), to which Havelock Ellis refers, will satisfy anybody who runs over its classified lists of dream-fabricated vocables that ‘Xanadu,’ and ‘Abora,’ and ‘Alph’ are perfectly normal formations, when judged by the semasiology of dreams.] And none of us who has ever dreamed can doubt how exquisitely right and meet and natural ‘Alph’ must in the dream have seemed—a name which sprang like a fountain from the inmost nature of the thing, rising up, like the dream-music, a ‘mingled measure’ from the Alpheus and the Nile.


The last sentence Coleridge had read before his eyes rested on the words ‘In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace,’ was a remarkable expression of the belief among the Tartars of the survival of the dead.116 And he had turned the page but once since he had read another statement of that belief more striking still:

When he is dead, if he be a chiefe man, hee is buried in the field where pleaseth him. And hee is buried with his Tent, sitting in the middest thereof, with a Table set before him, and a platter full of meate, and a Cup of Mares-milke. There is also buried with him a Mare and Colt, a Horse with bridle and saddle: and they eate another Horse … stuffing his hide with straw, setting it aloft on two or foure poles, that hee may have in the other world a Tabernacle and other things fitting for his use.117

And between the two passages, within less than a page of the words that slipped bodily into the dream, stands this:

Their Priests were diviners: they were many, but had one Captaine or chiefe Bishop, who alwayes placed his house or Tent before that of the Great Can, about a stones cast distant … When an Eclipse happens they sound their Organs and Timbrels, and make a great noyse. … They foretell holy dayes, and those which are unluckie for enterprises. No warres are begunne or made without their word.118

Of this at least, then, we are sure: when Coleridge fell asleep, the last impressions which he received included images of dead warriors surviving in the other world, in their habit as they lived; of things foretold, heard through ‘a great noyse’; and of wars undertaken only at the diviners' word. And among the images which rose up before him in the dream was this:

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

Between the sinking into Coleridge's mind of that confluence of suggestions and the rising of the magnificently phrased conception of the dream lay, it would seem, a period measured by minutes. And meantime hosts of other images had been thronging up.

For I suspect that we are once more in the presence of a cluster-point of the ‘hooked atoms.’ Recollections of Bruce, as we know, were actively astir. Now by far the most vivid personality in Bruce's narrative, except Bruce himself, is Ozoro Esther, the young wife of the old vizier of that king of Abyssinia whose floating hair, on the expedition against the rebels, got him into Absalom's predicament. And in his account of this expedition, Bruce gives a dramatic rehearsal of a talk he had with Ozoro Esther:

‘But, pray’ [says Bruce], ‘what is the meaning of the Ras's speech to me about both armies wishing to fight at Serbraxos? Where is this Serbraxos?’—‘Why, says she, here, on a hill just by; the Begemder people have a prophecy, that one of their governors is to fight a king at Serbraxos, to defeat him, and slay him there: in his place is to succeed another king, whose name is Theodorus, and in whose reign all Abyssinia is to be free from war … and the empire of Abyssinia to be extended as far as Jerusalem.’—‘All this destruction and conquest without war! That will be curious indeed. I think I could wish to see this Theodorus,’ said I, laughing—‘See him you will, replied Ozoro Esther; peace, happiness, and plenty will last all his reign, and a thousand years afterwards. Enoch and Elias will rise again, and will fight and destroy Gog and Magog, and all this without any war.’ ‘On which I again said … And now, why does Ras Michael choose to fight at Serbraxos?’ … ‘Why, says she, all the hermits and holy men on our side, that can prophesy, have assured him he is to beat the rebels this month at Serbraxos; and a very holy man, a hermit from Waldubba, came to him at Gondar, and obliged him to march out against his will, by telling him this prophecy, which he knows to be true, as the man is not like common prophets. … Such a man as this, you know, Yagoube, cannot lie.’119

Like the incident of the floating hair, that is told in a fashion which stamps it on the memory, and which may quite possibly have brought about another fusion of Tartary and Abyssinia in the dream. Both passages, at all events, had certainly slipped, with their fleeting impressions, below the threshold of Coleridge's consciousness, and of such buried treasure is the stuff of dreams.

I wish I could say, with the complete assurance which is based on evidence, that Coleridge had read Vathek. As it is, I have neither doubt nor proof. Henley's translation, which preceded the French original by a year, had been twelve years in circulation—since Coleridge, that is, was a school-boy of fourteen. If he did read it, he could no more than the rest of us forget it. And its earlier pages are conceived in the very spirit of the dream. There were the Palaces of the Five Senses—‘pleasure-houses’ par excellence; there was a Paradise, with cedars and incense-bearing trees; there were four fountains, like the ‘four sacred rivers’ which watered Eden; and at the foot of the hill of the Four Fountains there was ‘an immense gulph’ or ‘chasm.’120 And as Vathek, after the Giaour had disappeared in the abyss, looked over the edge,

One while, he fancied to himself voices arising from the depth of the gulph: at another, he seemed to distinguish the accents of the Indian; but, all was no more than the hollow murmur of waters, and the din of the cataracts that rushed from steep to steep, down the sides of the mountain.121

The tumult, as in the dream, is the tumult of the waters, and it rises with the voices, as in the dream, from the abyss. That a reminiscence of it flashed through the interweaving fancies of the vision is well within the bounds of possibility.


One other detail, this time a phrase, slipped into the dream from the limbo of sleeping words, at the touch of a determinate association. Coleridge had planned an edition of Collins and Gray, which twice appears among his projects in the Note Book.122 There need be, then, no question of his familiarity with Collins's exquisite though slender sheaf of verse, even had we not his outburst of ardent admiration in a letter to Thelwall of December, 1796:

Collins's ‘Ode on the Poetical Character,’—that part of it, I should say, beginning with ‘The band (as faery legends say) Was wove on that creating day,’—has inspired and whirled me along with greater agitations of enthusiasm than any the most impassioned scene in Schiller or Shakespeare.123

Now in ‘The Passions’ occur these charming lines on Melancholy, who,

In notes by distance made more sweet,
Pour'd thro' the mellow horn her pensive soul:
          And, dashing soft from rocks around
          Bubbling runnels join'd the sound;
Thro' glades and glooms the mingled measure stole,
Or o'er some haunted stream, with fond delay
          Round an holy calm diffusing,
          Love of peace and lonely musing,
In hollow murmurs died away.(124)

And in the dream, just after the tumult of the river's fall,

… was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.

The ceaseless tumult of the sacred river recalled the mellower tumult of the bubbling runnels dashing soft from rocks around, as Coleridge's ‘Through wood and dale,’ but eight lines earlier, had echoed Collins's ‘Thro' glades and glooms.’ And ‘haunted’ and ‘holy,’ still in successive lines, had already stolen into the measures of the dream:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted …(125)

‘Kubla Khan’ is the fabric of a vision, but every image that rose up in its weaving had passed that way before. And it would seem that there is nothing haphazard or fortuitous in their return.


There are other elements of the dream which refuse to divulge their secrets, and which ‘sweetly torment us’ (as Emerson, quoted by William James, felicitously puts it) ‘with invitations to their inaccessible homes.’126 How could it possibly be otherwise? About some of these teasing phantoms of association I confess, of course, to cherishing more or less colorable conjectures.127 But if this … possess any worth, that value lies, not in its conjectures, but in its evidence—the evidence which it offers of the amazing power of association in the dream. Beyond that evidence, which can at least be weighed and tested, I do not for the present care to go. [I wish to state with emphasis that I am dealing in this study with what psychoanalysts call the material content of the dream, and with that alone. With its so-called latent content—its possible symbolism of wish-fulfilment or conflict or what not—I have nothing whatever to do. Even granting one or another of the conflicting assumptions of modern dream psychology, I do not believe that after the lapse of one hundred and twenty-seven years the intimate, deep-lying, personal facts on which alone such an analysis must rest are longer discoverable, and I doubt whether any trained psychoanalyst would venture an interpretation. ‘I believe,’ wrote one of the most brilliant and withal most sane of recent investigators in this field, the late Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, ‘I believe that a really satisfactory analysis of a dream is only possible to the dreamer himself or to one who knows the conflicts and experiences of the dreamer in a most unusual way’ (Conflict and Dream, p. 149). An essay at such an analysis of ‘Kubla Khan,’ regarded as a dream, has just been made, however, by Mr. Robert Graves, and, since it is illuminating in its method, I have examined it briefly in the Notes.128 Incidentally, it may be worth while to suggest, without prejudice, that the facts which this investigation has disclosed, with reference to both ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan,’ counsel caution in the prevalent pursuit of so-called Freudian complexes in everything.]

But I do wish, before leaving this huge phantasmagoria, to direct attention to an implication of material importance. I have emphasized, throughout the discussion of ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ the profoundly significant part played in imaginative creation by the associations of ideas—whether those associations wrought their synthesis before the impressions so combined sank into the subliminal reservoir, or during their submergence there, or at the instant of their flashing back to consciousness. And I have offered no little evidence of their activity. But in ‘The Ancient Mariner’ a determining will was constructively at work, consciously manipulating and adjusting and refashioning the associated images of memory into conformity with a design. And through that conscious imaginative moulding the links of association, as was inevitable, were often obliterated, or at least obscured. Yet sufficient traces of them still remain, as our scrutiny of Coleridge's reading soon disclosed, to establish their enormous influence. Do the facts before us contribute any further light?

I think they do. For in ‘Kubla Khan’ the complicating factor—the will as a consciously constructive agency—was in abeyance. ‘All the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.’ The dream, it is evident, was the unchecked subliminal flow of blending images, and the dreamer merely the detached and unsolicitous spectator. And so the sole factor that determined the form and sequence which the dissolving phantasmagoria assumed, was the subtle potency of the associative links. There was this time no intervention of a waking intelligence intent upon a plan, to obliterate or blur them. And it is largely that absence of deliberate manipulation which has made it possible to disengage, to a degree unattainable in our study of ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ the bewildering hooks and eyes of the memory which were the irresponsible artificers of the dream.

But the facts thus established carry with them, as I have said, an important consequence. For we have only to recall those passages in ‘The Ancient Mariner’ in which the formative associations have been traceable, to recognize that their operations are essentially the same. The mass of evidence now before us corroborates with singular cogency our earlier conclusions. The subliminal blendings and fusings from which springs the insubstantial architecture of the dream are also latent beneath the complex workings of design. And that is no less essential to our understanding of the creative process than the further fact that in the one case the ‘streamy’ associations are unruddered, whereas in the other they are masterfully curbed.

The linked images, then, which are now before us are, with little question, constituent elements of the dream. But the dream itself is another matter. And it is high time that we pass from the crowded vestibule of consciousness to the winged wonder which emerged into the light.


  1. The dream occurred in September, 1803, and Coleridge communicated the lines to Southey a few days later (B. E., I, 284-85):

    Here sleeps at length poor Col. and without screaming
    Who died, as he had always lived, a dreaming:
    Shot dead, while sleeping, by the gout within,
    Alone, and all unknown, at E'nbro' in an Inn.

    ‘It was Tuesday night last,’ he goes on—the letter is dated September 16, 1803—‘at the Black Bull, Edinburgh.’ He had already, in two letters written to Southey September 10 and 13, dwelt on the terrors of his sleep at this period, and the letter of September 10 contains the first draft of ‘The Pains of Sleep’ (Letters, I, 435-37, 440-41).

    The ‘Embro’ lines occur in another letter, undated, but probably written about 1828 or 1829 (see Campbell, Narrative, p. 264, n. 2). It was printed, with a few squeamish omissions, in the Athenæum, January 17, 1835, p. 56. The original letter is now in the Norton Perkins collection in the Harvard College Library, and is accompanied by the cover, addressed to ‘Frederic Renyolds [sic], Esqr. at Mr. MacPherson's Nursery Ground, Archway Road,’ thus verifying Campbell's conjecture that the letter was an acceptance of Frederic Mansell Reynolds's invitation to what turned out to be a gloriously bacchanalian occasion. No conception of Coleridge is complete which does not include William Jerdan's graphic picture of him on that memorable night, when he and Theodore Hook vied with each other in excellent fooling (The Autobiography of William Jerdan, London, 1853, IV, 230-36)—a picture vividly supplemented by Lockhart, who was a fellow guest, in the Quarterly Review, LXXII (1843), 65-66 (the article is reprinted as Theodore Hook: A Sketch, London, Third edition, 1852; see pp. 23-24).

    The lines, as Coleridge at this time recalled them, are these:

    Here lies poor Col at length and without screaming
    Who died, as he had always liv'd, a dreaming—
    Shot with a pistol by the Gout within,
    Alone and all unknown, at Embro', in an Inn.

    Havelock Ellis (The World of Dreams, Boston and New York, 1911, pp. 275-76) gives valuable references on the general subject of composition in dreams. See especially the dream poem reported in Sante de Sanctis, I Sogni (Turin, 1899), p. 369.

  2. Poems, I, 295-96. Italics Coleridge's.

  3. Ibid., I, 295, n. 2; Letters, I, 245, n. 1; Campbell, Poems, p. xlii, note.

  4. See above, p. 415, n. For other incorrect dates which Coleridge gives (especially for his own works), see A. P., p. 16 (cf., for example, B. E., I, 251, II, 240; Letters, I, 95, II, 703, etc.); B. L., I, 203 (so also Letters from the Lake Poets, p. 245); Campbell, Poems, pp. xi, n.; 562 (No. 12); 564, n. 1; 567 (No. 43); 627 (second column, foot); 633 (No. 178); 638 (No. 197); 641 (No. 207).

  5. Purchas (1617), p. 472.

  6. See the extract from the Jamí'-ut-Tawáríkh (Djami el-Tévarikh), or General History of the World, of Rashíduddín (Rashíd ed-Din, born about 1247 A.D.), in Yule, Cathay and the Road Thither, ed. Cordier (Hakluyt Society, 1914), III, 107-33, esp. 117-18, and II, 227, n. 1. For D'Ohsson's reading of the statement about the dream, see Yule-Cordier, III, 117, n. 4. Rashíd describes the building of Kubla's palace over ‘a certain lake encompassed with meadows near the city.’ The lake having been filled up and covered over and the palace built above it, ‘the water that was thus imprisoned in the bowels of the earth in the course of time forced outlets in sundry places, and thus fountains were produced.’ That is a singular parallel with the subterranean waters of the poem, yet Coleridge could not have known the Jamí'-ut-Tawáríkh. Rashíd's account of the palace is also quoted in The Geographical Review (Am. Geographical Soc.), XV (1925), 591, and in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, new series, VII, 329-38. The text of Rashíd's works is being edited by E. Blochet for the ‘E. J. W. Gibb Memorial.’ See volumes XII and XVIII, 2 of the Memorial series.

    The site of Xanadu has recently been explored; see the article by Lawrence Impey on ‘Shangtu, the Summer Capital of Kublai Khan,’ with interesting plates and plans, in The Geographical Review, XV, 584-604—a reference for which I am indebted to Dr. H. J. Spinden of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. The site was visited in the autumn of 1872 by Dr. S. W. Bushell, Physician to H. B. M. Legation, Peking, whose reports of his expedition may be found in the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, XVIII (1873-74), 156-58; Journal of the Royal Geog. Soc., XLIV (1874), 73-97, esp. 81-84; Journal Royal Asiatic Soc., new series, VII, 329-38. See also Henri Cordier, Les Voyages en Asie au XIVe siècle du … Odoric de Pordonone (in Recueil de Voyages et de Documents pour servir à l'histoire de la géographie depuis le XIIIe jusqu'à la fin du XVIe siècle), X, 413-15. For Friar Odoric's account, see ibid., X, 371-72, and esp. Yule-Cordier, Cathay and the Way Thither, II, 227-28.

    The coincidence of the dream-built palace becomes still more curious when we read, in a Diary of J. Payne Collier: ‘we talked of dreams, the subject having been introduced by a recitation by Coleridge of some lines he had written many years ago upon the building of a Dream-palace by Kubla-Khan’ (Lectures and Notes, p. 17; italics mine). But obviously Collier's note represents merely a confused recollection.

  7. ‘Frost at Midnight,’ l. 12 (Poems, I, 240); A. P., 110; Carlyon, I, 196, n.; Aids to Reflection (1825), pp. 230, 259. For other examples of ‘goings-on’ see Prelude (Selincourt), p. 520. See also Letters of the Wordsworth Family, III, 418 (compare B. L., II, 111).

  8. Order of a sort there obviously must be, in a succession of which the elements are linked. As that acute old diagnostician Thomas Hobbes tersely puts it in the Leviathan: ‘Not every Thought to every Thought succeeds indifferently.’ And since Hobbes, as Aubrey says, was ‘rare at definitions’ (and also master of an inimitable style), I shall quote a part of the highly pertinent remarks which follow: ‘All Fancies are Motions within us, reliques of those made in the Sense: And those motions that immediately succeeded one another in the sense, continue also together after Sense. … But because in sense, to one and the same thing perceived, sometimes one thing, sometimes another succeedeth, it comes to passe in time, that in the Imagining of anything, there is no certainty what we shall Imagine next; Onely this is certain, it shall be something that succeeded the same before, at one time or another’ (Leviathan, Part I, chap. iii). There, set down with perfect precision, is at once the freedom and the determination of the dream.

  9. Transactions of the Wordsworth Society, VI, 225, No. 285.

  10. There are accounts of the Old Man of the Mountain in the Pilgrimage (1617), pp. 249, and esp. 428; in Hakluyt, IV, 438-39; and in Darwin, Zoönomia, II, 386. See also The Voiage and Travayle of Sir John Maundeville, cap. xc (ed. Ashton, pp. 194-96); Marco Polo, ed. Yule-Cordier (1903), I, 139-46.

  11. Purchas, XI, 207-08.

  12. Purchas, XI, 208-09.

  13. Coleridge's use of the passage in the Pilgrimes was pointed out by a correspondent, Mr. Herbert Parsons, in the columns of the London Times Literary Supplement for March 9, 1922, p. 156—a reference which I owe to my friend and former pupil, Mr. John Bakeless. Lest I be thought remiss in acknowledging indebtedness to Mr. Parsons, it is proper to state that two years earlier, in a lecture delivered at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, April 15, 1920, I had discussed the relation of the Old Man of the Mountain to ‘Kubla Khan,’ and that I had previously called attention to it in the classroom. Mr. Parsons's view that Coleridge, in his prefatory note to ‘Kubla Khan,’ completely confused the Pilgrimage and the Pilgrimes, and that he really meant the second when he named the first, is untenable. The same thing, I fear, must be said of Mr. Parsons's interesting interpretation of the poem.

  14. Letters, I, 240.

  15. Fol 32a; Archiv, p. 359.

  16. Bartram, p. 155.

  17. On the next page (158) of the Travels, Bartram finds himself ‘alone in the wilderness of Florida.’

  18. B. E., I, 249.

  19. Poems, I, 181, n. 1. It is the passage about the ‘creeking’ of the wings of the savanna crane.

  20. Bartram, pp. 165-66.

  21. There are one or two other fountains in Bartram, one of which (pp. 203-07) Coleridge remembered when he wrote the first draft of ‘The Wanderings of Cain.’ See also pp. 174-75, 225-26.

    This is as good a place as any to refer to a bit of sublimated Bartram in Lafcadio Hearn's account of a Florida fountain, in the sketch which he called ‘To the Fountain of Youth’ (Leaves from the Diary of an Impressionist, Boston and N.Y., 1911, pp. 56-58).

  22. Bersch, however, in his Marburg dissertation of 1909 (pp. 38-39) did not miss it. He quotes from the German translation of Bartram the account of ‘der bezaubernde und erstaunliche Krystalquell,’ and adds extracts from Bartram's descriptions of the ‘Manate Spring’ and the ‘Alligator Hole.’ Like E. H. Coleridge (see next note), whose paper there is no reason for supposing that he knew, he merely assembles the parallels.

  23. Poems, I, 297, n. 4; Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature, Second Series, Volume XXVII (1906), p. 81. E. H. Coleridge here (though not in his note in the Poems) confuses the ‘Alligator Hole’ (Bartram, p. 238) which Bartram (pp. 239-40) is describing, with the ‘Great Sink,’ of which the account appears more than thirty pages earlier (Bartram, pp. 203-07). On the previous page Mr. Coleridge does quote a sentence from the description of the ‘Great Sink’ (Bartram, p. 203), and then a sentence from the account of the ‘Manate Spring’ from Bartram, p. 231. The passage which he quotes (inaccurately) about the ‘Great Sink’ is from Bartram's account of the ‘Alligator Hole’ on p. 239. He does not refer to the ‘inchanting … fountain’ of pp. 165-66. As it happens, I came upon all the evidence independently of either E. H. Coleridge or Bersch, being more interested at the time in following the fascinating trail to the end than in stopping to find out whether or not somebody else had been over it before me. What I have added, I think, is the demonstration of the associative links which explain the confluence of the scattered impressions with each other, and with the remaining elements of the dream. That neither of my predecessors had attempted, nor had either of them observed the significance of the green and fountainous wilderness plot. …

  24. Bartram, p. 221. See Note 19, above.

  25. Ibid., pp. 239-40.

  26. Ibid., p. 231.

  27. For Brandl's suggestion that the waterfall of ‘This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’ played its part in the dream, see his Coleridge, 1886, pp. 193-94. Bersch (p. 37) seems to have misunderstood Brandl's reference, and confused Porlock with Stowey.

  28. It is normal, too, in that it reflects the idiosyncracies of the dreamer's waking mind. For the confluences of disparate elements in ‘Kubla Khan’ are essentially of one kind with those in ‘The Ancient Mariner.’ In both these poems, however, the scattered and often incongruous details have completely coalesced. In the rough draft of ‘The Wanderings of Cain’ (Poems, I, 285-86, n. 1; … which is broadly synchronous with ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ (pp. 237, 538, …), they are, on the other hand, still unblended and unfused, and, at just this stage of our inquiry, that strange fragment constitutes in consequence a curiously illuminating document. For, as it happens, many of our old familiar friends are there.

    Bartram is present, beyond possibility of doubt, in both the rough draft and the more fully executed fragment (Poems, I, 288-92). The alligators, the ‘immense gulph filled with water,’ and the ‘immense meadow’ are all to be found in Bartram's account of the ‘Great Sink’ (Bartram, pp. 202-07; E. H. Coleridge, who refers to Bartram in his note, gives no specific reference). But there is still more conclusive evidence. In the ‘Wanderings’ itself (ll. 70-72) we read: ‘The scene around was desolate; as far as the eye could reach it was desolate: the bare rocks faced each other, and left a long and wide interval of thin white sand.’ At the top of Bartram's 218th page is this: ‘the most dreary, solitary, desart waste I have ever beheld; groups of bare rocks emerging out of the naked gravel and drifts of white sand; the grass thinly scattered,’ etc. Six lines later in the ‘Wanderings’ (ll. 78-81) comes this: ‘the huge serpent often hissed there beneath the talons of the vulture, and the vulture screamed, his wings imprisoned within the coils of the serpent.’ At the foot of the same 218th page in Bartram begins an account of the struggle between a hawk, with one wing imprisoned, and a great snake that ‘threw himself in coils round [the] body’ of the bird (pp. 218-19; this last parallel is also noted by Bersch, p. 101; see Hakluyt, X, 59, for a similar account of a struggle between an adder and a falcon). Coleridge's Siminoles are only four pages earlier, and the Manate Spring just a dozen pages later in the book. We are in the thick of Coleridge's second ‘cluster-point’ in Bartram.

    And as in ‘Kubla Khan’ Bartram's landscape merges with the cedars and the caverns of the Nile, so here it forms part of one picture with the cedars and the caverns of the Euphrates—as it had earlier been transferred, in ‘Lewti,’ to Circassia! And as in ‘The Ancient Mariner’ the known and familiar landscape of Nether Stowey lent its touches to the poem, so in the ‘Wanderings’ the scene is charged with reminiscences of the nearby Valley of Rocks. And as in ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ so here, dæmonic and angelic forces strive for the mastery, and here as there the victory is with the angels. And the old preoccupation with the elements appears in Cain's address to all of them. And that keen interest in meteors which gave so large a place to the aurora and the dancing stars reappears in the luminous orb, which dances, like one of Priestley's ignes fatui, down ‘those interminable precipices,’ which are like the precipices of the legendary Nile that we have yet to see. In the diversity and multitudinousness of their elements, ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Wanderings of Cain’ are of a piece.

    Years later, in a remarkable passage in Aids to Reflection (Conclusion, pp. 383-86), the imagery which underlay ‘Kubla Khan’ and the ‘Wanderings’ came back, with rare beauty, to Coleridge's memory, and blended, for the last time, in a lovely phantasy.

  29. Poems, I, 119, n. 1. See also p. 495, n. 31, above.

  30. A. P., p. 17.

  31. Coleorton, I, 221.

  32. D. N. B., s.v. James Bruce.

  33. Bruce, III, 596-97.

  34. Bruce, III, 619-20. Paez's account is found in Athanasius Kircher, Œdipus Ægyptiacus (Rome, 1652), I, 57-58. The pertinent portion is as follows:

    Secundus fons vergit a primo in orientem ad iactum lapidis, huius profunditatem explorantes, immissa lancea 12 palmorum, fundum nullum invenimus; colligatisque duabus lanceis 20 palmorum, denuo rem tentavimus, sed nec sic fundum tenere potuimus, dicuntque incolæ, totum montem plenum aquis, cuius hoc signum dabant, quod tota circa fontem planities tremula erat et bulliens, manifestum latentis aquae vestigium, eandemque ob causam non redundat aqua ad fontem, sed ad radices impetu maximo sese egerit; affirmabantque incolæ … eo anno terram parum tremuisse ob magnam anni siccatatem, aliis vero annis ita tremere et bullire, ut vix sine periculo adire liceat.

    In view of Bruce's skepticism regarding the genuineness of Paez's narrative as reported by Kircher, it may be well to refer the reader to the full text of his History, now accessible in the second and third volumes of Rerum Æthiopicarum Scriptores occidentales inediti a sæculo XVI ad XIX, ed. C. Beccari S. I. (P. Petri Paez S. I., Historia Æthiopiæ, Rome, 1905, II, 256 ff.). The passage which Kircher quotes is in II, 256.

    Paez's account (again on Kircher's authority) was also easily accessible in the Voyage to Abyssinia (London, 1735, pp. 210-12, and cf. p. 98), ascribed to Father Jerome Lobo, and translated from the French of Le Grand by Dr. Johnson. It is found in Le Grand (Voyage historique d'Abissinie, du R. P. Jerome Lobo, Paris and La Haye, 1728), pp. 201 ff.; cf. pp. 106 ff. It is also given in part, and referred to Kircher, in Hiob Ludolf, Historia Æthiopica (Frankfort, 1681), Lib. I, cap. viii (sig. D3vo); Job Ludolphus, A New History of Ethiopia, Made English by J. P. Gent., London, 1682, pp. 35-36, 86. Coleridge could scarcely have missed it.

  35. Bruce, III, 644. Compare III, 580: ‘In this plain, the Nile winds more in the space of four miles than, I believe, any river in the world.’ Lobo (p. 102) speaks of the ‘windings’ and the ‘Mazes’ of the Nile, and remarks that ‘it wanders thro’ a long maze of Windings' (p. 211).

  36. Bartram, p. 165. ‘Meander’ is one of Bartram's favorite words. See, for example, pp. 53, 175, 197, 224, 316, 330, 333, 334, 339, 349, 354, 355, 356, 361, 386, 395, etc.

  37. Bruce, III, 582-83.

  38. See above, p. 7.

  39. Bruce, III, 605.

  40. Bruce, III, 648, 650.

  41. Bruce, III, 158. In Ludolphus, A New History of Ethiopia (see Note 34, above), the name of the river is ‘Astabora.’

  42. Garnett (The Poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, p. 292) guessed at a connection between Abora and ‘the Astaboras of the ancients,’ but he overlooked Coleridge's close acquaintance with Bruce's work, and the important implications of that fact. (Incidentally, ‘the Taccaze = terrible’ is another name of the Astaboras, and not, as Garnett states, ‘the principal affluent of this river.’ See Bruce, III, 157-58.) Professor Lane Cooper (Mod. Philol., III, 327-28) is aware of the fact that Coleridge knew Bruce. But he believes that ‘there is in general not enough of the fabulous about Bruce to warrant the supposition that Coleridge is indebted to him for much of Kubla Khan,’ and so he rejects Bruce's influence. But neither Garnett nor Cooper (of whose suggestions I was unaware when I first reached my own conclusions) had worked out the network of associations which bind the elements of ‘Kubla Khan’ together.

  43. Mod. Philol., III, 327-32.

  44. P. L., IV, 268-75, 280-84.

  45. Lectures and Notes, p. 525.

  46. There is an extraordinary document which is evidence enough that such associations were less remote than we might think. It was written by a boy of eighteen, just twenty years before Coleridge's dream was dreamed. On December 4, 1778 (‘being the full of the Moon’) William Beckford, five years later the author of Vathek, wrote down, at Fonthill, an amazing reverie. It was not printed until 1910, and obviously Coleridge never saw it. As a ‘psychological curiosity’ it is interesting to the last degree, but I may quote here a few pertinent sentences only (Lewis Melville, The Life and Letters of William Beckford of Fonthill, London, 1910, pp. 62-63):

    Meanwhile my thoughts were wandering into the interior of Africaand dwelt for hours on those Countries I love. Strange tales of Mount Atlas and relations of Travellers amused my fancy. One instant I imagined myself viewing the marble palaces of Ethiopian princes seated on the green woody margin of Lakes. … Some few minutes after, I found myself standing before a thick wood listening to impetuous water falls. … I was wondering at the Scene when a tall comely Negro wound along the slopes of the Hills and without moving his lips made me comprehend I was in Africa, on the brink of the Nile beneath the Mountains of Amara. I followed his steps thro’ an infinity of irregular Vales, all skirted with Rocks and blooming with an aromatic vegetation, till we arrived at the hollow Peak and … a wide Cavern appeared before us. … We entered the Cavern and fell prostrate before the sacred source of the Nile which issues silently from a deep Gulph in the Rock.

    We may not forget, moreover, that the Happy Valley of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, was ‘in the kingdom of Amhara’ (Rasselas, chap. i), not far from the Nile. And Rasselas (with its strange cavern and its stream which ‘entered a dark cleft of the mountain … and fell with dreadful noise’) may at least have helped to fix the name in Coleridge's memory. The great cavern, it may be added, had a massive iron gate which ‘was opened to the sound of musick’ (chap. i), and there were in the Happy Valley ‘instruments of soft musick … of which some played … by the power of the stream’ (chap. vi). But for many reasons I do not believe that this curious musick has any connection with ‘the mingled measure from the fountain and the caves.’

    The cave at Corycos of which Purchas (Pilgrimage, 1617, p. 382), following Pomponius Mela (Lib. I, cap. xiii), gives an account, ‘terrifieth those that enter, with the muliplied sounds of Cymbals and uncouth minstralsie’; it has a subterranian river; and it is holy (vere sacer). Mela's description is very vivid, and some recollection of it may have lingered in Coleridge's memory. But I know no evidence that it did.

  47. Bruce, III, 255; cf. 248-49.

  48. P. L., IV, 248, 216, 229, 239, 223-25.

  49. Mod. Philol., III, 329-30.

  50. Purchas (1617), Bk. VII, chap. v, §i, pp. 843-44.

  51. Ibid., p. 844.

  52. ‘And yet though thus admired of others, as a Paradise,’ says Purchas, ‘it is made a Prison to some.’ Mount Amara and the secret pleasure-houses of the Old Man of the Mountain agree, then, even in the fact that both are Paradises which are at the same time prisons too. Like Xamdu, moreover, it is ‘compassed with a wall’; from a lake upon it ‘issueth a River, which having from these tops espied Nilus, never leaves seeking to finde him’; like Bartram's spot of enchantment it has its incense-bearing trees—‘Oranges, Citrons, Limons, and the rest; Cedars, Palme-trees, with other trees … to satisfie the sight, taste, and sent … and the Balme tree, whereof there is great store’ (Purchas, 1617, pp. 843-44).

  53. Bruce, III, 589, 593, 563-64, 600, 634, 635-36.

  54. Ibid., IV, 65-67.

  55. Fol. 45b; Archiv, p. 363.

  56. ‘The whole 107th page’ has yet more to do with the moon: ‘All their various … fasts and festivals, are regulated by the course and age of the moon, and thence most of them take their particular denominations’ (capitals Maurice's).

  57. See above, p. 470, n. 137.

  58. Maurice, I, 106-07.

  59. Maurice continues (after a colon):

    Two days before the new moon, there appears a bubble of ice, which increases in size every day till the fifteenth day, at which it is an ell or more in height; then as the moon decreases, the image also gradually diminishes, till at last no vestige of it remains.

    The italics are in Maurice.

  60. Fol. 47a; Archiv, p. 363.

  61. Maurice, I, 105.

  62. Ibid., I, 102.

  63. E. H. Coleridge (Poems, I, 298, n. i) refers to the entry in the Note Book, and to the 107th page of Maurice, but makes no comment.

  64. Maurice, I, 12-13.

  65. Fol. 47a; Archiv, p. 363. For Major Rennell, see above, pp. 33-34.

  66. James Rennell, Memoir of a Map of Hindoostan, Third edition, London, 1793, pp. 143-45.

  67. Faust, Pt. I, ll. 1922-27. For ‘[Traum-Fabrik]’ read, of course, in the original, ‘Gedanken-Fabrik.’

  68. Rennell, Memoir, p. 133 (italics mine); cf. pp. 137, 143.

  69. Maurice, I, 36-37: ‘Bernier, whose curious and entertaining account of part of the Mogul Empire … and of his journey to Cashmire with the Emporer Aurengzeb … fails not on every fresh reading to give new pleasure.’

  70. Maurice, I, 109-10.

  71. It is in Churchill's great Collection of Voyages, VIII (= Osborne II), 102-[245].

  72. Churchill, VIII (as above), 227.

  73. Ibid., VIII, 237.

  74. Ibid., VIII, 243. Coleridge could not have surpassed over p. 242 without reading it!

  75. Ibid., VIII, 228-29.

  76. Ibid., VIII, 234.

  77. Ibid., VIII, 234, 227, 228-29.

  78. Ibid., VIII, 233.

  79. Ibid., VIII, 229.

  80. Ibid., VIII, 234.

  81. Ibid., VIII, 193 (= 195).

  82. Bartram, pp. 166, 231.

  83. See, for example, Pausanias, II, 5; Philostratus, Vita Apollon., I, 20; Strabo, VI, ii, 9; Pliny, Natur. Hist., V, 9(10), 52; Seneca, Natur. Quæst., VI, 8; Lucan, Pharsalia, X, 190 ff.; Solinus, XXXII, 4-5; etc.

  84. Burnet, S. T., I, 226.

  85. Ibid., I, 253.

  86. Bruce, III, 619-20. Cf. Note 34, above.

  87. I wish there were space for the list of them here. The titles may easily be seen in Graesse, Trésor de livres rares et précieux, IV, 20-22; and the lover of dead learning which was once alive may find both diversion and a memento mori by turning over some of the volumes themselves.

  88. Ibid., I, 52:

    Nomen secundi fluvii Gihhon (qui et Nilus dicitur) hic omnem terram Chus percurrit; nam simul ac paradisum egreditur, infra profunda maris et Oceani vada dilapsus, hinc rursus per occultos terræ meatus emergit in montibus Æthiopicis. … Sed urgebit, inquit, aliquis, qui fieri possit, ut fluvii illi e paradiso egressi sub Oceani vada et cor maris præcipitentur, atque inde tandem in hac terra nostra emergant? … Deinde hoc quoque asserimus, paradisum multo sublimiore regione positum esse, quam hæc terra nostra, ac proinde fieri, ut illinc per immania subterraneorum meatuum præcipitia delabantur fluvii, tanto cum impetu impulsi, coarctatique sub maris fundum rapiantur, unde rursus emergant, ebulliantque in hoc orbe nostro.

  89. Kircher, Œdipus Ægyptiacus (Romae, 1652), I, 53-54.

  90. Ibid., I, 55: Verum Odoardus id negat cum aliis horum locorum incolis, qui affirmant unanimiter Nilum mox ubi egressus est lacum, per horribiles quasdam et impenetrabiles valles, per præcipitia hominibus inaccessa ac deserta invia præcipitatum, ita profundissimis vallibus abscondi, ut ipsis intimis terrae visceribus exceptus videatur, abyssisque absorptus. … Hinc vero aliis fluminibus auctus inter angustas montium valles devectus, perque catadupas in humiles Ægypti campos præceps actus, tandem multiplici gyro in mediterraneum mare dilabitur.

  91. Ibid., I, maps between pp. 52-53.

  92. Bartram, p. 226.

  93. Kircher, Œdipus Ægyptiacus, I, 58.

  94. Ibid., I, 57.

  95. Lobo, Voyage to Abyssinia (1735), p. 98.

  96. Notes, p. 283; cf. Table Talk, Aug. 15, 1833.

  97. Herodotus, II, 28. Rawlinson's translation (London, 1862), II, 31.

  98. See Lowes. The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927, pp. 159, 502, n. 28.

  99. Æneid, III, 694-96.

  100. Burnet, S. T., I, 112-13.

  101. Taylor, Pausanias, I, xii.

  102. Letters, I, 181.

  103. Taylor, Pausanias, II, 381-82. The passage translated is Bk. VIII, ch. liv, § 2 of the Description of Greece. I quote Taylor's translation only because Coleridge had probably read it. Incidentally, it was in Wordsworth's library (Trans. Wordsworth Soc., VI, 213, No. 147). For a more accurate rendering see Sir James G. Frazer's Pausanias (London, 1898), I, 443.

  104. Taylor, Pausanias, II, 18 (Bk. V, ch. vii, §§ 2-3). See Frazer, I, 245.

  105. A. P., p. 152; Notes, p. 312; Table Talk, Aug. 20, 1833.

  106. Geography, VI, ii, 4 (C 270).

  107. Ibid., VI, ii, 4 (C 271).

  108. Ibid., VI, ii, 9 (C 275). I have used the translation of Professor H. L. Jones, in the Loeb Classical Library (III, 75, 79, 91-92).

  109. Letters, I, 180.

  110. Miscellanies, p. 179 (cf. p. 89); Table Talk, June 26, 1830.

  111. Quæstiones Naturales, III, xxvi, 4.

  112. Ibid., VI, viii, 1-3.

  113. Ibid., VI, vii, 5. I am using the translation of John Clarke, Physical Science in the Time of Nero (London, 1910), pp. 142, 235, 234.

  114. Bernardus Ramazzinus, Opera omnia (1716), p. 260. See Burnet, S. T., I, 272.

  115. Argonauticon, VIII, 90-91.

  116. Purchas (1617), p. 472.

  117. Ibid., p. 470.

  118. Ibid., p. 471.

  119. Bruce, IV, 129-30. There is a curious account in Benyowski which Coleridge must have read, of a Kamschatkan sorcerer who prophesies vengeance for ‘the death of the spirits of our fathers whom the Russians have cut off’ (Memoirs, I, 185-86).

  120. An Arabian Tale, etc. (The History of the Caliph Vathek), London, 1786, pp. 2-5, 23-24, 35-36; Vathek, Lausanne, 1787, pp. 2-4, 22-23, 33-34; Vathek, Conte Arabe, Paris, 1787, pp. 4-5, 19-20, 27.

  121. Ed. 1786 (London), p. 37; ed. 1787 (Lausanne), p. 35; ed. 1787 (Paris), pp. 27-28.

  122. Fol. 21a (Archiv, p. 352); fol. 25a (Archiv, p. 354).

  123. Letters, I, 196. Italics Coleridge's. See context for sense of ‘impassioned.’

  124. ‘The Passions,’ ll. 60-68.

  125. I am indebted to a note in The Nation and Athenæum, Vol. XXX, pp. 664-66 (Jan. 28, 1922), for the reminiscences of ‘The Passions,’ and for the note, in turn, to the watchful eye of Mr. John Bakeless. For the application of the facts, however, I am responsible.

  126. William James, The Principles of Psychology, I, 582.

  127. I shall give but one of these guesses. Coleridge made memorandum, as we saw long ago (pp. 30, 161, above), to read Mary Wollstonecraft's Letters. If he did, he read this—a dozen pages only from the stars that ‘darted forward’:

    Coming to the conflux of the various cataracts, rushing from different falls, struggling with the huge masses of rock, and rebounding from the profound cavities, I … acknowledg[ed] that it was indeed a grand object. A little island stood in the midst … which, by dividing the torrent, rendered it more picturesque; one part appearing to issue from a dark cavern, that fancy might easily imagine a vast fountain, throwing up its waters from the very centre of the earth (Letters written during a short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, London, 1796, pp. 189-90).

    Did that perhaps lend a word or two, at least, to ‘Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail’? The links are there, and it is not impossible.

  128. Mr. Graves's interpretation is found in his book, The Meaning of Dreams (London, 1924), pp. 145-58. And since scrupulous accuracy in the minutest details is admittedly a sine qua non in psycho-analysis (witness the rigorous exactness displayed in the analysis of dreams by Mr. Graves's master, Dr. Rivers) it may not be amiss to examine briefly Mr. Graves's account of the setting of Coleridge's dream, since upon this his whole analysis depends. I shall consider three points only, all of which are fundamental to the proposed interpretation. Mr. Graves's assumption throughout that as early as 1798 Coleridge was a confirmed user of opium need not be considered here, since in Chapter XXI in Lowe's The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927, (written before The Meaning of Dreams appeared), that question is discussed.

    Mr. Graves finds the key to a significant element in the latent meaning of the dream in Coleridge's relations with his wife, and his authority is the well-known passage in Thomas De Quincey. ‘In De Quincey's Reminiscences of the English Lake Poets,’ we read (Graves, p. 148), ‘an account is given of the relations existing about this time [italics mine] between Coleridge, his wife and Dorothy Wordsworth,’ and Mr. Graves's next four pages are given over to an excerpt, not always accurately quoted, from De Quincey's narrative. ‘About this time’ (the preceding paragraph leaves the reference unmistakable) was May, 1798; De Quincey's visit occurred in July or August, 1807 (Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, 1834, pp. 509-17; Campbell, Narrative, pp. 161-63); and his account of it, from which the quotation is drawn, was written in 1834. The interpretation of a dream of 1798, accordingly, is based on a statement of conditions as they existed (or were reported at second or third hand) in 1807, more than nine years later. That is enough; but it is not without pertinence to recall that even this account was written twenty-seven years after the visit, and that, as James Dykes Campbell puts it (Narrative, p. 161, n. 5), ‘the whole article bristles with blunders of every description.’ Of De Quincey's notorious untrustworthiness as a witness, especially in this famous article, Mr. Graves is apparently unaware.

    The next point (made, like the first, in entire good faith) is even more misleading, if that is possible. For Mr. Graves has been himself misled, through failure to consult the original of another statement on which he builds his case. I quote from The Meaning of Dreams, p. 153:

    Brandt [by whom Brandl is meant], in his life of Coleridge, discusses the effect of opium on the poet. ‘After a dose he would sleep—a deep sleep of the outer senses for three hours during which all life centred morbidly in the imagination. A country bower among green hills appeared to his inward sight; his beloved lay fondly at his side; music sounded and a prophetic mood possessed him inspiring both surprise and awe. This was a favorite idyllic situation with him, the same that meets us first in The Æolian Harp; even the “circling honey drops” the paradisal sweetness, with melody in addition, repeated themselves in this mood.’ Brandt [so again] then relates how the poem came to be written.

    The passage (quoted by Mr. Graves with nine slight variations from the text as printed) is from Lady Eastlake's authorized translation (1887, p. 184) of Brandl's Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1886). ‘After a dose he would sleep’—that can mean only one thing: a general statement regarding ‘the effect of opium on the poet,’ and it carries with it, as part of such a statement of a uniform effect, all the details which follow it. Now there are few more untrustworthy translations than Lady Eastlake's rendering of Brandl's book, and this is only one case in point. What Brandl wrote was this: ‘Darnach dürfte die Medicin, die er—nach seinem eigenen Berichte—auf dem genannten Ausflug anwendete, aber nicht näher bezeichnet, Opium gewesen sein. Alsbald trat ein tiefer, dreistündiger Schlaf der äusseren Sinne ein,’ etc. (p. 192). Brandl is describing this dream—the dream from which ‘Kubla Khan’ arose—and this dream only; and Lady Eastlake's ‘would sleep,’ which has not the slightest warrant in the text, completely (however unintentionally) subverts the sense. And the blunder is twice repeated a few lines later. ‘Just before one of these sleeps,’ she translates (p. 184), ‘Coleridge had read in Purchas' “Pilgrimage,”’ etc. Brandl's words are (p. 193): ‘Coleridge hatte unmittelbar vor dem Einschlafen [“before he fell asleep,” i.e., in the farm house] in Purchas' “Pilgerschaft” … gelesen,’ etc. And again, in the same paragraph, when Brandl writes (still explicitly of this one occasion): ‘Kaum erwacht, begann or niederzuschreiben’ (p. 194), Lady Eastlake translates: ‘Hardly awake from these trances, he would begin to write’ (p. 185; the italics throughout the quotations are mine). Comment is fruitless. In a word, through following a flagrant mistranslation Mr. Graves has mistaken a specific statement about this dream for a general statement about Coleridge's other dreams, and has then proceeded to employ this spurious generalization as evidence in interpreting the very dream which alone it was meant to describe. A more hopelessly vicious circle it would be difficult to conceive. The other curious mistranslations in the passage need not detain us, but one statement of Brandl's (which Lady Eastlake has again misinterpreted) must.

    ‘His beloved lay fondly at his side’ (‘die Geliebte schmiegte sich an seine Seite’). As for that, there are two or three things to be observed. First, there is no ‘beloved’ (Geliebte) at Coleridge's side in ‘Kubla Khan.’ Second, we know nothing about Coleridge's ‘usual opium dreams’ (I am quoting Mr. Graves); all that is a pure figment of Lady Eastlake's mistranslation. Third, ‘lay fondly,’ as a translation of ‘schmiegte,’ reads into Brandl's phrase a sense which Brandl (whose own slip is serious enough without that) did not put there. Lady Eastlake (and this time it is not to be wondered at) has missed the point of Brandl's confusing (and confused) exposition. For he is assuming that in ‘Kubla Khan’ we have Coleridge's ‘idyllische Lieblingssituation’ (pp. 192-93), which he proceeds to describe in terms ofThe Eolian Harp.’ And in the opening lines of ‘The Eolian Harp’ Coleridge's ‘Geliebte’ (who is ‘my pensive Sara’!) sits with ‘[her] soft cheek reclined Thus on [his] arm’ (Poems, I, 100)—in other words, ‘die Geliebte schmiegte sich an seine Seite.’ That is the situation which Brandl is sketching, as anyone who reads the passage on pp. 192-93 of the German text will see. His transfer of this situation to ‘Kubla Khan’ is wholly without warrant, and Lady Eastlake's translation is equally untenable. Both text and translation are this time at fault. In other words, ‘The Eolian Harp’ is not an opium dream; ‘Kubla Khan’ is the only opium dream of Coleridge's which we possess; there is no beloved lying fondly at his side in either. Why Mr. Graves should not have gone straight to the dreamer himself (i.e., to the only transcript of the dream which has survived: to wit, the poem), instead of resting his case at third-hand on a crass mistranslation and a conjectural beloved, it is difficult, in view of his emphasis on scientific method, to understand. And inasmuch as the ‘Geliebte’ on whom Brandl rests his case was Coleridge's wife, Mr. Graves's hypothesis (see the last paragraph of the quotation below) assumes a slightly humorous aspect. I have dwelt on this hopeless mélange of blunders only because they constitute the sole foundation of an exposition which claims to be based on ‘science and logic and commonsense’ (p. 166).

    These are the chief premises on which Mr. Graves's conclusions rest. ‘Here then,’ he goes on, ‘is the setting; what of the interpretation?’ Well, here it is (pp. 156-58):

    It is best to start with the easiest part of the symbolism and work back to the less obvious. The last part of the poem, then, seems to be closely connected with the opium-eating conflict, a justification of these habits on the ground that the vivid and emotional visions which the drug gives him will one day be translated into a poetry that will stagger the world. This part of the poem is also closely connected with those dreams of disappointed ambition which I described in an earlier chapter; he is making himself half-divine on the strength of his genius, not only to impress his friends who are losing confidence in him, but also as a weapon against his ambitious and disillusioned wife.

    His attitude towards his wife in this matter makes a connecting link, as I read the poem, with the earlier part. Coleridge is evidently thinking of himself in terms of the serene and powerful Kubla. It must be noticed that the pleasure dome, the delightful bower into which Coleridge always [Lady Eastlake's ‘would sleep’ has had its perfect work] retired under the influence of opium, was built midway between the haunted and half-human chasm from which the stream issued and the gloomy caverns into which it sank, a retreat from both.

    But even this idyllic spot was not secure from the gloomy prophecies uttered from afar. I do not think it fanciful to suggest that these distant voices were in one sense, those of Lamb and Lloyd making their gloomy prophecies as to the fate of the drugtaker [where are these prophecies found? One would give much to see them]; in another they were probably the reminder that while the life of England was threatened by war with France, it was hardly the duty of an Englishman, even a genius, to bury himself far off in the West Country and weaken his spirit with opium.

    What of the romantic chasm and the woman wailing for her demon lover? I would suggest that this refers to the former strong passion that Coleridge had felt for his wife who was now bitterly reproaching him for his supposed unfaithfulness; but I will not insist on this interpretation. The caves into which this river sinks to run underground in the lifeless ocean would represent in this sense the Berkeley Coleridge part of the story, his wife's condition at the time [Mr. Graves has earlier pointed out that Berkeley Coleridge was born May 14, 1798] complicating his attitude towards her and making her reproaches on the ground of his unfaithfulness still more bitter, so that the retreat was more needed than ever. In a more general sense the river is probably also the life of man, from birth to death; we understand from the poem that Coleridge has determined to shun the mazy complications of life by retreating to a bower of poetry, solitude and opium. The caves of ice are puzzling. We do not know who the beloved was who lay fondly at his side in his usual opium dreams, certainly it was not his wife at this time [further comment is unnecessary]. For Dorothy, Coleridge's admiration was an intellectual one only, as De Quincey makes clear, so that the caves of ice are possibly a symbolic way of saying that thoughts of a passionate nature did not disturb his serene retreat.

    Guessing, like glozing, ‘is a glorious thing certeyn!’ But if this interpretation is to be regarded as an analysis based on scientific principles, I can only repeat that the evidence offered in support of it is worse than valueless. And I suspect that psychoanalysis as applied to works of the imagination will gain the confidence of scholars only when the analysts master at firsthand the evidence which they employ. Then conclusions may at least be tested, and accepted or rejected or amended, as dispassionate consideration of the evidence decrees. With genuinely scientific essays to discover truth no student of literature can ever quarrel. And in this note I have been far more concerned with a principle than with a case.

    Attempts at symbolic interpretations of ‘Kubla Khan’ with no relation to dream psychology are common enough. They are for the most part (except to their only begetters) wildly improbable, and it does not fall within my purpose to discuss them. A typical example may be found in Charles D. Stewart, Essays on the Spot (Boston and New York, 1910), pp. 105-89.

Harold Bloom (essay date 1961)

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SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “‘Kubla Khan.’” In Coleridge: The Ancient Mariner and Other Poems, A Casebook, edited by Alun R. Jones and William Tydeman, pp. 217-20. London, England: Macmillan, 1973.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Bloom views “Kubla Khan” as a work of romantic self-recognition, and of the reconciliation of opposites within the poetic imagination.]

‘Kubla Khan’ is a poem of self-recognition, in which the figure of the youth as virile poet is finally identified with the poem's speaker. Behind Coleridge's poem is Collins' masterpiece of a poet's incarnation, the ‘Ode on the Poetical Character', and the dark fates of Collins himself, the young Chatterton, Smart, and the other doomed bards of sensibility. These are the rich-haired youths of Morn, Apollo sacrifices who precede Coleridge in his appearance with flashing eyes and floating hair in the last lines of ‘Kubla Khan.’ In Blake's myth such a youth is a form of the rising Orc, the fiery dawn of a new Beulah or increase in sensual fulfilment, but an Adonis as well as an Apollo, a dawn that is merely cyclic in nature, an outburst of energy in which the organic and the creative are uneasily allied. The young poets of ‘Alastor’ and ‘Endymion', with their dark and glorious destinies, and their sense of both embodying nature and yet being imprisoned by it, are later forms of Coleridge's myth. The old poet of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ with his deliberate voyage out of nature is the fitting dying fall for the Romantic tradition of tragic poetic self-recognition.

Internally, ‘Kubla Khan’ is no fragment but a vision of creation and destruction, each complete. It is not quite a ‘poem about the act of poetic creation,’ for it contains that theme as one element in a more varied unity, just as Yeats's ‘Byzantium’ does.

Kubla Khan and Xanadu belong to the given of the poem; we need to accept them without asking why this potentate or this place. Kubla has power and can command magnificence; that is enough. He builds a dome of pleasure for himself, as the rulers of Byzantium built a greater dome to honor God. But the Byzantine dome, while apt for Yeats's purposes, is too theological for Coleridge's poem. Kubla builds the dome for himself, and the poet with his music will build a dome in air, matching and at length overgoing the mightiest of human material power. The orthodox censor in Coleridge gives him the remote dome in Xanadu, and avoids the issue of the poet's relative sanctity against more than natural verities.

Kubla picks his spot with precision. A sacred river runs into the ground at just the point where the great dome is decreed. Beneath the dome is the underground river, running in measureless caverns down to a sunless sea. The dome rises above an artificial paradise, ten miles in diameter, including both elaborate gardens and ancient forests. Amid these forests is a chasm from which a fountain suddenly bursts, part earthquake, part geyser. ‘Momently’ the underground river is forced up and runs five miles above ground until it reaches the caverns again and sinks down. In this sudden upheaval the fountain evidently comes up near the dome, as that is at the midpoint of the enclosure.

Now it is clear that this upheaval is only a momentary affair; Coleridge emphasizes this by saying ‘momently’ twice, in lines 19 and 24. And so the miracle of rare device of line 35 is only momentary also. Just once in this upheaval, which is to Kubla a presage of the contrary of his pleasure garden (‘ancestral voices prophesying war’), Kubla and we can visualize the following phenomena intimately associated: the dome (with sunlight upon it), the dome's shadow floating midway upon the waves of the seething, forced-up river; the fountain geyser with its hurling rocks, just next to the dome; and the exposed icy caverns beneath, from which the fountain has momentarily removed the covering earth. The effect is apocalyptic, for what is revealed is a natural miracle:

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

The river, now raised again, is sacred. The chasm is holy and enchanted, and is associated with waning moonlight. The river comes up as the fountain before it settles down again, and so the fountain is sacred too, and the fragments of earth flung up in it take on the orderly associations of the sacred; they are dancing rocks. The exposed caverns are icy; the dome is sunny. What is exposed is holy; what was built for exposure is representative of a perfect pleasure, the dome being necessarily a perfect hemisphere.

At the midpoint of the momentarily flung-up river we see and hear, together, the extraordinary sight of the shadow of the pleasure dome, and the mingled music of the bursting fountain and the exposed underground current. As the contraries of sun and moon, dome and cavern, light and dark, heat and ice meet, Kubla hears the voices of the dead speaking to the living within a scene of peace and prophesying war. The momentary upheaval itself is the contrary and answer of nature to Kubla's decree of the power of art. The fountain rises suddenly like Blake's wind of Beulah or Shelley's West Wind, to create and destroy, to bring sun and ice together. The very sign of the fountain's potential for destruction is also an emblem of ‘chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail,’ and the sexual intimations of the poem are undeniable, though they are subordinated to and subsumed by the more general theme of creation and destruction.

Kubla had not sought the balance or reconciliation of opposites which Coleridge and Blake alike saw as the mark of the creative imagination, but momentarily his dome and the bursting fountain together do present a vision of such a balance; the landscape becomes a poem, and the imagination has its manifestation. The triumphal chant that follows is Coleridge's assertion that he as poet can build a finer dome and a more abiding paradise than Kubla's, and one that would have both convex heat and concave ice without the necessity of earthquake. Coleridge's music would be ‘loud and long’; Kubla's is momentary.

The earthly paradise traditionally takes one of its alternate placings in Abyssinia. The crucial passage here is in Paradise Lost:

Mount Amara, though this by some suppos'd
True Paradise under the Ethiop Line
By Nilus head, enclos'd with shining Rock.

(iv 281-3)

This is Coleridge's Mount Abora, and his Abyssinian maid, in singing of it, is celebrating Paradise. Once the poet saw her in vision; if he now revives within himself her song of Eden he will enter a state of such deep delight:

That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves in ice!

He would rival Kubla's decreed dome, and also produce the imaginative miracle of the juxtaposed contraries, and without the equivocal aid of the paradoxical upheaval that simultaneously creates and threatens the destruction of the ‘rare device.’ For this is the potential of the poetic imagination to create more lastingly than even Nature and Art can do together. And could he do this, he would be a reincarnation of the young Apollo. Those who heard his song would see his visionary creation, for that is the inventive power of poetry. And they would grant him the awe due to the youth who has eaten the fruit and drunk the milk of the Eden forbidden to them, or open only through vicarious participation in the poet's vision:

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.

Richard Gerber (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: Gerber, Richard. “Keys to ‘Kubla Khan.’” English Studies 44, no. 5 (October 1963): 321-41.

[In the following essay, Gerber traces a “fundamental dialectic principle” in “Kubla Khan,” featured in a coalescence of references to Kubla and the Roman mother-goddess Cybele, as well as in the structure of the poem itself.]

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.(1)

It is fairly safe to say that no poem in the English language has provided more pages of comment per line than ‘Kubla Khan.’ Even if we disregard the large volume of separate articles it remains in an unique position since it is the only 54-line poem to have inspired three voluminous books of criticism.2 These books and articles offer innumerable keys to an understanding of the poem. Some of these keys seem to fit and give access to larger and smaller, to more central and more peripheral chambers of the enigmatical structure. But although we get to know more and more about the poem there seem to be still further mysterious chambers that have not been opened yet. So the few keys offered here will possibly be welcome. Some of them may open only minor chambers, but I think that there is at least one—fantastically absurd though it will appear at first sight in its deceptive simplicity—that will open an important secret chamber at the very heart of the poem.



The first question I should like to consider is a preliminary one. It concerns the nature of the relation between the dream composition and the conscious literary artifact. According to Coleridge ‘Kubla Khan’ is a dream-composition, based on a passage from Purchas which he read before starting to dream. Lowes accepted this statement in The Road to Xanadu and corroborated it. Elisabeth Schneider tried to refute this claim in Coleridge, Opium and ‘Kubla Khan.’ The truth lies somewhere between the extremes.

Since the discovery of the Crewe MS3 there cannot be any doubt that Coleridge worked on the surface of the poem in full daylight consciousness. Only two changes need be mentioned here to illustrate this. In the Crewe MS lines 6 and 7 read as follows:

So twice six miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were compass'd round.

The printed version has:

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round.

The first version is closer to Coleridge's original in Purchas: ‘encompassing sixteene miles.’ The second version has a more enchanting, almost hypnotically intoxicating sound-pattern. Three sibilant s-sounds have been eliminated, while the i-diphthong now occurs four times in a line, in a kind of incantatory repetition. Moreover ‘girdled’ provides an assonant echo to ‘fertile', so that ‘fertile ground’ and ‘girdled round’ can almost be regarded as double rhymes.

The second change I should like to consider concerns Mount Abora in line 41. In the Crewe MS Abora was still Amara as in Paradise Lost. Then Coleridge changed this to Amora, and then to Abora in the printed version. Why? I think we can guess if we look at lines 40/41 in their original state.

And on her dulcimer she played
Singing of Mount Amara.

Although dulci and amara are not semantically opposed to each other in this case, the reader may easily be led to think of a girl playing on a sweet instrument, singing of a bitter mountain, which contradicts the poet's intention. Amora which replaced Amara is so close to Amor that there is the danger of an allegorical interpretation. In selecting Abora Coleridge escapes both these disturbing possibilities.

But in spite of such minor amendments the poem retains its dreamlike character in its abrupt shifts and changes, which makes it extremely unlikely that the poem was consciously elaborated in its main features. I hope to give some proof later on to justify this agreement with Coleridge and the large majority of critics. But in spite of this conviction I should like to regard the poem as a more consciously contrived work of art than John Beer in Coleridge the Visionary and some other critics do. Especially the important passage near the beginning of the poem leaves room for doubt regarding the dreamlike nature of the poem:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
          Down to a sunless sea.

These lines do not fit into the dreamlike sequence of the first two stanzas. A dream may have strange sudden shifts and changes but hardly jumps about in this particular manner: it does not neatly and succinctly interpolate a passage in the middle of a text which keeps fairly closely to the original in Purchas, in order to sum up and anticipate a picture that occurs much later in the more natural dreamlike sequence of events:

                                                  … the sacred river ran
Then reached the caverns measureless to man
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean.

If we exclude the three lines near the beginning the development continues without a break to the end of the second stanza. First there is the building of the pleasure-dome and the encircling of the landscape more or less as we find it in Purchas: ‘In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant springs, delightful Streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure.’4 Then there is a shift in the poem to something different, ‘forests ancient as the hills.’ This phrase stands midway between the character of the landscape in the first and the second stanza. In the hilly forests there is a chasm and a mighty fountain springs up. Then we follow the course of the river coming from the fountain until it disappears in the caverns.

If lines 3-5, which interrupt this continuous development, do form a part of the dream-composition they had better be regarded as part of a later stage in the compositional dream-work. Although there can never be any certainty about the complex processes of a dream in a mind like Coleridge's, it seems advisable not to start with an attempt to establish an associative connection between Kubla Khan and the river Alph right away, as Beer does, for this would force us to indulge in some wild flights of fancy, of which Beer's book is by no means free.



But at first we do not have to go beyond the second line of the poem anyway.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree.

Purchas does not mention a dome, only a house and a palace. Why dome? Elisabeth Schneider calls dome a ‘self-echo', for this is not the only time that Coleridge uses the word. Beer sees the origin of dome in domelike temples of which Coleridge may have read.

We need not stray so far. Wherever possible we shall restrict our enquiries to Coleridge's own poetical work. But this does not mean that we need reduce the reason for Coleridge's choice of the word to the fullness of its sound, as Elisabeth Schneider does. Coleridge had used the word dome before in order to express the quintessence of sensual oriental pleasure.

Hence the soft couch, and many-coloured robe,
The timbrel, and arched dome and costly feast.(5)

Since he had used it thus at a decisive point in one of his most ambitious earlier poems he could unconsciously have chosen it again as a much more significant and specialized term than either house or palace.

But there is a deeper meaning behind this connection. Dome in ‘Religious Musings’ is not an isolated symbol but part of an evolutionary context which is thematically related to Kubla Khan's historical situation. In the passage from which I have quoted we first see the primitive nomad moving over the grassland with vacant mind. Then imagination takes root and the nomad wants to acquire property, and becomes sedentary and luxury-loving, and erects a dome of pleasure. If Coleridge had been consciously looking for a prototype symbolising this evolutionary change he could hardly have found a more representative figure in his oriental context than the Mongol Kubla Khan who established himself in China.



The decreeing of the pleasure-dome and the encircling of the gardens constitute the only action in the poem that is related to Kubla Khan. The only hint of a different action connected with him occurs at the end of the second stanza:

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war.

This double aspect of the Kubla Khan action, pleasure-dome on the one hand, war on the other hand, also closely corresponds to the ideas expressed in the evolutionary passage from ‘Religious Musings', for luxury is only one of the forces that at first disturb man but may lead him on to higher thoughts and spheres of life:

                                                  From Luxury and War
Sprang heavenly Science; and from Science Freedom.(6)

But the dialectic evolution through these two negative-positive forces, luxury and war, is not developed in ‘Kubla Khan.’ We know that Coleridge considered ‘Kubla Khan’ a fragment and that he thought of continuing the poem. Some of his notes seem to point in the direction of an eastern potentate evolving towards Heavenly Science and Freedom. We read: ‘Kublai Khan ordered letters to be invented for his people.’7 Coleridge further makes an entry which is concerned with an oriental Khan who changed from an eastern despot to a benevolent philosopher of the age of reason.8 But there are so many entries in the Notebooks that two isolated hints do not throw much light on a possible continuation of the poem. All we can say is that the poem remains a fragment as far as the action centering on Kubla Khan is concerned.



Between pleasure-dome at the beginning of the first stanza and war at the end of the second stanza two different types of landscape make their appearance, a pleasant garden on the one hand, savage hills on the other. If we exclude lines 3-5 the first sign of the second landscape, which is not found in Purchas, appears in ‘Forests ancient as the hills.’ Lowes tried to locate the associative origin of these mysterious forests in an oriental palm-grove, but this hardly evokes the picture created in one's mind by Coleridge's phrase. Elisabeth Schneider in this case shows more regard for the atmosphere of the poem by associating these forests with the forests of Germany. But even if Coleridge had written ‘Kubla Khan’ after his stay in Germany, as Elisabeth Schneider contends, there is no reason why he should associate the German forests with Kubla Khan's pleasure-garden. Perhaps the explanations lies nearer at hand. If we look at the passage in Purchas we notice that there is one element that has not been used by Coleridge: ‘all sorts of beasts of chase and game.’ But this phrase is so closely associated with forests that it can easily evoke their image. The O.E.D. defines one main meaning of forest as ‘woodland district, usually belonging to the king, set apart for hunting wild beasts and game.’ But even if this should be the origin of these forests, their description ancient as the hills, which seems more closely connected with the second stanza, remains mysterious.



As no critic could fail to see, the landscape of the second stanza of the poem is quite different from that of the first stanza. Instead of gardens there is a savage place, instead of fertile ground there are hills and a chasm, instead of Kubla Khan there appears a woman wailing for her demon lover, instead of quietly enfolded sunny spots of greenery and pleasant sinuous rills there is an earth heaving and rhythmically panting, giving birth to a huge fountain and river. But why this strange shift should have occurred has never been satisfactorily explained. Lowes has located a number of isolated ‘hooked atoms’ which contribute to this picture, but there is no reason at all why just this particular picture should have emerged from an atomistic chaos. Thousands of other combinations of hooked atoms might have been possible. Beer gives an explanation which throws more light on this stanza but also forces it into a cabalistic straitjacket, in an interpretation in which the destructive aspect of fallen natura naturata is given too much prominence. His final explanation lies in seeing this part of the poem as an expression of ‘Typhonic forces’ corresponding to the destructive Typhonic sun in ‘The Ancient Mariner.’ Other critics perceive various archetypal oppositions. All these interpretations contribute to an understanding of this stanza, but I suggest that we have to look for a different, more particular, more strangely consistent dreamlike way of shaping and transforming the original data in order to find the creative source of this stanza.

Since Freud and his successors we all know about the condensation (Verdichtung) and the shifting (Verschiebung) that takes place in dreams. We also know of the special importance of the identity or similarity in words or names. In our connection the best example for such a dream that I know of occurs in a book by Werner Kemper.9 Kemper one night had a dream about a Professor Leonhard whom he had met many years ago. On waking he wondered why he should have dreamt of this man. He remembered that among the many books on his writing-table there was one by Professor Leonhard. On checking this he found that the book by Leonhard was accidentally lying on the top of a pile of books there, so that his eye must unconsciously have rested on the name before he went to bed. He first wanted to leave it at that although certain features of the Leonhard in the dream did not fit the real Leonhard. Being an expert in dreams he followed these clues and found that the shape of the head in the dream belonged to another professor whose name was Volhard. But his shoulders and his voice belonged neither to Leonhard nor Volhard but to another professor again, whose name was Lehnartz. So we see that in this case we have three persons in one. This condensation was favoured by the similarity of the persons' names for Leonhard can be regarded as a portmanteau word formed by a combination of Lehnartz and Volhard. Moreover the three persons have certain common characteristics so that they can be more easily connected. They are all professors.

To sum up: We have first a surface-name which was suggested by having been read before the reader went to sleep. We have a dream picture which after the reader's waking up is only remembered by that surface-name and which partly corresponds to the picture designated by the surface-name. But certain important features do not correspond to it. An analysis shows that these disturbing features belong to persons whose names are contained in and suggested by the surface-name. Moreover, some of the characteristics of these persons correspond to some of the characteristics belonging to the person designated by the surface-name.

If we apply this to our poem the ‘surface-name’ is certainly Kubla Khan, or just Kubla as in the second stanza, or Cubla as in the Crewe MS, or Cublai as in the passage by Purchas which Coleridge read before going to sleep. But what then is the hidden being whose name is related to Kubla-Cubla-Cublai and which suggests savage nature, holiness and enchantment, a woman wailing for her demon lover, an earth rhythmically pulsating giving birth? I suggest that this hidden being, which has puzzled generations of critics and scholars, and Coleridge himself, is the great earth- and mother-goddess …, called Cybele in English.

This suggestion will soon seem less fantastic than it may appear at first sight.

As to the name: it corresponds more closely to Kubla-Cubla-Cublai than e.g. Volhard to Leonhard. How easily the two names can be mixed up was shown by a colleague of mine who had never heard of Kubla Khan and asked me if there was any connection with [Cybele], when I mentioned Coleridge's poem.

But what are the other features that Cybele and Cublai have in common? We shall disregard this question for the moment and instead consider first how the goddess Cybele sums up a number of the most important features of the disturbing, un-Kublalike second stanza and also the mysterious ‘forests ancient as the hills.’

First of all we should stress the fact that Cybele was an extremely well-known and important goddess whose cult spread from Asia Minor to Greece and to Rome and all over the Roman Empire. She was familiar to Coleridge who refers to her in a notebook entry in 1805 in a context which is reminiscent of the landscape of the second stanza of ‘Kubla Khan’: ‘the Rock-mountains die off into green Hills, … O what a scene.’ ‘absolute rock, once or twice with a Tower like the Head of Cybele.’10 Literary references to Cybele are frequent. Let us look at the details. ‘Forests ancient as the hills.’ Cybelle was the goddess of the wild forests and the hills. … Cybele was the goddess of wild, savage nature. Her original shrine was a cave in the mountains of Asia Minor. That her place was ‘holy and enchanted’ is a matter of course. ‘Woman wailing for her demon lover’: Cybele was probably the best-known of the goddesses who wailed for a demon lover. The legends attached to her lover Attis are many and we need not go into all the details connected with them.11 The main fact is that Attis was mutilated and died and that Cybele wildly bewailed his death. The wildness of the sorrow expressed for his death at the festival of the Megalesia in Rome surpassed anything now imaginable. Her lover Attis was a vegetation god and his death signified the cyclical decrease in the forces of nature. In connection with this aspect Attis was also a moon-god, sometimes simply represented by the sickle of the moon. So we can understand that the wailing for the demon-lover takes place under a waning moon.

Cybele was identified not only with nature but with the Earth itself. She was Magna Mater, the Great Mother, giving birth to all there is on earth, to the gods as well as to vegetation. She is generally pictured as a woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy. In her original shrine she was venerated as a piece of rock. So it is hardly surprising that, as earth giving birth to the fructifying forces of nature, she throws up pieces of rock that are compared to grain.



All these features fit Cybele exactly. Her connection with the sacred river Alph on the other hand is not so immediately clear. Lowes and Beer connect Alph with the sacred river Nile. We can stay nearer to the earth-goddess Cybele. First of all it seems quite fitting that the fructifying forces to which the mother-goddess representing the earth gives birth should appear as fountain and river, since these are the age-old facts and symbols connected with natural fruitfulness. We can also point out that Cybele was most commonly identified with the Greek mother-goddess Rhea. (In many classical dictionaries we are told to look for Cybele under Rhea.) Rhea in old pseudo-scholarly popular etymology was connected with … to flow, and thus was The Flowing One. So Cybele as Rhea could be the river itself. That the river at the beginning of life should be called Alph (alpha) fits the context.

All these connections with the sacred river Alph may seem more or less plausible, but we shall have to find further links in order to make the connection convincing. At the same time I should like to take up the question of the features that are common to Cublai and Cybele, by which the two could have been initially more easily confused with each other.

As we have seen, the word and image forests may be suggested by Cublai's ‘beasts of chase and game’ and it is also an aspect of Cybele as the goddess of the forests. This may be the connecting link where the shift from the one to the other side of this Janus-faced creature Cublai-Cybele takes place. But there are stronger similarities. Cybele was also the founder and protector of walled-in cities. Therefore she was most commonly pictured with a mural crown on her head, ‘murali corona turrita, turrigera.’ So her head is encircled with walls and towers, and as such she is mentioned by Coleridge in the passage from which I have quoted, and in the two most famous literary references to her that had appeared in English literature before Coleridge.

Cybele is mentioned by Milton—from whom Coleridge took a number of well-known details in ‘Kubla Khan’—as ‘the towered Cybele / Mother of a hundred Gods.’12 We may now notice that the towers in ‘Kubla Khan’ do not figure in the passage from Purchas which Coleridge read before he started dreaming. Cublai has only walls built, but Cybele is provided with walls and towers or with a tower.

We pursue this line of development to the second famous literary reference to Cybele, which occurs in Spenser's Faerie Queene:

Like as the mother of the Gods …
Old Cybele, arayd with pompous pride,
Wearing a Diademe, embattild wide
With hundred turrets.(13)

In this as in other cases we should not remain content with locating isolated passages but should also regard the immediate context. And so we finally find the missing link, not one of Lowes's ‘hooked atoms’ but rather a tiny symbiotic cell with large possibilities of organic growth. In the passage from which I have quoted Spenser compares the God Thames to Cybele, for the Thames also wears a mural crown:

In which were many towres and castels set
That it encompast round as with a golden fret.
Like as the mother of the Gods, they say, …
Old Cybele.(14)

In Purchas we read: ‘encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall', in Spenser: ‘towres … encompast round.’ Coleridge's original MS version had ‘With walls and towers compass'd round.’ It is hard to decide whether this is nearer to Purchas's Cublai or to Spenser's Cybele. Cublai and Cybele have become fused in Coleridge's dreaming mind from the beginning, at the very source of his poem.

Now we can return to the problem of Cybele's connection with the sacred river Alph. Spenser's reference to Cybele occurs in the middle of the eleventh canto of the fourth book, which may be called the river-canto, for all the famous rivers of the world appear in order to be present at the marriage-feast of the Thames and the Medway. Cybele is compared with a river-god, the chief river of the canto, and among the many rivers mentioned in the canto there is also the river Alpheus which has been associated with the sacred river Alph by almost all the critics since Lowes. But the occurrence of its name in this context is no reason why Cybele should be connected with Alpheus rather than with any other of the many rivers mentioned by Spenser.

We have to go back to the quotation from Milton. There, Cybele, the Mother of the Gods, is mentioned in a dialogue called Arcades. The river Alpheus had its source in Arcadia. We read on for five lines after the name Cybele has occurred and find:

Of famous Arcady ye are, and sprung
Of that renowned flood, so often sung,
Divine Alpheus, who by secret sluice
Stole under seas to meet his Arethuse.

It may be a strange coincidence that in the two most famous literary references to Cybele Alpheus is not far away, but what is even more surprising is that the two are connected in historical fact. We turn to Pausanias' Description of Greece and read: ‘Near the source of the Alpheius is a temple of the Mother of the Gods.’15 So we can sum up: although Cublai is not connected with Alpheus and his palace does not stand near its source, Cybele's temple does, and since in Coleridge's dream Cublai and Cybele fuse, the sacred river Alpheus does in fact rise from the earth near his palace and thus we return to the lines which we disregarded at the beginning:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph the sacred river ran.

To confirm our explanation we read on in Pausanias for another two lines and find another hooked atom as well as the rest of the general topography of the second stanza. ‘The waters of the Eurotas mingle with the Alpheus, and the united streams flow on for some twenty stades. Then they fall into a chasm.’ … This provides Coleridge's chasm which occurs in the closest imaginable connection with Cybele and the sacred river Alpheus.



It is hardly necessary to go on in detail for the rest of the second stanza, for once the connection with Cybele is established a great many details will follow as a matter of course so that the many hooked atoms which Lowes found can coalesce round this dynamic centre. But perhaps we should say a few words about the lifeless and sunless ocean and the caverns measureless to man. Of course Cybele is associated with caverns, but why should she, the goddess of nature, vegetation and fertility, be associated with death? Perhaps she is not associated with it at all. Once the river flows it can assume an independent position. A river taking its origin at a source, flowing on for a certain distance and then joining the deep sea is an age-old symbol for human birth, life and death, and is a familiar picture in Coleridge's early poetry. He uses it in A Wish to describe his wished-for course of life. Here we also find the word meandering in search of which Lowes travelled so far.

Lo! through the dusky silence of the groves,
Thro' vales irriguous, and thro' green retreats,
With languid murmur creeps the placid stream
          And works its secret way,
Awhile meand'ring round its native fields
It rolls the playful wave and winds its flight:
Then downward flowing with awaken'd speed
          Embosoms in the Deep!

But perhaps the caves of death are associated with Cybele as well. Earlier critics have pointed out that the lifeless caverns may signify the fear of castration, for these caverns are opposed to the male erection of the dome of pleasure. Such a fear might be easily connected with Cybele, a jealous and savage goddess for whose sake not only Attis but her priests as well castrated themselves. She is the origin as well as the destroyer of fertility. But we should not insist too much on the theme of castration. Above all Cybele is the immense womb, the womb of the earth, the womb of birth as well as the womb of death.16 And thus we take leave of the second stanza.



After the opposition of the pleasure-dome and the voices prophesying war which was already sketched in ‘Religious Musings', and the stronger opposition between the world of Kubla Khan and the world of Cybele which intrudes in, and disrupts, the former opposition, Coleridge arrives at a dead end. And suddenly there is a jump into a different kind of world and atmosphere, in which darkness, tumult and savagery have disappeared although certain oppositions persist.

          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!

Beer has a great many instructive things to say on this change, but some questions remain. What are the ‘caves of ice’ and where do they belong? Some critics think that caves of ice are identical with measureless caverns. Others are convinced that there is no connection at all between the caverns and the caves. Others again suggest that they are ‘somehow’ related. If we take the strictly antithetical structure of the stanza seriously measureless caverns and caves of ice have to be logically identical. In spite of this logic one hesitates. Of course there is no reason why the measureless caverns should not be icy or full of ice, but why should they be part of a miracle of rare device, for Coleridge says: a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice. But there are other changes. The tumult turns into mingled measure. And Kubla Khan has disappeared. Instead of ‘Kubla heard’ we have the statement of absolute perception: ‘where was heard.’

In theory Coleridge was well acquainted with such a change, a reconciliation of opposites. It is already expressed in ‘Religious Musings', but much more strikingly in ‘Hymn before Sunrise’ where he addresses the peak of Mont Blanc:

                                                  Around thee and above
Deep is the air and dark, substantial, black,
An abon mass: methinks thou piercest it,
As with a wedge! But when I look again,
It is thine own calm home, thy crystal shrine,
Thy habitation from eternity!(17)

First there is an inimical opposition of brightness and darkness; then at a second glance the dark inimical element turns suddenly bright, becomes a crystal shrine, an eternal home. But in ‘Hymn before Sunrise’ the change can be explained realistically, as an infinitesimal brightening of the sky before sunrise. In ‘Kubla Khan’ the original opposition is much more fundamental and cannot be resolved on a realistic level. But can we find any other explanation for this change?

First we should regard the initial two lines:

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves.

The images of the dome and the river which were juxtaposed but separate, belonging to the different worlds of Kubla Khan and Cybele, are now fused in a single image. Only after this fusion does the tumult appear as measure, and dome and caves turn into a miracle of rare device. Wilson Knight calls this fusing image ‘a Wordsworthian impression',18 but the shadow on the water has a much deeper meaning for Coleridge than that.

First of all we should think of ‘The Ancient Mariner.’ The ancient mariner is freed from his immobility, from pain and hardness of heart and is suddenly flooded with love when he looks at a shadow on the water, the water-snakes playing in the shadow of the ship on the moon-lit ocean. The shadow, the dematerialized form floating on the water reminds one of divine creation, the spirit moving upon the waters, upon the face of the deep. And then there was light. In Coleridge's terminology shadow by itself cannot mean the divine creative spirit, but he is acquainted with and uses ‘overshadowing spirit.’ What is more important in our context, there is another phrase which expresses a transforming and shaping power: shadowy pleasure. Coleridge uses this expression twice in his early poetry. Its use in the first version of the sonnet to Bowles is especially instructive:

          shadowy Pleasure, with mysterious wings,
Brooded the wavy and tumultuous mind,
Like that great Spirit, who with plastic sweep
Mov'd on the darkness of the formless Deep!

Here we have the opposition of pleasure and shaping spirit on the one hand and tumult, waves and dark and formless deep on the other, the opposition that dominates the first stanzas of ‘Kubla Khan.’ But when shadowy pleasure falls on the waves and tumult of the mind, the disturbing element disappears and is changed. So we can understand that the opposition in ‘Kubla Khan’ is resolved by the ‘shadow of the dome of pleasure’ floating on the tumultuous waves through the dreamer's association with the solution in the earlier poem. What was formless becomes shaped, ‘a miracle of rare device', although it does not lose its identity. ‘Caves of ice’ can still mean the immobility of death, but they are not dark and frightening any more, they have turned into ‘a crystal shrine.’ The change from caverns to caves is significant, for although identical in denotative value, the connotative value of the two words differs, cave having a more pleasant, protective meaning.19



At this point we can try to determine the exact relation of the source, the river and the lifeless ocean to each other. Beer contrasts the sacred river Nile, which according to ancient mythology returned to its source, with Coleridge's sacred river Alph, which—according to Beer—does not return to its source, and he bases some very important conclusions on this contrast. But as far as Coleridge's river is concerned this is sheer speculation without any foundation in fact. The fact is that Coleridge does not say anything definite about the exact relation of source, river and underground sea to each other. But we can make a few fairly safe guesses. We do not know how far the underground sea extends, but since it is called sea and ocean in measureless caverns we may assume that it extends very far beyond the five miles for which the river runs before it disappears. Thus this ocean extends below the mighty fountain. Does not then this mighty fountain rise from this ocean? The description of the fountain points in this direction, for the earth is pumping it up, forcing it up, flinging it up in pulsating movements from far below. The earth is pulsating to its very foundations for Coleridge does not speak of the earth, but of this earth, which can only mean the whole of the earth.

We can go further: the deep ocean is called sunless, lifeless. A few lines later the caverns are called ‘caves of ice.’ In this connection Lowes pointed to a small image of ice in the mountains of Cashmere which is said to have influenced Coleridge. Since this image is connected with the phases of the moon such an association is not unlikely. But would this be a sufficient reason to turn the caverns into caves of ice? Is it not conceivable and more plausible that, like the seas of the Antarctic in ‘The Ancient Mariner', this subterranean sunless, lifeless ocean is a frozen ocean? But then, like the frozen ocean in ‘The Ancient Mariner', it does not remain completely frozen, there is a way out. An enormous fountain is thrown up, in it there are huge fragments. At first we do not know what kind of fragments, but in the first explanatory statement about them they are shot up like pieces of ice, ‘like rebounding hail.’ Then these lifeless icy fragments turn into fruitful chaffy grain, and only when we return to the more prosaic direct statement do they appear as dancing rocks. Then the river moves on and returns to the icy caverns. In this light we see a huge cyclical movement of life and death corresponding to the cyclical myth of Attis and Cybele.20



The last stanza is the formulation of a paradox: the expression of the inexpressible, of the joy which is caused by the transformation of dissonance into harmony which takes place in the third stanza. On the whole I think that Beer's account of this part of the poem covers the ground very well. As regards the mysterious Abyssinian maid it would be tempting to accept Beer's argument that she should be identified with Isis for Isis is a sublime version of Cybele, a purer, more spiritual image of this earthly goddess.21 But we hardly need Beer's very roundabout argument in favour of Isis in order to perceive a close connection between the Abyssinian maid and Mount Abora, which was Mount Amara in the MS version, and Cybele. As is well known Coleridge took the Abyssinian paradise Mount Amara from Paradise Lost: ‘where Abassin kings their issue guard, / Mount Amara, though this by some supposed / True Paradise.’ (IV, 280-282) Surprisingly enough, but—after what has gone before—logically enough, too, the woman that is in the closest possible touch with this Abyssinian mountain-paradise in Paradise Lost is nobody else but Cybele. The last name in the passage preceding our quotation, only three syllables away from the word Abassin (Abyssinian), is Rhea—not Rhea Silvia, but Rhea-Cybele. If this is an accident, it is a very strange accident indeed. A different explanation seems far more likely.

Whenever Coleridge read the fourth book of Paradise Lost the three names Rhea—Abassin—Mount Amara struck his eye simultaneously so that they were intimately connected by juxtaposition though not by logic. Here we can speak of hooked atomistic impressions. What then happened in the visionary dream must have been something like this: In the second stanza the world of chthonic Cybele, a mysterium tremendum et fascinosum, was in savage though sacred tumult and in opposition to Cublai's world of idyllic oriental pleasure. In the third stanza the two opposites were miraculously reconciled. With Coleridge such a reconciliation of opposites is the fitting prelude to a vision of paradise. ‘Kubla Khan’ is not the only instance. In ‘Hymn before Sunrise’ where—as we have seen—a reconciliation of opposites takes place that comes very near to the one in ‘Kubla Khan', the development is the same:

Yet, like some sweet beguiling melody,
So sweet, we know not we are listening to it,
Thou [Mont Blanc], the meanwhile, wast blending with my Thought,
Yea, with my Life and Life's own secret joy:
Till the dilating Soul, enrapt, transfused,
Into the mighty vision passing—there
As in her natural form, swelled vast to Heaven!

The translation of the visionary into heaven comes about through the agency of music. Mont Blanc, which had just before been addressed as ‘dread and silent Mount’ turns into something that is neither dread nor silent, into an incredibly sweet beguiling melody that transfuses the soul. Similarly the chaotic sounds of Cybele's world had turned into melodious measure in the third stanza. If the melody resulting from the vision of dread Mont Blanc reconciled with its opposite paved the sweet path to paradise how much more would this be the case with the wonderful melodious measure rising from the reconciliation of a far more powerful opposition that struck to the mythical, religious roots of mankind. While Coleridge's soul was thus being ‘swelled vast to Heaven’ by his vision of music and harmony in the third stanza his unconscious imagination must have feverishly tried to find an image connecting Cybele and Paradise. And so, with lightning precision, his dreaming mind struck the reference to Cybele-Rhea in Paradise Lost in which she was stamped on his memory in the closest possible touch with a paradise: Rhea—Abassin—Amara—True Paradise. Thus we can understand how—in a visionary moment of a dream—the hidden but immensely powerful figure of Cybele from whose world melodious music arises can merge into an Abyssinian woman singing of Mount Amara.

But why should the woman turn into a maid? I suggest that this is part of the general transformation that takes place in the crucial third stanza. In ‘Hymn before Sunrise’ a dread and silent mount turns into a sweet beguilding melody, on the lower imaginative level of comparison appropriate to a less visionary poem. In ‘Kubla Khan’ the measureless caverns are transformed into caves that are part of a work of art, the tumult becomes musical measure, the woman a virgin. The later aspects are all purer and sweeter, more harmonious and spiritual than the appearances in the second stanza. They are the same and not the same, for the divine shadow of pleasure has touched them with its magic.



There are further hints of Cybele lurking in the background at the very end of the poem. In discussing the finale of the poem both Elisabeth Schneider and John Beer stress the importance of the famous passage from Plato's Ion where milk and honey occur in connection with the poet who is in a divine frenzy. In our context it is remarkable that the passage begins with a reference to the priests of Cybele: ‘For as the Priests of Cybele perform not their Dances, while they have the free Use of their Understandings; so these Melody-Poets pen those beautiful Songs of theirs, only when they are out of their sober Minds. But as soon as they proceed to give Voice and Motion to those Songs, adding to their Words the Harmony of Musick and the Measure of Dance, they are immediately transported; and possessed by some Divine Power, are like the Priestesses of Bacchus, who, full of the God, no longer draw Water, but Honey and Milk out of the Springs and Fountains.’22

It is fitting that the reference is not to Cybele herself but to her priests, for in the final stanza it is the poet singing of his miraculous experience who occupies the centre of the stage. The poet who was overwhelmed by Cybele turns into an ecstatic poet-priest who is most like the priests of Cybele.

‘Flashing eyes’ and ‘floating hair’ are part and parcel of the ecstatic behaviour of such a poet. Therefore we can hardly agree with Lowes in calling his accounting for these expressions ‘highly probable.’ Lowes locates their origin in a passage by Bruce, in a narrative of an Abyssinian king. ‘[The king] had desired me to ride before him, and shew him the horse I had got from Fasil. … It happened that, crossing the deep bed of a brook, a plant of the kantuffa hung across it. I had upon my shoulders a white goatskin, of which it did not take hold; but the king, who was dressed in the habit of peace, his long hair floating all around his face, wrapt up in his mantle, or thin cotton cloak, so that nothing but his eyes could be seen, was paying more attention to the horse than to the branch of kantuffa beside him; it took first hold of his hair, and the fold of the cloak that covered his head … in such a manner that … no remedy remained but he must throw off the upper garment.’ etc.23 A verbal parallel does exist in this passage although the king's eyes are not flashing, but there is no trace of ecstasy, in fact the whole scene is utterly and absolutely different from that at the end of ‘Kubla Khan.’ There appears no interior link which would make the translation from Bruce to the poem meaningful. The parallel may be part of a secondary verbal agglomerating process, but the primary significant source of organic suggestive power eludes us in Lowes. Perhaps the priests of Cybele can lead us to the germ of this image of ecstasy for these priests were famous for their wildly floating hair. So Lucian says of the false prophet Alexander: ‘He tossed his floating hair … like a devotee of the Great Mother in the frenzy.’24 In this passage Lucian does not say anything about the prophet's eyes, but in his initial description he speaks of the prophet's remarkable eyes as well as his long hair. He had ‘eyes flashing with great fervour and divine frenzy.’25 So here, associated with the great Mother Cybele, a prophet appears with flashing eyes and floating hair. Moreover the whole immediate context is similar to that at the end of ‘Kubla Khan', for these words follow the comparison with the devotee of Cybele and his floating hair: ‘Addressing the people from a high altar upon which he had climbed, he congratulated the city because it was at once to receive the god in visible presence. The assembly—for almost the whole city, including women, old men, and boys, had come running—marvelled, prayed and made obeisance.’ Then the prophet utters incomprehensible words to conjure up the god. This is closer to the general picture expressed in the last few lines of the poem than any passage quoted or referred to by Lowes, Elisabeth Schneider or John Beer. Here we have a great multitude in holy dread of the prophet, averting their eyes in obeisance, while the prophet, in sacred isolation from the surrounding crowd, through the power of his incantatory voice, is calling up a miraculous, divine presence which is going to be visible for all who hear him. So it is quite possible that the extremely powerful and suggestive myth of Cybele extends its ramifications to the very end of the poem.



We have regarded some of the important features of the four stanzas as well as some verbal details. In conclusion I should like to add a few words on the overall structure of the poem. First of all I should like to stress the fact that the poem remains a fragment as far as the prophesied war-action centering on Kubla Khan is concerned. No amount of sophisticated argument will explain this away. But the far more important Kubla-Cybele contrast is definitely resolved and needs no continuation. What then is the exact structure of this completed poem?

One critic has suggested that ‘Kubla Khan’ is a kind of irregular Pindaric Ode, which does not mean much more than that the poem has a formless form.26 Sometimes critics assume that the poem consists of two parts, the first three stanzas forming the first part, the last stanza the second part. Thus Wilson Knight calls ‘Kubla Khan’ a kind of extended sonnet, but later he comes to the hesitating conclusion that the poem may consist of three parts. Beer distinguishes four parts which correspond to the four stanzas: thesis, antithesis, static harmony and imaginatively anticipated fulfilment. This is very close to the structure of the poem but it is still too general and schematic. For one thing it does not consider the fact that the antithesis to the pleasure-dome is already introduced in the first five lines and that these first five lines form a minor metrical unit of their own.

We shall not find a traditional literary form that corresponds exactly to the structure of the poem. Its form is musical. Like no other poem in the English language that I know of it resembles a movement in sonata form. A movement in sonata form consists of four parts. The exposition states two themes, the first in the tonic, the second in the dominant. In the development these two themes are worked out. The recapitulation restates the themes as they occurred in the exposition, but now both are in the tonic. The movement is concluded by the coda, which did not originally figure in the sonata form, but which becomes of major importance in Coleridge's time, sometimes assuming an importance equal to that of the development. The coda finally resolves the last traces of the thematic conflict with great force and insistence.

In ‘Kubla Khan’ the exposition contains lines 1-5. This introductory part is clearly separated from what follows by its concluding three beat line. The first two lines state the principal theme or subject: dome. The last two lines state the secondary theme or subject: caverns. We can say that the first theme (dome) appears in the tonic (pleasure), a pleasant key. The second theme appears in a different, dark and unpleasant key (sunless, measureless to man). In between, in the third line, there is the river running from the pleasant surface to the sunless caverns. It corresponds to the modulating transition between the two themes in different keys.

In the development, from line 6 to line 30 at the end of the second stanza Coleridge works on the thematic material, which—as it should be according to the rules of composition—is related to the themes stated in the exposition, but is not identical with it. At the end he reaches the dark ‘dominant’ key and persists in it.

As in the sonata form the appearance of the recapitulation (which consists of the third stanza, lines 31-36) is the most important event. The thematic material of the exposition (dome and caverns) appears again, but the second theme (caverns) has become transformed into the joyful ‘tonic’ of the first theme and is joined with it in a miracle or rare device.

It is remarkable that in the exposition as well as in the development Coleridge truly keeps his second theme in the ‘dominant', i.e. not in a completely independent key, but in a key that only functions in relation to the tonic, for the caverns are not ‘dark’ or ‘horrible’ or ‘deadly’ but lifeless, sunless, measureless. The last two expressions are explicitly related to the important tonic key-words ‘sunny’ and ‘measure’ by negation. Only in the recapitulation, when the second theme appears in the tonic as well does it assume a positive existence of its own: ‘Caves of ice.’

The coda (the last stanza) resolves the last remaining oppositions and conflicts in a large crescendo, and in the last word Paradise the poem concludes with a mighty, transcendent chord. Beer puts this very clearly: ‘As the poem draws to its close … one is conscious of an inevitability in the final imagery, matched by an increasing weight of significance. It is like hearing a number of themes resolved in the conclusion of an intricate piece of music. Almost every strand which we have traced in the poem is reflected in the honey-dew and the milk of paradise.’27

I do not suggest that Coleridge tried to imitate a musical structure although he mentions a symphony within the poem. I should like to say rather that the structure of a movement in sonata-form and the structure of ‘Kubla Khan’ are based on the same fundamental dialectic principle, which in Coleridge's poem is suggested by the accidental antithesis between Cublai and Cybele.


These few hints are not meant to provide an ‘explanation’ of the poem, although this word has been used in the course of this essay. On the contrary I think that the power of the poem becomes more mysterious and incomprehensible the more we know about it. But about one thing we can be sure. The poem is not a product of fancy, although its materials are provided by memory. It is a product of imagination which ‘dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create’ and which is ‘essentially vital.’


  1. Text as in The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge, Oxford 1912, vol. I, but divided into four stanzas as in the first edition of the poem (according to John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary) and in correspondence with the meaning of the poem.

  2. John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu, Boston and New York 1927; Elisabeth Schneider, Coleridge, Opium and ‘Kubla Khan', Chicago 1953; John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary, London 1959.

  3. Cp. Alice Snyder, TLS, 2 August 1934, p. 541, and E. H. W. Meyerstein, TLS, 12 January 1951, p. 21.

  4. Quoted from The Complete Poetical Works, vol. I, p. 296.

  5. ‘Religious Musings', lines 206/7.

  6. ‘Religious Musings', lines 224 f.

  7. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, London 1957, vol. I, note 1281.8.30.

  8. Notebooks, vol. I, note 424.3[frac12].32.

  9. Der Traum und seine Be-deutung, Hamburg 1955.

  10. Notebooks, vol. II, London 1962, note 2690.16.286.

  11. Cp. Frazer, The Golden Bough: Adonis, Attis, Osiris, and Roscher, Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, as well as Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, both of which provide very substantial and exact accounts of the main characteristics of Attis and Cybele.

  12. In ‘Arcades', lines 21/22.

  13. Book 4, canto 11, stanza 28.

  14. Book 4, canto 11, stanza 27/28.

  15. VIII, Arcadia, XLIV, 3-4, translation from the Loeb edition. Regarding Coleridge's knowledge of Pausanias cp. Lowes, The Road to Xanadu, p. 393. (‘No one who has followed Coleridge's reading will doubt, I think, his acquaintance with Pausanias.’) and Notebooks, vol. I, note 1170n.

  16. In ancient etymology the name of the goddess Cybele was generally derived from κύβελα—the name of mountains in Phrygia. Κύβελα was also used as an appellative meaning caverns. Did Coleridge know this and is this a further reason why caverns figure so prominently in his dream of Kubla?

  17. Lines 7 ff.

  18. The Starlit Dome, London 1959 (first ed. 1941).

  19. Cp. Helmut Viebrock, ‘Entwicklung und Wandlung des Topos ‘Locus Amoenus’ bei Keats', Anglia, vol. 74, 1956, p. 91.

  20. Cp. the cycle of ice and river in Hymn before Sunrise, lines 39-48:

    And you, ye five wild torrents fiercely glad!
    Who called you forth from night and utter death,
    From dark and icy caverns called you forth,
    Down those precipitous, black, jaggéd rocks,
    For ever shattered and the same for ever?
    Who gave you your invulnerable life,
    Your strength, your speed, your fury and your joy,
    Unceasing thunder and eternal foam?
    And who commanded (and the silence came)
    Here let the billows stiffen, and have rest?

    What follows in the poem is a prolonged shout of joy, caused by the contemplation of this transformed ice, which is no longer dark but luminous.

  21. Cp. Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough: Adonis, Attis, Osiris, London 1936, vol. II, p. 116.

  22. Quoted from John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary, p. 260.

  23. Lowes, Road to Xanadu, p. 378.

  24. Lucian, Loeb edition, vol. IV, p. 192.

  25. Lucian, Loeb edition, vol. IV, p. 178.

  26. E. H. W. Meyerstein, TLS, 30 October 1937, p. 803.

  27. Coleridge the Visionary, pp. 264/65.

Irene H. Chayes (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: Chayes, Irene H. “‘Kubla Khan’ and the Creative Process.” Studies in Romanticism 6, no. 1 (autumn 1966): 1-21.

[In the following essay, Chayes interprets “Kubla Khan” as one of Coleridge's most significant early statements on the process of poetic creation.]

In the evolution of “Kubla Khan” criticism over the past two generations,1 the most noteworthy change has been the quiet downgrading of the famous prefatory note in prose which since 1816 has accompanied the standard published text and has enormously influenced the way the poem has been understood. Since the discovery of the Crewe MS. and a much simpler, factual version of the note,2 the tendency has been to dismiss the later version and the elaborate story it tells as one more example of Coleridge's “self-justifying memory” in the face of accumulating unfinished projects.3 This may be as great a critical error, however, as the earlier, unquestioning acceptance of the 1816 note. It was by the expansion of his original comment and the addition of a title and a subtitle that Coleridge in effect made his chief revisions in “Kubla Khan” between the time of the Crewe MS. and eventual publication; changes in the verse text were negligible. And despite the defensive self-portrait that may emerge from them, his best-known notes and prefaces, along with other pseudo-editorial material, are most important for their relation to the poems themselves. Sometimes, like the argument, the motto from Bishop Burnet, and the marginal gloss in “The Ancient Mariner,” such material seems to have been added in lieu of more fundamental revisions in the text, or as the author's own covert critical commentary.4 The note to “Kubla Khan” admittedly offers some difficulty, since it is written in Coleridge's own discursive style and purports to tell how the poem itself came into being. Yet readers and critics alike often do tacitly accept Coleridge's note as a guide to the content of the poem, even when they reject it as a reliable autobiographical document. To assume that something is lost after stanza two, or that stanza three is a confession of failure, shows no less dependence on the prose account than to regard the whole poem as the product of an opium dream. Since the influence of the note evidently cannot be avoided, what is needed is a clarification of its actual relation to the poem, the relation of what is essentially a literary work in prose to one in verse.

Along with the revised note, or headnote—Coleridge also changed its position, so that it no longer followed the text but preceded it, like an epigraph or an argument—the published version of 1816 included a title and subtitle, “Kubla Khan, Or, A Vision in a Dream.” If the precisely worded subtitle applied to the headnote, it would obviously refer to the poem which, according to the familiar account, appeared to the poet as a “vision” during his drug-induced sleep. But as a subtitle to the poem “Kubla Khan,” “a vision in a dream” must similarly refer to some part of the subject matter of that work, not to the work itself; moreover, the prose note makes no mention of a “dream” distinct from either the poet's sleep or his vision.5 At the outset, therefore, there is a suggestion of both parallel and difference between the headnote and the poem which tends to put both on the side of literary invention, equally opposed to the plain factuality of the original note in the Crewe MS.

In 1816, too, and again in the editions of 1828 and 1829, the headnote had a title of its own: “Of the Fragment of Kubla Khan.” (Later this was combined with the subtitle to become “A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.”) Among the Romantics, “fragment” sometimes has almost a generic meaning, which does not exclude unity and completeness of the kind that has long been debated with respect to “Kubla Khan.” But since in the Crewe note he also called it a “fragment,” Coleridge perhaps did want to indicate that he regarded his poem as in some way unfinished. This need not at all mean that it is incoherent or inconclusive in effect. If there are lacunae in the poem as it stands, and as it exists in the Crewe MS. as well, they would be found not at the end of stanza three, which by almost any reading could not be improved on as a climax, but at the beginning of stanza one or between stanzas two and three. At both these points there are difficulties in orientation which are obscured for most present-day readers by their memories of the first part of the headnote and its curiously impressive, almost Gothic account of the lonely farmhouse, the “anodyne,” the reading in Purchas His Pilgrimage, and the three hours of “profound sleep, at least of the external senses,” during which the poet is said to have composed a poem of “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.”

The sentences at the beginning of the headnote, that is, might almost have been written as an argument in prose, to tell the reader what he otherwise could not learn about the situation in the first two stanzas of the poem: that the unacknowledged point of view is that of a man asleep, probably dreaming; that the subject of the stanzas is a vision he passively receives during the dream, which might possibly be a poem itself, or might supply the materials for one; and that the vision has originated in a particular passage from a particular work of literature, which is quoted in the headnote and can be identified in the first stanza. It is not uncommon for Coleridge to supply information of this kind from outside a poem, on the level of an epigraph or a prefatory comment, as well as more subtle commentary. The philosophical significance of the Ancient Mariner's experience is indicated in advance by the Latin quotation from Burnet; and the introductory note to “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”6 is less a gift to future biographers than a filling-in of the minor dramatic situation behind the meditation in the poem.

Insofar as the episode of Purchas and the poetry-inspiring drug serves as an improvised argument, the headnote to “Kubla Khan” functions as a part of the poem. Otherwise, the two come together only by way of a general structural parallel: a double movement in time, by which poetic composition of one kind occurs in the past but in some way is imperfect, and poetic composition of another kind is planned for the future but remains unachieved. At the same time, there are obvious differences. In the verse text, for instance, there is nothing to correspond to the transcription of the dream poem from memory, in which the poet is interrupted by the arrival of the “person on business from Porlock.” And “the milk of Paradise” notwithstanding, the “anodyne” has no counterpart in the events of either the first two stanzas or the third. The greatest disparity is in tone and effect. From the high point at which it begins, a miraculous gift of art, the prose account descends through equally unpredictable loss, disappointment, and deferred effort, to borrowed reassurance in the quotation from Theocritus at its end, “But the to-morrow is yet to come.” In contrast, “Kubla Khan” begins at much the same point as the headnote account and rises in its last stanza to one of the most powerful affirmations of triumphant creativity in all Romantic poetry.

If, therefore, the 1816 headnote to “Kubla Khan” is understood as largely a prose imitation of the poem it introduces, also serving in part as argument and gloss, the long-standing problems of unity, completeness, overall structure, and ultimate “meaning” are set in a new perspective. What has been said for many years about the process by which the poem supposedly was produced becomes a misplaced paraphrase of its content—and of only a portion of its content, at that. Recent critics—Beer, Watson, Purves, Suther—have begun to see a generalized poetic process at work in the poem. Actually, confirmed by the special relation the headnote bears to it, “Kubla Khan” becomes one of the group of Romantic poems—The Prelude and The Fall of Hyperion are the most prominent members—which are concerned quite specifically with the composition of poetry, both as experience and as mechanism, with an import that extends far beyond either literary biography or aesthetic theory. Coleridge's contribution is perhaps the earliest of all, and for its length it is the most complex in conception and the most fully realized. Moreover, the view of the creative process that is reflected in “Kubla Khan” is not peculiar to the early period of Coleridge's career. One aim of the reading that follows is frankly to try to rescue this poem from the last effects of the old belief in its uniqueness, which for too long has separated it from the mainstream of Coleridge's development, both literary and intellectual, and has helped to preserve an artificial division between his poetry and his thought. He himself was to say that his “poesy” was only an immature phase of his “philosophy,” and I hope to show that, far from memorializing a glorious exception to its author's later critical principles, “Kubla Khan” actually anticipates them in the most concrete terms, even to the same emphases and the same value judgments he one day was to make as a philosopher of literature.


In any critical consideration of “Kubla Khan,” the chief stumbling-block is likely to be the exact relation of stanzas one and two to stanza three. Between these two unequal parts of the poem there is a disjunction, like that between the “before” and “after” sections of the headnote, and there may still be a temptation to emphasize either at the expense of the other. But the two parts are dependent on each other and on the order in which they appear, and in their different ways both are concerned with the creative process.

It has already been suggested here that the subject of the first two stanzas is the “vision in a dream” named in the subtitle, out of which, on analogy with the episode in the headnote, a poem may emerge; if that is so, what is the subject of the vision itself? Instead of the narrative the opening lines might lead one to expect what follows is largely description, in which the attention of most critics has been attracted to separate images and the meanings these may acquire in a variety of contexts outside the poem. Considered in this way, the imagery in stanza one, especially, may have implications of the most exalted kind. Kubla Khan in his hortus clausus might be an analogue of the godhead in eternity; the blossoming landscape of Xanadu might be Paradise. But whether he is potentially divine or demonic as an image, in the context of the poem Kubla Khan occupies a relatively limited place. He is named only twice, the second time under circumstances that make him anything but godlike in power, and his actual function, as will be seen, is to prepare the way for the greater rôle of the poet in stanza three. Xanadu, too, is only the first and least of three paradises which appear or are mentioned during the course of the poem in a pattern of rising importance. What is significant in the stanza is not its imagery as such, but the scene as a whole, which is best understood as an example of the locus amoenus, one of the topoi, or standard themes in traditional rhetoric, that entered European literature in the Middle Ages. The locus amoenus may merge into the conventional picture of paradise, earthly or heavenly, but it may also be limited to the simple poetical description of a garden; sometimes, like the gardens of Xanadu with the “stately pleasure-dome” in their midst, such a scene may include a building of some kind, a castle or a villa.7

The very different scene described in the first part of stanza two—the “deep romantic chasm” with its tree-covered slopes, the “mighty fountain” bursting out of the seething earth, and the “sacred river” flowing out from the fountain—belongs more recognizably to the poetry of Coleridge's own time, and it offers a better clue to what happens during the vision. What is found in this passage is a characteristic of Romantic nature description at its best: a distinctive principle of analogy which involves not the Renaissance system of rigidly separated, horizontal planes of correspondence but a vertical relationship of mirror like reflection and affinity between external nature and the human mind. The operation of the mind is expressed by action peculiar to nature, and the two sides of the analogy are interchangeable, so that an image or event in nature may actually enter the mind and take part in the intricate processes of perception and creation it represents.

One of the clearer examples of the principle of Romantic analogy at work, clearer because it is accompanied by the poet's own commentary, occurs in the Mt. Snowdon episode in The Prelude, Book XIV, where the moon shining over a sea of mist becomes “the emblem of a mind ❙ That feeds upon infinity” and at the same time provides the poet with the kind of experience that enables his own mind to “feed” upon “infinity.” There are other examples, in other poems by Wordsworth, in Shelley's Alastor, “Mont Blanc,” and “Ode to the West Wind,” and in Coleridge's own “Dejection: An Ode,” where the meditating, “blocked” poet, listening to the sounds of an Eolian harp during a storm, manipulates the mind-nature analogy so that the power of the assaulting wind becomes a substitute for his lost creative energy.8 Among Coleridge's other poetry, as it happens, it is “Dejection” that is most nearly a companion to “Kubla Khan”; in many respects, like the prose headnote, the ode of 1802 appears to be an attempt to repeat the central events of the earlier poem in a different situation and with a different emphasis.

The first two stanzas of “Kubla Khan” offer description without commentary which nevertheless, in the full context of poem and headnote, consistently dramatizes a mental process and its effects within a mind. From time to time, critics have glancingly identified the two worlds that emerge from the opposing descriptions, the “paradisal” and the “infernal,” with the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind; actually, such an identification is fundamental to the meaning of the first two stanzas. The total landscape in cross section, from Kubla Khan's pleasure ground through the chasm to the caverns and the underground sea, is at once the content of the vision in a dream and a pictorial diagram of the operation of the dreamer's mind during the whole experience. More precisely, the landscape with its descending levels would be the mind as structure, and the processes within it, summed up in the flowing of the river, “meandering with a mazy motion,”9 the mind as activity. While the one sustains the vision, the other carries it forward and in effect creates it. At the same time, both the landscape and the river cross the boundary of the analogy and themselves become part of the dreamvision in its totality, as in The Prelude the emblematic breaking of the moon through the clouds is what the poet's revelation shows him. Since the analogical process in “Kubla Khan” becomes a creative process, the merging of “tenor” and “vehicle”10 has a functional rightness here that it lacks in some other Romantic poems.

The vision in a dream, concerned with the events in the dreamer's mind during its own evolution, takes its start from a donnée, a literary source, as the headnote emphasizes. By quoting the sentences from Purchas in advance of the poem, Coleridge was in effect inviting the reader to watch for the changes that would be made in them when the mind began its work. Four lines only, 1-2 (“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan ❙ A stately pleasure-dome decree”) and 6-7 (“So twice five miles of fertile ground ❙ With walls and towers were girdled round”) echo the passage quoted—and they are closer in some respects to the actual text of Purchas His Pilgrimage than to Coleridge's recollection of it.11 Between the two pairs of echoed lines there occurs the first reference to the native topography of the mind, and the first original contribution by the mind to the vision that is beginning to take shape: “Where Alph, the sacred river ran ❙ Through caverns measureless to man ❙ Down to a sunless sea.” Kubla Khan, the pleasure-dome, the river, the caverns, the underground sea: five of the six images that are to take part in the events of the next stanza are introduced briefly in the first five lines. Properly, these lines are neither narrative nor descriptive but present a relationship; in that relationship, at first, the mind is subordinate to its borrowed content. The remainder of the stanza, lines 8-11, is made up of minor descriptive details, all visual, which are appropriate to the suggested setting.

With the exception of lines 3-5, then, stanza one is a paraphrase and elaboration of the passage quoted from Purchas; its conventional and archetypal qualities, admired as they have been, make it derivative also. As the opening scene in a creative vision, it stands on a relatively low level, in fact. If it were to be attributed to one of the three faculties involved in Coleridge's own conception of the creative process, it would be the work of the arranging and ornamenting fancy, which in Biographia Literaria is defined as “a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space,” receiving “equally with the ordinary memory … all its materials ready made from the law of association.”12 Even the obvious beauties of the scene in Xanadu are a sign of its limitation. It might be just such a vision, and just such poetry, that the speaker in “Dejection” is referring to when he recalls the false “dreams of happiness” once made for him by Fancy: “For hope grew round me, like the twining vine, ❙ And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine” (ll. 78-81). If, too, any portion of “Kubla Khan” was actually composed during the “reverie” (not sleep) acknowledged in the note to the Crewe MS., or was in Coleridge's mind when he wrote his later prose myth of composition by vision, it might well have been this stanza.

Stanzas one and two are joined by a continuity of landscape; but in lines 12-24 the second world of “savage” nature is already a metaphor for the mind of the dreamer, which now becomes a major part of the vision. With the descent into the “deep romantic chasm,” the vision itself enters a new phase, in which it is no longer dependent for its materials on memories of Purchas. The style in this passage is markedly unlike that in the rest of the poem, being more personal and at the same time more conventionally literary, interspersed with exclamations and similes (the only use of that figure of speech in all three stanzas) and hinting of a half-awakened and responsive sensibility somewhere on the borders of the dream.13 The crucial event in the stanza is the rising of the fountain, upon which depends all that happens thereafter. Like the storm-wind in “Dejection,” the “mighty fountain” here represents creativity,14 conceived as a powerful and impersonal, even nonhuman force, in which the poet can only participate and which stirs him to awe by its manifestations, even when they are in his own mind. Also relevant are two other fountain-images in poems by Coleridge: the “spring of love” that gushes from the Ancient Mariner's heart when he is moved by the beauty of the water-snakes; and the inner source of “joy” in “Dejection,” where beauty in nature depends on the state of mind of the observer, “the passion and the life, whose fountains are within.” It is not difficult to find in either of these instances an illustration of one of the defining characteristics of Coleridge's supreme creative faculty, the primary imagination—that it is “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception.”15 The primary imagination is also called “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”; what form the “eternal act of creation” might take can be seen in “Religious Musings” and the closing address to “Contemplant Spirits! ye that hover o'er ❙ With untired gaze the immeasurable fount ❙ Ebullient with creative Deity” (ll. 402-404).

The fountain in “Kubla Khan” carries no convenient metaphorical tag, but by its action and effects as well as by its imagery it would fulfill both conditions of the definition. In the “finite mind” of the dreamer, where a new world in miniature is soon to be created out of the materials of the vision itself, it is a ready analogue of the “immeasurable fount” of divinity; for good reason, the place in which it rises is called “holy and enchanted” and the river that falls from it is “sacred.” And since the ultimate product of the creative process that is going on in the dreamvision is to be a visual image, hailed by an exclamation, the “living power” of the fountain would plausibly be the “prime agent” in the activity of perception that is going on, at least subliminally, during the dream. For although the dreamer's presence can only be inferred, the tone of wonder and the vividness of the description make the scene in the chasm a rudimentary aesthetic revelation which prepares the way for the closer relation between perception and creation that is to come in stanza three.

If the fountain corresponds to the imagination in its primary aspect, the river “flung up” by it corresponds to the secondary imagination, so called, which is “identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, … differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation”; the secondary imagination, too, is “essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.”16 Both statements might be made of the calmer and widely ranging river as it carries the creative force of the fountain to the fixed landmarks of both worlds of the vision:17

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.

(ll. 25-28)

In these lines, the river follows the same course as in lines 3-5, on what must be understood as a second circuit. Since the fountain erupts in pulses, being “momently” forced out of the seething earth (l. 19), and the river “momently” is flung up from the fountain (l. 24), there is an implication of cycles of creative energy, swelling and subsiding, like the spells of compulsive speech that seize the Ancient Mariner during his wanderings. Both circuits of the river conclude with a descent and the presumed exhaustion of the power that sent it in its way; in each instance, the creative effects of the river's passage appear in the vision only after the river itself has vanished. The elaboration of the locus amoenus in Xanadu, under the dominant faculty of the fancy, is the immediate effect of the briefly acknowledged first circuit; the indirect effect is a penetration to the point of emergence of the primary imagination itself. With the second circuit, there is an apparent return to the beginning of the poem, but the main clause, and it is not preceded but followed by a reference again to Kubla Khan, which leads the vision into its final phase and to an end far from its beginning.


A number of critics18 have been prepared to find a Coleridgean reconciliation of opposites in “Kubla Khan,” and this is, in fact, one of the several patterns that can be traced in progressive stages through the entire poem. Since Coleridge considered the imagination to be the “reconciling and mediatory power,”19 it is appropriate that the fountain and the river should be associated with the processes of reconciliation and mediation in stanza two. The fountain rises in the chasm, which, since it “slants” downward from the upper world to the lower, in effect mediates between them—a midway region of dynamic creativity that shades off in either direction toward a static extreme. The task of reconciliation proper, however, belongs to the river, which travels from its central source to both opposing worlds, and the final reconciliation of those worlds is the form under which the effect of its second circuit appears. In stanza one, the two ultimate extremes are represented by the two chief images of stasis, Purchas' Kubla Khan himself, secluded in his pleasure park by “girdling” walls and towers, as though in a fortress, and the “sunless sea,” far below in the deepest reservoirs of the dreamer's unconscious mind. The first passage of the river establishes the opposition between the extremes; it is immediately after the second that they begin to approach each other. The commotion of the river's descent into the sea of the unconscious, now called “a lifeless ocean,” crosses the distance of the whole dream landscape to reach the hearing of “Kubla” and carries with it, by means of an element totally new to the vision, a warning of greater disturbance to come: “And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far ❙ Ancestral voices prophesying war!”

How should these “voices” be understood? Since they are “heard from far”—they are, incidentally, the first unmistakable sound image in the poem, following the earlier imagery of sight and movement—they would seem to have their origin outside the vision, although not necessarily outside the dreamer's mind. As early as 1796 Coleridge was commenting on the incorporation of new perceptions into the substance of passive psychological states, such as reverie or the visions of delirium;20 the intrusive sensations might come from without or within. Coming from within, similarly threatening forces—a “fiendish crowd ❙ of shapes and thoughts”—torture the dreamer in “The Pains of Sleep,” the third poem in the “Kubla Khan” volume, which Coleridge mentions in his headnote as “a fragment … describing with equal fidelity the dream of pain and disease.” In the sense that they, like the “fiendish” shapes and thoughts, have been stored up in the dreamer's unconscious from past experiences and past states of mind, from all that has sunk into the “lifeless ocean” (“All thoughts are in themselves imperishable,” Coleridge was to say),21 the intrusive voices are properly called “ancestral.” The “war” they prophesy is a threat of conflict, invasion, and destruction to both the vision that has been unfolding and the dream that frames it. As the most vulnerable image in the vision, because among the borrowed elements he is the least capable of being assimilated to the sleeping mind that contains them, Kubla Khan is the most likely one to receive the threat; after his brief return, he is not referred to again.

Yet, although the whole vision in a dream is threatened by the awakening of destructive forces in the unconscious, the process of reconciliation of opposites moves on to its conclusion. According to Coleridge's definition, the characteristic action of the secondary imagination is that it “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate.” It is just such action that occurs in the closing lines of stanza two. In the afterglow of the river's reconciling circuit, the opposing halves of the vision are dissolved into their essential elements, which then are diffused into the atmosphere of the fading dream and finally recreated as a new, synthetic image in which both originals, the mind and its content, are indissolubly united.

In lines 31-36, after the sacred river and Kubla Khan both have been eliminated, the remaining images from both worlds and from the chasm between them are relocated and recombined in a swift succession of new and unexpected pairings, each pair of images marking an increasingly closer conjunction of opposites. “The shadow of the dome of pleasure ❙ Floated midway on the waves.” Here both images have lost their concreteness, the dome having become hardly more than a reflection and the ocean having been reduced to generalized “waves”; in some unspecified central region, corresponding to the earlier chasm, the two are loosely juxtaposed, shadow floating on waves. Next in order, but apparently at the same midpoint in space, the violent beginning and ending of the river's circuit—the “turmoil” amid which the fountain rises (l. 17) and the “tumult” of the final descent (l. 28), in both of which sound might be involved as well as movement—are combined and regularized in a kind of music: “Where was heard the mingled measure ❙ From the fountain and the caves.” Finally, in the last remaining combination, one image from the first pair and one from the second unite even more intimately in a third, crowning image of reconciliation: “It was a miracle of rare device ❙ A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.” The pleasure-dome from Purchas, representing the whole imported edifice of memory, and the caves of the sleeper's own mind, indigenous and primordial, “measureless” as the fount of creative Deity is “immeasurable”: the two images reconciled here have been radically displaced and transformed into complements as well as opposites before being brought together. The preposition that rather awkwardly joins them only emphasizes that each has lost its original, independent identity and now exists only in union with the other.22


Despite its remarkable congruence with the concepts of imagination and fancy, there is one respect, and it is an important one, in which the process that can be traced in the first two stanzas of “Kubla Khan” is not compatible with Coleridge's later discussions of the mind and its mechanisms. Repeatedly in these discussions, on all levels of mental activity, the key faculties are will and consciousness. In ordinary acts of thinking, it is the will whose function is “to control, determine, and modify the phantasmal chaos of association,” and the consciousness that makes the necessary distinctions among the conditions of association and recollection.23 On the creative level, the secondary imagination is found “coexisting with the conscious will,” and the fancy is “blended with, and modified by, that empirical phenomenon of the will, which we express by the word choice.”24 Conversely, in his discussions of dreams and pathological mental states, Coleridge almost always makes a point of the absence of the conscious and controlling powers. In dreams, “images and thoughts possess a power in, and of themselves,” independent of the judgment or understanding;25 if the “check” of the senses and the reason were withdrawn, fancy would become “delirium” and imagination, “mania”;26 “absolute delirium,” again, would be the result if there were no “interference” by will, reason, and judgment in the ordering of outward impressions.27 In Biographia Literaria, it is the absence of the conscious controlling powers that is the chief defect of Hartleyan associationism in Coleridge's eyes;28 and it is the critique of Hartley, in turn, that prepares the way for the definitions of fancy and imagination.

If “Kubla Khan” consisted only of its first two stanzas, the absence of a ruling, conscious will during the processes they dramatize might seem to mean that in writing it, Coleridge the poet of 1797 was opposing Coleridge the theoretical critic of 1817. The vision in a dream, if not the poem “Kubla Khan” itself, then would indeed be “the wonderful proof that spontaneous composition can be art, even that the source of art is the imagination freed from the censor of conscious control.”29 But early in stanza two, as has been seen, there are stirrings of subliminal consciousness on the part of the dreamer as he becomes aware of the birth of the imagination in his mind; the careful and detailed similes in lines 14-24 would suggest also that the mechanical operation of the “law of association” is being modified by some form of the voluntary “comparative power,” which is suspended during ordinary sleep.30 Further, the intrusion by the “ancestral voices” implies that the outer dream comes to an end at just the moment when the imagination comes into full command of the vision. Even if they alone constituted the poem, stanzas one and two would not show the “uncensored” creative powers in unmitigated triumph. What they seem to express instead is the unavoidable paradox of spontaneous composition, during which the mind cannot remain passive, submitting to an endless procession of images mechanically linked by association, as of the gardens and forests of Xanadu repeated without development. Yet it becomes active, and actively creative, descending into the chasm to the fountainhead of the imagination, only at the risk of waking the ancient forces of “war” in the unconscious.

There is a third stanza, however, and in it, will and consciousness do assume the importance they are given in Coleridge's later prose discussions. The relation of this stanza to the two preceding it lies precisely in the difference between unconscious mental activity and conscious; between the spontaneity and autonomy of the creative faculties during sleep or reverie, and the voluntary control that governs them under the normal conditions of waking composition.

In the prose headnote, it would be to the account of the presumed opium vision and the interrupted task of poetic transcription that stanzas one and two generally correspond. Stanza three, similarly, would correspond to the conclusion: “Yet from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him.” This correspondence, too, is only general, by way of an expression of conscious purpose: “with music loud and long,❙ I would build that dome in air, ❙ That sunny dome! those caves of ice!” There is now no need to infer the presence of a point of view; the speaker is in the foreground, using the first person and talking in a definite voice. The context makes clear that it is a poem he is talking about, and the phrasing echoes the opening lines of stanza one with a significant change of verb as well as subject. Whereas Kubla Khan could only “decree” the original pleasure-dome, command that it be constructed by someone else, the speaker here would more directly “build” his poetic counterpart of it, expressing his will as conscious action of his own.31 He is seeking not merely to emulate Purchas' Oriental emperor but to surpass him, and not merely to recapture a spontaneous vision but to bring it into existence according to a preconceived plan. This would seem to be the true relevance of the quotation from Purchas and the recurring image of the pleasure-dome, for according to legend, Kubla Khan's palace originated in a dream;32 in the record of a conversation in 1811, Coleridge is reported to have spoken of “lines” he had written “upon the building of a Dream-palace by Kubla Khan.”33 Just as Kubla Khan's dream was given reality by the building of the pleasure-dome, so the vision of Kubla Khan's pleasure-dome is to be given reality by the composition of a poem.

The last stanza, thus, is concerned with a new creative process, governed by a purposive will, which would replace and correct the earlier process, autonomous and unconscious, or partially conscious, that was at work in the dreamvision. Correction is the function of stanza three even in a formal sense, for virtually every element in it is a counterpart on a higher level of at least one from stanzas one and two. The achievement that is foreseen by the poet is not lessened by the use of the conditional, “Could I …, I would. …” In contrast to the headnote and its ruefully wistful tone, and in spite of the strong influence this has had on the way the stanza has been read, these lines do not express a longing for what has been proven beyond the speaker's capacity (“if only I could”). At the very least, they offer a statement of cause and effect, explaining how an alternative process, a better one, could be put into operation: “If I could do thus and so (as part of a complex procedure), such and such would be the result.” Later, like stanza seven of “Dejection,” which perhaps was modelled on it, the conditional statement becomes a prophecy of poetic triumph, as far from the apology in which the headnote trails off as it is possible to imagine.

The alternative creative process, like the one it is replacing, begins with a vision—for the first and only time in the text (l. 38), the word “vision” is used—which also has been seen in the past, another object of memory. The muse like “damsel with a dulcimer,” the “Abyssinian maid,” is the first correction image in the stanza, recalling and as it were civilizing the only other female figure in the poem, the “woman wailing for her demon-lover” from the simile in stanza two (ll. 15-16). “Mt. Abora,” the subject of the damsel's song, in the Crewe MS. was originally “Mt. Amara,” which, as a number of scholars have noted, is named in Paradise Lost (IV, 280-284) as a retreat “where Abassin Kings thir issue Guard”; it is also one of the lesser paradises of pagan legend which, says Milton, cannot be compared to Eden. Since Mt. Amara was “by som suppos'd ❙ True Paradise,” the allusion in line 41, brief and disguised as it is, refers to a second locus amoenus, already on a higher level than the pleasure ground of Xanadu. The literary allusion, too, suggests the work of the fancy, again functioning at the lowest stage of the creative process, although more briefly than in the dreamvision.

It was the damsel herself that the poet originally “saw”; but what he must “revive” in himself is only a part of the vision—“her symphony and song.” Even this is to be cultivated not for its own sake but for its emotional effect:34 “To such a deep delight 'twould win me, ❙ That with music,” etc. “Delight” is the word which in “Dejection” is associated with the story of the lost child: “A tale of less affright, ❙ And tempered with delight.” It was also a quasi-technical term in eighteenth-century aesthetics,35 and Coleridge uses it in a significant sentence in Biographia Literaria when he says that “the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination.”36 Although both visual and auditory effects are present in both forms of the creative process, music would dominate the second, as visual imagery dominated the first. (Images, says Coleridge, “do not of themselves characterize the poet.”)37 In the corrected process, the remembered music would move the poet to a state of “delight” and lead to new music, thence to a new vision. “With music loud and long”—that is, by means of the harmonious sounds of his verse, a more fully developed and better sustained music than the “mingled measure” from fountain and caves that preceded the emergence of the “miracle of rare device” in stanza two—the poet would “build that dome in air! ❙ That sunny dome! those caves of ice!” The images that gather and merge as he speaks, the “stately pleasure-dome” and the “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice,” are from the beginning of stanza one and the conclusion of stanza two, respectively, so that the new poetic vision would embrace the whole of the original dreamvision. In other words, the content of the planned poem would be substantially the same as the events in the first two stanzas of “Kubla Khan.”

This is a point whose significance has not been sufficiently appreciated. It establishes, first of all, as part of Coleridge's evident intention the separation of the first two stanzas from the third, and their subordination to it. Moreover, it makes clear that the early vision in a dream is not in itself a poem; the vision will become a poem when the correct procedure of creation is followed. And, in the larger terms of “Kubla Khan” itself, the relatively late allusion to the dreamvision brings together the inner, autonomous, and largely automatic creative process from the second stanza, and the consciously willed and controlled process that is being seen from the outside and reported, or predicted, in the poet's own words. The inner process, in improved and orderly form, would be going on behind the scenes, in the poet's mind, after being set in motion by the elaborate preparatory ritual from without. Since the eventual creation of the new vision of dome and caves depends on the preliminary experience of music and “delight,” an aesthetic experience based on sensory perception at one remove, the primary imagination would have its place in the conscious process also. The return of the dome-and-caves image similarly implies action again by the secondary imagination, which would occur even less obtrusively than in stanza two but in a more effective and more legitimate way (normally, the secondary imagination coexists with the conscious will), and in a medium more durable than a dream.


The most striking difference between the two processes is found in what happens in each to the “miracle of rare device” once it has come into existence. In stanza two, it is seen only by the dreamer and presumably is lost, except to his memory, when he wakes. In stanza three, it has a better chance of survival. Without a break in his prescriptive prophecy, the poet reveals in line 48 that the poetic vision he would “build” would be seen not by him but by an audience, as the direct effect of the music of his verse: “And all who heard should see them there.” The presence of an audience is rarely acknowledged in Romantic poetry, even the most hortatory; “Kubla Khan” is the only Romantic poem in which the audience has a function in the creative process itself, carrying on the progression from perception to creation to perception once more. Even this is not the last step, for the listeners would move from hearing and seeing to making an utterance of their own, which occupies the remainder of the stanza. With their imagined, and quoted, speech there is an abrupt shift in the point of view, and the “I” of the preceding lines is suddenly seen as he would appear to his awestricken observers:

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.

(ll. 49-54)

Greater than either the will-less and ego-less dreamer or the deliberate seeker after inspiration, the poet here, at the conclusion of the creative process, is a human embodiment of the power which in stanza two, near the beginning of the dreamvision, erupts in uncontrolled violence as the “mighty fountain.” (A complementary image is, again, the storm-wind of “Dejection,” which at one point is addressed as “Thou mighty Poet, e'en to frenzy bold,” and is progressively humanized by the kinds of poetry attributed to it.) As has been recognized, the figure the poet has become by the end of the third stanza is both traditional and Romantic, the vates of Plato and Longinus merging with the Bard of Gray and Blake. It is also a figure from Coleridge's own poetry earlier in the 1790s—the inspired visionary who chants his prophecies in “Religious Musings,” “The Destiny of Nations,” “Ode to the Departing Year,” and “France: An Ode.” In “Religious Musings,” the climax is an imagined vision of “the Throne of the redeeming God” which “Wraps in one blaze earth, heaven, and deepest hell” (ll. 398-401). In “Kubla Khan,” the climactic, and concluding, word is “Paradise,” the one specific use of it in all fifty-four lines, which the emergence of the poet himself finally makes possible. This is the true Paradise, toward which both Xanadu and Milton's Mt. Amara-Abora have been only steps in approach. But in the full context of the poem it is more than a renewed Eden, an Oriental heaven of sensuous pleasures (although in the poet's view his hearers would think of “honey-dew” and “the milk of Paradise”), or the different, Dantesque heaven of the mystic. It is the Paradise to which the vates, seer, or bard is snatched up in his holy ecstasy, his furor poeticus, which is to say that it is inseparable from his ecstasy itself—a state of supremely heightened consciousness that is the fullest expression of poetic creativity.

From memory to dream to poem to poet: the culminating vision in “Kubla Khan,” the final product of the corrected creative process, thus is to be a vision of the poet himself, which his poetry will enable his audience to behold directly. On a higher level than the image of interpenetrating dome and caves to which it corresponds, this vision represents a reconciliation of opposites, from the first two stanzas and the third, that brings the whole poem to resolution: the “mighty fountain” and Kubla Khan's successor; imagination and will; creation and perception; private experience and communicated; dream and art. Similarly, in Biographia Literaria the well-known catalogue of the “opposite or discordant qualities” that are reconciled in poetry is introduced in a definition of the poet, not of poetry itself.38 Although the imagination is the reconciling power, it is only when the imagination is embodied in the poet that it performs its poetic function. He is its vehicle, and his unifying and controlling presence is the necessary condition of its efficient operation.

In the last step of all, as he is made visible by his own prophecy, the poet is received in terror and reverence by his imagined audience, for whom the vision of his power is as much a religious experience (“Close your eyes with holy dread”) as an experience of art. When the creative process has been repeated, corrected, and transcended, the pattern of progressively heightened visions will come to an end with a double extinction of vision in the organs of sight itself—the “flashing eyes” of the bard, whose gaze is turned inward, absorbed in his own activity, and the piously closed eyes of his audience. The distance between them is maintained; the spectators accept their exclusion and, like the Wedding-Guest listening to the Ancient Mariner, transform the bard's experience into knowledge of their own: “For he on honey-dew hath fed.” “Paradise” is their inference, and through them, his also. Without relinquishing control of the whole, complex process he has set in motion, the subject becomes an object, even to himself, and the way is opened for Coleridge's generalizations about poets and poetry twenty years in the future.


  1. Recent studies include J. B. Beer, Coleridge the Visionary (London, 1959), Chs. VII-IX; George Watson, “The Meaning of ‘Kubla Khan,’” A Review of English Literature, II (1961), 21-29; A. C. Purves, “Formal Structure in ‘Kubla Khan,’” Studies in Romanticism, I (1962), 187-191; W. W. Beyer, The Enchanted Forest (Oxford, 1963), Ch. IV; E. E. Bostetter, The Romantic Ventriloquists (Seattle, Wash., 1963), pp. 84-91; Richard Gerber, “Keys to ‘Kubla Khan,’” English Studies, XLIV (1963), 321-341; M. F. Schulz, The Poetic Voices of Coleridge (Detroit, 1963), pp. 114-124; Kathleen Raine, “Traditional Symbolism in ‘Kubla Khan,’” Sewanee Review, XXII; (1964), 626-642; M. E. Suther, Visions of Xanadu (New York, 1965). See also below.

  2. Published in letters to The Times Literary Supplement by A. D. Snyder, August 2, 1934, p. 541, and E. H. W. Meyerstein, January 12, 1951, p. 21.

  3. See Elisabeth Schneider, Coleridge, Opium and Kubla Khan (Chicago, 1953), p. 26.

  4. See my article, “A Coleridgean Reading of ‘The Ancient Mariner,’” Studies in Romanticism, IV (Winter 1965), 83-85.

  5. In the Preface to “Christabel,” published in the same volume, “vision” is already a metaphor for completeness of artistic intention: “In my first conception of the tale, I had the whole present to my mind, with the wholeness, no less than the liveliness of a vision.” Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep (London, 1816), p. V.

  6. The Annual Anthology, ed. Robert Southey (Bristol, 1799-1800), II, 140.

  7. See E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. W. R. Trask, Bollingen Series XXXVI (New York, 1953), pp. 195-200.

  8. On “Dejection,” see my “Rhetoric as Drama: An Approach to the Romantic Ode,” PMLA, LXXIX (1964), 69-71.

  9. Similar movements of advance and retreat were later used by Coleridge to represent various activities of the mind. See Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (London, 1907), I, 86 (a water-insect moving upstream), 225 (“zig-zag”); II, 11 (the motion of a serpent).

  10. The terminology is from W. K. Wimsatt, “The Structure of Romantic Nature Imagery,” in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington, Ky., 1954), pp. 114-115. Although it is restricted to certain metaphorical relations, Wimsatt's essay treats one aspect of what here is called Romantic analogy.

  11. See 3d ed. (London, 1617), p. 472. On Coleridge's use of Purchas, see J. L. Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (Boston and New York, 1927), pp. 360-363; cf. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn, Bollingen Series L (New York, 1957-), I, 1281 and n., 1840 n.

  12. Shawcross, I, 202. Cf., in different terms, Watson (p. 27). With an understanding of fancy based on Coleridge's criticism of Wordsworth, and without an actual examination of the style of the poem, this writer dismisses the whole first thirty-six lines of “Kubla Khan” as “factual, detailed, matter-of-fact” and hence “unpoetical” (p. 26).

  13. “Even in the most tranquil dreams, one is much less a spectator [than in reveries or daydreams]. One seems always about to do, [to be] suffering, or thinking, or talking.” Anima Poetae, ed. E. H. Coleridge (Boston and New York, 1895), p. 71. Concerning the change in style, see a notebook entry of 1805: “A man's Imagination fitfully awaking & sleeping—the odd metaphors & no metaphors of modern poetry ❙Language in its first state without the inventive passion.” Notebooks, II, 2723. In these terms, the birth of the “inventive passion” at the eruption of the fountain would account for the change in style again at the end of stanza two; see n. 22 below.

  14. Cf. the Preface to “Christabel” and the reproach to critics “who have no notion that there are such things as fountains in the world, small as well as great; and who would therefore charitably derive every rill they behold flowing, from a perforation made in some other man's tank.” Christabel, etc., p. vi.

  15. Shawcross, I, 202.

  16. Shawcross, I, 202.

  17. It should be emphasized that in this study it is not being assumed that in 1797 (if the date given in the Crewe MS. note is accepted) Coleridge had already formulated the concepts of primary and secondary imagination in the terms that were to appear in Biographia Literaria. What is being suggested is that when he made his conceptual formulations for Biographia Literaria, he drew on the existing examples of his own best poetic practice as well as on the principles and the language of metaphysics and theology. In “The Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan,” in particular—poems whose publication in 1816 and 1817 made them virtual products of the Biographia period—he would have found not only effects that could be attributed to the two aspects of the imagination but also imagery and action, such as the vision of the water-snakes or the eruption of the fountain and the circuit of the sacred river, which could be taken as concrete dramatizations of their “modes of operation.”

  18. See, e.g., Charles Moorman, “The Imagery of ‘Kubla Khan,’” Notes and Queries, CCIV (1959), 321-324; D. B. Schneider, “The Structure of ‘Kubla Khan,’” American Notes and Queries, I (1963), 68-70.

  19. The Statesman's Manual, in The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. W. G. T. Shedd (New York, 1871-1878), I, 436.

  20. Letter to Thomas Poole, November 15, 1796, in Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs (Oxford, 1956-), I, 257.

  21. Shawcross, I, 79.

  22. See also the emblem chosen for “Dejection,” the “new moon with the old moon in her arms,” in which extremes meet in an entirely literal sense and the same preposition carries the burden of the relationship. Since the “miracle of rare device” represents the union of the mind and its borrowed content in a highly compressed, non-naturalistic image, it might well be the practical equivalent of a “symbol” according to Coleridge's definition in The Statesman's Manual, a work also published in 1816: “It always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity of which it is the representative.” Shedd, I, 437-438.

  23. Shawcross, I, 81, 86-87. Coleridge's psychological concepts are discussed by R. C. Bald, “Coleridge and The Ancient Mariner,” in Nineteenth-Century Studies, ed. H. J. Davis, et al. (Ithaca, N. Y., 1940), pp. 21-22.

  24. Shawcross, I, 202.

  25. Letter to Daniel Stuart, May 13, 1816; Griggs, IV, 641.

  26. Shawcross, I, 225.

  27. Shawcross, I, 77.

  28. Shawcross, I, 77.

  29. The quotation is from Bostetter (p. 84), on the popular understanding of the headnote account.

  30. See Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (London, 1930), I, 129.

  31. The original passage in Purchas uses “build” for what the emperor did: “In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace” (p. 472). Coleridge's quotation in the headnote is a step toward “decree”: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built.” Suther (pp. 190-193) points out Coleridge's frequent identification of poets with king-figures.

  32. See Lowes, p. 358 n.

  33. Raysor, II, 47.

  34. With the difference in effect between the dreamvision and the vision of the damsel, cf. Coleridge's distinction between dreaming and aesthetic illusion: “In sleep the sensations, and with these the emotions and passions which they counterfeit, are the causes of our dream-images, while in our waking hours our emotions are the effects of the images presented to us.” Raysor, I, 129. Cf. Griggs, IV, 641-642.

  35. See Martin Kallich, “The Meaning of Archibald Alison's Essays on Taste,Philological Quarterly, XXVII (1948), 317, 323.

  36. Shawcross, II, 14.

  37. Shawcross, II, 16.

  38. “The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.” Shawcross, II, 12.

George G. Watson (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: Watson, George G. “‘Kubla Khan.’” In Coleridge: The Ancient Mariner and Other Poems, A Casebook, edited by Alun R. Jones and William Tydeman, pp. 221-34. London: Macmillan, 1973.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1966, Watson sees “Kubla Khan” as “a poem about poetry” and a premonition of Coleridge's subsequent critical statements concerning the transformative qualities of the imagination and his definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”]

Before he was twenty-six years old, and before the first edition of Lyrical Ballads appeared, Coleridge had made himself a poet of many languages: an apprentice in many styles, and already a master of some, as ‘The Ancient Mariner', ‘Christabel', and ‘Frost at Midnight’ all variously show. He was perhaps the first European poet to set himself the task of achieving a wide diversity of styles based upon models other than classical ones; the undertaking, after all, would have seemed barbarous nonsense to an Augustan, and unthinkable to a Renaissance poet. ‘Kubla Khan’ is … difficult … to interpret … but then by the late 1790s Coleridge might be said to have earned some right to be difficult. He was ready for ingenious solutions. Perhaps ingenuity is too pale a word to describe his poetic strength at this moment, at the height of his talent; but some of his solutions, like that in the ‘Mariner’ of giving a medieval dress to the most modern of themes, impress above all by their calculation and their temerity.

All this prepares for the confession that some aspects of ‘Kubla Khan’ remain inexplicable. The metre, for a start, is like nothing at all. The matter of dating might have proved crucial here, but unfortunately it remains inconclusive, and the traditional composition-date of May 1798 (Poetical Works, p. 295), which would leave the poem just later than the ‘Mariner’ and probably later than the beginning of ‘Christabel', has been challenged in favour of Coleridge's own date of 1797 and, less plausibly, in favour of 1799-1800. If the poem is later than any part of ‘Christabel', then its rhythm would represent a marked reaction back towards the heavy iambic beat of traditional English verse:

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 …

(Poetical Works, p. 297)

The comparison with ‘Christabel’ is the more tempting since both poems are largely composed in four-footers; but it is impossible to explain, though easy to applaud, the strange compromise whereby ‘Kubla Khan’ moves in the most traditional of iambics from paragraph to paragraph in a rhyme-scheme that is always present, and yet neither stanzaic nor yet like an ode. The language of the poem is problematical too, given the bare facts that it is by Coleridge and of the 1790's. Unlike the ‘Mariner’ and ‘Christabel', it is in contemporary English, a fact which would pose no sort of puzzle for most poems in most ages, but which is very like a suspicious circumstance here. As a matter of fact, the suspicion is justified. Coleridge's source, to which he drew attention in the preface of 1816, on first publishing the poem side by side with ‘Christabel', is a source in Jacobean prose: not the richly convoluted Jacobean of Jeremy Taylor which he was to imitate in the prose gloss to the ‘Mariner', but the homespun Jacobean of Hakluyt's assistant Samuel Purchas. Coleridge obligingly quotes, or rather misquotes, the passage from Purchas's Pilgrimage (1613) in his preface to the poem. It actually reads:

In Xaindu did Cublai Can build a stately pallace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile meddowes, pleasant springs, delightful streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure. …

(iv xi)

It is easy to imagine what Coleridge in another mood might have made of that. In fact he rejects from it everything that is beguilingly of its period—‘encompassing', ‘beasts of chase and game', ‘in the middest thereof.’ The poem is apparently modern. Much of it offers a kind of dynamic precision of language which is quite unlike the English of any age previous to Coleridge's:

… 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.

If ‘Kubla Khan’ is a poem of the annus mirabilis of 1797-8, as still seems likely, and late rather than early in that year, then it is a striking inversion of Coleridgean formula. Instead of putting on the language of another, Coleridge has in this instance stripped it off. This is not to say that the language of the poem, or even of the first paragraph, is merely residual. It has too much life of its own for that. But its modernity is itself a device.

Such ingenuities ought to underline our uncertainty concerning the poet's purpose in ‘Kubla Khan.’ The fact is that almost everything is known about the poem except what it is about. Scholarship has been lavished upon the problem of dating. The very farmhouse in Culbone, a tiny village on the Somerset coast where the poet may have been interrupted in his composition, as he tells us in the 1816 preface, by ‘a person on business from Porlock', has been plausibly identified. The allegedly creative effects of opium-taking have been experimentally investigated and on the whole discredited. But an interpretation of the poem that is generally acceptable is no nearer than ever. Even Humphry House in his Clark Lectures, though he called it ‘a triumphant positive statement of the potentialities of poetry',1 fumbled in his conclusion, narrowly missed the point of the poem, and failed to show how its logic works.

Taking heart from the medical evidence, which discounts the notion that opium produces either dreams in sleep or waking hallucinations, I shall dismiss one troublesome possibility at once. The Crewe manuscript of 1810, now in the British Museum, announces in Coleridge's own hand that the poem was ‘composed in a sort of reverie.’ By 1816, in the subtitle to the first printed version, the poem is rather bafflingly described as ‘A Vision in a Dream', and the preface claims it was composed in ‘a profound sleep’ of about three hours. Coleridge's own accounts, then, are something less than self-consistent; but even if they had been so, it would still be clear that ‘Kubla Khan’ is not in any formal sense a dream-poem, however it may have been composed. This is not to say that Coleridge's own accounts of how it came to be written are either mendacious or mistaken, though (after a lapse of a dozen years and more) it would not be surprising or disgraceful if they proved unreliable. It is simply that the poem is not a dream-poem in the technical sense, like Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, or Coleridge's own poems ‘The Pains of Sleep’ and ‘Phantom or Fact’; except in the single detail of the damsel with the dulcimer, that is, it does not purport to relate the experience of a dream. Whether it is ‘dreamlike’ is a matter of definition. For some unexplained reason, that word is commonly applied to the vague, shadowy or mystical, though dreams themselves hardly ever seem to be like this: Alice in Wonderland, which is none of these things, surely offers a much more convincing example of what they can be like. Few wide-awake readers will find Lowes's defence of Coleridge's 1816 preface convincing:

Nobody in his waking senses could have fabricated those amazing eighteen lines [from ‘A damsel with a dulcimer …’]. For if anything ever bore the infallible marks of authenticity, it is that dissolving panorama in which fugitive hints of Aloadine's Paradise succeed each other with the vivid incoherence, and the illusion of natural and expected sequence, and the sense of an identity that yet is not identity, which are the distinctive attributes of dreams.2

But it is not at all obvious that the poem is incoherent. In fact it is wonderfully of a piece. Peacock saw this point at once, in an article he drafted in 1818 in reply to the reviewers within two years of its publication. ‘There are very few specimens of lyrical poetry,’ he argued, ‘so plain, so consistent, so completely simplex et unum from first to last’ as ‘Kubla Khan’; and he dismisses the 1816 preface boldly:

as the story of its having been composed in his sleep must necessarily, by all who are acquainted with his manner of narrating matter of fact, be received with a certain degree of scepticism, its value of a psychological curiosity is nothing; and whatever value it has is in its poetic merit alone.3

In any case, Coleridge's own views about dreams seem to have been interpretative, more so than Lowes's phrase ‘dissolving panorama’ would suggest, and he may not have thought ‘Kubla Khan’ any the less significant or shapely for representing ‘a vision in a dream.’ Dreams, like poems, seem to have had for him ‘a logic of their own’:

Call it a moment's work (and such it seems)
This tale's a fragment from the life of dreams;
But say that years matur'd the silent strife,
And 'tis a record from the dream of life

(Poetical Works, p. 485)

Dreams have significance, like life itself, and demand interpretation. Certainly ‘Kubla Khan’ is a difficult poem, in the sense that it calls for careful exegesis based on a good deal of information about Coleridge's intellectual preoccupations. But it is not muddled. It may sound faint praise to some to call it one of the best organized of all Coleridge's works: more explicit, perhaps, to remark that it is one of those poems that seem all bones, so firm and self-assertive is the structure. It is not even, on the face of it (to continue the argument as if the troublesome preface did not exist), an emotionally intense poem, apart from the last half-dozen lines. Much of its tone is matter-of-fact, informative, even slightly technical, as if Coleridge was anxious, as he is in the opening section of the ‘Mariner', to get his measurements right. And it is worth noticing at once that he does get them right. The reader is enabled and encouraged to construct a model, or draw a map, of the Khan's whole device, and it can be no accident that the figure ‘five', mentioned in the sixth line, ‘So twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers were girdled round …’ is repeated in l.25: ‘Five miles meandering with a mazy motion ….’ (This is corrected from ‘twice six miles’ in the Crewe manuscript.) The walls are ten miles long, in fact, in order to surround the five-mile stretch of the sacred river that is above the surface of the earth. Besides, as many have noticed, there seems to be nothing fragmentary about the poem as it survives, in spite of the 1816 subtitle ‘A Fragment’: it seems to say all it has to say. And the logical progression of the poem is unusually good, each of its four paragraphs being an advance upon its predecessor, and each one tightly organized within itself. All this is not to deny that Coleridge may have composed the poem in a dream, but only to insist that the dream-hypothesis is unhelpful, and even—in so far as it may encourage the reader to let down his guard and disregard what the poem is saying—something of a nuisance.

What is ‘Kubla Khan’ about? This is, or ought to be, an established fact of criticism: ‘Kubla Khan’ is a poem about poetry. It is probably the most original poem about poetry in English, and the first hint outside his notebooks and letters that a major critic lies hidden in the twenty-five-year-old Coleridge. Anyone who objects that there is not a word about poetry in it should be sent at once to the conclusion and asked, even if he has never read any Plato, what in English poetry this is like:

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.

There are dozens of parallels in Renaissance English to this account of poetic inspiration, all based—though rarely at first hand—on Plato's view of poetic madness in the Ion or the Phaedrus. Shakespeare's banter about ‘the poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ in A Midsummer Night's Dream is perhaps the most famous. The ‘flashing eyes’ and ‘floating hair’ of Coleridge's poem belong to a poet in the fury of creation. Verbal resemblances to the text of Plato itself confirm that the last paragraph of the poem is a prolonged Platonic allusion. Socrates, in the Ion, compares lyric poets to ‘Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when under the influence of Dionysus’ and adds that poets ‘gather their strains from honied fountains out of the gardens and dells of the Muses. …’ Ion himself, describing the effects of poetic recitation, confesses that ‘when I speak of horrors, my hair stands on end. …’ The very phrase ‘holy dread’ is Platonic (Laws 671D). That ‘Kubla Khan’ is in some sense a comment on Plato's theory of poetry is not really in doubt.

Given that ‘Kubla Khan’ is about poetry, its general direction is not difficult to discern, and real problems only arise in trying to account for detail after detail in terms of its total significance. The fifty-four lines of the poem divide clearly at line 36. The first section, often in coldly literal detail, describes the Khan's ‘rare device.’ Purchas's Pilgrimage (1613) tells us hardly more than that the Khan built a movable palace in a beautifully enclosed park. Coleridge is much more specific, and concentrates many of Purchas's details, and some others, into a closely consistent picture. The park in the poem is a mixture of the natural and the artificial, at once a wilderness and a garden, and what is man-made contains, or is contained in, the wild and uncontrollable:

And here were forests ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Though the whole design is of course artificial—an enclosed park centering upon a palace or ‘stately pleasure-dome'—it contains within itself, as its unique possession, something utterly natural and uncontrollable: the sacred river itself, for the rest of its course subterranean, bursts into the light at this point and flows violently above ground before sinking back. It is evidently for this reason that the tyrant chose the site for his palace, which stands so close to the water that it casts its shadow upon it and is within earshot of the sound of the river, both above and below ground. And these two sounds harmonize:

Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.

With full emphasis upon the effect of harmonious contrast, the first section ends.

The second begins on an apparently irrelevant note, but its relevance is justified at once: the song of an Abyssinian girl, once heard in a dream, is capable of moving such ‘deep delight’ that

I would build that dome in air …

‘In air’ presumably means not substantially but as a poem, and the reader's first instinct is to say that this is just what Coleridge has done. But this is evidently wrong. The syntax makes it very clear that the project remains unfulfilled:

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry …

‘Kubla Khan', then, is not just about poetry: it is about two kinds of poem. One of them is there in the first thirty-six lines of the poem; and though the other is nowhere to be found, we are told what it would do to the reader and what it would do to the poet. The reader would be able to visualize a palace and park he had never seen; and the poet would behave after the classic manner of poets, like a madman. This second poem, a poem that does not exist, is so evidently the real thing that it is clear that the poem of the first thirty-six lines is not—not quite a poem at all, in Coleridge's terms. And if it is asked why Coleridge in 1798 would be likely to find ll.1-36 unpoetical, the question is already answered. They are factual, detailed, matter-of-fact. It is well known precisely why Coleridge objected to ‘matter-of-factness’ in poetry—the very word, in his view, was his own coinage. In the Biographia Literaria, written nearly twenty years later, he lists this quality as the second of Wordsworth's defects as a poet:

… a matter-of-factness in certain poems … a laborious minuteness and fidelity in the representation of objects. …

(BL xxii)

This may sound rather remote from the twenty-five-year-old poet who wrote ‘Kubla Khan.’ But Hazlitt, if his evidence is to be trusted (and it may have been conditioned by a reading of this passage in the Biographia, which appeared in 1817), supplies the one detail to complete the case. In his essay ‘My First Acquaintance with Poets', published in the third number of The Liberal (April 1823) he tells how Coleridge had made the same objection to some of Wordsworth's poems in a walk near Nether Stowey in June 1798, only a few weeks after the most probable date of composition of ‘Kubla Khan.’ Coleridge, says Hazlitt:

lamented that Wordsworth was not prone enough to believe in the traditional superstitions of the place, and that there was something corporeal, a matter-of-fact-ness, a clinging to the palpable, or often to the petty, in his poetry in consequence … He said, however (if I remember right) that this objection must be confined to his descriptive pieces, that his philosophic poetry had a grand and comprehensive spirit in it, so that his soul seemed to inhabit the universe like a palace, and to discover truth by intuition rather than by deduction.

Here are two kinds of poetry, and evidence too that this preoccupation of Coleridge's career as a critic was already present in the fertile year of 1797-8. In a sense, it is the same question that led him, in the years that followed, into the period of intense critical activity that began with The Friend in 1809 and culminated in the composition of the Biographia Literaria in 1815. How far may poetry be purely informative and descriptive? Coleridge's answer, in effect, was ‘Ideally, never.’ Information is not the characteristic business of poetry. Poetry may have an informative effect, may leave us ‘sadder and wiser', as the Mariner's tale left the Wedding Guest. But it ought not to proceed, as some of Wordsworth's lesser poems do, by a mere aggregation of detail (‘Tis three feet long and two feet wide’). This, on its simplest and most practical level, is the force of Coleridge's imagination/fancy distinction, and there is evidence beyond Hazlitt, in Coleridge's own notebooks and letters, to show how early he hit upon it as a summary of his case for and against Wordsworth's poetry. An early letter of 15 January 1804, addressed to Richard Sharp, contains a full outline of the distinction:

Imagination, or the modifying power in that highest sense of the word, in which I have ventured to oppose it to fancy, or the aggregating power.

(CL, ii 1,034)

The interrupted discussion at the end of the thirteenth chapter of the Biographia Literaria, where the ‘essentially vital’ power of imagination is contrasted with the ‘fixities and definites’ of fancy, fills out the account of a dozen years earlier. But the letter of 1804 is precise enough, and early enough, to make it reasonable to suppose that the young poet of ‘Kubla Khan’ may already have been close to such a conclusion.

There are two aspects of the imagination-fancy distinction which, obvious as they are, tend perhaps to be overlooked. The first is that it is a value-distinction. ‘Imagination’ is the power that writes good poems: ‘fancy’ writes inferior ones. There is no such thing, in Coleridgean terms, as a bad imaginative poem. If the ‘shaping spirit’ really has shaped, if the poem is more than a sum of its parts and more than a mere aggregate of the poet's perceptions, then it is so far good. Secondly, the distinction is an historical one: it derives from a view of the whole past of English poetry. It is the decisive innovation of the romantic poet to write imaginative poems rather than fanciful ones, just as it was the characteristic role of the Augustans to condemn themselves to a poetry ‘addressed to the fancy or the intellect’ (BL i). Wordsworth, in this view, bestrides both worlds and is pathetically capable of both, and the Biographia is a belated plea inviting him to recognize both his excellence and his failings. But is just here, at this confident moment of exegesis, that an embarrassing choice emerges in the interpretation of ‘Kubla Khan.’ Given that it is a poem about two kinds of poetry, and that Coleridge's classic distinction may have been present to him, in essence at least, as early as 1798, there is no need to resist the conclusion that its first thirty-six lines are ‘fanciful’ and the remainder a programme for imaginative creation. But I do not know that there is any clear reason for assigning the fancifulness of the first section of the poem to what Coleridge disliked in the aristocratic poetry of the Augustan era, or to what he disliked in some of Wordsworth's, or to what he disliked in some of his own. The orientalism of the setting of the poem masks, and perhaps deliberately, its critical purpose.

Certainly the Khan is very like a tyrannical aristocrat as seen through romantic and liberal eyes. This is an aspect of the poem that might easily have seemed too obvious, in the years around 1800, to be worth mentioning, but it needs to be emphasized in an age which finds tyrants engagingly exotic, even to the point of supposing Kubla a model of the creative artist. The very fact that he is an oriental despot would have been reason enough in the late eighteenth century to excite hostility. To this day the French retain the word turquerie to describe a brutal act. Beckford's Vathek (1786) is one of the many oriental tales of the period, French and English, that hint at the exotic vices of eastern potentates. And there is nothing improbable about identifying eighteenth-century aristocratic failings with the medieval or modern East. Cowper vents an Englishman's indignation in the fifth book of The Task (1785) against Catherine the Great's ingenious Palace of Ice, a ‘most magnificent and mighty freak’ made without saw or hammer, a ‘brittle prodigy’:

                                                  a scene
Of evanescent glory, once a stream
And soon to slide into a stream again …
'Twas transient in its nature, as in show
'Twas durable: as worthless, as it seem'd
Intrinsically precious; to the foot
Treach'rous and false; it smil'd, and it was cold.
Great princes have great playthings …
But war's a game which, were their subjects wise,
Kings would not play at.

Keats in ‘Sleep and Poetry’ does not invoke the East to damn what he supposed the triviality of Augustan poetry; but the language he uses might be aptly used of the Khan. English poetry between the Elizabethans and the moderns he sees as a sterile interlude, ‘a schism Nurtured by foppery and barbarism’:

                              with a puling infant's force
They sway'd about upon a rocking horse
And thought it Pegasus.

The Khan, too, may be something of a barbarous fop. And if this seems a lofty and remote view of the East, it should be recalled that accurate orientalism is an extreme rarity in England before the Victorians; the orientalism of the early Romantics derives from experiences like the childhood reading of the Arabian Nights that Wordsworth refers to in the Prelude (v 482f.). It is colourful, picturesque, and indifferent to accuracy, at once fascinated and dismissive. Southey sums up the attitude that Coleridge is likely to have shared in his notes and preface to Thalaba (1801), a Moslem tale he began in 1799 in a new metre which was to be ‘The arabesque ornament of an Arabian tale.’ No labour, in Southey's view, could be justified in getting oriental details right. No faithful translation from the Persian could make Firdausi's epic readable, and the Arabian Nights, which had first appeared in English in about 1705-8, were all the better for having passed through ‘the filter of a French translation.’ ‘A waste of ornament and labour', as Southey puts it loftily, ‘characterizes all the works of the Orientalists.’ The East is not an object of study, but a place to let the imagination run riot in. And the chief excitement and source of horror lies in its despotism. Purchas offers rather an attractive picture of the Khan, as well as interesting details about his enormous, if fastidious, sexual appetite; but then Purchas was a Jacobean and took autocracy for granted, and was also impressed by the fact that this Emperor of the Tartars in the 1260's had treated his European guests well and taken a sympathetic interest in Christianity. The sentence from Purchas that Coleridge scribbled in his notebook emphasizes merely his despotism:

the greatest prince in peoples, cities, and kingdoms that ever was in the world.

(CN 1,840)

The overwhelmingly important fact about the ‘pleasure-dome’ of the poem, with its surrounding park, is its artificiality. It is a ‘miracle of rare device', despotically willed into existence as a tyrant's toy:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree … '

The authoritarian word ‘decree’ is not in Purchas, who simply says: ‘In Xaindu did Cublai Can build a stately pallace …’ And the painfully contrived quality of the tyrant's pleasure becomes clearer with every line: in the formal, though not entirely formal, gardens, and the trivial purpose to which the brute strength of the sacred river has been harnessed. The reader is meant to be left with a disagreeable image of the patron himself, congratulating himself on his facile ingenuity in degrading a matchless natural phenomenon to the service of a landscape garden—in itself a very Augustan pleasure—in order to flatter his own megalomaniac dreams:

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

In his artistic tastes, at least, he reminds one a little of the young Alexander Pope's complacent view of Windsor Park:

Here hills and vales, the woodland and the plain,
Here earth and water seem to strive again;
Not Chaos-like together crush'd and bruis'd,
But, as the world, harmoniously confus'd.

Windsor-Forest (1713), ll. 11-14

‘In perusing French tragedies,’ Coleridge remarked years later, ‘I have fancied two marks of admiration at the end of each line, as hieroglyphics of the author's own admiration at his own cleverness’ (BL i). Kubla's arrogance is much like this. If only he knew it, the poem hints, he has bitten off much more than he can chew.

For all the violence of great emotional experience survives there in the river, contained by the Khan's device much as Augustan poems seem to contain and even to sterilize the emotions of man: ‘thoughts translated into the language of poetry', as Coleridge later complained of Pope. The vast power of the river is allowed to rise, but only ‘momently', and then sinks back into silence, ‘a lifeless ocean.’ This is surely not the River of Life. It is the river of the poetry of imagination which, under the old literary order, had been debased into a plaything and allowed its liberty only if ‘girdled round.’ The passage that describes the river as it rushes above ground is dense with the imagery of the violent reshaping of dull matter, like the ‘essentially vital’ power of the imagination working upon objects ‘essentially fixed and dead’ (BL xiii):

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 …

The poem is profoundly elusive in other ways, but there is something uncharacteristically familiar about Coleridge's imagery here, so commonly are rivers and springs associated with poetry in classical and Renaissance poetry. The very name ‘Alph’ offers an easy clue in its resemblance to the Alpheus of Milton's ‘Lycidas', where it is associated with the Sicilian Muse of pastoral poetry. And the river of poetry was a preoccupation of some Romantics too. In his preface to the sonnets on The River Duddon (1820) Wordsworth was later to urge Coleridge to revive an old project of their Somerset year, a poem describing the course of a symbolic river to be called ‘The Brook’ (BL x). ‘There is a sympathy in streams', as he put it invitingly. The sacred river is the most traditional element in a poem otherwise evasive in its sophistication.

The triumph of ‘Kubla Khan', perhaps, lies in its evasions: it hints so delicately at critical truths while demonstrating them so boldly. The contrast between the two halves of the poem, between the terrible emergence of the imaginative power in the first, ‘momently forced', and its Dionysiac victory in the second, is bold enough to distract attention from the business at hand. So bold, indeed, that Coleridge for once was able to dispense with any language out of the past. It was his own poem, a manifesto. To read it now, with the hindsight of another age, is to feel premonitions of the critical achievement to come: phrases like ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings',4 or ‘the imagination … dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create’ (BL xiii), lie only a little below the surface of the poem. But the poem is in advance, not just of these, but in all probability of any critical statement that survives. It may be that it stands close to the moment of discovery itself.


  1. H. House, Coleridge (London, 1953) p. 116.

  2. J. L. Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (Boston, Mass., 1927; rev. ed. 1930) p. 363.

  3. ‘An Essay on Fashionable Literature', Halliford edition of the Works of Peacock, edited by H. F. B. Brett-Smith and C. E. Jones (London, 1934) viii 291, 290.

  4. Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), an essay in some degree a work of collaboration between the two poets.

Kenneth Burke (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: Burke, Kenneth. “‘Kubla Khan’: Proto-Surrealist Poem.” In Modern Critical Views: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 33-52. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1966, Burke analyzes “Kubla Khan” in the context of Coleridge's other “mystery poems”—including “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel”—explaining its linguistic references, mythic patterns of death and rebirth, and underlying unity.]

Let's begin at the heart of the matter, and take up the “problems” afterwards. Count me among those who would view this poem both as a marvel, and as “in principle” finished (and here is a “problem,” inasmuch as Coleridge himself refers to “Kubla Khan” as a “fragment”).

Conceivably, details could be added, to amplify one or another of the three movements. And some readers (I am not among them) might especially feel the need of transitional lines to bridge the ellipsis between the middle and final stanzas. But as regards the relationship among the three stages of the poem's development, its unfolding seems to me no less trimly demarcated than the strophes of a Greek chorus, or (more relevantly) the Hegelian pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Whatever may have got lost, the three stanzas in their overall progression tick off a perfect form, with beginning, middle, and end respectively. Thus:

Stanza One (Thesis) amplifies the theme of the beatific vision. Stanza Two (Antithesis) introduces and develops the sinister, turbulent countertheme (plus, at the close, a notably modified recall of the contrasting first theme). And the Third Stanza fuses the two motives in terms of a beatific vision (the “damsel with a dulcimer”) seen by a poetic “I,” the mention of whom, despite the euphoria, leads to the cry, “Beware! Beware!” and to talk of a “dread” that, however “holy,” in a sinister fashion is felt to befit the idealistic building of this particular air castle.

In The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston Lowes brought an infectious combination of research and spirited delight to the tracking down of possible literary sources behind Coleridge's great poems of Fascination (an enterprise further justified by the fact that Coleridge was so notoriously omnivorous a reader, and one of his memorandum books listed texts containing many references to caverns, chasms, mazes, sunken rivers, fountains, and the like). By consulting Lowes the reader will discover that nearly every notable term or reference in the poem appeared (often with quite relevant applications and combinations) in other passages that Coleridge is quite likely to have seen. But though greatly enjoying the charm of Lowes's presentation, and having on many occasions consulted his book when working on Coleridge, I should begin by pointing out that our present job involves a quite different trend of investigation (an investigation in which Lowes's book can be of great help, though his interest is directed otherwise).

There is a sense in which poets can be said to have special nomenclatures, just as scientists or philosophers do. But this situation is concealed from us by the fact that, rather than inventing a special word for some particular conceptual purpose, or pausing to define some particular application he is giving to a word in common usage, a poet leaves the process implicit, even though he uses the common idiom in his peculiar way. (For instance, the term “fish” in Theodore Roethke's poems would have little in common with the article of food we might buy in a market or order in a restaurant.) And by collating all the contexts that help define a word as it figures in a given poet's work, we can discern respects in which it is part of a nomenclature essentially as specialized as “entelechy” in the philosophy of Aristotle, or “relativity” with particular reference to the theories of Einstein. So, thinking along those lines, insofar as I'd risk looking up from the immediate text, I'd tend to ask about uses of a given term in other works by Coleridge rather than asking (like Lowes) about possible sources in other writers. For instance, people have doubtless talked about fountains since they could talk at all. And Coleridge's reference to the sacred river, Alph, does unquestionably suggest the ancient myth of the river Alpheus that sank into the ground and emerged as the fountain Arethusa (a belief which Lowes shows to have merged with notions about the sources of the Nile). I'd tend to start matters from a concern with the themes of submergence and emergence, with the Alpheus-Arethusa pattern as a symbolizing of rebirth, regardless of who else happened to speak of it. Or take this comment in Lowes:

In April, 1798, Coleridge who had been suffering from an infected tooth, wrote as follows, in a letter to his brother George:

Laudanum gave me repose, not sleep; but you, I believe, know how divine that repose is, what a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands!

Now when Coleridge wrote that, he was recalling and echoing, consciously or unconsciously, something else. For in the Note Book (which, as we know, belongs to this same period) appears this memorandum:

some wilderness-plot, green and fountainous and unviolated by Man.

Lowes then asks, “Is it possible to discover what lies behind this note?” He proceeds to discover, in Bartram's Travels, the expressions “blessed unviolated spot of earth!” and “the enchanting spot.” And he notes that two pages earlier Bartram had written: “the dew-drops twinkle and play … on the tips of the lucid, green savanna, sparkling” beside a “serpentine rivulet, meandering over the meadows.” As approached from Lowes's point of view, the serpentine, meandering rivulet would seem to touch upon the “sacred river, / Five miles meandering with a mazy motion”; the “dew-drops” might impinge upon “honey-dew”; and so on. But of primary importance for our present investigations is not the question of where Coleridge may have read words almost identical with “spot of enchantment,” but the fact that he used the expression in this particular context (in association with laudanum). And the reference to “honey-dew” would lead us, not to such a reference as Bartram's “dew-drops,” but rather to a pair of quite contrasting references in “The Ancient Mariner,” the first a dew like the sweat of anguish (“From the sails the dew did drip”), the second the dew of refreshment after release from the dreadful drought (“I dreamt that they were filled with dew; / And when I awoke, it rained”). Or we might recall the voice “As soft as honey-dew” that, though gentle, pronounced a fatal sentence: “The man hath penance done, / And penance more will do.” And above all, I should rejoice to encounter in another poem (“Youth and Age”) an explicit recognition of this term's convertibility: “Dew-drops are the gems of morning, / But the tears of mournful eve.” In a juvenile poem, there is a related expression, “inebriate with dew.” And I should never feel wholly content until I could also fit in one of the jottings from Anima Poetae that widens the circle of associations by reference to “a voice that suits a dream, a voice in a dream, a voice soundless and yet for the ear and not for the eye of the soul” (for often eye and ear can represent quite different orders of motivation).

In brief, the student of any one poet's nomenclature has more to learn from a concordance of his work (a purely internal inspection of a term's “sources” in its own range of contexts) than from an inspection of possible borrowings (except in the broadest sense, as when a scholar cites usages by an older writer's contemporaries to help establish the likelihood that a given term was being used in a sense local to that period but now obsolete).

In fact, the many interesting documents which Lowes assembles as inductive proof of expressions which Coleridge derived or adapted from his reading, might with much justice be interpreted quite differently, as indication that Coleridge was but responding “naturally” to the implications of such imagery. For instance, one might conceivably not require a prior text to help him discover that the image of a maze can adequately stand for a certain kind of emotional entanglement or “amazement,” and that the greenery of an oasis in a desert provides an adequate image for an idea of refuge. And presumably travel books select such things to talk about for the very reason that their sheer “factuality” follows along the grooves of man's spontaneous imagination. Be that as it may, Lowes's study of possible derivation with regard to possible private literary sources contains much material that can be applied to the study of “associations” in two senses that Lowes was not concerned with: (1) their relation to “mythic” or “archetypal” forms of thought that do not rely on historical sources for their derivation; and (2) their relation to a nomenclature that, at notable points, may be uniquely Coleridgean (in that they possess personal connotations not to be found in any dictionary, and not precisely appreciated by us who read them, as it were, without quite the proper accent).

In any case, for the most part, we shall interpret the poem by looking for what now would often be called “archetypal” sources rather than for Lowes's possible derivations from other sources (while occasionally considering the areas at which the two kinds of inquiry seem to overlap).

Even if, as regards its actual origin, we choose to accept without question Coleridge's statement that the poem is the spontaneous product of a dream (and thus arose without artistic purpose), when viewing it as a work of art we must ask what kind of effect it “aims” to produce. I'd propose to answer that question roundabout, thus:

In the Poetics, among the resources that Aristotle says contribute to the effectiveness of tragedy as a literary species he lists a sense of the “marvelous” (to thaumaston). The overall purpose involved in tragedy is “catharsis,” while various other resources serve in one way or another to make the sense of purgation most effective. The Cornelian “theater of admiration” played down the principle of catharsis as exemplified in the Attic plays. And it so altered the proportions of the tragic ingredients that one particular kind of the “marvelous” (the cortège-like neoclassic pomp of such plays' courtly style) rose in the scale from a means to an end. The appeal to our sense of the marvelous takes many other forms, and among the variations I would include Coleridge's great “Mystery” poems (or poems of “Fascination”): “Kubla Khan,” “The Ancient Mariner,” and “Christabel.” Indeed, they come closer to a sense of the marvelous that Aristotle had in mind, since he was discussing ways whereby the playwright might endow a plot with the aura of supernatural fatality; and in his Biographia Literaria Coleridge says of his part in the volume of “Lyrical Ballads” containing work by him and Wordsworth:

it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

And previously in the same text:

the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.

Though Coleridge does not mention “Kubla Khan” in this connection (it was not published at that time), when judged as a poem it obviously appeals by producing much the same kind of effect. That is, its mystery endows it with a feeling of fatality. Presumably “The Ancient Mariner” also had its “archetypal” origins in a dream, told to Coleridge by a friend of his, though greatly modified, as Wordsworth testifies, by Coleridge's own additions. And few works have a more strangely dreamlike quality than “Christabel.” The sinister element that lies about the edges of these poems attains its blunt documentary completion in the nightmares of guilt, remorse, or woe he describes in “The Pains of Sleep,” with such clinical testimony as the lines:

The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from the fiendish dream,
O'ercome with sufferings strange and wild,
I wept as I had been a child;
And having thus by tears subdued
My anguish to a milder mood,
My punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stained with sin,—
For aye entempesting anew
The unfathomable hell within,
The horror of their deeds to view,
To know and loathe, yet wish and do!
Such griefs with such men well agree,
But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?

Before considering “Kubla Khan” in detail, I cite this piece (which Coleridge himself specifically mentions as a “contrast”) because of my conviction that it brings out the full implication of the sinister potentialities one finds faint traces of in the predominantly euphoric state symbolized by pleasure dome, Edenic garden, and “a damsel with a dulcimer” (surely one of the most euphonious lines in the language). And now, to the poem in detail:

The first stanza, obviously, is the beatific vision of an Edenic garden, enclosed (“girdled round”) in a circle of protection. In the third stanza the idea of encirclement will take on quite different connotations (“Weave a circle round him thrice”). To the generally recognized connotations of “Alph” as both “Alpheus” and “Alpha,” I would offer but one addition; yet I submit that it is essential to an understanding of many notable details in the poem. As I have tried to show in my Grammar of Motives (on “the temporizing of essence”) and in my Rhetoric of Religion (particularly the section on “The First Three Chapters of Genesis”), the proper narrative, poetic, or “mythic” way to deal with fundamental motives is in terms of temporal priority. In this mode of expression, things deemed most basic are said to be first in time. So a river whose name suggests the first letter of the alphabet in an ancient language (one can as well hear the Hebrew form, “Aleph”) is indeed well named. And fittingly, therefore, the forests are called “ancient as the hills.” For this stanza is designed to convey in narrative, or “mythic” (or “archetypal”) terms the very essence of felicity (the creative “joy” that, in his poignant ode “Dejection,” written about two years later, Coleridge will bemoan the permanent loss of, since his “genial spirits fail,” and he “may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and the life, whose fountains are within”).

True, in the first stanza, there is no specific reference to a fountain. But when we recall the passage already quoted from a letter to his brother (concerning a “divine repose” that is like “a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands”), we can see how, so far as the associations within Coleridge's private nomenclature were concerned, the reference to “sunny spots of greenery” (plus the connotations of Alph) had already set the terministic conditions for the explicit emergence of a fountain. And the thought might also induce us to ask whether, beyond such a “spot of enchantment” there might also be lurking some equivalent to the “waste of sands” for which it is medicinal.

In any case, given what we now know about the imagery of man's ideal beginnings, would we not take it for granted that the “caverns” traversed by the river are leading us “back” to such a “sunless sea” as the womb-heaven of the amniotic fluid by which the fetus was once “girdled round” in Edenic comfort? (In one of his fragments, Coleridge characteristically depicts a “sot” luxuriating on a couch and exclaiming: “Would that this were work—utinam hoc esset laborare!”) In Lowes you can find literary “sources” for the fact that the caverns are “measureless.” It is also a fact that they should be measureless for the simple reason that they connote an ideal time wholly alien to the knowledge of numbers. On the other hand, the garden spot is measured (“twice five miles”) since such finiteness helps suggest connotations of protective enclosure, as with the medieval ideal of the hortus conclusus which Leo Spitzer has discussed in his monograph on “Milieu and Ambiance.”

How far should we carry such speculations? We need not insist on it, but inasmuch as forests are of wood (thereby bringing us into the fate-laden Greek-Roman line of thought that commingles ideas of wood, matter, and mother: hyle, dynamis, mater, materia, potentia) the reference to them reinforces the feminine connotations of such a guarded and guardian garden.

So far as Coleridgean terminology in general is concerned, we might also note that green is not an unambiguous color. Christabel is to Geraldine as a dove is to a green snake coiled about her (“Swelling its neck as she swelled hers”). And when reading that Alph is a “sacred river,” we might bear in mind the well-known but sometimes neglected etymological fact that in Latin usage either a priest or a criminal was sacer, as with the fluctuancies between French sacre and sacré (the same ambiguities applying to Greek hagios and to the Hebrew concept of the “set apart,” qodesh, qadesh).

As for “stately”: We might recall that Geraldine's bare neck was “stately.” And cutting in from another angle, I might cite a prose passage that I consider so basic to Coleridge's thinking, I keep finding all sorts of uses for it. It is from The Friend, where the exposition is divided into what he calls “landing-places.” He is here discussing the sheer form of his presentation (the emphasis is mine):

Among my earliest impressions I still distinctly remember that of my first entrance into the mansion of a neighboring baronet, awfully known to me by the name of the great house, its exterior having been long connected in my childish imagination with the feelings and fancies stirred up in me by the perusal of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments. Beyond all other objects, I was most struck with the magnificent staircase, relieved at well-proportioned intervals by spacious landing-places, this adorned with grand or showy plants, the next looking out on an extensive prospect through the stately window … while from the last and highest the eye commanded the whole spiral ascent with the marble pavement of the great hall; from which it seemed to spring up as if it merely used the ground on which it rested. My readers will find no difficulty in translating these forms of the outward senses into their intellectual analogies.

In sum, I'd say that references to the “decreeing” of this “stately pleasure-dome” combine connotations of infantile (“first” or “essential”) felicity with concepts of hierarchal wonder. Though on its face the term fits well with the euphoria that so strikingly pervades the whole first stanza, and we shall later see the term applied to a hero, there is also the fact, as regards Coleridge's nomenclature in general, that it also applies to the sinister serpent-woman, Geraldine. Viewed in this light, it might be said to possess latent possibilities of trouble, an ambiguous announcement of a “problematical” theme that would become explicit later.

Similarly, despite my interpretation of “sunless” as uterine, I must concede its deathy connotations, particularly in view of the fact that the “sunless sea” will later be redefined as the “lifeless ocean.” At best, we are on the edges of that midway, Life-in-Death stage which played so important a part in the sufferings of the Ancient Mariner. Or, otherwise put, any connotations of rebirth also imply connotations of dying.

In any case, the overall benignant tenor of the first stanza is so pronounced, the poetic conditions are set for a contrast, if the imaginative logic of the poem makes such a turn desirable. Thus, the second stanza is an amplification of the sinister meanings subsumed in the opening outcry: “But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted / Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!” On their face, chasms are cataclysmic, ghastly, and chaotic. “Athwart” on its face is troublous, to the extent that it has “thwart” in it. And as regards Coleridge's particular nomenclature, we might well adduce as evidence, from “Fears in Solitude,” the lines, “the owlet Atheism, / Sailing on obscene wings athwart the noon,” though part of the damage here may be associated also with the time of day, since it was “The bloody Sun, at noon” that visited such torture on the Ancient Mariner. (More on these lines later.)

Though you may have felt that I was straining things as regards the ambiguities of “sacred” in the first stanza, surely you will grant that in this middle stanza such disturbances come to the fore, as regards the synonym “holy” with reference to “A savage place! … enchanted” (recall the “spot of enchantment”) and “haunted / By woman wailing for her demon-lover!” I take it that the theme of the demon lover will return in a slightly transformed state near the end of the poem. As for the phase of the moon, Lowes notes: It was under the aegis of the “waning moon” that the Mariner's cure began. (It would be more accurate to say his partial cure; for we should always remember that that “grey-beard loon” was subject to periodic relapses, and then his anguish again drove him to confess his sense of guilt.)

Coleridge has so beautifully interwoven description of natural motions with words for human actions, one is hardly aware of the shifts between the two kinds of verbs (beginning as early as the pleasure dome, which is described as being decreed). Thus one hardly notes the “as if” in his reference to the “fast quick pants” with which the fountain is “breathing.” All the descriptions are so saturated with narrative, one inevitably senses in them a principle of personality. (Ruskin's “pathetic fallacy” is carried to the point where everything is as active as in a picture by Breughel.) Though the observation applies to the poem throughout, we might illustrate the point by listing only the more obvious instances in the middle stanza: slanted, athwart, enchanted, waning, haunted, wailing, seething, breathing, forced, half-intermitted, vaulted, rebounding, flung up, meandering, ran, sank, heard, prophesying.

I would view this general hubbub as something more than a way of making descriptions vivid (though it certainly is at least that). I would take it also to indicate that this indeterminate mixture of motion and action is in effect a poetized psychology, detailing not what the reader is to see but what mental states he is thus empathically and sympathetically imitating as he reads.

I stress the notion because of my belief that it provides the answer to the problem of the “sunless sea” synonymized in the second stanza as a “lifeless ocean.” Though the reciprocal relation between the destination of the river and the emergence of the fountain justifies one in looking upon them as standing for aspects of a life force that bursts into creativity and sinks into death, I would contend that the central significance of this stream is somewhat more specific. The poem is figuring stages in a psychology—and in this sense the river is, first of all, the “stream of consciousness” (which is in turn inextricably interwoven with the river of time). That is, the design is not just depicting in general the course of life and death, plus connotations of rebirth. Rather, the poem is tracing in terms of imagery the very form of thinking (which is necessarily integral with a time process, inasmuch as the form of thinking must unfold through time.) It is as though, like Kantian transcendentalism, Coleridge were speculating epistemologically on the nature of consciousness, except that he is in effect talking of intuition in terms that are themselves the embodiment of what he is talking about. That's why Coleridge could say in his introduction to the poem:

The Author … 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.

In this respect, I repeat, the poem could be viewed as a highly personal, poetic analogue of Kantian transcendentalism, which sought conceptually to think about itself until it ended in a schematization of the forms necessarily implicit in its very act of thinking.

I have several reasons for wanting to insist that the image of the sacred river, in its journey to and from an ultimate reservoir of the “sunless” or “lifeless” is to be viewed thus, as more specifically tied to the psychology of idealism than just a figuring of life and death in general. For one thing (as per my paper, “Thanatopsis for Critics: a Brief Thesaurus of Deaths and Dyings,” Essays in Criticism, October 1952) since poets at their best write only what they profoundly know (and beyond all doubt, “Kubla Khan” is one kind of poetry at its best) and inasmuch as no living poet has experienced death, I take it for granted that, when a poet speaks of death, he is necessarily talking about something else, something witnessed from without, like a funeral, whereas this poem is wholly from within. Similarly, as regards fictions about the “supernatural,” we need but consider the conduct of the “dead” sailors in “The Ancient Mariner” to realize that in the realm of the “supernatural” there is no death. Even in the “double death” of the orthodox Christian's Hell, the miserable wretches somehow carry on eternally. Or Whitman's paeans to Death indicate how Death becomes rather like the ultimate, maternal repository from which the forms of conscious life emerge (a pattern that also infuses thoughts on the ultimate end and source of things, in the second part of Goethe's Faust). Or think of the similar return to the “buttonmoulder,” in Peer Gynt. And to cap things, recall Coleridge's “Epitaph,” asking the reader to pray “That he who many a year with toil of breath / Found death in life, may here find life in death!”

Further, the realm of “essence” can never “die.” For instance, what destruction of all existing life in the universe could alter the essential “fact” that, if a is greater than b and b is greater than c, then a is greater than c? And what obliteration can be so total as to alter the fact that Napoleon's character, or “essence,” must go on having been exactly what it was?

If, on the other hand, we think of the river as more specifically interweaving the stream of time and the stream of consciousness (what Coleridge called the “streamy nature of association”), all comes clear. For there is a sense in which both time and thought continually hurry to their “death,” yet are continually “reborn,” since the death of one moment is incorporated in the moment that arises out of it, and the early stages of a thought process are embedded in its fulfillment. Nor should we forget Coleridge's original declared intention with regard to the “supernatural, or at least romantic” as a device to transfer from our “inward nature” various “shadows of imagination.”

For these reasons, if you choose to see the river and the fountain as figuring ultimately the course of life and death, I'd ask you at least to think of these more specific “transcendental” qualifications as relevant adjectives to your nouns. And certainly a note like this, in the Gutch Memorandum Notebook, is on our side: “There is not a new or strange opinion—Truth returns from banishment—a river run underground—fire beneath embers—.” Also, in his Notebooks, when saying that in the best part of one's nature man must be solitary, he adds: “Man exists herein to himself & to God alone—Yea, in how much only to God—how much lies below his own Consciousness.”

In any case, there is no questioning the fact that the Coleridgean nomenclature elsewhere does clearly give us personal (moral, psychological) equivalents for fountains and streams with mazy motion. The most relevant for our purposes is in “Dejection,” a poem specifically concerned with the loss of such impulsive poetic ability as distinguishes “Kubla Khan”:

                    My genial spirits fail;
                    And what can these avail
To lift the smothering weight from off my breast?
                    It were a vain endeavour,
                    Though I should gaze for ever
On that green light that lingers in the west:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.

In an expression some years later, he gives the word a decidedly moral twist, in referring to “my conscience, the sole fountain of certainty.” In one letter, he refers to “the pure fountain of all my moral religious feelings and comforts,—I mean the absolute Impersonality of the Deity.” And in a formal letter of condolence, written before the production of “Kubla Khan,” he had given us a related moral significance for “chaff”: “The pestilence of our lusts must be scattered, the strong-layed Foundations of our Pride blown up, and the stubble and chaff of our Vanities burnt, ere we can give ear to the inspeaking Voice of Mercy, “Why will ye die?” True, Lowes finds references to fountains that hurled forth various kinds of fragments, but he also cites a reference to an “inchanting and amazing chrystal fountain”; hence so far as “sources” in his sense are concerned, Coleridge could just as well have given us a fountain without “chaff.” Thus, from the standpoint of “mythic” or “archetypal” sources, I'd say that Coleridge's creative fountain was a bit “problematical,” as with the countertheme of this stanza generally; in effect this spirited (or breathy) upheaval had not yet separated the wheat from the tares, though it was intensely involved in the process of doing so.

“Mazy” is a word that turns up often in Coleridge. It's as characteristically his as “dim.” (Though there is no “dim” in the poem itself, the introduction quotes lines that refer to “the fragments dim of lovely forms.”) And if you want the range of troublous moral connotations that are packed into that word “mazy,” consult a passage in “Religious Musings” (an earlier, somewhat bombastic poem that Charles Lamb greatly admired). Here Enmity, Mistrust, “listening Treachery” and War are said to falsely defend the “Lamb of God” and “Prince of Peace,” whom

                                        (in their songs
So bards of elder times had haply feigned)
Some Fury fondled in her hate of man,
Bidding her serpent hair in mazy surge
Lick his young face, and at his mouth imbreathe
Horrible sympathy!

“Religious Musings” is quite a storehouse for expressions that reveal the moral implications in many of the most characteristic images found in the Mystery, or “Fascination,” Poems.

Though Lowes cites a text that refers to the prophecy of war (and in connection with Abyssinia even, an associate preparation, if you will, of the corresponding adjective in the final stanza), I'd view the line, “Ancestral voices prophesying war,” as a narrative way of saying in effect: “This tumultuous scene is essentially interwoven with such motives as we connote by the term “war.” Or, otherwise put: The war that is to break out subsequently is already implicit in the nature of things now. That is, I would interpret it as a typical stylistic device for the “temporizing of essence.” Such is always the significance of “portents,” that detect the presence of the future.

The stanza does not conclude by a simple return to the pleasure dome of the opening; for three notable details are added: We now learn of the dome's “shadow”; it is said to have “floated midway” on the waves; and the caves are said to be “of ice.” Let us consider these additions.

In “The Ancient Mariner” we read that “where the ship's huge shadow lay, / The charméd water burnt alway / A still and awful red.” In a letter to Southey, written about three years after the probable production of “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge says regarding troubles with his wife that his sleep “became the valley of the shadows of Death.” (The same letter refers to “her inveterate habits of puny thwarting,” a phrase which please bear in mind for later reference, “and unintermitting dyspathy,” where the reader must decide for himself whether the participle throws connotative light upon the poem's reference to the fountain's “half-intermitted burst.”) In the explicitly moralistic use of imagery in “Religious Musings,” we are told that “Life is a vision shadowy of Truth; / And vice, and anguish, and the wormy grave, / Shapes of a dream!”

At this point it's almost imperative that we introduce an aside. For the pejorative reference to “shapes” all but demands our attention. “Shape” is characteristically a troublous word in Coleridgese. Thus, in “Religious Musings,” see “pale Fear / Haunted by ghastlier shapings than surround / Moon-blasted Madness when he yells at midnight.” Likewise, the ominous supernatural specter-bark of “The Ancient Mariner” was “A speck, a mist, a shape.” In “The Pains of Sleep” he refers to “the fiendish crowd / Of shapes and thoughts” that “tortured” him. Many other usages could be adduced here. And though, in “Dejection,” Coleridge explicitly regrets that he has lost his “shaping Spirit of Imagination,” in one of his letters written during the same annus mirabilis when the first version of “The Ancient Mariner” and the first part of “Christabel” came into being, he speaks of his body as “diseased and fevered” by his imagination. Nor should we forget the essentially ironic situation underlying “The Eolian Harp,” a poem that begins as an address to his wife, but develops into a vision of beatific universal oneness; whereupon he forgets all about his “pensive Sara,” until he sees her “mild reproof”—and four lines after the appearance of his characteristic word “dim,” he apologizes for “These shapings of the unregenerate mind.”

So much for “shadow,” and its membership in a cluster of terms that include pejorative or problematical connotations of “shape.” “Float” is much less strongly weighted on the “bad” side than “shadow” and “shape.” Things can float either malignly or benignly, as with the Mariner's boat at different stages in its journey. In Coleridge's play Remorse there is a passage that suggests Shelley's typical kind of idealistically easygoing boat:

It were a lot divine in some small skiff
Along some ocean's boundless solitude
To float forever with a careless course
And think myself the only being alive!

Thus in “Religious Musings,” we read of Edenic delights that “float to earth.” But in the same text there are “floating mists of dark idolatry” that “Broke and misshaped the omnipresent Sire.” The poem itself has an interesting ambiguous usage, where talk of “Moulding Confusion” with “plastic might” (the Greek derivative “plastic” being his consistently “good” word for “shaping”) leads into talk of “bright visions” that “float.” And somewhere in between, there is a letter: “My thoughts are floating about in an almost chaotic state.” So, when in the next stanza you come to the “floating hair,” you are presumably on a ridge that slopes both ways. And the only fairly sure grounds for deciding which way it slopes is given to us on the surface: the accompanying cry, “Beware! Beware!”

We shall consider later the strategic term “midway.” But before leaving it for the present, I'd like to suggest that, as regards Coleridge's poem “Love” (which transforms his troubled courtship of Sara Hutchinson into an allegory of knighthood), I doubt whether, under the modern dispensation, he'd have included the line, “When midway on the mount I lay.”

We now have only the ice to deal with, and we shall have finished our consideration of the ways in which the closing lines of Stanza Two are not just a return to the theme of Stanza One, but a return with a difference. And that difference resides precisely in the addition of details more in keeping with the countertheme, though ambiguously so (yet not quite so ambiguously, if we read the poem not just as English but as one particular poetic dialect of English, one vatic nomenclature subtly or implicitly different from all others).

Lowes (as might be expected!) turns up some caverns of ice in another text that Coleridge presumably read (even a quite rare kind of ice that waxes and wanes with the phases of the moon). But we still contend that a “source” in that sense is not relevant to our present problem. For we need but assume that the source chose to talk about ice for the same reason that Coleridge incorporated what had been said in the source; namely: because “ice” has a set of “mythic” or “archetypal” connotations which recommend it to a poet's attention. And we are concerned with “derivation” in that “nonhistoric” but poetically “principled” sense.

It is obvious enough what kind of attitude is linked with the iciness of ice in “The Ancient Mariner.” There, ice is purely and simply a horror. And ice is unambiguously unpleasant, insofar as it stands for coldness in the sense that Coleridge had in mind when, in the letter to Southey about his wife's “puny thwarting,” he characterized her as “cold in sympathy.” And we are still to discuss Coleridge's play, Remorse, where “fingers of ice” are located in a “chasm” within a “cavern.” (Here the sound of water dropping in the darkness is likened to “puny thwartings.”) But regardless of what ominous implications may lurk in the ice, on its face the reference is euphoric.

We are now ready for the windup. In terms of the Hegelian pattern, we should expect the final stanza (a kind of poem-within-a-poem) to “synthesize” the two movements that have gone before. It does so. For the vision of the “Abyssinian maid” is clearly beatific, yet the beholder of the vision (as presented in terms of the poem) is also to be identified with sinister connotations (as with those that explicity emerge just after a recurrent reference to the “caves of ice”). I refer to the cry, “Beware! Beware!”—and to the development that transforms malignly the principle of encirclement (introduced benignly in Stanza One).

As for the fact that the maid in the vision is said to be “Abyssinian”: Derive her as you will along the lines of sources in other books, there's still a tonal likelihood that the lady is “Abyssinian” because, among other things, as so designated she contains within this name for her essence the syllables that spell “abyss.” And there, roundabout, would be the “chasm,” euphorically transmuted for the last phase.

As for “Mount Abora”: Regardless of its possible derivation from other texts (as Lowes suggests), in accordance with theories of “musicality in verse” that I have discussed elsewhere (in connection with Coleridge, an essay reprinted in my book, The Philosophy of Literary Form), I would lay great stress upon the fact that m and b are close tonal cognates, hence these vocables come very close to “Singing of Mount Amora,” which is understandable enough.

As for the lines, “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song”: I see in them the euphorically tinged adumbration of the outcry that was to turn up, in “Dejection,” only a few years later.

For some reason that it's hard to be clear about, though in a letter Coleridge admonished his son Hartley “not to speak so loud,” again and again he applies this epithet to music (even to the bassoon, in “The Ancient Mariner,” though that instrument cannot be loud, so far as sheer decibels go). All I can offer, along these lines, is the possibility of a submerged pun, as indicated by an early poem in which Coleridge speaks of “loud, lewd Mirth.” Might “loud” deflectively connote “lewd,” in the depths of the Coleridgean nomenclature? I won't assert so, but there does seem to be the possibility (though it would be a tough one to prove, even if it were absolutely true). In the meantime, we must simply await further advices.

The cavern scenes in Act IV of Remorse might well be mentioned in greater detail, since they help so greatly to reveal the sinister possibilities lurking beneath the surface of the terms in “Kubla Khan.” Seen in a dream, the cave is “haunted,” the villain appearing to his victim in “a thousand fearful shapes.” There is a morbid dalliance with “shadows.” The threat implicit in the very idea of a chasm is brought out explicitly by the nature of the plot, as the villain hurls his victim “down the chasm.” (Chasms, that is, are implicitly a kind of gerundive, a to-be-bewared-of, a to-be-hurled-into). And where as we are told that the “romantic chasm” of the euphoric poem “slanted / Down,” these apparently innocuous words are seen to have contained, about their edges, malign connotations; for in the victim's premonitory dream of his destruction in Remorse, we learn that his foot hung “aslant adown” the edge. At the end of the act, the woman who is to be the avenger announces, “The moon hath moved in Heaven, and I am here,” (a remarkable transformation of the prime motivating line in “The Ancient Mariner”: “The moving Moon went up the sky”). At the start of the last act, the circle appears at its worst: “Circled with evil.” (A previous reference to a threatening circle of people surrounding the villain had appeared in the stage directions.) A reference to the “fascination” in the eye of the hero (whom the loving heroine calls “stately”) marks the spot from which I would derive the term, “Fascination Poems” as an alternative to “Mystery Poems.”

In the light of our analysis, it should be easy to understand why, in the closing poem-within-a-poem, the references to the poet (who is ambiguously one with both the dream and the dreamer) should be so surrounded with connotations of admonition. Yet the poem is essentially euphoric. Hence, even though we are told to beware, and to view with holy dread (or rather, to deflect-our-eyes-from) the poet who both is this marvel and has conceived it, we end on Paradise.

Returning now to a point we postponed when considering “midway on the waves,” should we not take into consideration the fact that in the middle stanza the notion appears not once but four times: The other explicit places are: “Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst”; “And 'mid these dancing rocks”; “And 'mid this tumult”—while a strong trace of the pattern is also observable in “half-intermitted” and “the mingled measure / From the fountain and the caves.” (I take it that “measure,” in contrast with “measureless,” includes connotations of poetic measure.)

At the risk of being charged with oversubtlety, I'd propose to view that design (a kind of spatial fixity in these many motions and actions and action-like motion) as a matter of basic significance. As regards the underlying principle of the poem (its essence or character as a unity) these conflicting elements (the beatific and the sinister) are but what we might Spinozistically call two attributes of a common substance. Thus, in the last analysis, the stages of its unfolding melt into a simultaneity, a nodus of motivation that stands “midway” between the extremes. (A stanza of “Religious Musings” where Saints “sweep athwart” the poet's “gaze,” develops into agitation thus: “For who of woman born may paint the hour, / When seized in his mid course, the Sun shall wane / Making noon ghastly!” I'd hardly dare press the point; but we might at least recall that the midday sun transfixed the Mariner's boat, and Christabel's troubles took place at midnight. And anyone who is concerned with the strange magic of reversal, as in formulas like “Ave Eva,” might also pause to note however uneasily that, quite as Cummings in “God” saw “dog spelled backwards,” so “mid” is but a chiastic form of Coleridge's ubiquitous “dim.”)

However, even if there is a sense in which the generating principle represented by this poem's action is itself as much an unmoved mover as Aristotle's God (with even an analogue of “negative theology” in “sunless,” “lifeless,” “measureless,” and “ceaseless”), there is also the fact that, as “broken down” into a quasi-temporal sequence, the translation of this essential unity into a series of successive revelations (or tiny “apocalypses”) can begin with a reference to an Edenic garden, and end on the word “Paradise.” In this sense, despite the intrinsic immobility of the poem's organizing principle (a “midway” situation that found more explicit dissociative expression in “The Ancient Mariner,” both in the figure of the motionless boat, and in the specter, “The Night-mare Life-in-Death”); despite the fact that while the narrative relation between rising fountain and sinking river goes on “turning,” the principle behind the unfolding is “forever still”; despite these ups and downs en route, the poem as a whole can be called “euphoric.”

We are now ready to take up the problem that arises from our insistence upon calling the poem finished whereas the author himself called it a “fragment.” Here I can best make my point by quoting a passage from my Philosophy of Literary Form:

Imagine an author who had laid out a five-act drama of the rational, intricate, intrigue sort—a situation that was wound up at the start, and was to be unwound, step by step, though the five successive acts. Imagine that this plot was scheduled, in Act V, to culminate in a scene of battle. Dramatic consistency would require the playwright to “foreshadow” this battle. Hence, in Act III, he might give us the battle incipiently, or implicitly, in a vigorous battle of words between the antagonists. But since there was much business still to be transacted, in unwinding the plot to its conclusion he would treat Act III as a mere foreshadowing of Act V, and would proceed with his composition until the promises emergent in Act III had been fulfilled in Act V.

On the other hand, imagine a “lyric” plot that had reduced the intrigue business to a minimum. When the poet had completed Act III, his job would be ended, and despite his intention to write a work in five acts, he might very well feel a loss of inclination to continue into Acts IV and V. For the act of foreshadowing, in Act III, would already implicitly contain the culmination of the promises. The battle of words would itself by the symbolic equivalent of the mortal combat scheduled for Act V. Hence, it would serve as surrogate for the quality with which he had intended to end Act V, whereat the poet would have no good reason to continue further. He would “lose interest”—and precisely because the quality of Act V had been “telescoped” into the quality of Act III that foreshadowed it (and in foreshadowing it, was of the same substance or essence). Act III would be a kind of ejaculation too soon, with the purpose of the composition forthwith dwindling.

Does not this possibility solve our problem? I believe that, in principle at least, Coleridge actually did dream all those lines, and transcribed them somewhat as an amanuensis might have done. For nearly every writer has jotted down a few bits that he woke up with, and there's no reason why someone couldn't wake up with more. And Mozart apparently could conceive of a work all finished before he wrote it down, so that in effect the act of composition was but the translating of a timeless unity (like a painting or piece of sculpture) into a temporal progression (quite as the observer “reads histories” into a static form when he lets his eye wander from place to place across it, thereby “improvising” developments within its parts). And even a long and complex structure which one works out painfully step by step may involve but the progressive “discovery” of implications already present in the “germ” that set him off in the first place. Why had it even struck him as worth working on, if it had not been for him like a knotted bundle of possibilities which he would untie one by one, as the loosening of each knot set the conditions for the loosening of the next (like a psychoanalyst's patient discovering by free association things that he somehow already knew but didn't know he knew)?

But “Kubla Khan” was the kind of poem that Coleridge's own aesthetic theories were not abreast of. His very attempts to distinguish between “Imagination” and “Fancy” at the expense of the latter serve to indicate my point. “Fancy” wouldn't come into its own until the time of Rimbaud, when it would take on dimensions that Coleridge never explicitly attributed to it. For his concept of Fancy got mixed up with purely mechanical doctrines of associationism which he strongly rejected (a kind of resistance that was probably also tied up with his moralistic attempts to resist the compulsive aspects of his addiction to opium, when it became integrated with the fountain of his creativity). In any case, at the very start of his collaboration with Wordsworth in plans for the Lyrical Ballads, the kind of job he set himself really involved an ideal of “Fancy” (but not in the partly pejorative sense that the term took on, in the dialectic of his Biographia Literaria). And as an integral aspect of such possibilities there would be the kind of imagistic short-circuiting to which I have referred in my quotation from Philosophy of Literary Form.

Thus, when one contemporary critic finds that the expression, “ancestral voices prophesying war” is “too pointless,” since “no further use is made of it,” the objection would be like contending that, in Eliot's “Gerontion,” a line such as “By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians” is “pointless” because we learn nothing more about Hakagawa. On the contrary, as I have tried to show, the line does to perfection exactly what it is there for, as a narrative way of stating a motivational essence. Yvor Winters' label, “Reference to a non-existent plot,” to characterize such usages as Eliot's, helps us see that Coleridge's poem was already moving towards a later elliptical manner, at a time when Southey could have turned “Kubla Khan” into a work as long as The Ring and the Book. In this sense, the poem was a “fragment.” But it is complete insofar as no further movements are needed (or even possible, without the poem's becoming something else, as when one dream fades into another). The most one can imagine is the addition of a few details that amplify what is already sufficiently there.

All told, the more closely we study the poem in the light of Coleridge's particular nomenclature, the more fully we realize how many of the terms have sinister connotations, as regards their notable use in other contexts. Imagery lends itself well to such shiftiness, and readily transcends the law of excluded middle. In fact, such susceptibility doubtless accounts for much of its appeal, since it can so spontaneously bridge the gulfs of dispute, and can simultaneously confess and be reticent. In line with contemporary interests, one might note that Coleridge explicitly equates the image of the fountain with the principle of what would not be called “creativity.” On this point, in addition to references already cited, we might recall in his preface to “Christabel,” his objections to “a set of critics … who have no notion that there are such things as fountains in the world, small as well as great.” At another place he distinguishes between “Springs” and “tanks” (“two Kinds of Heads in the world of literature”). Elsewhere, when on the subject of “knowing” and “being,” he sums up by thoughts on “the common fountainhead of both, the mysterious source whose being is knowledge, whose knowledge is being—the adorable I Am In That I Am.” In Anima Poetae he writes: “Nota bene to make a detailed comparison, in the manner of Jeremy Taylor, between the searching for the first cause of a thing and the seeking the fountains of the Nile—so many streams, each with its particular fountains—and, at last, it all comes to a name.” Another note beautifully illustrates how the image takes on other connotations of delight: “Some wilderness-plot—green & fountainous & unviolated by Man.” But “creativity” also has its risks. And whether or not you would agree that the “problematic” element was heightened in Coleridge's case by the interweaving of the Mystery Poems with the early stages of opium addiction, it still remains a fact that in “Kubla Khan” as enacted in detail, the principle of inspiration is simultaneously welcomed and feared (a secular attitude properly analogous to the theologians' doubts whether a vision of the divine is truly from God or from the Devil in disguise).

Charles I. Patterson Jr. (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: Patterson, Charles I., Jr. “The Daemonic in ‘Kubla Khan’: Toward Interpretation.” PMLA 89, no. 5 (October 1974): 1033-42.

[In the following essay, Patterson concentrates on the “daemonic” element in “Kubla Khan,” linking the work with a Platonic view of the inspired or “possessed” poet, which the critic contends is central to an interpretation of the poem.]

As is well known, there are strong differences of opinion concerning both what Coleridge's “Kubla Khan” expresses as a whole and the symbolic import of major elements within the poem. Perhaps no other poem of the time, not even Keats's Lamia, has evoked more widely diverging views of its meaning. Coleridge designated it a fragment in his prefatory statement, but critics differ just as frequently on whether or not it is a fragment as they do concerning its interpretation. Psychological analyses of it have often ranged far afield from what the text will adequately support; and psychiatrists, who have taken up the poem as the basis for psychoanalyzing its author, have added further to the conflicting views of its import. In recent years, however, interpretations have revealed tendencies toward unanimity on the symbolical significance of some of the elements within the poem. It is rather widely accepted now that the fountain, chasm, and river in some way suggest the human consciousness, especially that of a poet.1 By many critics the “pleasure dome” is held to represent poetry, or the pleasure provided by poetry, the immediate purpose of which Coleridge said was to give pleasure.2 Consequently, the building of this “pleasure dome” is considered to be analogous in some way to the imaginative process of creating poetry.3

These are undoubtedly steps in a fruitful direction, but interpreters seem largely to have ignored the different kinds of poems and different processes of the imagination by which they are created, the different aims to which imagination can be directed with differing results. It is the purpose of this essay to suggest that “Kubla Khan” is a poem about a particular kind of poetry which may be properly designated daemonic poetry, and also to suggest that the delineation of the nature of daemonic poetry and its effects upon people is more nearly central in the poem than what it reveals about the process of its creation, for the main purpose of the process, and of the more detailed inspiration, is to help to indicate the characteristics and effects of this kind of poetry. The famous passage about “Woman wailing for her Daemon4 Lover,” that is, supramortal lover, is deeply functional and pertinent as well as richly descriptive and atmospheric. Early in the poem this passage points toward the ending and helps to provide a clue to what the whole may express:

A savage Place, as holy and inchanted
As e'er beneath a waning Moon was haunted
By Woman wailing for her Daemon Lover:(5)

There is no necessity to consider this lover Satanic, and there are good reasons not to do so, contrary to the case in some versions of the popular ballad entitled “James Harris,” also called “The Daemon Lover,” which Coleridge most likely had read. Clarification of the particular daemonic nature of the whole poem will, I believe, unlock some of the mysteries of its wide appeal and contribute something toward an acceptable interpretation of the baffling piece.

In several recent studies of the poem there are elements that point strongly toward such an interpretation. For example, Bernard Breyer, in a sprightly and provocative essay, has asserted that “in the theory of art adumbrated in Xanadu, Coleridge is flirting dangerously with … the ‘demonic'” and that this theory of art is “amoral.” However, Breyer does not clarify the concept of the daemonic involved but merely raises the question whether “the dome in air and the dome in Xanadu … are evil in essence,” impelling Coleridge to draw back from them at the end.6 Dorothy Mercer, though likening the Abyssinian maid (“the damsel with a dulcimer”) in part to Jacob Boehme's heavenly Virgin, recognizes vaguely that Coleridge is piercing beyond good and evil, that the aim of the poem is to convey a “trance-like excitement” which he had experienced and in which “meaning in its ordinary usage does not enter,” but she maintains that the poetic consciousness represented in the poem is “redemptory” because “paradisal” and that the daemon lover is evil.7 With both of these readings I disagree. Elisabeth Schneider, in her admirably thorough study, points out Coleridge's debt to Plato's conception of the inspired “possessed” poet, but she does not draw out its full import for explication and does not bring in Plato's conception of non-malicious daemons living in bliss outside human limitations as emblematical of what human beings both desire and fear and of what the “possessed” poet can occasionally bring. Hence, Schneider does not formulate the interpretation I offer, though she points in that direction when she concludes that “the spirit of the poem … is cool and rather nonhuman,” that the poet speaking “is dehumanized behind his mask of hair and eyes and magic circle.”8 The poet is indeed removed from the customary human state when at the end he suggests the supramortal beauty of the “poem-dome” which he says he would build “of air” if he could regain the inspiration. Kathleen Coburn, discussing the pertinence of a paradisal conception in Michael Psellus, cogently indicates that the poetic paradise in “Kubla Khan” is “nostalgic and dangerous” and quotes Psellus' designation of the Chaldean paradise as “not that which the book of Moses describes” and his observation that to persons who “approach it unworthily … it is shut, for they are not capable of its felicity,”9 precisely the condition of the listeners at the end of “Kubla Khan” before that somewhat similar paradise called up by the incantation of the poet.

Humphry House views the work as “a poem about the act of poetic creation,” about the ecstasy in imaginative fulfillment; and he designates it a “triumphant positive statement of the positive potentialities of poetry” in which pleasure and sacredness are fused and in which the poet who achieved this fusion is held to be “a holy or sacred person, a seer acquainted with the undivided life” (pp. 115-19). There is indeed in the poem a suggestion of the “undivided” life free from the esthetic limitations of the present; but I do not think that there is anything in the poem that is holy or sacred in the usual sense—only in a pre-Christian or non-Christian context that gives these words quite different meanings from those now prevalent. A close look at passages on the nature of poets in Plato's dialogues will help to clarify matters here, and Plato's skepticism, at times hostility, toward poets should not be forgotten. In Phaedrus Plato defines the state of effective poetic creation as “a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention” presided over by Dionysus at times rather than by Apollo (also at times by Aphrodite, Eros, and the Muses),10 and in Ion he discusses the point more specifically:

For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountains. … For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing. … The poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed.11

This “possessed” state implies a self-obliterating empathy, when the subject of his song takes control of a poet's mind and he calls up, by “music and metre,” a beauty untrammeled by the demands of the rational and analytical, which are bypassed or eluded in the process. Plato is, in effect, using the metaphor of his day to discuss this process. Coleridge's understanding of empathy interlaces his critical writing, and his knowledge of Plato appears so frequently as to leave little doubt that he had seen this passage about “possessed” poets.12 It helps to clarify the end of the poem, including the references to “honey dew” and “milk of paradise,” as well as the sense in which the poet in “Kubla Khan” is said to be “holy” and the river, which suggests the poetic consciousness, is called “sacred”—i.e., given over to and seemingly possessed by a god presenting through the poet's furor divinus a vision of beauty not necessarily related to the good and the true, for the anthropomorphic deities (especially Dionysus, Eros, and Aphrodite) often dealt in neither when they drove mortals into frenzy and “out of their right mind.” Humphry House rightly designates the paradise at the end of “Kubla Khan” neither Eden nor the home of the blessed and denies that it is a false paradise (pp. 120-22). He proclaims the poem “a vision of the ideal human life as the poetic imagination can create it” and says that it deserves the “ritual dread” expressed at the end, but he does not elucidate the cause or the nature of this dread or what in this poetic vision would impel such a response in people who see it. A vision of ideal human life should certainly not impel such terror but should be more tranquilizing and spiritualizing even while stimulating great longing. I strongly doubt that there is anything at all ideal in the poem unless the extreme of the esthetic alone, the Dionysian frenzy rather than the Apollonian vision, may justly be called ideal, which would then have to be designated the ideal of the pure esthetic only, that is, the esthetic divorced from the ethical, spiritual, and social. The poem does indeed convey a vision of an experience of this kind, I think.

Humphry House maintains that “the pivot of all interpretations” is in the lines

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 of Air.(13)

(ll. 42-46)

This passage is indeed pivotal, but it is not central and focal. It is the beginning of two all-important transitions: first, the transition from the actual physical dome of “rare device” built by the worldly power of Kubla to the nonmaterial pleasure dome that would be built “of air” so vividly by the poet's incantation, his “music loud and long,” that “all who heard” would see it standing before them, the dome built by Kubla serving as a visible stepping-stone to the dome to be built by the poet; and, second, the transition from emphasis on the process of poetic creation (“Could I revive … such a deep Delight … I would build …”) to emphasis on the end product that results from that process, for the second dome to be built by the poet—not the first built by Kubla—is this crucial final product, toward which Kubla's dome is made to point and upon which the whole poem centers. “Such a deep Delight” in the full context is surely a daemonic inspiration, an unrestricted and amoral joy like that of the pre-Christian daemons, for that “Delight” derives from the “Abyssinian maid”14 with a dulcimer singing of “Mount Amara” (in the manuscript), which was a well-known amoral paradise in ancient times. Because the two domes are related as they are in the poem, this second dome to be built by the poet will have to be a focal point in interpretation, for the startling affirmation at the end concerns it, and not Kubla's dome, emphasis having been largely transferred by that time to the chanting poet's dome. Concerning it interpretations have not said enough. Although little is said directly about it in the poem, we can infer a great deal about it from its vivid effects upon its beholders at the end. The real purpose of Kubla's dome in the whole is to serve as a partial objective correlative to the conceived dome in the mind of the poet—partial because the latter is made significantly different from the former at the end.

Again, the lines quoted above by House are indeed pivotal, but they are not focal. The crux of interpretation lies in the terminal lines immediately following, for these last lines (48-54) reveal the nucleus around which the whole poem revolves—that is, the nature and effects upon beholders of the pleasure dome which the poet would build by incantation if he could recover his once-held inspiration derived from the “Abyssinian maid” and her song. These lines indicate a startlingly different effect upon hearers from that which normally would be expected of persons experiencing great and unusual beauty, for they would ordinarily exclaim something like, “Oh! How beautiful! How marvelous! How dazzling!” But what the speaker foresees that they would say if he were to rear his incantatory pleasure palace before them, with its marvelous fusion of “sunny” dome and “caves of ice,” is indeed a surprise; in fact, the response is nothing less than a shocker, and it puts a different perspective upon all that has gone before:

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 in holy Dread,
For He on Honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the Milk of Paradise.

(ll. 48-54)

The “flashing Eyes” and “floating Hair” suggest that he is one of Plato's “possessed” and Dionysus-inspired poets proclaiming that all who heard his incantation and consequently saw the glimmering vision called up by it would respond overwhelmingly to its fearfulness rather than to its beauty, for its beauty is that which can be created only by a poet who has had a glimpse beyond man's mortal limitations into the ultimate esthetic, such as the nonmalicious daemons of the early world supposedly enjoyed—the terrifying beauty that makes all earthly beauty pale into insignificance by comparison.15 This, I think, is what frightens his hearers back, evokes in them the “holy Dread,” which is certainly not reverence, and impels them to call for the performance of rites customarily used against sorcerers and evil spirits. However, this daemonic beauty is not intrinsically evil, but very powerful, so powerful as to “make a man forget his mortal way,” as Keats said, and hence is fraught with peril.16 Plato's dialogues again clarify matters, for they often refer to a far-off happy time when daemonic joy was brought to man by pre-Christian daemons who were neither good nor evil but simply outside the pale of human restrictions and limitations, where joy and beauty could be boundless.17 This daemonic realm may be taken to indicate the kind of experience that the “possessed” poet, carried out of himself in a fine frenzy, was able to convey, for he was impelled into a state of mind in which mortal limitations fall away:

Blessed and spontaneous life does not belong to the present cycle, of the world, but to the previous one, in which God superintended the whole revolution of the universe; and the several parts of the universe were distributed under the rule of certain inferior deities … and each one was in all respects sufficient for those of whom he was the shepherd … and I might tell of ten thousand other blessings, which belong to that dispensation.

There is a tradition of the happy life of mankind in days when all things were spontaneous and abundant. And of this the reason is said to have been as follows: … God, in his love of mankind, placed over us the demons, who are a superior race, and they with great ease and pleasure to themselves, and no less to us, taking care of us … made the tribes of men happy and united.18

As J. L. Lowes pointed out, Coleridge well knew that “a daemon and a demon are not one and the same thing,”19 and there is evidence, if indeed evidence is needed, of Coleridge's knowledge of these nonmalicious Platonic daemons and their neo-Platonic descendants. One of them is a major functionary (the tutelary spirit of the deep, who loved the albatross) in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and two of his “fellow-daemons” speak of the mariner's penance (ll. 395-409), as is indicated in the marginal gloss20 (where Coleridge's knowledge of “daemons of earth or middle air” is unmistakable) and anticipated in the prefatory epigraph which Coleridge quoted from Thomas Burnet's Archaeologiae Philosophicae.21 In “Kubla Khan,” written possibly in October 179722 before “The Ancient Mariner” was completed (though already in progress), Coleridge seems to be making another use of this concept of the daemonic together with Plato's conception of the frenzied poet possessed and carried out of himself by a god other than Apollo (by Dionysus, Eros, or Aphrodite) and therefore able to convey a supreme ecstasy, such as the primordial daemons supposedly experienced. In the passage above, Plato designated these daemons “inferior deities,” and they are frequently called “lesser deities” or “fallen deities,” in daemonology. Thus, “possession” by god or daemon today indicates more relentless preoccupation with something than is usual for a mortal, making him seem “like a daemon,” a free spirit, in intensity; “daemonic” may denote the unrestrained beauty tinged with terror in what such a person perceives—esthetically paradisal but with neither spiritual nor ethical implications, for human limitations did not restrain the gods or the daemons. They and their daemonic world now serve as a metaphor for the fierce desire of the human consciousness for rare, remote, uninhibited beauty and joy. The poet speaking in “Kubla Khan” reveals at the end an awareness that his hearers, in this esthetically shrunken and hence esthetically fallen modern era, would be overcome by the fearfulness of his daemonic pleasure dome built “of air” and would therefore confuse it with the Satanic, consider it evil, cry out warnings (“Beware! Beware!”), and call for rites to exorcise the evil spirit supposedly within him (i.e., “Weave a circle round him thrice, / And close your Eyes with holy Dread”). “Holy Dread” rather than reverence is an expected response by the laity to the renditions of the possessed poet in his frenzy; as Coleridge said, in one of his notebooks concerning such a poet's furor divinus, “Only the Regenerate can appreciate it” (see n. 13). The chanting poet's rapt attitude, “flashing Eyes,” and “floating Hair” (traditional marks of the daemonically inspired poet) are Coleridge's means of conveying to readers the daemonic nature of this “possessed” poet's dome “of air,” which he suggests would far surpass the physical dome “of rare device” built by Kubla. Kubla's dome is supposed to be the ultimately beautiful object within human bounds; the poet's dome suggested at the end is beyond human bounds, completely free of all that restrains, restricts, limits, and encloses—one reason why it inspires terror and frightens the laity back.

But Coleridge was not one of the laity where the daemonic is concerned. Just at the time when he was writing “Kubla Khan” his letters and notebooks repeatedly show him longing for the boundless and unrestricted beyond the limitations of mankind. In a letter to John Thelwall on 14 October 1797 (the month in which the poem was probably composed), Coleridge wrote something that suggests the kind of scenery in “Kubla Khan” and the state of mind associated with it in the poem:

All things appear little. … My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great—something one & indivisible—and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns give me the sense of sublimity or majesty!—But in this faith all things counterfeit infinity!

(Collected Letters, I, 349)

In a letter to George Coleridge on 10 March 1798, Coleridge wrote of a similar longing for a state of detachment from the small and the human: “How divine that repose is … a spot of inchantment, a green spot of fountains, & flowers & trees, in the heart of a waste of sands” (Collected Letters, I, 394). The same idea appears in a notebook entry phrased in such a way as to point even more strongly toward a desire for that which is remote from the limitations of the human sphere: “Some wilderness—plot, green & fountainous & unviolated by Man.”23 Romantic writers frequently depict external nature as in some way emblematical of mind. All these utterances indicate a concern for certain kinds of scenery as symbolical of the mind's quest for experience beyond mortal restrictions, and Coleridge later included the realization of potentialities within the mind's own depths:

In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering thro' the dewy windowpane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing anything new. Even when that latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phaenomenon were the dim Awakening of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature / It is still interesting as a Word, a Symbol! It is Λογοs, the Creator and the Evolver!24

Here are statements in Coleridge's own words that seem to explain what is going on in “Kubla Khan” at its deepest level: in describing the palace and grounds of the Khan, Coleridge is seeking “objects of Nature” that would serve as “a symbolical language for something within” him “that already and forever exists,” “a forgotten or hidden Truth” of his inner Nature—that is, the archetypal pattern there for pleasure beyond the confines of mortality, which lies at the heart of man's daemonic proclivity. A “possessed” poet can convey such pleasure briefly by creating a song that suggests it.

In a passage in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, Part IV (published in 1833), Goethe clarifies this concept and acknowledges that he gave it the designation daemonic “after the example of the ancients,” that is, of Plato and others. Goethe is using the third person to speak of himself as a youth:

He believed he could detect in nature—both animate and inanimate, spiritual and non-spiritual—something which reveals itself only in contradictions, and which, therefore, could not be encompassed under any concept, still less under a word. It was not divine, for it seemed without reason; not human, for it had no understanding; not diabolical, for it was beneficent; not angelic, for it took pleasure in mischief. It resembled chance, in that it manifested no consequence; it was like Providence; for it pointed toward connection. All that restricts us seemed for it penetrable; it seemed to deal arbitrarily with the necessary elements of our existence; it contracted time and expanded space. It seemed to find pleasure only in the impossible and to reject the possible with contempt.

To this entity, which seemed to intervene between all others, to separate them and yet to link them together, I gave the name daemonic, after the example of the ancients and of those who had perceived something similar. I tried to shield myself from this fearful entity by seeking refuge, in accordance with my usual habit behind an imaginary representation. …

Although this daemonic element can manifest itself in all corporeal and incorporeal things, can even manifest itself most markedly in animals, yet with man especially has it a most wonderful connection that creates a power which while not opposed to the moral order of the world still does so often cross through it that one may be considered the warp and the other the woof. …

However, the daemonic appears most fearful when it becomes predominant in a human being. During my life I have observed several. … They are not always the most eminent men either in their intellect or their talents … but a tremendous power seems to flow from them; and they exercise a wonderful power over all creatures, and even over the elements; and who can say how far such influence may extend? All the combined forces of convention are helpless against them.25

The poet intoning “Kubla Khan” seems to possess (or tries to possess) the kind of power described here, and his incantation seems increasingly to reflect what Goethe terms “this fearful entity … this daemonic element” which in man “creates a power which while not opposed to the moral order of the world still does so often cross through it.” The total structure of the poem moves steadily toward an extreme of esthetic experience of marked intensity and daemonic amorality upon which the whole is focused and with which it concludes, the chanting poet having terrified his fascinated but still resisting listeners. There is no sustained or comprehensive view of life in the poem at all, and nothing that can be called ideal in a spiritual or religious sense. It is a vision of beauty and joy that is divorced from the moral, spiritual, social, and ethical.26

From the point of view of all this, the “sacred river” as symbol of the poetic mind delineated in the poem appears even more strikingly appropriate, for this particular river strongly suggests the degree to which the subconscious is producer of the strange beauty conveyed in “Kubla Khan” and the degree to which this daemon-beset subconscious is both creator (putting upon experience a different order from the usual) and destroyer (quickly shattering that order and unable to sustain it). Specifically, the river rises in the fountain “with ceaseless turmoil” and flows through the “deep romantic Chasm” called “a savage Place … holy and inchanted,” such as where woman would wail for a “Daemon Lover,” one superior to a mortal lover—all suggesting uninhibited aspects of the daemonic mind pressing beyond human limitations. The chanting poet, parallel to her, is wailing for his daemonic inspiration to return. In this context savage implies not the brutal but the primordial, the time before man's consciousness had evolved the dualism of good and evil and was therefore spontaneous and free, as man can dimly perceive at times in the depths of his subconscious, where the embers of that freedom still reside. Moreover, the pleasure palace was built where this river flows through “Caverns measureless to Man,” that is, built near to and by means of the vast subconscious, holding what De Quincey called “eternities below all life” which throw reflections at times upon “the mirrors of that camera obscura—the sleeping mind.”27 Such is the commerce of our consciousness with the springs of the daemonic in our subconscious. Both Coleridge and De Quincey here, as elsewhere, have come close to Jung's concept of the archetypes of the collective unconscious, though without his term for it. This “sacred river,” which dominates the first thirty-six lines of the poem, while running through “Caverns measureless,” finally flows down to a “sunless Sea” and sinks “in tumult” into a “lifeless Ocean.” This whole concatenation is an effective way of symbolizing that the glittering structures which well up from the subconscious and are recognized by the conscious then sink again into the recesses of the subconscious, where they disintegrate and become “lifeless,” that is, untouched by the conscious intelligence, until they well up into the conscious again, if they ever do, and can be given life again. What finally happens to the “sacred river,” which reflected Kubla's pleasure dome “midway on the Wave,” precisely symbolizes what happens to the poet's incantatory dome, which once welled up sufficiently within his conscious for its glory to be known, and then sank again into the “lifeless Ocean” of the deep unconscious beyond recall by the will.

As has been mentioned, Coleridge proclaimed that the immediate purpose of poetry is to give pleasure, but too much is made of this statement alone without reference to other pertinent utterances; for Coleridge went on to assert repeatedly that poetry and the poetic imagination serve as mediators between man and his world and therefore do indeed give truths of the highest kind—the truths of man's spiritual nature and the startling degree to which man's life is and must be moral—as his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” his major odes, several other poems, and much of his prose fully reveal. In fact, Coleridge maintained that in the highest sense poetry is essentially ideal and that it “brings the whole soul of man into activity,”28 as “Kubla Khan” does not do, since it is tightly focused on the esthetic alone. Accepting the poem as daemonic, we can believe that “moral” Coleridge was neither dabbling in evil nor presenting a spurious ideal, for the daemonic involves neither of these.

In the final analysis what is presented in “Kubla Khan” is decidedly not in the main line of Coleridge's poetry but is not entirely out of his range either. One can easily understand why the full mind of Coleridge, as revealed in all his other work, brought this poem to its close in just this particular way, whether consciously or subconsciously. It had called up before the mind's eye a vision of the terrible supramortal beauty that would blot out every other consideration, destroy the balance of faculties within the total mind, make man oblivious to spiritual and moral necessities, and hence destroy his taste for the beauty of his world and his adjustment to that world. Neither the religious and moral side of Coleridge nor the Coleridge who affirmed the unifying, synthesizing, balance-giving, truth-perceiving power of the imaginative mind could seriously advocate the creating of poetry that would bring such dire results; but the pleasure-seeking, opium taking side of Coleridge could certainly toy with the idea of creating it up to a point—the point at which his moral, spiritual, and metaphysical side would call into question the wisdom of the endeavor and the extent of its opposition to the main tenets of his literary theory considered in its entirety. He stopped at just this point, terminated the poem in a way that would not collide with his conception of literature and its major purposes, designated it a fragment, and published it “rather as a psychological curiosity than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.”29 It is quite possible that having the hypothetical listeners respond so negatively to the incantation was intended, in part, to allow its glimmering beauty to stand in all its splendor and yet simultaneously to bring the overall effect of the whole poem more nearly within the scope of Coleridge's moral conception of literature, for these listeners are not corrupted or harmed by the daemonic incantation even while attesting to its appeal by their fear.

Nevertheless, readers ever since have insistently found “poetic merits” in “Kubla Khan,” perhaps too many, and have treated it more nearly as a completed whole than as a fragment when explicating it, whatever they have designated it. The reasons are not far to seek. Considered in its daemonic aspects, it can hardly be deemed a fragment. As the subtitle promises, it presents “A Vision in a Dream,” and this vision is completed and rounded out—a rapt poet's vision of (1) a marvelous poem, like unto a magnificent dome, which he says he would chant if he could regain the inspiration; and (2) the terror-impelling effects of this second dome upon prospective listeners who experience what his incantation would produce before the mind's eye. Such a vision can hardly be expressed directly; it can only be conveyed by image, symbol, and innuendo just as is done in the poem as it stands. And a signal element of the completeness of the piece is that, as the whole is progressively built up to its surprise ending, it does to some extent succeed in vividly suggesting the aura of the intended incantatory poem. This much, very likely, is all that would ever be possible in such an endeavor—to convey this glimmering ultra beauty by a carefully wrought matrix of suggestion. The poet's stating that he has its splendid totality potentially in mind, is, like all the rest (the description of Kubla's dome and gardens, the transition to the speaker's poem dome, and thence to its effects upon listeners), merely part of the means by which Coleridge enables the totality of the whole to suggest the marvelous thing he claims to have envisioned. Transferring such a thing to the minds of readers can be only partially successful at best. Still, as “Kubla Khan” develops into what it actually is from beginning to end, it largely becomes that which it promises; it largely becomes the kind of poem that the poet speaking therein is talking about, an example of what it attempts to convey—a late reconstruction of a Dionysian, “possessed” poet's daemonic poem of beauty beyond the pale of mortality, such as existed at least in conception in ancient times. Hence, its last lines fittingly sound a note of finality and conclusiveness as if nothing else is expected to follow or could follow.30

In sum, efforts to get at the meaning and import of the poem have come a long way since the time nearly a hundred years ago (in 1887) when Brandl designated it “a splendid curiosity, a lyrical landscape fairy tale which we know not what to make of.”31 There are still unplumbed depths in its “Caverns measureless,” but several interpretations have emerged which in various ways point in the same direction. There seems to be a tendency toward finding in the poem what can be formulated by putting together Plato's conception of a realm of nonmalicious, daemonic creatures dwelling in unrestricted joy outside the pale of human limitation and Plato's well-known conception of the Dionysus-inspired, possessed poet carried out of himself in a furor divinus, as the agent who can at times in an incantatory poem call up before men the enchanting, engulfing, and terrifying beauty of this primordial daemon world. If this is in truth what the poem centers upon, then it can hardly be said to express something ideal, spiritual, or philosophical in the traditional sense of these terms.32 Viewing the poem in this way, as there seem to be sound reasons for doing, we might be able to take a significant step toward achieving an interpretation that would be more widely tenable than before, for we could at least relinquish the search for satisfactory spiritual or philosophic exegeses of the baffling piece. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that a more generally acceptable interpretation may be in process of emerging. If interpretations that stress the daemonic aspects of the poem are on the right track, it may become recognized as the tiny beginning point of that variously handled amoral esthetic that reappeared in Keats and Emily Brontë, led on to Swinburne and Pater, and then came to its eclipse in England in the work of Oscar Wilde and his coterie at the very end of the century.


  1. E.g., Bernard R. Breyer, “Towards an Interpretation of Kubla Khan,English Studies in Honor of James Southall Wilson, Univ. of Virginia Studies, 4 (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1951), 277-90; Humphry House, Coleridge (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1962), pp. 115-16; Marshall Suther, Visions of Xanadu (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), p. 222 et passim; S. K. Heninger, “A Jungian Reading of Kubla Khan,Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 18 (1960), 358-67; John Shelton, “The Autograph Manuscript of Kubla Khan and an Interpretation,” Review of English Literature, 7 (Jan. 1966), 32-42. The manuscript was discovered in 1934 (Times Literary Supplement, 2 Aug. 1934, p. 541).

  2. Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1907), II, 10. Edward E. Bostetter cogently discusses the biographical significance of the poem in The Romantic Ventriloquists (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1963), pp. 84-96.

  3. Interestingly enough, the Khan is said to have dreamed of his dome and then built it, just as Coleridge dreamed of a poem concerning it and then tried to construct the poem (Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions 1937-1952, trans. Ruth L. C. Simmons, Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1964, p. 16).

  4. This was Coleridge's original spelling of the word, as shown in the autograph manuscript (Shelton, p. 32), which indicates only two stanzas for the whole poem: ll. 1-36 and 37-54. Except where otherwise noted I shall use this manuscript text in the belief that it more readily reflects Coleridge's meaning when he first wrote the poem.

  5. From Coleridge's autograph text (ll. 14-16); see n. 4.

  6. Beyer, pp. 287, 290. Werner W. Beyer labels the poem “daemonic” but does not work out the implications (The Enchanted Forest, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963), p. 141. J. B. Beer discusses daemonic aspects of the poem at length; but he does not differentiate clearly between Christian and non-Christian concepts, seeing the daemonic too much as the opposite of the angelic, even though he traces elements of the poem to many older mythologies. Also, he presses too strongly for an ethical and philosophical interpretation, I think, thereby obscuring his insight into its daemonic nature (Coleridge the Visionary, New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962, pp. 106-290). Geoffrey Yarlott discerns the concentrated estheticism of the poem but presses for an ethical interpretation also (Coleridge and the Abyssinian Maid, London: Methuen, 1967, pp. 126-54).

  7. “The Symbolism of Kubla Khan,Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 12 (1953), 62-65.

  8. Coleridge, Opium and Kubla Khan (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 245-46, 287-88. Schneider thinks that the poet in the poem is saying that he could write “poetry that would be truly immortal” (p. 242) if he could regain his inspiration. I disagree that it would be immortal in the sense of enduring and true, and believe that it would be what is more properly called supramortal, since it would impel listeners to feel an ecstasy beyond the mortal in its intensity and fearfulness but not in its permanence. Kubla's pleasure dome, which suggests the one that the poet wishes to build “of air” by incantation, is rapidly vanishing from the poem; for it is built, then is merely reflected on the waves of the river, and then becomes only a conception to be built “of air” by incantation.

  9. Kathleen Coburn, ed., The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bollingen Series 50 (New York: Pantheon, 1957-62), I, nn. to item 191; henceforth cited as Notebooks.

  10. Phaedrus 265a, b. In 1578 Henricus Stephanus (Henri Estienne) published in Paris an edition of Plato in 3 folio volumes with pages divided into 5 parts by letters ([a], b, c, d, e); this paging and lettering are given in the margins of most modern editions as a standard basis of reference, and I have used these numbers and letters for all citations (translations by Jowett).

  11. Ion 533e-34e. Schneider, pp. 245-46, quotes very nearly the same passage and points out Coleridge's possible debt to it; but she does not press home the significance for interpretation. Coleridge probably read the passage in the Greek, but he evidently knew Thomas Taylor's translations of Plato and his commentaries thereon, popular then. See Kathleen Raine, “Thomas Taylor, Plato and the English Romantic Movement,” Sewanee Review, 76 (1968), 240, 253. Some of Taylor's commentaries summarize daemonic lore in Plato, e.g., n. 2 on “The First Alcibiades.”

  12. Shortly before writing Kubla Khan, Coleridge ascribes the “fine frenzy” of a “possessed” poet to himself: “You would smile to see my eye rolling up to the ceiling in a lyric fury and on my knee a Diaper pinned, to warm” (to John Thelwall, 6 Feb. 1797, Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, Oxford: Clarendon, 1956, I, 308; henceforth cited as Collected Letters, cf. I, 267). In June 1797 Dorothy Wordsworth wrote to Mary Hutchinson that Coleridge had the “poet's eye in fine frenzy rolling” (Early Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. Ernest De Selincourt, Oxford: Clarendon, 1935, p. 169). Evidently in 1807-08 he wrote in a notebook (partly reflecting Plato's Phaedrus 265a, b): “Two kinds of Madness—the Insania pseudopoetica, i.e., nonsense conveyed in strange and unusual Language … and this is Degenerate / the other the Furor divinus, in which the mind by infusion of a celestial Health supra hominis naturam erigitur et in Deum transit—and this is Surgeneration, which only the Regenerate can properly appreciate” (Notebooks, II, item 3,216).

  13. The printed text for l. 46 reads, “I would build that dome in air.”

  14. She may slightly resemble one of Plato's Bacchic maidens who “draw milk and honey,” mentioned above; but it should be remembered that in the revised text she was singing of “Mount Abora” (l. 41), the source of which has been long accepted as Milton's “Mount Amara,” one of the paradises other than Eden in his Paradise Lost iv.280-81, where Abyssinian kings keep their younger sons in continual sensual indulgences to divert them from attempting rebellion against the crown. The autograph manuscript of Kubla Khan (Shelton, pp. 32-33) shows that Coleridge originally wrote “Mount Amara” here. These facts make more meaningful Coleridge's “Abyssinian maid,” who was evidently the sister or servant of these princes in their non-spiritual, purely esthetic paradise. Coleridge's use of it as the source of the chanting poet's inspiration in the poem helps to suggest that it is a poem about supranormal esthetic experience, not a poem about something religious or ideal in the philosophic sense. This “Mount Amara-Abora” has long been accepted as referring to Xanadu (as Shelton says, p. 41). At least we can surmise that the maid was singing of an amoral paradise of pleasure alone, and hence singing of just such a pleasure palace as Xanadu—another strong link between the two main sections of Kubla Khan. However, both Coleridge and Milton could have borrowed Amara from Purchas—see John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey, 1957), p. 285, n. The river in Kubla Khan also resembles the river in Eden in Paradise Lost (iv.223-50).

  15. William Wordsworth, The Prelude xiv.246, mentions beauty that “hath terror in it.”

  16. “Lines Written in the Highlands after a Visit to the Burns Country” (1818), Poetical Works of John Keats, ed. H. W. Garrod, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1958), p. 388. The passage reads as follows:

    Scanty the hour and few the steps beyond the bourn of care,
    Beyond the sweet and bitter world,—beyond it unaware!
    Scanty the hour and few the steps, because a longer stay
    Would bar return, and make a man forget his mortal way:
    O horrible! …

    (ll. 29-33)

  17. Extensive bibliography and discussion of various conceptions of the daemonic appear in Robert Hunter West, The Invisible World (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1939), and in James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Scribners, 1925). See n. 11 above concerning Thomas Taylor's commentaries on Plato.

  18. Statesman 271d, e; Laws IV 713c, d, e. Cf. Symposium 202e-03a, where love is called a daemon or spirit.

  19. The Road to Xanadu (Boston: Houghton, 1927), pp. 234-36.

  20. The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1912), pp. 191, 200, 202; hereafter cited as Poems. Though added later the gloss and epigraph point up what Coleridge considered the matter of his poem.

  21. In lines that Coleridge omitted from the passage that he quoted, daemonum are listed as one group of the multifarious invisible creatures discussed in the epigraph (Notebooks, i, n. to item 1,000H).

  22. Though the date is controversial, I believe with Earl Leslie Griggs and Wylie Sypher that Oct. 1797 is probably correct. See Collected Letters, i, 348-52 and n. for summary. See also E. K. Chambers, Coleridge (Oxford: Clarendon, 1938), pp. 100-03.

  23. Notebooks, i, item 220, dated by Coburn 1797-98.

  24. Notebooks, ii, item 2,546. James Gillman, in The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1838), i, 311, quoted this as Coleridge's note applicable to his Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni (1802), in which the domelike enormity of Mont Blanc is used to suggest the infinite and unbounded in a religious context.

  25. Dichtung und Wahrheit (Vierter Teil, Swanzigstes Buch), ed. Georg Witkowski, in Goethes Werke, x (Leipzig: H. Fikentscher, [193?]), 317-19. The translation is essentially mine with some help from that of John Oxenford (New York: John D. Williams, 1882), ii, 321-23, and with helpful suggestions from my colleague Calvin Brown. The German text is as follows:

    Er glaubte in der Natur, der belebten und unbelebten, der beseelten und unbeselten, etwas zu entdecken, das sich nur in Widersprüchen manifestierte und deshalb unter keinen Begriff, noch viel weniger unter ein Wort gefasst werden könnte. Es war nicht göttlich, denn es schien unvernünftig; nicht menschlich, denn es hatte keinen Verstand; nicht teuflisch, denn es war wohltätig; nicht englisch, denn es liess oft Schadenfreude merken. Es glich dem Zufall, denn es bewiess kein Folge; es ähnelte der Forsehung, denn es deutete auf Zusammenhang. Alles, was uns begrenzt, schien für dasselbe durchdringbar: es schien mit den notwendigen Elementen unsres Daseins willkürlich zu schalten; es zog die Zeit zusammen und dehnte den Raum aus. Nur im Unmöglichen schien es sich zu gefallen und das Mögliche mit Verachtung von sich zu stossen.

    Dieses Wesen, das zwischen alle übrigen hineinzutreten, sie zu sondern, sie zu verbinden schien, nannte ich dämonisch, nach dem Beispiel der Alten und derer, die etwas Ähnliches gewahrt hatten. Ich suchte mich vor diesem furchtbaren Wesen zu retten, indem ich mich nach meiner Gewohnheit hinter ein Bild flüchtete. …

    Obgleich jenes Dämonische sich in allem Körperlichen und Unkörperlichen manifestieren kann, ja bei den Tieren sich aufs merkwürdigste auspricht, so steht es vorzüglich mit dem Menschen im wunderbarsten Zusammenhang und bildet eine der moralischen Weltordnung wo nicht entgegengesetzte, doch sie durchkreuzende Macht, so dass man die eine für den Zettel, die andere für den Einschlag könnte gelten lassen. …

    Am furchtbarsten aber erscheint dieses Dämonische, wenn es in irgend einem Menschen überwiegend hervortritt. Während meines Lebensganges habe ich mehrere … beobachten können. Es sind nicht immer die vorzüglichsten Menschen, weder an Geist noch an Talenten … aber eine ungeheure Kraft geht von ihnen aus, und sie üben eine unglaubliche Gewalt über alle Geschöpfe, ja sogar über die Elemente, und wer kann sagen, wie weit sich eine solche Wirkung erstrecken wird? Alle vereinten sittlichen Kräfte vermögen nichts gegen sie.

  26. See p. 2 of Breyer where he suggests that it may be evil. I disagree.

  27. Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson, xii (London: A. & C. Black, 1897), 335.

  28. Biographia Literaria ii.12. See Yarlott, pp. 130-32.

  29. As stated in his preface to the poem when first published in 1816 (italics Coleridge's).

  30. Though Coleridge left unfinished many projects involving steady application, his imagination revealed a strong instinct for completing what was immediately before it. Once he wrote that late at night, seeing one of three logs in the fireplace totally consumed, he added another log to complete “this perishable architecture” even though he was going to bed at once and would have no further use for the fire; and he continued: “Hence I seem (for I write, not having yet gone to bed) to suspect, that this desire of totalizing, of perfecting, may be the bottom-impulse of many, many actions, in which it never is brought forward as an avowed, or even agnized (anerkennt) as a conscious motive” (Notebooks, ii, item 2,414; cf. item 2,471; cf. Anima Poetae, ed. E. H. Coleridge, London: William Heinemann, 1895, pp. 116-17).

  31. Alois Brandl, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the English Romantic School, English ed. by Lady Eastlake (London: J. Murray, 1887), p. 186.

  32. Some help in grasping fully the import of the nonreligious, nonspiritual aspects of Kubla Khan is afforded by the realization that at the center of the Khan's purely esthetic garden, which resembles Milton's Eden in Paradise Lost and Eden of scripture, stood the dominating palace of ultimate pleasure, while at the center of Eden (in medio paradisi in the Vulgate Bible) stood the great Tree of Life and beside it the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil requiring the preeminence of man's moral striving rather than of pleasure seeking—a striking and pertinent contrast. See Paradise Lost iv.131-49, 194-96, 220-22; Genesis ii.9. In Act i of an unfinished play which Coleridge wrote in the autumn of 1800, entitled The Triumph of Loyalty, one of the characters exclaims, “Oh! there is Joy above the name of Pleasure. … / Ah! was that bliss / Fear'd as alien and too vast for man?” (Poems, pp. 559, n., 569). A portion including the above lines was published in Sibylline Leaves in 1816 with the title “The Night Piece: A Dramatic Fragment” (Poems, pp. 421-22), a fact that suggests that at the time of publishing Kubla Khan Coleridge was thinking of the nature and effects of pleasure beyond mortal limitations.

Richard Hoffpauir (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: Hoffpauir, Richard. “‘Kubla Khan’ and the Critics: Romantic Madness as Poetic Theme and Critical Response.” English Studies in Canada 2, no. 4 (winter 1976): 402-22.

[In the following essay, Hoffpauir surveys critical estimates of “Kubla Khan” since its first publication, arguing that the poem is “imagistically incoherent,” formally “imprecise,” and fails to live up to the designation of great poetry by which generations of scholars have regarded it.]

When the October 1974 issue of PMLA contained yet another article on “Kubla Khan” with the all too familiar subtitle, “Toward Interpretation,” I was reminded of and impressed by the continued solvency of the “Kubla Khan” industry. My researches had confirmed my suspicion that it is one of the most discussed poems in our literature and, as Charles Patterson, the writer of the PMLA article, began, “Perhaps no other poem of the time … has evoked more widely diverging views of its meaning.”1 The fact that the poem has evoked so many divergent and sometimes irreconcilable interpretations made me worry. Instead of celebrating the poem's malleability, as I had been taught to do in graduate school, I wondered if perhaps (1) the poet had not concerned himself thoroughly enough with efficient communication (believing as I do, and as I shall try to explain later, that a poem should be, in F. R. Leavis's words, “an instrument of clarification”2), or if perhaps (2) the readers of the poem over the past 150 years have not collaborated enough. My worry was confused by a second fact—that despite such persistent disagreement as to meaning, the poem has been just as persistently praised as a “masterpiece,” the “ideal of lyric poetry,” “a work of quite unparalleled beauty,” an oasis “in our dusty lives,” “the most purely magical [poem] in all English poetry,” and “one of the greatest poems in the language.”3 While statements of that sort have markedly diminished in recent decades (as literary study has become more of a profession than a discipline), the frequency of attention must surely indicate the presence of the assumption of greatness. Else why waste so much time and more and more expensive journal space? Is it too much to ask that there be some correlation between interpretation and evaluation? Is it unreasonable to wonder at the lack of such correlation? If we can all agree, and at least this much does not seem to me to be too difficult, that “what criticism undertakes is the profitable discussion of literature” (Leavis again),4 then all who peruse the criticism of “Kubla Khan” cannot help but conclude that it has not been very profitable.

I will attempt to do two things: to say something intelligent about the meaning and significance of “Kubla Khan” after having reviewed the heritage of critical opinion which for the most part has hindered the saying of anything very intelligent in the past. In other words, I would like to survey the grounds for that consistently high praise of the poem and to test it against what seems to me to be a more workable and defensible set of criteria. And as I do this, I hope it will appear as evident to you as it has to me that the history and weaknesses of the criticism of this particular poem are painfully representative of those of the criticism of too many other poems.


The poem itself, however, is not representative. It is unique in the fact that it has attached to it a preface written by Coleridge which explains the poem's origin and composition in an opium dream. While the changing attitudes towards the veracity of the preface can provide us with a structure for our review, they should not blind us to the larger relevancy of this case history.

For the sake of convenience, I shall divide this survey into three stages: (1) the contemporary reaction, ranging from the 1816 reviews of the poem when it first appeared in print to the early 1830s when Coleridge's death generated obituary evaluations of his accomplishment; (2) the Victorian reaction, ranging from the 1830s to the early 1920s when those dominant nineteenth-century values first confronted their greatest challenges; and (3) the modern reaction, in effect heralded by Lowes's Road to Xanadu published in 1927.


Contemporary readings and evaluations of “Kubla Khan” were based to a very large extent on total acceptance of the preface. The relevant passage states that the poet, after taking an anodyne,

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 or 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 corresponding expression, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awaking 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.5

Probably the earliest review of the poem, which appeared in the May 1816 issue of the Critical Review, established the problem for critics: the poem, the unacknowledged reviewer said, “is one of those pieces that can only speak for itself.”6 Evaluation had then to be based not on close analysis and rational understanding, but on the very value of such automatic writing. And most of the reviewers were traditional enough to wonder at Coleridge's modest presumption of curiosity in such writing:

“Kubla Khan,” we think, only shews that Mr. Coleridge can write better nonsense verses than any man in England.

William Hazlitt, Examiner, 2 June 1816

it having been composed during sleep, there appears to us nothing in the quality of the lines to render this circumstance extraordinary.

Josiah Conder, Eclectic Review, June 1816

in sleep the judgment is the first faculty of the mind which ceases to act, therefore the opinion of the sleeper respecting his performance is not to be trusted, even in his waking moments.

Anonymous, Literary Panorama, July 18167

Only one reviewer questions the possibility of such an origin to the poem: “we would yet ask him whether this extraordinary fragment was not rather the effect of rapid and instant composition after he was awake, than of memory immediately recording that which he dreamt when asleep?” (Monthly Review, 82 [Jan. 1817], 22-25). But that reviewer agrees finally with the very influential Edinburgh Review's8 conclusion that the poem is “below criticism.”

While everyone seemed to believe the preface and therefore never attempted close analysis, there were a few who were able to praise the poem for its musical qualities. The poem may have no meaning, they said, but it certainly sounds nice. Hazlitt was the first; in that same Examiner review he went on to say that “It is not a poem, but a musical composition” (a judgment echoed later in The Spirit of the Age when Hazlitt sums up Coleridge's entire accomplishment: “His words were hollow, but they pleased the ear”9). The less astute, and more accommodating, Leigh Hunt emphasized only the second half of Hazlitt's sentence, calling the poem “an everlasting tune in our mouths.”10 By the 1830s, in one of the first examples of that general simplification of Romantic theories so characteristic of the later nineteenth century, the poem is declared valuable almost solely because of its melodious versification:

It is perfect music. The effect could scarcely have been more satisfactory to the ear had every syllable been selected merely for the sake of its sound.

John Bowring, Westminster Review, Jan. 183011

The responses of Coleridge's contemporaries to the poem can be summed up then as follows: given their almost universal acceptance of Coleridge's account of how the poem was composed and their subsequent refusal to interpret, they either criticized the poet for publishing the dream product or praised the poem for so closely imitating music. Charles Lamb's cautious position represents the compromise; he finds “Kubla Khan” bewitching but probably meaningless: while the vision, as orally communicated by Coleridge, “irradiates” and “brings heaven and elysian bowers” into Lamb's parlour, he is afraid that the poem “is an owl that won't bear daylight. I fear lest it should be discovered by the lantern of typography and clear reducting to letters no better than nonsense or no sense” (letter to Wordsworth, April 1816).12


It was John Bowring, however, and not Charles Lamb, who established the direction that Victorian readers were to take. After a curious scarcity of interest in the poem for almost forty years after Coleridge's death, by 1870 and for the rest of the century it was presented by many influential critics as the ideal of lyric poetry. By this time there had developed, because of a narrowing of Romantic theory, a working distinction between the “poetical” on the one hand and the “ethical-intellectual” on the other. That which is least rationally considered and most abandoned to “the inspiration of the moment,” that which is “intense” and “charming,” “novel” and “original,” expressive of “wonder” and “delight,” that which appeals to the isolated emotions and senses, is called “poetical.” These terms appear again and again in Victorian considerations of the poem which almost unanimously conclude that, precisely because “Kubla Khan” is fragmentary and the product of a dream vision and so very musical, it is one of the most perfect of lyric poems. The critic who accepts these criteria can not help being impressionistic and finally irresponsible in his approach to individual poems. Here are some typical examples (a typicality which reminds us how difficult it has been to establish literary criticism as a discipline):

The poetical is ever an appeal to the deepest in the human mind, and a great burst of poetic light like [‘Kubla Khan’] lays bare for the imagination to roam in, a vast indefinite domain.

George Calver13

It is natural that his poetry at its highest should be, as it is, beyond all praise and all words of men … The ‘Christabel', the ‘Kubla Khan', with one or two more, are outside all law and jurisdiction of ours. When it has been said that such melodies were never heard, such dreams never dreamed, such speech never spoken; the chief thing remains unsaid, and unspeakable. There is a charm upon these poems which can only be felt in silent submission of wonder.

A. C. Swinburne14

[It] is the visualizing of an opium-dream, a rarity of sensation at least as well worth literary immortality as any other experience whatever; and the feat is accomplished with a magic of sound and thought wholly incomparable.

John M. Robertson15

In the fine harmony of his diction and the pure power of his imagination, in the ability to do by means of words what the musician does by means of notes, what the painter does by means of colors, he had, among lyric poets, few equals,—he had no superior.

Tuley Huntington16

nineteenth century poetry has a soul, an essence, an aroma which eighteenth century poetry has not … the panegyrists of the latter at the expense of the former deceive themselves in imagining that this homage is given to poetry, while it is really rendered to intellect … [Coleridge] has shown within the compass of his own writings what is and what is not poetry, and forced all professed admirers of poetry to consider whether she can exist without inspiration … Coleridge's themes … are distinctly poetical; … [which means that he is able] to create a perpetual feeling of enchantment by the constant but unobtrusive employment of the most beautiful and melodious words.

Richard Garnett17

In these fifty lines Coleridge has created a work of quite unparalleled beauty. It is impossible to say exactly wherein lies its charm. All the senses are appealed to and through them the reader is called upon to reconstruct the wonderful scene. But in spite of the direct appeal to the senses, probably each reader has his own image of the palace-dome and the sacred river. He is not called upon merely to look at what lies before him. Suggestions of the scene are given, and he has to re-create the whole.

Margaret Keeling18

We can see that the early nineteenth-century responses to the poem as beyond criticism and musical have been incorporated into a much fuller judgment of the poem based upon the criteria of suggestiveness (as opposed to clarity), novelty of subject matter (to the extent that the exotic and magical are preferred to the real and familiar), musicality and visuality of imagery (at the expense of the conceptual), and inspiration (implying a minimum of conscious control). Rhapsodic appeal to these values reinforced that reluctance to explicate we saw earlier in the century.

Since modern critics have either accepted the judgment based on these criteria, and the criteria themselves, without defending them, or agreed with the judgment but altered the criteria without arguing against the former criteria, it might be useful to pause here to consider the criteria theoretically.


If we can agree that poetry should be useful, as well as pleasurable, and that the quality of the utility depends on both efficiency and consensus of interpretation, then we must ask a poem to be as clear and as definite as possible in its communicated vision of that complexity which is human experience. A poem exists as no more than private therapy if it does not succeed in being understood by intelligent and diligent readers other than the poet. In fact, one could argue, a poem does not really live except in the reaction of the reader to the words on the page. And if he can share that reaction with other readers, the gain is social as well as individual. If it has been the poet's concern to encourage or allow varieties of interpretation, to suggest rather than to define, to dissociate, for example, a word's connotation from its denotation, he has not communicated efficiently, and the poem's usefulness is greatly limited. Precision and accuracy are surely always to be valued in expression of any kind. Suggestiveness is not a quality to be celebrated; to do so is to imply that vagueness and unresolvable disagreement are themselves useful.


The nineteenth-century concern with originality was very much involved in the philosophical belief that change is a positive value. As Morse Peckham states in his summary of Romantic beliefs:

Change is not man's punishment, it is his opportunity. Anything that continues to grow, or change qualitatively, is not perfect, can, perhaps, never be perfect. Perfection ceases to be a positive value. Imperfection becomes a positive value. Since the universe is changing and growing, there is consequently a positive and radical intrusion of novelty into the world.19

Surely the history of the past two centuries has made clear that such change for its own sake, progress unguided by moral intelligence, can be very dangerous and counterproductive. At the least, it tends to legitimize trivia. Recent trends in the course offerings of American universities give evidence of the continuing strength of that Romantic belief. But then the decision as to what is trivial and what is not, being difficult, and involved in uncritical notions of equality and democracy, has been avoided too often by too many. Unattended, as it too often is in Victorian criticism, “novelty” can be helpful as a descriptive, but not as an evaluative, term.


The Romantic tendency to submerge denotations and exploit connotations, a tendency which was doctrinized very early by Poe and later by Mallarmé, gave rise to a belief in verbal music, that is, in beautiful word-sounds detached or detachable from meaning. “It was easy,” says F. W. Bateson, “to attribute the verbal associations not to the original meanings of the words but to their sounds.”20 But unless the language of the poetry is unknown both to the hearer and the reciter, there is always the strong probability that meaning will condition the response to the sound. And besides, why should we go to poetry for what can be so much more thoroughly provided by musical instruments? Praising a poem for its musical qualities, rather than or divorced from its meaning, is like recommending bear meat because its taste approximates that of beef. Poetic language can very crudely approximate musical effects, but it can do so much that music cannot do, that our attention should never be so restricted. Sound devices in verse should be the servants of meaning rather than of music.21

The argument against verbal painting is, of course, very similar. The mediums are radically different. Words are conceptual (or more precisely, “symbols for concepts”22), whereas musical notes and line, color, and shape are perceptual. While combinations of words restrict this conceptuality, they can never fully exist separate from the conceptual origin. That is, language has a generalizing power which should never be forgotten or undervalued. The important thing in a poem is not the object itself, but the understanding of the object. Just as language, being a totally human creation, can never be satisfactorily imitative of nature (that is, perceptual), so the other media, being partially mechanical and chemical creations, can never be satisfactorily conceptual. Again to quote Bateson, “a poem is a mental event, not a physical object” (English Poetry, p 14).


True poetry cannot exist, claimed one of the late Victorian critics, without inspiration. This is, of course, part of the subject matter of “Kubla Khan,” which we shall return to later. Such belief in the value of inspiration is based upon that implicit confidence in the nineteenth century in the power and primacy of the subconscious mind. “Kubla Khan” was the epitome of lyric poetry for so many because, they thought, it wrote itself. Since the fact of inspiration is very difficult to prove, commentators are usually limited to pointing to the “magical” qualities of the verse. The word “magic” appears again and again in these nineteenth- and early twentieth-century evaluations of “Kubla Khan.” To label a passage as “magical” makes technical criticism impossible, if not a sacrilege. The most devastating dismissal of this criterion has been made by Yvor Winters. Here is Winters talking about the extreme consequences of Emerson's doctrine of surrender of the will and submission of oneself to the direct guidance of that portion of the Almighty Spirit which resides in the subconscious mind:

If there is no possibility of error, the revision of judgment is meaningless; immediate inspiration is correct; but immediate inspiration amounts to the same thing as unrevised reactions to stimuli; unrevised reactions are mechanical; man in a state of perfection is an automaton; an automatic man is insane. Hence Emerson's perfect man is a madman.23

And madness is not something we should be encouraging.

We can see, therefore, that the dissociation of sensibility which Eliot detected in the poets was also present in the critics. Behind these criteria is a conscious attempt to divorce connotation from denotation (or, the emotional from the intellectual), movement from direction, perception from conception, and instinct from will. And in the long run, appeal to such values demeans the communicative potential of that human construct which is the English language.

While the frequency of such appeal radically decreased after the 1920s, there were still many echoes in the writings of influential critics. For instance, in 1933 M. R. Ridley agrees with Kipling's characterization of lines 14-16 of “Kubla Khan” as “pure Magic. These are the clear Vision. The rest is only poetry.”24 The next year, a TLS reviewer spoke of “Kubla Khan” as “all music and picture … pure dream … lyricism itself … a test in the evaluation of lyric poetry.”25 M. H. Abrams, one of the deans of modern Romantic studies, celebrated in The Milk of Paradise the “rich strangeness” and “true originality” of the poem, while claiming that it “cannot be analyzed” (pp 46-49). An attempt in 1937 by E. H. W. Meyerstein to argue for the poem's completeness and coherency is tempered by the refusal “to belittle the eternal wonder” of Coleridge's lyric.26 In their Critical History of English Poetry (1944), Grierson and Smith refer to “the mystery, and the magic of phrase and cadence that enchant us in ‘Kubla Khan.’”27

These are, however, not the loudest voices. On the whole, since the 1920s there has been a marked withdrawal from such appeals. It is as if the critics have said, “Yes, we know ‘Kubla Khan’ is a great poem; let us now get down to the more valuable work of interpreting it.” The assumption, but not the justification, of greatness is there. While we may argue whether evaluation rightly comes during or after interpretation, we surely can never countenance its coming before. But yet that seems to be the case, right up to the present day.


This basically non-evaluative modern criticism can be divided into two major phases, separated by two discoveries which became widely known and influenced readings of the poem after the mid-1950s. The first discovery was of an autographed manuscript version of “Kubla Khan,” frequently referred to as the Crewe MS after the Marquess of Crewe, who owned it. The manuscript was first reported in 1934 by Alice Snyder in the TLS (2 Aug. 1934, p 541), but was not taken very seriously until Elisabeth Schneider argued, in an article published in 194528 (which was expanded into a book in 1953, Coleridge, Opium and Kubla Khan), that the manuscript and a wealth of medical evidence offered strong reasons for not believing the preface, for not believing Coleridge's claim that the poem was composed in an opium dream. Not only do the differences between the manuscript version and that published in 1816 provide evidence of very conscious revisions (and there is little doubt that the manuscript was an earlier version), but also a MS note in Coleridge's hand contradicts the later preface. The note reads in part: “This fragment with a good deal more, not recoverable, composed, in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium.”29 “A sort of Reverie” is a long way from a three-hour “profound sleep,” as reported in 1816. Elisabeth Schneider begins with this, and after an exhaustive and impressive survey of medical and psychological evidence concludes that “opium could not possibly ever be responsible for any dream” and, therefore, that we should not believe the preface. “We need not read as glorious nonsense lines that make quite rational sense.”30 These combined discoveries changed the direction of criticism of the poem. But while no responsible reader after 1953 could ignore these findings, the type of criticism did not change. Critics both before and after were either source hunters or symbol hunters. That unfortunately had not changed, despite Schneider's effective attack on the weaknesses and limitations of both.


Source hunting is a rather easy target. As a branch of literary study it is a product of the Romantic notion that an understanding of the process of composition is the same thing as an understanding of the poem. “If you can define what goes on in the poet's mind, you will have defined poetry” (Bateson, p 49). Wordsworth and Coleridge, for instance, often substitute a definition of the poet for a definition of poetry. At its most valuable, source hunting can be an adjunct to biography (or even psychology). It can help us understand how a poem came to be written, but not what value it has. When the source is clearly alluded to within the poem, when, consequently, readers can agree as to both the working relevancy and identity of the source, it becomes part of the poem's content. If a knowledge of a source which is not so clearly alluded to is necessary for an understanding of the poem's meaning, the poem fails to be reasonably self-sufficient. When the source is not a part of the work as a linguistic fact, as is the case with “Kubla Khan,” the discovery that Coleridge read Bartram's Travels, or anything else, is of very limited value.

John Livingston Lowes, whose The Road to Xanadu appeared in 1927, seemed to confuse his very restricted kind of scholarship with criticism. And this confusion was aided by two beliefs which underpin his enthusiastic “glittering parade” (as Wimsatt sarcastically called the study31): first an outdated belief in Hartleyan associationism (which Coleridge himself repudiated), and second a belief in the doctrine of inspiration. From an overly eager acceptance of Coleridge's account in the preface to the poem, Lowes was led to the indefensible position of proposing that “Kubla Khan” is, on the one hand, one of “the most remarkable poems in English,” “a thing of unique and imperishable beauty,” “as near enchantment … as we are like to come in this dull world,” a work of “glory,” with “an almost magical potency,” and, on the other hand, an irresponsible, random confluence of imagery, which is finally meaningless because thinking “had abdicated its control,” a fragment whose final value seems to lie in its “witching music.”32 Lowes felt not the least discomfort in describing the final stanza of the poem as both “a picture of unimpaired and thrilling vividness” (p 374) and incoherent (p 331), or describing the linked and interweaving images as “irresponsibly and gloriously” streaming, which are “as aimless as [they are] magnificent” (pp 376-77). That which is incoherent, irresponsible, and aimless is also vivid, glorious, and magnificent!

We have here, then, an example of those same questionable Victorian values lurking behind twentieth-century professionalism. Lowes's 570-odd pages do little more than support the previously clear proposition that Coleridge worked primarily from books. The section on “Kubla Khan” certainly comes nowhere near bridging the gap between the sources of the poet's imagery and the poem itself. The pity is not simply that one man may have wasted over eight years of his life, but that Lowes's work has become very influential. Numerous scholars for the past forty years have been offering footnotes to Lowes's book. And the important fact is that there has been no agreement. The images of the poem have their origin in such diverse sources as the apocryphal Book of Tobit,33 Hesiod's Theogony,34 the writings of Jacob Boehme,35 Sir William Jones's “A Hymn to Ganga”36 or his “The Palace of Fortune,”37 the writings of Annianus Marcillinus,38 Southey's Common-Place Book and epic narrative Thalaba the Destroyer,39 Fielding's Tom Jones,40 Joseph Sterling's “Cambuscan,”41 Wieland's Oberon,42 Spenser's Faerie Queene,43 Milton's Paradise Lost,44 and Goldsmith's “The Deserted Village.”45

As biographical notes on Coleridge's reading, many of these studies fail to conform to simple rules of evidence. Because Coleridge “read everything,” argues one scholar, “who can doubt that [he] knew Hesiod's Theogony.46 “No reason to believe … that he did not see this periodical,” says another.47 S. C. Harrex in a 1966 article shamelessly offers the most extreme example of irresponsible scholarship: “I do not claim,” he concludes, “that the source of Coleridge's dome is the Goldsmith passage [in “The Deserted Village”], but I do suggest that it is no more unlikely than many of the sources which have been attributed to him”!48

The few who have crossed over the line into criticism have been equally irresponsible. Some offer interpretations based on what is clear in the proposed source rather than in “Kubla Khan”: e.g. Hans Meier, arguing for Coleridge's indebtedness to Paradise Lost, says that Coleridge's fountain is to be associated with evil, because in Milton's poem “it is through a fountain that Satan gains his second entrance into the garden.”49 Others go so far as to speak to the richness (and hence value) of the poem simply because various sources are detectable.50 We have here a method which has allowed literary scholars to avoid the difficulty that is always involved in a disciplined confrontation with the poem itself. And we have evidence to support I. A. Richards's contention that “the mental processes of the poet are not a very profitable field for investigation. They offer far too happy a hunting-ground for uncontrollable conjecture.”51


The symbolist critics are much more obviously modern in their approach, but only slightly more productive. They differ from the Victorians in insisting that the poem does indeed have meaning. Their insistence is often, however, extreme. The single criterion for greatness seems to be the very presence of symbols, the assumption being that every good poem is symbolic. Again the starting point for one's unease is the fact of irreconcilable differences. That is, even though there may be different “levels of meaning” in a poem, those levels must be present in the surface of the language (that is, the key must be given within the poem; there must be internal evidence of the necessity of a symbolic reading), and those levels must harmonize with one another and with the emotional content of the poem. All the critics cannot all be right. If they are, then human creativity as human responsibility, in Leavis's sense,52 has not been properly served. If a poem can mean only what it happens to mean to any reader, extreme subjectivity, but not community, has been advanced. And such advancement is the antithesis of education, which we must all believe in.

Before Elisabeth Schneider forced critics to see the poem as a conscious creation, and therefore subject to the normal rigors of analysis, symbolist readings remained self-defensively open and vague. Robert Graves, playing the psychoanalyst in The Meaning of Dreams (1924), allows the poem to be symbolic both of the course of life (the sacred river) from birth to death and of Coleridge's relationships with his wife and Dorothy Wordsworth.53 Maud Bodkin, more Jungian in her approach, discusses the poem as the archetype of heaven and hell; to point out that pattern in the imagery seems to her enough.54 G. Wilson Knight reads it as an amazingly compressed and multidirectional commentary on the dynamic of general creation (Kubla as God).55 After Schneider, there developed a consensus that the poem is more specifically about poetry and the poetic process. But while the individual readings are more precise, there is no agreement. Is “Kubla Khan,” as Humphry House argues, “a triumphant positive statement of the potentialities of poetry,” or, a statement of frustration, as Cannon and Bostetter claim?56 Is Xanadu celebrated as the momentary realization of paradise by the poet-king57 or is it the contrived artifice of a tyrant improperly imposing his will on nature?58 Is Coleridge focusing upon the poetic potential of daydreams,59 the primitive way of thinking,60 remembrance,61 or the daemonic?62 That is, just what is being said about poetry?

Biographical readers have equally stressed different things. James Bramwell would have us read the poem as a confessional record of Coleridge's failures as a poet.63 Douglas Angus detects an exposure of classic narcissism.64 S. K. Heninger, Jr, sees “‘the individuation process,’ an integration of disparate elements by which the personality achieves identity and wholeness.”65 James Hoyle wants us to believe that “the psychology of elation or hypomania” informs the poem, and that it records the results of a neurotic person's “‘vegetative retreat’ to parasympathetic preponderance with overstimulation of gastrointestinal functions, resulting in diarrhea.”66 The most recent Freudian interpretation has been offered by Norman Fruman, who observes in the poem unresolved incestuous conflicts, hatred of women, divided personality, fear of sex, and homosexual impulses.67

One wonders if the motive of these symbol hunters is much different from that of those pious mythographers of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance who insisted upon reading pagan fables as Christian allegories. “Works of the past that we still value but cannot by any modern principle find reason for approving we salvage by finding in them a symbolic substratum that conforms to our present values.” That sentence was written by Elisabeth Schneider68 in her long criticism of the symbolist approach, a criticism which has never been adequately confronted by the hordes that descended on the poem in the 1950s and 1960s. Not one of these critics has satisfactorily justified a symbolic reading. The most explicit defences have taken three forms: (1) from those who believe the preface, since all dreams are symbolic expressions of hidden meanings, the poem must be so read; (2) from Jungian critics, since all poetry is the communication of archetypal wisdom, the poem must be so read; (3) from those relying on internal evidence, there is some indefinable something in the poem which, as Richard Haven has said, “forces us to awareness of a symbolic order.”69 And, regardless of the particular defence, too often the act of judgment (usually itself implicit rather than explicit) extends no further than the satisfaction of extracting symbolic meaning.

Even if the poem is symbolic, which has not been proven to my satisfaction and for which there is negligible evidence within the poem, is not that in itself cause for concern? I would, somewhat cautiously I admit, go so far as to say that symbolism as it has been understood for the past two centuries can be a rather cheap figurative device in poetry. I am speaking of that Romantic and post-Romantic definition of a symbol as a poetic object which has a multitude of meanings. John Unterecker, in A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats, has put it plainly (but uncritically):

Any analogy we can construct for the symbol, any meaning we assign to it, is legitimate so long as we recognize that meaning is not its meaning. Its meaning must be more elusive than any value we can—with words—fix to it. All that the meaning we assign to a symbol can ever be is either part of its meaning or one of its possible meanings. No symbol has a meaning.70

This defeats, or at least greatly hinders, the proper function of the poem to clarify.

We should also be disturbed by the not surprising fact that none of the critics mentioned above dares speak to the rightness or wrongness of the “meaning” they extract, to the validity of Coleridge's supposed commentary on poetry within the poem.

So, as we have seen, like the source hunters, this even more numerous band of readers has not allowed the poem to speak for itself. Here we have a method which encourages originality and cleverness, but not necessarily the truth. It is a method which, as Schneider sarcastically notes, “has … brought to life a great many critics” (p 7), critics who, I might add, should have remained dormant. And, in looking back on this survey, I am, in a perhaps unprofessional mood, tempted to suggest the applicability to this survey of what Winters said about the Poe and Emerson industries: “a good deal of what has been written and very respectably published is unmitigated twaddle” (In Defense of Reason, p 566).


But all this does not really prove very much about the poem itself. So far I have attempted only to establish grounds for censuring the critics. But such censure can help us be responsible when we read. So let us finally turn to the poem itself and approach it through criteria which, I firmly believe, are more productive of defensible and sharply relevant discriminations and avoid the pitfalls of those I have surveyed.

First of all, we must agree to take the poem seriously and not to allow the preface to disarm our critical faculties. Schneider's medical evidence raises doubts as to the simple possibility of opium dreams. The presence of the Crewe MS clearly proves that, despite the preface, and regardless of the origin of the poem, the published version is a conscious effort. If Coleridge was really interested in presenting it as a “psychological curiosity,” as an example of automatic writing, why would he tamper with it?71

If it is not a literal dream vision, to what genre, if any, does it belong? The critics have disagreed here as well. Most play it safe by seeing it simply as a lyric; others, however, insist on reading it as a short Pindaric ode (Meyerstein), a visionary romance (Beyer), a frustrated narrative (Bostetter), a foretaste of a long epic poem.72 G. Wilson Knight wants to liken it to Dante's Paradiso and Richard Gerber to a four-part sonata. I would ask if there is reason to believe it is anything other than what it clearly appears to be on the surface: 36 lines of landscape description, followed by 18 lines of commentary on the possibility of writing such descriptive verse. Of course, landscape poetry is not the most distinguished or exalted of genres, which perhaps explains the reluctance of most critics to be content with such a simple question. Most symbolic readings depend on an emphasis on the few non-descriptive items in the first section of the poem: the simile in lines 14-16, the narrative intrusion of “ancestral voices” (line 30), and the vague judgment of the scene in line 35: “It was a miracle of rare device.”

This takes us to the first of my proposed criteria: what broadly we refer to as “coherency,” what Coleridge would call the “wholeness” of a poem, the unified relationship of part to whole. The first suggestion of difficulty in this area comes in lines 12-16. Before that, the poem is directly descriptive, with no explicit indication of the poet's attitude towards the pleasure garden. But in those five lines, containing as they do five exclamation marks and the first of three similes in the poem, the poet seems to move beyond mere description. The purpose of the third simile, lines 21-22, is clear and strictly visual: the more familiar sight of rebounding hail or flailed chaff analogizes the particular motion of the “huge fragments” and emphasizes the tremendous force of the “burst” of the fountain. The comparison aids in rendering the verbal picture more precise.

The same cannot be said of the first simile. Not only is there the modern resentment of those ejaculations, but also the failure of either that unexpected and undeveloped change in tone or that cryptic allusion to a wailing woman and demon-lover to advance the primary function of the simile to vivify the “romantic chasm.” Or, perhaps, we should be warned by the word “romantic” to expect only diffuseness. The adjectives “savage,” “holy,” and “enchanted” are no less general after the simile than before.

The second simile,

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

(lines 17-18)

while still not calling upon the expectedly familiar, at least offers a personification which, however indirectly, does aid perception.

The next major deviation from description, lines 29-30, is like that first simile, suggestive rather than defining. This likewise appears to be an allusion, historical rather than mythical, but what function does it serve in this poem? Is there any connection between this intrusion, which is narrative, and that of the wailing woman, which is atmospheric? One might argue that the sense of supernatural dread of the first is enforced by the second. But what is all this suggestiveness leading to? Surely the relatively mild “miracle” of line 35 is not worth all the excited fuss created earlier. That is, these three oddities, which do, indeed, extend the poem from description to seeming impassioned lyric judgment of the scene, do not cohere. No unified purpose is advanced.

A similar disparity exists in the last section of the poem. The damsel is explicitly within the poem a source of inspiration for the poet. But why, one must ask, is she Abyssinian? And what does Abyssinia have to do with Xanadu, presumably in China, beyond the fact that they are both exotic places beyond pedestrian Western Europe? And what significance is to be placed in her dulcimer? It is not, contrary to the belief of some critics, an instrument native to the Near or Middle East. As William Templeman argued in 1931, the instrument was not unknown in England in the later eighteenth century and “whether or not the dulcimer was generally familiar, the mention of it in ‘Kubla Khan’ seems to bring a decidedly English note into Coleridge's romantic melody which is so largely Oriental.”73 The word itself is French in origin. C. M. Bowra speculates that, because a dulcimer is “not a very melodious or a very elegant instrument,” Coleridge was probably only interested in the pretty consonantal correspondence with “damsel.”74 I would go farther and agree with Marius Bewley (who has written one of the very few helpful essays on the poem) that the resulting alliteration of line 37 is “almost vulgar with its blatant, unmeaning emphasis.”75 And besides, a dulcimer is hardly capable of producing the “symphony” of line 43, another example, perhaps, of the poet's concern with sound at the expense of sense. And where, pray tell, is Mount Abora? In Abyssinia? In Xanadu? Garland Cannon (p 138) suggests a reference to the Abor Hills, which rim the frontier between India and China, that is, on the road from Abyssinia to Xanadu. (Xanadu, by the way, is Coleridge's stretching for metrical regularity of Purchas's two-syllable Xamdu.) The “Mount Amara” of the Crewe MS is, of course, a clear allusion to Milton's pseudo-paradise in Abyssinia (Paradise Lost, iv, 268-84), and Coleridge's revision, like too many of his first choices, leads away from such clarity.

And what, we must continue to ask, has this African maid playing on a European instrument singing of a non-existent mountain to do with the frenzied poet imaged in the final lines of the poem? Why should the memory of her song lead to an imaginative rebuilding of the Tartar king's pleasure grounds, an act which in turn alienates the deranged poet from his frightened public? And has not that imaginary rebuilding already been accomplished in the first 36 lines of the poem? It is often too much to ask that a Romantic poet offer us a rational motive for a heightened emotional response. But is it also too much to ask that some motive be discernible?

A second, invocable criterion is precision of form, a precision determined in large part by appropriateness of form to content. I am proceeding here on the basis of two assumptions (and here I again quote Yvor Winters): (1) that “the greatest fluidity of statement [in a poem] is possible where the greater clarity of form prevails,” in other words, the more strict the verse form, the greater the potential for subtle and complex expression; and (2) that form is “identical with the will or the ability to control and shape one's experience” and hence the moral content of a poem can partially reside in the form.76 The most thorough published attempts to account for the form of “Kubla Khan” have been made by Alan Purves and Elisabeth Schneider.

Purves77 concentrates on rhyme schemes and line lengths, delegating the paucity of metrical variation to the simple, but highly questionable, function of creating a sense of wholeness. Pointing, for instance, at lines 6-11, which describe the dome, and lines 31-36, which describe the shadow of the dome, he claims a “symbolic use of form” in that the second passage reverses the rhyme and line length pattern of the first, the two thereby being “mirror images” of each other. He goes on to argue, much too assertively, that, because the line lengths and rhyme schemes of passages dealing with Kubla, the ability to decree, and the forces of nature involved in creation (lines 1-5, 12-24) are restated in the later passages (lines 37-41 and 42-54) dealing with the poet and his power of creation, therefore a significant relationship exists between Kubla and the poet. In addition, the fact that such restatement is imperfect emphasizes, he says, the significant differences between the two modes of creation, that of the average man involved with temporality and finitude (i.e., Kubla) and that of the poet.

To agree with the ingenious Purves is to charge Coleridge with a very limited, merely imitative use of a form which appears not to be very precise solely because Coleridge wants to suggest but not to define a limitation to a suggested but unelaborated comparison. The form only echoes a failure in the denotative content of the poem. To disagree with Purves, especially with his conclusion that such connection of form and meaning as he demonstrates proves that the poem is not a fragment, but “complete and carefully wrought,” is simply to demand that the values of completeness and care be applied with more responsibility and discrimination. It seems to me that Purves has inadvertently pointed to a weakness and not a strength in the poem.

Elisabeth Schneider, while more thorough in her study of the complex sound effects of the poem (pp 270-76), is like Purves in primarily being interested in proving the poem a conscious creation. But if Purves irresponsibly relates sound patterns to meaning, Schneider is irresponsible in refusing to relate, to any meaningful extent. Claiming that Coleridge deliberately reflected in “Kubla Khan” the “free and imperfect” rhyming effects of Milton's “Lycidas,” she does not suggest how such an esoteric sound allusion might advance meaning. Coleridge's use of modified a sounds, so common in eastern names, is designed solely to create atmosphere. Her final study of the way in which elaborate alliterations and assonances of the first five lines cause the one unechoed sound, “dome,” to stand out alone is much more helpful and quite insightful. If anything, however, she offers proof that Coleridge was indeed consciously more interested in music than meaning.

Schneider's identification of sound devices in the opening lines does, however, support my earlier suggestion that the poem is fairly successful as descriptive vision with adequately sensitive sound effects through line 11. After that, unsynthesized halting rhythms serve only to reinforce the dissatisfaction the reader feels with those undeveloped and unrelated similes and images. Vincent Buckley, I should mention, is less disturbed, praising the poem's energy and dramatic intensity: “The poetry is vigorous, various, impetuous, rather than haunting.”78 I would simply add, rather than controlled and more highly communicative.

If “Kubla Khan” is primarily a landscape poem, primarily descriptive, that generic distinction itself involves a judgment, for it is a very minor genre: as I stated earlier, while details are important in poetry, conclusions drawn from details are so much more important. Verbal depiction and recreation can never be as accurate as pictorial imitation. And such depiction of action or scene is rarely per se very helpful or meaningful. But, of course, it would be unfair to say that all those landscape poets of the eighteenth century were interested solely in such simple imitation. They attached intense and often profound emotions to rocks and stones and trees. This raises two questions (and thus two more criteria): how accurate, vivid, and truthful is the description? and how appropriate is the emotional response to the subsequently apprehended subject?

An answer to the first question depends on how easily one visualizes Kubla's pleasure garden. Where is the dome, for instance, in relation to the chasm and river? No precise answer is possible. Fruman would like us to believe that the dome is on the edge of the chasm, in order to validate his Freudian reading. Beginning with what has to be one of the silliest proposals in Coleridge criticism: “Why confine the pleasure-dome to a breast symbol?” (p 396), he proceeds to detect what he calls “almost classic symbols for primary sexual terrain”: dome as mons veneris, green hill with cedarn cover as pubic region, chasm as vagina. But Coleridge's imprecise geography is matched by Fruman's imprecise anatomy: a page later he wants the fountain rising from that vaginal chasm to be a male ejaculation. So inspired, one would go on to read the subsequently meandering river born of that fountain as the result of coitus interruptus—but then what about those measureless caverns two lines later? The proverbial mind boggles.

The vividness which resides, one must remember, in rather general adjectives, such as “fertile,” “bright,” “sinuous,” “incense-bearing,” “ancient,” and “sunny” in the first section of the poem79 begins to fade rapidly from line 12 on. The new tone of awe and perhaps dread established in the first simile obscures rather than advances our perception.80

But then, as Schneider argues (p 277), perhaps Coleridge had no desire to describe with any vividness or precision. Coleridge, she speculates, may have been attempting to write descriptive poetry according to a principle advanced by Lessing; here is Coleridge's summary, in one of his letters from Germany, of that principle:

I could half suspect that what are deemed fine descriptions, produce their effects almost purely by a charm of words, with which and with whose combinations, we associate feelings indeed, but no distinct Images.

If Schneider's speculation is true, then that very theoretical and psychological decision, as well as the obscure poetic product, must be criticized.

One can gain a general sense of the movement of the river in relationship to the enclosed park: born in the fountain, it slowly moves on the surface, then falls into caverns where it sinks eventually into a subterranean ocean, which, one assumes, is the source of an underground river which then becomes the source of the fountain. It is very tempting to read that circularity which connects the surface with the subsurface as symbolic of something: the course of a man's life (birth-death-rebirth), or the course of nature in and out of man's civilizing control, or the course of poetry from the natural to the artificial back to the natural. Many critics have been so tempted. Even more important than the lack of any justification within the poem for such readings is the inability of such generally apprehended circularity to say anything precise and therefore important about life or nature or poetry.

The second question (how appropriate is the emotional response to the subject matter, which as we have seen is not very fully apprehended?) leads us to two statements in the poem which come closest to providing us with the poet's attitude towards what he is describing: the judgment of the juxtaposed dome and caves as “a miracle of rare device” and the obvious desire of the poet in the last section to imitate Kubla's “miracle.” A lot of emotional energy and importance is invested in that juxtaposition. Why? Any answer depends on a symbolic value which is non-existent within the very terms of the poem. Both Richard Fogle and Marshall Suther say the poem is about man's attempt to reconcile opposites or to assert unity in the face of opposing forces. But there is no moral context given such reconciliation. Certainly goals must be defined before processes can be presented as exemplary. The only goal presented in the poem is social alienation and maybe even madness. Let me quote from Fogle's essay, “The Romantic Unity of ‘Kubla Khan’”:

in “Kubla Khan,” as probably in all good romantic poetry, the pleasure which draws us within the poem is also inseparable from its full meaning. Imaginative delight in the wonders of the pleasure-ground is indispensable to the sense of their opposite. Fully to appreciate the theme's potentialities, we must be beguiled into believing momentarily in the permanency of the impermanent, the possibility of the impossible … It is in the truest sense a completed work in that it symbolizes and comprehends the crucial romantic dilemma … The romantic poet as idealist and monist strives to include within his cosmos both actual and ideal … His attempt, however, coexists with his consciousness that he seeks the unattainable; the ideal can never be fully actualized. Thus in good romantic poetry there is a continuous tension, compacted of the sense of the immense potentialities of his theme set off against the knowledge that they can only partially be realized. This tension and conflict can be reconciled and rendered valuable partly by the poet's own belief in the value of the attempt itself.

(P 51, italics mine)

Good poetry, says one of the more astute of Romantic apologists, beguiles us into believing a falsehood! And this he dares call “essential profundity” (p 50). This is not just unmitigated twaddle; it is pernicious twaddle.

We come finally to my final criterion, which has already partially been spoken to, that is, the validity of the ideas which motivate and inform the poem. Poems, of course, do not give us ideas in any meaningful or efficient way. That is the job of expository prose. But they do give us thoughts by way of emotion and moral attitude, thoughts often arising out of an ideal or belief that, if we are to take the poet and his poem seriously, cannot be left unjudged. In other words, to take a poem seriously is to inquire: what am I asked to believe? I have already referred to the limited value of the idea of the reconciliation of opposites as it is seen by Fogle and Suther to inform the poem. A much more explicit idea is contained in the last seven lines of the poem. It is an idea which, as most critics agree,81 comes from Plato: the idea that effective poetic creation is “a divine release of the soul from the yoke of custom and convention,” and “all good poets … are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains” (Phaedrus 265a,b and Ion 533e-34e). Almost every argument I have offered in this essay has been directed against that idea, which experience tells us is not only wrong but destructive. Sanity and intelligent collaboration with other human beings are absolutely necessary for the continuance of civilization. That is not the kind of statement an academic, as opposed to a politician, enjoys making. One would hope that such things would not have to be said. But apparently they do. I can only remind you of Matthew Arnold's definition:

The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time, who have labored to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time.82

Our Romantic heritage (especially as it has affected the way poetry is written and read) has made that civilizing task very difficult.

“Kubla Khan,” a poem which, although read in many different and contradictory ways, has never ceased being regarded, by the academy at least, as a great poem, fails the test I have offered: it is imagistically incoherent, its form is imprecise, the offered perception is vague, the emotional content is inappropriate given the subject matter, and the informing idea is foolish. So, one can conclude, bringing the two parts of this modest attempt at sabotage together: never has so much been said by so many about so little. It is time the poem was taken down from its exclusive pedestal. For, surely, a great poem can offer us more than “Kubla Khan” does, can it not?


  1. Charles Patterson, “The Daemonic in ‘Kubla Khan’: Toward Interpretation,” PMLA, 89 (1974), 1033.

  2. F. R. Leavis, “Thought and Emotional Quality,” Scrutiny, 13 (1945), 70.

  3. George H. Calvert, Coleridge, Shelley, Goethe (Boston 1880), p 12; Arthur Symons, The Romantic Movement in English Poetry (London 1909), p 140; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Poems of Nature and Romance 1794-1807, ed Margaret A. Keeling (Oxford 1910), p 216; M. H. Abrams, The Milk of Paradise (Cambridge, Mass. 1934), p 49; Thomas Copeland, “A Woman Wailing for Her Demon Lover,” Review of English Studies, 17 (1941), 87; Marshall Suther, Visions of Xanadu (New York 1965), p 17.

  4. F. R. Leavis, Revaluation (Harmondsworth 1972), pp 15-16.

  5. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Poetical Works, ed Ernest Hartley Coleridge (London 1969), p 296. All further citations from the preface and the poem will refer, unless otherwise noted, to this edition.

  6. As quoted in Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, ed J. R. de J. Jackson (New York 1970), p 205.

  7. As quoted in Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, pp 208-9, 212, 216.

  8. 27 (Sept. 1816), 58-67.

  9. (New York n.d.), p 49.

  10. Examiner, 21 Oct. 1821, pp 664-67.

  11. As quoted in Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, p 550.

  12. As quoted by Keeling, p 216.

  13. Coleridge, Shelley, Goethe, p 14.

  14. Essays and Studies, 5th ed (London 1901), pp 262-63.

  15. New Essays Towards A Critical Method (London 1897), p 189.

  16. Tuley F. Huntington, ed, The Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Christabel, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1898), rev H. Y. Moffett (New York 1929), pp xl-xli.

  17. Essays of An Ex-Librarian (London 1901), pp 64, 97.

  18. Poems of Nature and Romance, p 216.

  19. “Toward a Theory of Romanticism,” in Romanticism: Points of View, ed Robert F. Gleckner and Gerald E. Enscoe, 2nd ed (Englewood Cliffs 1970), p 237 (italics mine).

  20. English Poetry: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed (London 1968), p 22.

  21. Bateson, p 28.

  22. See Yvor Winters's argument in The Function of Criticism (Chicago 1957), pp 82, 60-61.

  23. In Defense of Reason, 3rd ed (Chicago 1947), pp 54-55.

  24. Keats' Craftsmanship (1933; rpt London 1965), p 227.

  25. “Coleridge Is Dead,” TLS, 19 July 1934, P 497.

  26. “Completeness of Kubla Khan,” TLS, 30 Oct. 1937, p 803.

  27. (London 1944), P 311.

  28. “The ‘Dream’ of ‘Kubla Khan',” PMLA, 60 (1945), 784-801.

  29. See John Shelton, “The Autograph Manuscript of ‘Kubla Khan’ and an Interpretation,” Review of English Literature, 7 (1966), 32-42.

  30. Coleridge, Opium and Kubla Khan (Chicago 1953), pp 88-89.

  31. The Verbal Icon (New York 1964), p 11.

  32. The Road to Xanadu (New York 1959), pp 3, 313, 374, 377, 321, 376, 373. See also p 549, n 11: “the poem has perhaps no rivals in the qualities for which we have no better name than ‘verbal music.’”

  33. Copeland, pp 87-90.

  34. R. H. Milner, “Coleridge's ‘Sacred River,’” TLS, 18 May 1951, p 309.

  35. Dorothy F. Mercer, “The Symbolism of ‘Kubla Khan,’” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 12 (1953), 44-66.

  36. Garland H. Cannon, “A New, Probable Source for ‘Kubla Khan,’” College English, 17 (1955), 136-42.

  37. Warner U. Ober, “Southey, Coleridge, and ‘Kubla Khan,’” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 58 (1959), 414-22.

  38. John M. Patrick, “Ammianus and Alpheus: The Sacred River,” Modern Language Notes, 72 (1957), 335-37.

  39. Ober.

  40. Robert F. Fleissner, “‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Tom Jones’: An Unnoticed Parallel,” Notes and Queries, 205 (1960), 103-5.

  41. Francis Willard Emerson, “Joseph Sterling's ‘Cambuscan’ in Coleridge's ‘Kubla Khan,’” Notes and Queries, 205 (1960), 102-3.

  42. Werner W. Beyer, The Enchanted Forest (Oxford 1963), pp 122-42.

  43. Hans Heinrich Meier, “Ancient Lights on Kubla's Lines,” English Studies, 46 (1965), 15-29.

  44. Ibid.

  45. S. C. Harrex, “Coleridge's Pleasure-Dome in ‘Kubla Khan,’” Notes and Queries, 13 (1966), 172-73.

  46. Milner, p 309.

  47. Cannon, p 136.

  48. Harrex, p 172.

  49. Meier, p 19; see also Cannon, Harrex, and David H. Karrfalt, “Another Note on ‘Kubla Khan’ and Coleridge's Retirement to Ash Farm,” Notes and Queries, 13 (1966), 171-72.

  50. Beyer, p 142, and Richard Gerber, “Keys to ‘Kubla Khan,’” English Studies, 44 (1963), 341.

  51. Principles of Literary Criticism, 5th ed (New York 1934), p 29.

  52. Nor Shall My Sword (London 1972), pp 11-37.

  53. (London 1924), pp 145-58.

  54. Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934; rpt New York 1958), pp 91-110.

  55. The Starlit Dome (1941; rpt London 1971), pp 83-97, 178.

  56. Humphry House, Coleridge (London 1962), p 116; Cannon, p 139; Edward Bostetter, The Romantic Ventriloquists (Seattle 1963), pp 85-90.

  57. See Coleridge's Verse, ed William Empson and David Pirie (London 1972), pp 83-86; Richard Harter Fogle, The Permanent Pleasure (Athens, Georgia 1974), pp 43-52; Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company (New York 1961), pp 230-33; Meier, pp 26-27; Shelton, pp 37-39.

  58. See George Watson, “The Meaning of ‘Kubla Khan,’” A Review of English Literature, 2 (1961), 21-29; J. B. Beer, Coleridge the Visionary (London 1959), pp 206-76.

  59. Max F. Schulz, The Poetic Voices of Coleridge (Detroit 1963), pp 114-23.

  60. Allan Rodway, The Romantic Conflict (London 1963), pp 172-74.

  61. Kathleen Raine, “Traditional Symbolism in Kubla Khan,Sewanee Review, 72 (1964), 626-42.

  62. Patterson, pp 1033-42.

  63. “Kubla Khan—Coleridge's Fall?” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 53 (1952), 449-66.

  64. “The Theme of Love and Guilt in Coleridge's Three Major Poems,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 59 (1960), 655-68.

  65. “A Jungian Reading of ‘Kubla Khan,’” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 18 (1960), 359.

  66. “‘Kubla Khan’ as an Elated Experience,” Literature and Psychology, 16 (1966), 27-39.

  67. Coleridge, The Damaged Archangel (New York 1971), pp 396-407.

  68. Coleridge, Opium and Kubla Khan, p 6.

  69. Patterns of Consciousness: An Essay on Coleridge (Amherst 1969), p 181.

  70. (New York 1959), p 34.

  71. See Fruman's thorough discussion of the doubtful veracity of the preface, pp 334-50.

  72. Patricia Adair, The Waking Dream: A Study of Coleridge's Poetry (London 1967), p 137.

  73. “A Note on the Dulcimer,” TLS, 2 April 1931, p 271.

  74. The Romantic Imagination (1949; rpt New York 1961), pp 277-78. There is even disagreement among the critics as to just what a dulcimer is. Kathleen Raine (p 639) contends it is a one-stringed instrument, while William Templeman (p 271) and the OED suggest a multi-stringed instrument.

  75. “The Poetry of Coleridge,” Scrutiny, 8 (1940), 412.

  76. In Defense of Reason, pp 23, 26.

  77. “Formal Structure in ‘Kubla Khan,’” Studies in Romanticism, 1 (1962), 187-91.

  78. “Coleridge: Vision and Actuality,” The Melbourne Critical Review, 4 (1961), 7.

  79. Bewley, p 414.

  80. Certain grammatical confusions do not help either. What is the antecedent of “it” in line 24? Clarity would demand “burst,” but syntax requires “fountain.” And how can a river which is “meandering with a mazy motion” (line 25) have “waves” (line 31)? Fruman offers a convincing explanation for this problem (p 341).

  81. See especially Patterson, p 1034.

  82. Culture and Anarchy (London 1869), p 49.

John Beer (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Beer, John. “The Languages of ‘Kubla Khan.’” In Coleridge's Imagination: Essays in Memory of Peter Laver, edited by Richard Gravil, Lucy Newlyn, and Nicholas Roe, pp. 220-62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Beer offers perspectives on “Kubla Khan” as a work about poetic genius.]

A close reading of “Kubla Khan” makes one aware of an irresolution in the imagery which stands in marked contrast to the homogeneity of the verse. Throughout the poem there runs a strong incantatory strain, within which we become aware of an ingenious poetic language. The feminine rhymes in the second, third and fourth stanzas bring in a lightness and variation which is regularly superseded by a powerful and strong iambic movement. The effect of inevitability becomes stronger each time, until the final lines of the last stanza, which have the quality of a charm.

There is, however, a contrast of effect between the rhythmic movement of the verse, impressive in the subtlety of its patterning, and the visual imagery of the poem, which is not only hard to fix into a landscape pattern but is constantly contracting and expanding in the mind, moving between pictures of an objectively visible scene and suggestions of vast unseizable subterranean spaces and forces.

As a result, the reception of the poem will vary according to the degree of submission to its more ‘enchanting’ aspects. One can allow one's mind to be taken over by its rhythm, while contemplating the shifting landscapes described and suggested as one might in a dream. As soon as the conscious mind takes over, on the other hand, questions will begin to pose themselves. It will then become obvious that the poem also has the arbitrariness and reductive economy of much dream work. The fact that a Greek river is flowing through a Tartar landscape, with an Abyssinian maid somewhere in the background, may not be particularly troubling, for the mind can deal easily with such superpositions; but the ‘sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice’ may seem all too convenient and rounded a package for the amount of symbolic freight that it seems by then to be carrying. We know from Coleridge's notebooks that he had been attracted by the account of an image of ice in an Indian cave which waxed and waned in accord with the waxing and waning of the moon—a marvellous piece of symbolism for correspondences of process between nature and the human mind; but since this idea is not presented in the text of the poem itself it cannot be explored except by subsequent association. Equally, we may suspect that the genius of the last stanza is, like other such figures, standing on a mountain top, and that somewhere in that landscape there is a self-renewing spring of inspiration to counter the disordered fountain of stanza two—but again these are elements to be inferred by the reader from clues such as the honey-dew, not to be found directly presented in the text. At such points, therefore, we glimpse that this poem is inviting a different reading from those to which modern criticism usually points us—a reading which will treat the language of the poem as a threshold which we cross to enter into a imaginative world corresponding to Coleridge's own at the time when he wrote the poem. That world is constructed partly in alignment with mythological symbolisms which Coleridge himself had been exploring; but it is also in intimate relationship with the landscapes of the writers who meant most to him when he was thinking in visionary terms. To explore the poem to its depths, therefore, is to become aware of various poetical languages: some largely symbolic, arising from the mythological constructions of previous civilizations, some verbal, echoing relevant passages in writers whom Coleridge valued. As the poet's work is done, all play together in a structure which is larger than that of the presented text.


The text of the Crewe manuscript1 … is the closest we have to that of “Kubla Khan” as it was originally written down. For the purpose of the present discussion I shall assume that original writing took place during a walking tour to the Valley of Rocks in the late autumn of 1797, and that when he composed it Coleridge was in a state of less than complete consciousness. I have elsewhere2 presented the case for making such assumptions and attempted a reconstruction of the conversations that might have taken place between Wordsworth and Coleridge as they left Porlock and passed through the woods beyond (specifically mentioned by Dorothy Wordsworth in a letter on that occasion), emerging from time to time to see splendid views across the Bristol Channel to the mountains of Wales. Issues of life and death might well have preoccupied them as they observed and discussed the country around them and perhaps began evolving ideas for the landscape of seasonless death in The Wanderings of Cain. The rocks lying scattered in the Valley of Stones, equally, might have directed their minds to the destructive power of the earth, resisting all attempts to recreate an earthly paradise. And so (to continue the reconstruction) when Coleridge was taken ill on the return journey and retired to a lonely farmhouse, the scene was set for a meditation on the nature of earthly powers, whether in the world outside or within the individual.

One other point may be noted. If the retirement was to Ash Farm, the place that fits Coleridge's description best, it was an area of unusual magnificence, from which the enclosed valley which surrounds Culbone stretches down to the sea.3 It is even possible that Coleridge knew something of the history of the place: how Ash Farm, along with the vale as a whole, had been repossessed in the middle of the eighteenth century by its owner, who had proceeded to cultivate it. Earlier it had been for many years a place of banishment, for lepers and others, and then inhabited by discharged servants from India, who moved about it burning charcoal for the rising metal industries of the country. English charcoal-burners were still at work there in the late 1790s.4 To this day it is an unusually peaceful and even magical place—even though it differs in equally obvious ways from the language of Coleridge's poem.

But whatever the effect of the actual visible landscape on Coleridge's mind as he came to compose his poem, there can be no doubt that other landscapes were already there, imprinted during his reading of mythology and travel and associated with his more esoteric speculations. Indeed if Coleridge's retirement to the lonely farmhouse took place during the return from the November visit to the Valley of Rocks, at a time when the two poets were actively planning The Wanderings of Cain, it would also be natural to suppose (in view of the philological habits of mythologists at that time)5 that Coleridge's sight of the words ‘In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace’6 evoked an immediate connection between Can and Cain. And in that case a number of connections in the poem become more readily explicable. For Cain is a natural emblem of the daemon in humanity turned to destruction. As the son of Adam in whom the Fall is realized, he knows that all men must now die; although he has never experienced Paradise he has learned what it was like and knows that he cannot regain it. The desperation of his plight is displayed both in the murder of his brother and in subsequent attempts to recreate lost paradise. In eighteenth-century lore, it was commonly supposed that the widespread cults of sun-worship and enclosures sacred to the sun had been initiated by Cain and his descendants in their attempts to recreate the Eden that had been lost. Later, in the persons of Tubalcain and his descendants, the enterprise became centred in the working of metals, with all the ambiguity implied by an activity that could involve the making either of weapons or of agricultural implements—or for that matter of musical instruments.7 As the activity of creation goes on, sometimes manic in its intensity, the ultimate aim is always to recreate and repossess a former state of wholeness—a state which, though lost, is still sensed in the subconscious.

With the central myth of Cain and his ambiguous activities, two further mythological strains can be connected. The first is the myth of Isis and Osiris, in which the idea of the lost glory is further elaborated into the loss of Osiris and the usurpation of the sun by the destructive Typhon, while Isis undertakes incessant wanderings in the hope of recreating her lover. If Osiris were ever to be recreated by Isis Typhon would be vanquished and disappear, but since she cannot discover his virile member, her work must always be defeated, her unsuccessful quest being imaged in the waxing and waning of the moon. So the world remains trapped between the workings of a destructive sun and a deprived moon which reaches the form of plenitude only to lose it again. Were Osiris to be revived, on the other hand, the world would be dominated by a sun that united heat and light creatively, as imaged in the figuration of sun-gods such as Apollo, deity of healing and music.

The dialectic implicit in the Osiris and Isis myth (for it is the heat of Typhon and the light of Isis that would be blended in the restored Osiris) becomes focussed on the male-female relationship in the myth of Alpheus and Arethusa. There was an enclosure sacred to the sun by the river Alpheus in Greece, but the main myth connected with Alpheus himself was of his search for the nymph Arethusa: when he rediscovered her they rose up blended in the Arethusa fountain in Sicily.8

Once the running together of these myths and others is seen to provide the main structure of meaning in the poem, it becomes possible to understand how a Tartar paradise can associate so readily with a Greek sacred river. The paradisal imagery in the remainder of the first stanza may also be seen as precisely apt—for most of the elements mentioned, the sacred river, the enclosure, the incense-bearing trees and the sunny spots—are traditionally associated with sun-worship.9 In the second stanza, by contrast, all that is ambivalent in such traditions comes to the fore: the fountain is destructive, the woman is separated from the daemon-lover who still attracts her, nature is distorted and humanity doomed to war. A miraculous reconciling of the various elements—fire and ice, earth and water, sunny dome and cave of ice, river of life and sea of death, is imaged in the music created by the echo of the fountain in the cave—but imaged only. It is not until the final stanza that the possibility of a true reconciliation is glimpsed in the figure of the restored sun-god who reconciles everything into harmony. The Abyssinian maid can be identified as a priestess of Isis, Abyssinia being the abode of secret wisdom as well as the site of the Nile springs. The poet creating his dome in air reminds us of Apollo, building with his music a temple that all could see.10 But although the scene closes with the genius having tasted paradisal elements of honey-dew and milk (suggesting the original paradisal spring of which all earthly fountains are pale copies), there is still a wistfulness in ‘Could I revive within me …’: the scene figures an aspiration, not an accomplished fact. In one sense the poem ends triumphantly, for the images of honey-dew and milk consummate the various streams of mythological imagery involved, including the food of the Old Testament Messiah who will redeem man from Cain's condition as well as that of many pagan gods.11 There is also however insubstantiality in a vision that seems to last only so long as the musician is there to make it and convince his audience. The concluding sense is of harmony, not of loss, but that harmonization is shot through with fragility.

I have written at greater length about this elsewhere, bringing together more evidence for the establishing of such mythological links, and for Coleridge's knowledge of the traditions involved. I have also argued that the various ideas are further held together by the imagery and lore of genius, that favorite eighteenth-century theme, so that when we think of sun and moon or of spring and river, we are really looking at aspects of the daemonic, where constructive and destructive factors are working together in creation or falling apart in destructiveness and loss. With the aid of such interlinking themes, I have argued, Coleridge was able to bring together some of the issues that he had been contemplating in his more esoteric investigations, presenting back to himself a satisfying image of his own aspirations. Such lore as I have come across since I first wrote on the subject has helped to support and further delineate this pattern. A possible strand which I had overlooked was pointed out by Richard Gerber, who drew attention to the resemblance between Cybele (Kubele) in Greek mythology and Cubla (Kubla).12 The sight of Cubla's first name, he suggests, might well have aroused this run of imagery, also, in Coleridge's mind. Cybele is earth-goddess, but an earth-goddess associated rather with destruction than with growing; the cults of priests devoted to her drove themselves into frenzies; her common depiction was with a crown of walls and towers, suggesting military defence. If the disorders of the second stanza are seen as evidences of her powers maniacally and destructively in action, her presence not only gives another dimension to the ‘walls and towers’ that Kubla decrees but adds to the suggestion of sun-worship the need to propitiate fearful elements in earthly nature. The combination of Cybele and Cain in the name of Cubla Can would thus initiate the crosscurrents of self-assertion and vengeance in the poem still more vigorously.

In all these ways the poem emerges as a structure of images and symbols by which a complex interpretation of human experience—and especially of the daemonic element in that experience—is being suggested. Yet this perception does not give us the whole poem. To some degree the images clothe themselves naturally in Coleridge's words, yet we are some way from seeing why particular patterns of language and metre and particular choices of words should have emerged. The discussion so far assumes that Coleridge's mythological interests did not begin when he sat down to write his poem but had long been a feature of his thinking. When, after all, he had claimed to his brother at the age of eighteen, ‘I may justly plume myself that I first have drawn the nymph Mathesis from the visionary caves of abstracted idea, and caused her to unite with Harmony. The firstborn of this Union I now present to you …', he was already exploring imagery which reappears in the last stanza of “Kubla Khan” (CL, i, p. 7). This was not the only language he had learned to speak, however: he had also been devouring and assimilating the work of previous poets and writers who worked in similar ways. Their language can be seen behind his, evidencing a series of poetic relationships, some intimately detailed, others strong but general, which call for further examination.

To carry it out will involve the pursuit of literary echoes, in a manner that has been much used in connection with “Kubla Khan.” There is a well-known tradition for such studies, established by John Livingston Lowes, whereby one finds a previous use of a striking word (which is then printed in italics) [I shall do this myself and to avoid confusion silently suppress italics in the original texts.] and presents it in connection with the corresponding line in “Kubla Khan,” where the word is also italicized.13 (In Lowes's case, however, one finds that many of the usages he cites could be duplicated several times from other travel-books, so that cases he notes often prove simply to be striking instances of a more general imagery.)

I have discussed elsewhere some of the problems raised by this kind of work, pointing out the hazards of trying to establish with precision rules for pursuing influences from one work to another, but also proposing as a simple rule of thumb that coincidence is less likely to be at work if one can trace a phrase rather than a single word, or if a number of echoes from a previous writer rather than a single one, seem to be at work.14 Accordingly, I concentrate here on authors who are known to have impressed Coleridge deeply in youth, and look for clusters of usage rather than single, isolated words. It is a further element among my assumptions that where such words recur what is likely to be at work is not just a simple distinguishable ‘echo’ but a whole context, informing particular words with recollection of the larger matrix of meaning in which they originally appeared. There is always a danger that such arguments will become circular, obviously, but readers who care to check my method by looking up important words in writers not mentioned will find it harder than they may expect to establish rival patterns of previous usage. Shakespeare, for instance, uses many of the words to be found in the poem, yet I have traced in his work no pattern or cluster of usages that is particularly significant for “Kubla Khan.”


Insofar as the symbolism of “Kubla Khan” can be seen to bring together various strands of mythology and traditions of interpretation from the past, its interest is inevitably limited for a modern reader, who has ceased to assign supreme authority to the Bible as a historical record. In such terms it may look at best like the poetry of an inspired comparative mythology, written by a happier Mr. Casaubon. But there is more to the matter than that. Just as Blake at this time was trying to forge a new mythology for his age to replace what he thought of as an outworn and discredited Christianity, Coleridge valued the myths of antiquity less for themselves than for what they suggested about the further possibilities of human creativity. They were to be read as embodying perennial traditions of human inspiration, of genius.

As such, these ideas had already had a long history in Coleridge's mind. They can be associated for example with his general interest in romance as a whole—an interest which had begun as a child with his early absorption in the Arabian Nights, and continued apparently throughout the reading of his childhood and youth, taking in first the popular fiction of the time such as Tartarian Tales and then, in adolescence, imaginative philosophers such as the Neoplatonists and visionary mystics such as Jacob Boehme.15

When we turn to Coleridge's earlier poems we find many examples of words and images that look forward to his most visionary poem, but we also notice a particularly significant cluster around the year 1793. This had been a year both of pleasure and disaster for Coleridge. The trial of William Frend in the Senate House had been an exciting event in Cambridge, followed by a Long Vacation in the West Country where he had enjoyed some lively company. It was then, probably, that he helped prepare for the Society of Gentlemen in Exeter the paper (described in Biographia Literaria)16 in the course of which he compared Erasmus Darwin's Botanic Garden to the Russian palace of ice, ‘glittering, cold and transitory', and ‘assigned sundry reasons, chiefly drawn from a comparison of passages in the Latin poets with the original Greek, from which they were borrowed, for the preference of Collins's odes to those of Gray.’ His attitude to Erasmus Darwin was not one of complete dismissal of course: for years afterwards his poems would be touched by images that he had come across in the Botanic Garden, while Zoönomia would help stimulate his thinking about the nature of life.17 Rather, Coleridge was seeking to extend Darwin's achievement, to find a way of writing about scientific matters in verse which would reconcile them with other themes: theology, politics, the human mind. Evidences of this quest can be found both in his reading and in his early poetry. At times, however, it was the quality of the aspiration itself, as celebrated by his more rhapsodic poetic predecessors, that possessed him. Already in 1748 there had appeared Thomson's Castle of Indolence, in which the bard roused those who would listen with the strings of his harp, ‘The which with skilful touch he deftly strung, / Till tinkling in clear symphony they rung ….’ With the aid of the muses he had then sung to the ten thousands thronging mute around him a song which included the invocation,

‘Come to the beaming God your hearts unfold!
Draw from its fountain life! 'Tis thence alone
We can excel. Up from unfeeling mould
To seraphs burning round the Almighty's throne,
Life rising still on life in higher tone
Perfection forms, and with perfection bliss …’

(ii, xlviii)

This sublimated sun-worship was matched by the elevation given to the divine intelligence by Mark Akenside, whose Pleasures of Imagination had appeared in its first version a year or two before. In both versions appeared the lines,

          From Heav'n my strains begin: from Heaven descends
The flame of genius to the human breast,
And love, and beauty, and poetic joy,
And inspiration.

(i, 55-8)

—to be followed by a long account of the ways in which the human mind could pursue the heavenly intelligence into all its intricate paths of creation. Nature had a particularly central part to play: to quote the first version,

                                                                                Nature's kindling breath
Must fire the chosen genius; Nature's hand
Must point the path, and imp his eagle-wings,
Exulting o'er the painful steep, to soar
High as the summit; there to breathe at large
Æthereal air, with bards and sages old …

(i, 37-42)18

In the first version, the aged sage Harmodius teaches the poet about the secrets of the universe, recalling a visionary experience in which the ‘Genius of human kind’ appeared before him in heavenly radiance. After the first pleasurable landscape there was a change of scene:

A solitary prospect, wide and wild,
Rushed on my senses. 'Twas a horrid pile
Of hills with many a shaggy forest mixed,
With many a sable cliff and glittering stream.

The long description which follows contains few verbal parallels with the second stanza of “Kubla Khan,” yet there is a distinct resemblance of emblematic form, particularly in the movement from rough energetic water to calm stream:

Down the steep windings of the channeled rock
Remurmuring, rushed the congregated floods
With hoarser inundation; till at last
They reached a glassy plain, which from the skirts
Of that high desert spread her verdant lap,
And drank the gushing moisture, where confined
In one smooth current, o'er the lilied vale
Clearer than glass it flowed.

In this vale, protected by the cliffs above, the sage also saw another sight:

                                                                                                    On the river's brink
I spied a fair pavilion, which diffused
Its floating umbrage 'mid the silver shade
Of osiers.

As he looks at this scene, the sage sees a shaft of sunlight and learns that the pavilion, with its shadow on the waters, is ‘the primeval seat / Of man', designed as a place where human youth can grow up nurtured by the goddess of wisdom—who is accompanied in turn by another goddess, the fair Euphrosyne. When the goddess of wisdom discovers that the young man is in fact attracted only to her companion she complains to the father-god, who replaces Euphrosyne with an avenging demon; the young man almost despairs. At this point, however, his goddess intervenes: he feels her inspiration ‘Vehement, and swift / As lightning fires the aromatic shade / In Æthiopian fields', and with her help is roused to do combat; at once Euphrosyne appears again, promising never to leave him:

She ended; and the whole romantic scene
Immediate vanished; rocks, and woods, and rills,
The mantling tent, and each mysterious form …

The sage awakes to be instructed by the moral of what he has seen: happiness will always accompany virtue—but only so long as virtue is followed for herself alone.19

The landscape, it must be repeated, bears little relation in strict verbal terms to that described in “Kubla Khan:” occasional ‘rills’ and ‘rocks’ feature in many other such passages. But in its general form, its pitting of savage scene against paradisal plain, its rough waters and calm waters and its general moral that pleasure, if pursued directly for itself, will give rise to an avenging demon, whereas the following of virtue will be accompanied by true inspiration, it bears a strong resemblance to the structure of Coleridge's poem.

Coleridge knew Akenside well by 1796, voicing admiration then for his combination of ‘head and fancy’; his own philosophical poetry bears the touch of his influence at many points. He also imitated him in a poem dated tentatively in 1794, and it seems likely that he already knew him by 1793. In that year, however, his chief poetic heroes seem to have been the two figures mentioned in the Biographia: Gray and Collins.

Collins, certainly, was figuring strongly in his consciousness then: after he had met Miss Fanny Nesbitt while travelling in a coach, he had addressed several poems in his style to her. One of them, On presenting a Moss Rose to Miss F. Nesbitt, was actually written on the back flyleaves of a copy of Collins's Poetical Works.20 His devotion that summer is further demonstrated by the poetic texture of his ‘Songs of the Pixies.’ The lines which begin the fifth section, for instance,

                    When Evening's dusky car
                    Crown'd with her dewy star
Steals o'er the fading sky in shadowy flight …

condense various lines in Collins's ‘Ode to Evening', such as

The Pensive Pleasures sweet
Prepare thy shadowy Car


Thy Dewy fingers draw
The gradual dusky Veil …

The ‘fading sky’ echoes Gray's Elegy, ‘Now fades the glimmering landscape …’ and Gray is actually quoted in the line, ‘A youthful Bard “unknown to fame”.’

Both Gray and Collins seem to be echoed in “Kubla Khan.” As John Ower has pointed out,21 Gray's Progress and Poesy, which begins with an invocation to the ‘Aeolian lyre', continues with a description of poetry imaged as a river:

From Helicon's harmonious springs
A thousand rills their mazy progress take:
The laughing flowers, that round them blow,
Drink life and fragrance as they flow.
Now, the rich stream of music winds along
Deep, majestic, smooth, and strong,
Thro' verdant vales, and Ceres's golden reign:
Now rowling down the steep amain,
Headlong, impetuous, see it pour:
The rocks, and nodding groves rebellow to the roar.

Elsewhere in Gray's poem there is also a reference to fields ‘where Maeander's amber waves / In lingering Lab'rinths creep.’ The landscape is not so close as in Akenside's poem, however, nor are the verbal reminiscences overwhelmingly convincing, since they could easily be matched elsewhere in the poetry of the period. The two most impressive elements are the fine management of the poetical movement and the use of such a landscape to describe not simply genius, but poetic genius. Coleridge was no doubt aware of Dr Johnson's harsh criticism of these lines in his Lives of the Poets (1781), but whatever common sense might say he was also likely to be touched by the seductive charms of their rhetoric. The attractiveness of Collins is displayed in a letter of 1796 to John Thelwall:

Now Collins' Ode on the poetical character—that part of it, I should say, beginning with—‘The Band (as faery Legends say) Was wove on that creating Day,’ has inspired & whirled me along with greater agitations of enthusiasm than any the most impassioned Scene in Schiller or Shakespeare … Yet I consider the latter poetry as more valuable, because it gives more general pleasure—& I judge of all things by their Utility.—I feel strongly, and I think strongly; but I seldom feel without thinking, or think without feeling.

(CL, i, p. 279)

The poet who could write that had evidently been very powerfully drawn by Collins and in fact the lines he mentions have a close relevance to the ending of “Kubla Khan.” Published in 1747, they take to a further stage the imagery of genius projected by Akenside. Poetry is seen as having been born when the Creator, having made the world, retired with Fancy:

Seraphic Wires were heard to sound,
Now sublimest Triumph swelling,
Now on Love and Mercy dwelling;
And she, from out the veiling cloud,
Breath'd her magic Notes aloud.
And Thou, Thou rich-hair'd Youth of Morn,
And all thy subject Life was born!(22)

This image of a goddess inspiring with her song is followed by a concluding section, in which Milton is portrayed as the poet to have fulfilled the ideal of poetic genius, in a career never to be repeated by anyone else. By a neat stroke he is projected into a paradisal scene like that which he himself created—an Eden which lies high on a rocky cliff, guarded by ‘holy Genii.’ I have quoted the lines elsewhere23 and there is no point in trying to condense them, since it is not particular verbal resemblances that are in question here but the movement as a whole. Collins's verse, like Coleridge's, takes on the inevitability of an incantatory chant which undermines the sense of what is being said: a repetition of the miracle by which the inspired poet, hearing his ‘native strains’ from Heaven, reproduced them for his hearers is being pronounced impossible, but the ecstatic movement of the poem does not altogether confirm the pessimism of the statement.

The figure of the inspiring female and the inspired poet in his elevated paradise are clearly of significance for the final stanza of Coleridge's poem—the movement of which is still less ready to affirm the impossibility of regaining it. It is in another poem of Collins's, however, that we find the closest resemblances to Coleridge's poem. John Livingston Lowes long ago noted the significance of the singing of Melancholy as described in ‘The Passions’:

                    And dashing soft from Rocks around
                    Bubbling Runnels join'd the Sound;
Thro' Glades and Glooms the mingled Measure stole,
Or o'er some haunted Stream with fond Delay,
                    Round an holy Calm diffusing,
                    Love of Peace, and lonely Musing,
In hollow Murmurs died away.(24)

While the ‘mingled Measure’ gives Coleridge a key phrase for his third stanza, the movement of the lines as a whole contributes to the close of the second. Influences can be traced still further, in fact, since behind Collins's ‘Thro' Glades and Glooms the mingled Measure stole’ one may discern the shape of Dryden's ‘Through all the compass of the notes it ran’). Coleridge's ‘Thro' Wood and Dale the sacred river ran’ sounds even closer to Dryden than to Collins, but whereas Dryden then moves to a powerful succeeding line: ‘The diapason closing full in Man', Coleridge, like Collins, allows the movement to pass to an indeterminate close, the ‘died away’ of Collins being matched by his own ‘sunk in tumult to a lifeless ocean.’ (We may also note in passing, as another possible echo of Dryden, the line that ends a section in Wordsworth's ‘School Exercise’ (1784-5): ‘Through all my fame the pleasing accents ran.’)25

The subversive attractions of Collins were the effects of a sensuousness not altogether afraid of itself. Collins's delight in the oriental, similarly, found an echo in Coleridge's love of Eastern tales. Many resemblances can be traced between these exotic stories and details in Coleridge's poem—indeed, given its subject-matter, it would be surprising if they could not—the most striking occurring in the writings of an author who (though Coleridge may not have known it) was imitating Eastern tales rather than translating them. It was James Ridley's Tales of the Genii (the very title of which would appeal to that genius-haunted age) that seem to have engaged his imagination most fully. Ridley's book contained a convincing analogue for Kubla's dome of pleasure: the Genius of Riches produces for the delight of the merchant Abudah a dome which shines so brightly that he can hardly look in its direction—a dome of gold with pillars of precious stones, with intermediate spaces of crystal, so that the inside of the dome can be seen from every direction.

In such tales, however, the proposal of pleasure is usually ominous. When Hassan Assar, Caliph of Baghdad, found himself in a delightful wooded landscape and met a beautiful houri, they leapt to embrace one another, but as they did so were divided by a ‘dismal chasm.’ And while they stood on either side, ‘viewing the horrid fissure and the dark abyss', ‘wild notes of strange uncouth warlike music were heard from the bottom of the pit.’ The moral of the event is the same as in Akenside's natural paradise: the caliph is told that it has happened because he had allowed himself to be over-influenced by ‘the outward appearance of things.’ Abudah, similarly, had been taken through a beautiful landscape, with woods of spices and perfumes breathing sweetness over the cool stream as the boast followed ‘the meanders of the current’; but when he tried to open a chest in the centre of the temple the scene turned to darkness and destruction: the ruins of the temple falling in ‘huge fragments’ while those who survived ran to and fro in despair, tearing each other to pieces.26

However attractive the siren voices of pleasure, whether in Collins's cadences or in the attractions of Eastern romance, their appearance signalled danger. The pursuit of pleasure was likely to be followed by an unhappy turn of fate. And even if Coleridge escaped the tentacles of this idea for a time during the summer of 1793, with its agreeable flirtations and poetic effusions, they re-enfolded themselves all too firmly around him just after. When he returned to Cambridge he was already beset by debts; there are also suggestions of amorous adventures with women of the town. All would be redeemed, he trusted, when he again won the medal for Greek verse which he had already gained the year before. ‘Astronomy’ being the set subject he made it the occasion for an effusion on genius, portraying Newton as a scientific discoverer with all the trappings of inspired genius, gazing into the spring of creative energy and inebriated by the ‘holy ecstasy’ that seized him.27 The conclusion expressed his aspiration to join Newton in the celestial ranks of genius.

Unfortunately, however, he was not awarded the prize, and with the failure his financial embarrassments became overwhelming, so that he ran away to London. There still remained in the tradition of romance that further turn of fortune by which the victim might after all find himself transformed suddenly into a position of power. When the merchant Abudah had been overtaken by the catastrophe described earlier, he had passed into the ‘dungeon of lust’ from which he was able to rise only with great difficulty; yet when he finally managed to complete the long cavernous ascent he suddenly found himself on top of a mountain, acclaimed as their sultan by the voices of ten thousand.28 Coleridge, likewise, was evidently hoping for a magical event which would transform his fortunes into prosperity. With the little money he had left he bought a ticket in the lottery, but the stroke of luck he hoped for eluded him. In despair, he volunteered for the army, where he stayed until rescued by his brothers.29

The disaster of late 1793 had been a chastening experience, and Coleridge was never to be carried away so fully again. Henceforward it would be his stated preference to combine feeling with thought and to choose the useful in preference to the attractive. Yet the very existence of “Kubla Khan” is a witness to the hold over his imagination which the poetry of genius and the arts of Eastern romance still retained. Among other things, this is a poem about sensual pleasure—including erotic pleasure: the delights of vision, sounds and scents in the first stanza convey suggestions such as those which are overtly expressed in the Song of Solomon, where the bride describes herself as a wall, her breasts like towers, and promises to be a spice-laden garden to her lover.30 The second stanza likewise suggests the disorders of lust (the working of grievous sexual energies, emblematized in the rough chasm and violent fountain, is made manifest in the woman wailing for her daemon-lover). The figure of genius in the last stanza, similarly, is recognizably an inspired lover, resembling the lover who in the Song of Songs comes into his garden to gather myrrh and spice, to eat honeycomb with honey and to drink wine with milk. It seems likely, as Lowes suggested, that when Coleridge read of Kubla's paradise garden in Purchas's Pilgrimage, he was reminded of the false paradise of Alcadine, described just before the parallel passage in Purchas's Pilgrimes, with its pipes that ran with ‘Wine, milke, Honey, and cleere Water’ and ‘goodly Damosels skilfull in Songs and Instruments of Musicke and Dancing.’31 With such images in the background it is hardly surprising that Coleridge should write of his mountain of inspiration first as ‘Mount Amora', changing it to Milton's Amara only when the censor of his consciousness had time to intervene. The pleasures of sensuousness, which had been tantalizing him before the disaster of 1793, had by no means lost their hold on his unconscious mind.

However, the effluxions of an unchecked libido are not sufficient to account for the poem's language, either. Other echoes inhabit the garden.


Coleridge had not been alone in finding 1793 a momentous year. While he had been enjoying the doomed pleasures of that summer and autumn Wordsworth had been enjoying different pains and pleasures, to be recalled in Tintern Abbey. During that summer, at a time when his sensuous response to nature was acute (‘The sounding cataract haunted me like a passion’) he had been beset by gloomy thoughts as he saw British ships preparing for war off the Isle of Wight. Passing across Salisbury Plain, with its Druidic remains, he had been haunted by a Hardy-like sense that the patterns of human creativity and violence must always repeat themselves, so that hopes raised by the French Revolution were bound to be illusory. He had comforted himself a little by recollection of the Druids' more benevolent activities, but it was not until he passed into the Wye Valley and saw a different kind of scenery, one which seemed to impress itself irresistibly on the human consciousness, that he had felt more reassured. Perhaps, after all, there was a hidden force in nature that was working for humanity's amelioration.32

In the autumn of 1797, the convergence between Wordsworth and Coleridge reached its closest point. For the first and only time they actually planned to write poetry together: The Wanderings of Cain and (when that idea failed) “The Ancient Mariner” (PW, i, p. 287). The ensuing year was marked by shared observations, enthusiastic discussions and interlinking speculations, in the course of which Wordsworth's powers became steadily more manifest. Although Coleridge's intelligence was essential to the inspiration of Wordsworth at this time, he constantly assigned to his friend the dominating place. ‘The giant Wordsworth!’ is a typical phrase (CL, i, p. 391).

If we accept that “Kubla Khan” is a poem about genius it becomes natural to ask whether Wordsworth's genius, affirmed so enthusiastically by Coleridge, was not also a presence in the poem. And here it is relevant to recall the distinction which appears in some of Coleridge's later works between two different forms of genius: ‘commanding’ genius and ‘absolute’ genius (BL, i, pp. 31-3). The man of commanding genius was one whose genius was directed primarily outwards: he might be the man of power who would direct the making of a great harbour, or an aqueduct that brought water to the desert, or lay out a great palace, temple or landscape garden. Such men were however at the mercy of circumstance—to quote Wordsworth, they

                                                            obeyed the only law that sense
Submits to recognize; the immediate law,
From the clear light of circumstances, flashed
Upon an independent Intellect.(33)

In less propitious times, therefore, they would emerge as the agents of destruction, becoming the war makers, the mighty hunters of mankind. Men of absolute genius, by contrast, can ‘rest content between thought and reality, as it were in an intermundium of which their own living spirit supplies the substance, and their imagination the ever-varying form’ (BL, i, p. 32). Applying this formula back to “Kubla Khan,” it will be evident that it expresses well the distinction between the kind of genius displayed by Kubla Khan in the first two stanzas and that of the inspired genius in the last. It can also be seen as relevant to Wordsworth himself: a man of considerable powers who had considered joining the Girondist cause in France and so been in danger of devoting those powers to the cause of violent warfare (—and who, for that matter, had left there a woman enslaved by love for him). At the time when Coleridge came to know him well, on the other hand, he was devoting himself more and more to works of what might better be called ‘absolute’ genius—works in which he drew on his own inward powers in the hope of exhibiting to other human beings the nature of their own potential creativity. So it is hardly fanciful to read in the development of the poem an account of Wordsworth's own progress. We need turn only to Coleridge's reported description of Wordsworth in the following spring, when he was talking to Hazlitt about his ‘matter-of-factness’:

His genius was not a spirit that descended to him through the air; it sprung out of the ground like a flower, or unfolded itself from a green spray, on which the gold-finch sang. He said, however (if I remember right), that this objection must be confined to his descriptive pieces, that his philosophic poetry had a grand and comprehensive spirit in it, so that his soul seemed to inhabit the universe like a palace, and to discover truth by intuition, rather than by deduction.

(‘My First Acquaintance with Poets', H Works, xvii, p. 17)

We might equally recall his description of Wordsworth in a notebook some years later in October 1803:

I am sincerely glad, that he has bidden farewell to all small Poems—& is devoting himself to his great work—grandly imprisoning while it deifies his Attention & Feelings within the sacred Circle & Temple Walls of great Objects & elevated Conceptions …

(CN, i, 1546)

Just as Coleridge at this time had turned away from immediate politics to study the ‘causes of causes’ so Wordsworth was looking into the principles underlying all human behaviour. He was drawn to look for an absolute truth which would, when found, be compulsively clear to all. But while he cherished the dream of writing what Coleridge hoped would be ‘the first and only true philosophical poem in existence’ (CL, iv, p. 574), a poem which would present and help to solve the riddles of human existence, he was also subject to self-doubt and the fear that his sense of inspiration might be illusory—so that when he began The Prelude the ‘Was it for this … ?’ theme (his own version of ‘Could I revive within me …’) was at first dominant.34

Coleridge's admiration for Wordsworth's strength was not new: it went back to his discovery of Descriptive Sketches in 1793, when he had been seized by the power of passages such as the description of the storm. Reading them, he wrote later, he was struck by a vigor which recalled the vegetable processes in which ‘gorgeous blossoms’ rise out of a ‘hard and thorny shell’:

The language was not only peculiar and strong, but at times knotty and contorted, as by its own impatient strength.

(BL, i, p. 77)

There is a sense, then, in which “Kubla Khan,” with its pictures of commanding genius in the first two stanzas and of absolute genius in the last, is a poem about the actualities, the vulnerabilities and the potentialities which Coleridge perceived in Wordsworth's powers. In addition, the language of the poem is often very close to that of the early writing of both poets. There is a particularly close relationship to Wordsworth's Descriptive Sketches, for example. As usual we need to be on our guard, since a young poet is likely to be working from the favorite diction of his contemporaries; even so, however, it would be hard to find an eighteenth-century poem which ran so closely to the vocabulary of “Kubla Khan.” The very opening:

Where there, below, a spot of holy ground …

contains three key words in Coleridge's poem; the convergences continue—at least in the imagery—when the poet goes on to say that if such a spot could be found it would be in a language where, among other things, ‘murmuring rivers join the song of ev'n', and where

Silence, on her wing of night, o'erbroods
Unfathom'd dells and undiscover'd woods;
Where rocks and groves the power of water shakes
In cataracts, or sleeps in quiet lakes.

(ll. 9-12)

Any reader who cares to trace the parallels between individual words and phrases in “Kubla Khan” and in the writings of the two poets will be struck by the very large number of such convergences. There are points, however, where one or other poet seems to be in the ascendant. In the case of the second stanza, for instance, Wordsworth's usages provide an even closer parallel than Coleridge's. Consider his ‘deep chasms troubled by roaring streams’ (Borderers, l. 1805), ‘Slant watery lights’ (Evening Walk, l. 92), light streaming ‘athwart the night’ (Guilt and Sorrow, l. 144), ‘the full circle of the enchanted steeps’ (Evening Walk, l. 350), ‘While opposite, the waning moon hangs still’ (Descriptive Sketches, l. 219). It is the constant appearance of these words in contexts of landscape, and of a landscape made numinous by a juxtaposition of beauty with fear, which makes for this constant sense of connection. It is only at the ‘daemon-lover’ that the relevance of Coleridge's early poetry (e.g. ‘She that worked whoredom with the Daemon Power’ (Religious Musings, l. 332)) becomes decidedly more significant.

The inference which might be drawn from this is that Wordsworth's idea of genius stood in the tradition which associates it with feelings of fear and wonder aroused in a numinous landscape, and that Coleridge was aware of the fact, so that when that theme entered “Kubla Khan” it was Wordsworth's poetic language that came most readily to his mind. This effect emerges still more strikingly when we look for points of what might be ‘intensive’ influence—points where there is a cluster of such words. Wordsworth's ‘Were there, below, a spot of holy ground’ has already been mentioned.

For an equally intense influence from Coleridge's own verse we should need to turn to his recent Osorio, which includes a line describing the ‘innumerable company’ who ‘in broad circle',

Girdle this round earth in a dizzy motion

(PW, ii, p. 551)

‘Girdle’ was probably not in the original manuscript of “Kubla Khan,” as we have seen, but even so we can still find three direct verbal parallels—including the use of ‘this … earth’ and the striking resemblances between ‘dizzy motion’ and ‘mazy motion.’ If we then look for those words in the poem which had been previously used by Coleridge, but not by Wordsworth, we find words such as ‘incense', ‘milk', ‘mazy’ and ‘honeydew'—words, that is, of sensuous pleasure and suggestion. And here, we may legitimately suspect, we are looking at the language of genius that comes more naturally to Coleridge himself from his own past.

To say this is to raise a wider issue. Human beings set to remember objects or sentences are much more likely to remember those which they have already expressed in some form.35 In particular, they remember their own previous constructions. We should expect, similarly, that in a poem such as “Kubla Khan” where, as we have seen, the passive side of the artist's mind seems to have been unusually prominent, that which he had done before would provide a most ready means of expression. Whereas he would be likely to recall Wordsworth's lines in terms of their significance, in other words, he would at the same time be treading more widely in his own memory, sometimes producing tangential effects from past poems whether or not there was a bond of significance as well (‘dizzy motion'—‘mazy motion’ is a good example of such a connection: strong in repetition of movement and sound, lighter in terms of actual significance). We should also expect that where parallels of diction and significance concurred there might be a very intensive effect. A good example can be found in his Monody on the Death of Chatterton, where Chatterton's inspiration is described in the lines:

          See, as floating high in air
          Glitter the sunny Visions fair,
His eyes dance rapture, and his bosom glows!

(PW, i, p. 127)

No less than seven of the strong words in these lines are found in “Kubla Khan,” and the congruity of theme goes without saying. If Wordsworth is the master of the numinous wild landscape, Coleridge's voice comes into its own with descriptions of ecstatic poetic inspiration.

Such are the general patterns that seem to emerge from an inspection of earlier usages by Wordsworth and Coleridge that are echoed in the poem. It is also profitable to turn to the various words which had not previously been used by either poet. This list, which is not long, would include such words as pleasure-dome (as opposed to pleasure and dome separately), measureless (as opposed to measure), sinuous, greenery, at once and ever, ancestral and revive. First, obviously, we look for evidence of Coleridge's innovatory skills—and we are not disappointed, since the Oxford English Dictionary gives no use of ‘greenery’ before “Kubla Khan;” the idea of reviving within oneself looks more sophisticated than the usages recorded there, also (though here we may be on less sure ground). The most unusual word to a modern eye, ‘momently', is not in fact a new coinage, but both Coleridge and Wordsworth enjoyed using it afterwards, as we shall see.

The passage which is brought most into prominence when we look for words not previously used by either poet is the one that follows immediately after ‘momently was forced’:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail …

The words previously unused by Coleridge (represented here of course by lack of italics) make up a large and distinctive knot within the poem as a whole; and the list (apart from ‘flail', which is used rather memorably in ‘the measured echo of the distant flail’ in Descriptive Sketches l. 770) is shared with Wordsworth. The other striking feature of these lines is their descriptive skill. It is as if when Coleridge moves into representation of energy he manages also to break free of poetic practice, his own and others'. We cannot forget, of course, that the image of threshing is biblical: Isaiah (40: 15) had spoken of the Lord as threshing the mountains and making the hills as chaff, and his imagery had been presented as an example of the biblical sublime by Lowth, whom Coleridge read in 1796.36 Yet there is also a freshness here, a vivid realization of the images being drawn into service. When Coleridge copies phrases of biblical rhetoric into his notebooks (perhaps as fuel for projected rhetoric) they sometimes look perfervid and overblown; here the phrases have been fully assimilated into verse with a life of its own.

This is the nearest we come to a passage of direct originality in the poem. Elsewhere, as we have seen, Coleridge's originality is to be found working indirectly by way of previous poetic languages—not only Wordsworth's but those of eighteenth-century poets such as Gray and Collins. If we now move still further back, to a poet who stands behind these poets, we may begin to understand more precisely the kinds of pressure from the past that are being exerted on certain particular words and phrases, reminding us of other and older languages.


We have already suggested that the wistfulness towards Milton expressed by poets such as Gray and Collins might prompt a response less despairing than their own. They might mourn the impossibility of ever matching Milton's achievement, yet the very ecstasy of the language in which they did so could prompt a different response: that very language was perhaps waiting to be developed by a new Milton, if one should arise. And was it after all impossible to imagine a poet of equivalent strength? ‘What if you should meet in the letters of any then living man, expressions concerning the young Milton … the same as mine of Wordsworth', wrote Coleridge to Poole in 1800, ‘would it not convey to you a most delicious sensation?’ (CL, i, p. 584). Meanwhile he was cherishing his own dreams of writing an epic poem (CL, i, pp. 320-1).

Yet if one tried to array Milton too readily in the singing robes of genius and sensuousness the paradox threatened to come full circle, since he himself, despite his insistence (‘On Education', para. 17) that true poetry was ‘simple, sensuous and passionate', had imposed severe limits on sensuous indulgence. Unless he went the full course with Blake and decided that Milton himself had erred in his view of pleasure, the young man who hoped to rival him must take on himself the same burden of moral knowledge, the same belief that in every sensuous paradise there must lurk a deadly serpent.37

Coleridge always accepted that knowledge, seeing his own life as a constant series of movements between pleasure proposed and guilt supervening. The paradigm is clear enough in The Eolian Harp, where, as soon as he has set forth a speculative philosophy which might reconcile sensuous experience with the divine he rebukes himself (through the imagined intervention of Sarah) for such ‘unhallowed thoughts’ (so, incidentally, invoking the figure of the Lady in Comus when she unlocks her lips in ‘this unhallowed air’ (l. 757)). When he and Sarah enjoyed their married bliss in their Clevedon cottage later on it was with an under knowledge of admonition, a sense first signalled in his poem Reflections on having left a Place of Retirement by the passing Bristol ‘son of Commerce’ who was made to ‘muse / With wiser feelings', declaring that it was ‘a Blesséd Place’ (PW, i, p. 106). The ironic reference is of course to Satan in Paradise Lost, Book Nine passing through Eden like one ‘long in populous city pent’ before the Fall and looking with muffled envy, ‘stupidly good', at the happiness he sees there. For Coleridge, however, the moral points differently, towards himself and Sarah. They will be forced to take on Adam's fate and, in the interests of social responsibility, leave their paradise. The admonitory Miltonic note sounds for them, also.

In “Kubla Khan,” likewise, every phrase with an echo of Paradise Lost is shot through with plangency of foreknowledge. The very line with which the poem opens recalls Adam, seeing

                                                                                the destind walls
Of Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can …

(ix, ll. 387-8)

—a foresight clouded with the double irony of Adam's knowledge that this will be a post-lapsarian paradise, doomed to decay, and the reader's that, as with the others to be catalogued, that decay has by now been realized.

So with other words in the poem that recall Paradise Lost. Likenesses are accompanied by telling differences. If the sacred river recalls the river that flowed through Eden, the actual description of it, progressing through caverns to a sunless sea, is in contrast with Milton's description in Book Four of his river before the Fall, when it divided, part returning to well up again in a spring near the Tree of Life. As Coleridge writes of ‘sinuous rills', similarly, we are likely to be reminded that Milton's river-fountain went on to water the garden ‘with many a rill’; the word ‘sinuous', which had not appeared before in Coleridge's poetry or Wordsworth's, was elsewhere used by Milton to describe the worms and serpent-like creatures which for all their attractive coloring were to become pests after the Fall (iv, l. 481).

The undertone of admonition emerges more strongly in the second stanza. The word ‘savage’ occurs during Satan's entry into Paradise: ‘Now to the ascent of that steep savage hill / Satan had journeyed on’ (iv, ll. 172-3). The ‘cedarn cover', similarly, recalls his return just before the Fall:

Nearer he drew, and many a walk traversed
Of stateliest covert, cedar, pine, or palm …

(ix, ll. 434-5)

—the word ‘cover’ looking forward simultaneously to Adam's cry after the Fall: ‘cover me ye pines, / Ye cedars, with innumerable boughs, / Hide me, where I may never see me more’ (ix, ll. 1088-90). The woman wailing for her daemon-lover suggests Eve after the Fall—particularly if we recall the rabbinical tradition, known no doubt to both Milton and Coleridge, that the tempting of Eve took the form of actual sexual temptation by Satan38 (there might also be a distant echo from the temptation of Samson in Milton's drama, by Delilah, who describes herself ‘Wailing thy absence in my widowed bed’).39

The remainder of the stanza moves into a pattern which recalls the shape of Paradise Lost as a whole. The violent fountain is redolent of the vast destruction during the War in Heaven and the natural disorders after the Fall. When the river that flows from it moves with a mazy motion we recall not merely Gray's Progress of Poetry but Milton's river, which ‘flowed with mazy error'—the strange foreboding note is sounded once again within a description of Paradise.40 The ancestral voices prophesying war recall some of the grim visions of the future presented to Adam in the final books of Paradise Lost, while the syntactical form of the line recalls the faces that threatened from the walls of Eden as Adam and Eve departed: ‘fierce faces threatening war’ (xi, l. 641).

It is in the last stanza that the presence of Paradise Lost is most crucial, for there it intrudes with its admonitory implications on the most ecstatic statements in the poem, importing ambiguity. The most intensive echo comes, as has often been noticed, from the passage where Milton describes the later paradises which were to recall Eden, notably the one

… where Abassin kings their issue guard
Mount Amara, though this by some supposed
True Paradise, under the Ethiop line
By Nilus head …

(iv, ll. 280-3)

It is peculiarly appropriate that Coleridge's paradise should, by implication, be situated by the source of another sacred river, the Nile, in view both of the sun/moon, Isis and Osiris imagery in the poem and of the lore surrounding the troglodytes of Abyssinia (including their supposed invention of the dulcimer, a form of lyre).41 Immediately before that description in Milton's poem there is another which is also appropriate:

                                                                                          that Nyseian isle
Girt with the river Triton, where old Cham
Whom Gentiles Ammon call and Lybian Jove,
Hid Amalthea and her florid son
Young Bacchus from his stepdame Rhea's eye …

(iv, ll. 275-9)

It is not simply that the infant Bacchus, as a young divinity, was nurtured on milk and honey, but that Rhea (as Richard Gerber points out) is an alternative name for Cybele, so that the threat from the destructive earth-mother moves in the background of Milton's narrative also.42 Throughout Milton's description, moreover, we are reminded that these are all false paradises: they may image Eden, but none can actually replace it. The ‘symphony and song’ may remind us of the ‘dulcet symphonies and voices sweet’ in Book One of Paradise Lost; if so, we are simultaneously reminded that the ‘fabric huge … Built like a temple’ which was raised to their sound was none other than Pandemonium, the meeting-place of the devils (i, ll. 710-57). And even when we see the words ‘deep delight’ we may recall that the nearest parallel in Paradise Lost is also admonitory:

But if the sense of touch whereby mankind
Is propagated seems such dear delight
Beyond all other, think the same vouchsafed
To cattle and each beast …

(viii, ll. 579-82)

At this point a reinforcing echo is provided by that other master of the false paradise, Spenser. When Atin arrives at Acrasia's Bower of Bliss to rouse Cymochles, he finds him surrounded by ‘a flock of Damzelles’, charming him with sensuous pleasures, including ‘sweet wordes, dropping like honny dew.’ He is shocked to see him ‘Thus in still waves of deep delight to wade’ (ii, v, 32.4-35.2). These warning echoes from Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene link with the fact that the dome is built ‘in air'—not, apparently, on the solid earth.

Although the language of Paradise Lost is one of the clearest presences in the poem it speaks with no simple voice: it offers sounds and sights of paradise but in the act reminds, always, that Eden is not to be permanently or totally regained. That alternation between attraction and admonition, each redoubling on the other, contributes strongly to the note of plangency in Coleridge's poem.

The language of Paradise Lost is not the only voice of Milton in the poem …, but the echoes from it, including the trisyllabic Xanadu for ‘Xamdu’ (probably prompted unconsciously by the sound of Milton's ‘Cambalu’) and the Amara of the last stanza, are so strong that we do well to attend to them—and to the note that they portend. They point to the deepest division with Coleridge's own psyche and so to the hindrances he experienced as a poet when his moral consciousness was actively in play. …


  1. First described in TLS (2 Aug 1934), p. 541 and later reproduced photographically in articles by John Shelton, Review of English Literature vii (1966), pp. 32-42, and T. C. Skeat British Museum Quarterly xxvi (1962-3), pp. 77-83.

  2. See my essay ‘Poems of the Supernatural', in S. T. Coleridge, ed. R. L. Brett, ‘Writers and their Background’ series (1971), pp. 54-60. For my retention of the four stanza division of “Kubla Khan” used by Coleridge in all editions appearing during his lifetime, see my note in the 1970 reprint of Coleridge the Visionary, p. 10.

  3. See ‘Poems of the Supernatural', p. 60, and D. H. Karrfalt, ‘Another Note on “Kubla Khan” and Coleridge's retirement to Ash Farm', N&Q ccxi (May 1966), pp. 171-2.

  4. See Joan Cooper, Culbone: A Spiritual History (Culbone, 1977), pp. 27-36.

  5. See e.g. Jacob Bryant, A New System of an Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774-6), and the Mythological, Etymological and Historical Dictionary derived from it by William Holwell (1793).

  6. Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimage (1617), p. 472.

  7. See Berkeley's Siris, sect. 187, quoted in Coleridge the Visionary, pp. 119, 218.

  8. Ibid., p. 211.

  9. Ibid., pp. 216-22.

  10. Ibid., pp. 251-5; 262.

  11. See passages (including Isaiah 7: 15-4) quoted ibid., pp. 265-6.

  12. Richard Gerber, ‘Keys to “Kubla Khan”', English Studies xliv (1963), pp. 1-21. Since this appeared, Coleridge's familiarity with Cybele has been confirmed by publication of a description in 1805 of rocks, ‘once or twice with a Tower like the Head of Cybele’ (CN, ii, 2690), and his 1818 reflection that ‘in the elder world the Infinite was hidden in the Finite—Every Stream had its Naiad—the Earth its Cybele, the Ocean its Neptune’ (CN, iii, 4378, f.3v).

  13. Some typical examples are by R. F. Fleissner, who draws attention to the river meandering for several miles to the sea in Tom Jones (N&Q ccv (1960), pp. 103-5); S. C. Harrex, who notices the ‘dome where Pleasure holds her midnight reign’ in Goldsmith's Deserted Village (N&Q ccxi (1966), pp. 172-3), and Michael Grosvenor Myer, who notes versions of the ballad The Daemon Lover—especially Scott's in 1812 (N&Q ccxxviii (1983), p. 219).

  14. See my article ‘Influence and Independence in Blake’ in Interpreting Blake, ed. M. Phillips (Cambridge, 1978), pp. 196-261.

  15. See letter to Poole, Oct 1797, CL, i, p. 347, letter of 1815, CL, iv, p. 606, and my Coleridge's Poetic Intelligence (1977), pp. 23-32.

  16. BL, i, pp. 19-20—where, however, Coleridge dates the paper a year earlier.

  17. The echoes of Erasmus Darwin have been noticed by Lowes in The Road to Xanadu, pp. 18f, 35f, 94-9, 189f, 464-5, 473, 495; one or two more have been noted by Norman Fruman, Coleridge: The Damaged Archangel, pp. 243 and 253-4. For Zoönomia see my Coleridge's Poetic Intelligence, pp. 50-7, 74-7.

  18. Cf. The Pleasures of the Imagination (1757), i, ll. 98-102.

  19. The Pleasures of Imagination, ii, ll. 273-6, 281-8, 292-5, 660-2 (and 175-771 generally).

  20. PW, i, pp. 45-6 and n. See W. Braekman, ‘The Influence of William Collins on Poems Written by Coleridge in 1793’, Revue des Langues Vivantes (1965), pp. 228-39.

  21. John Ower, ‘Another Analogue of Coleridge's “Kubla Khan”', N&Q ccxii, p. 294.

  22. ‘Ode on the Poetical Character', ll. 34-40.

  23. Coleridge the Visionary, pp. 258-9.

  24. ‘The Passions', ll. 62-8 quoted Lowes, Road to Xanadu, pp. 399-400. Lowes also mentions Coleridge's project for editing Gray and Collins (see CN, i, 161 (2) and 174 (15)).

  25. Dryden, ‘Song for St. Cecilia's Day', l. 14; WPW, i, p. 259.

  26. James Ridley, Tales of the Genii, 1766, i, pp. 51-2, 135-6, 77. Cf. my essay ‘Poems of the Supernatural', pp. 65-6.

  27. A translation of this by Southey is reproduced in my Coleridge the Visionary, pp. 297-300.

  28. Tales of the Genii, i, p. 81.

  29. See, e.g., Lawrence Hanson, Life of Coleridge: The Early Years (1938), pp. 34-40.

  30. Song of Solomon 4: 12-15, 16; 8: 10, quoted in Coleridge the Visionary, pp. 270-1.

  31. S. Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes (Glasgow, 1905-7), xi, pp. 208-9. Quoted Lowes, pp. 361-2.

  32. For further accounts, with references, see my Wordsworth in Time (1979), pp. 43-6, and Wordsworth and the Human Heart (1978), pp. 26-36.

  33. See Rivers's Speech in The Borderers, ll. 1493-6, PW, i, p. 187, partly used again Prelude (1805), x, ll. 826-9.

  34. Oxford ‘Prelude', p. 633. See J. Wordsworth, The Borders of Vision (Oxford, 1982), pp. 36-8 and nn.

  35. For detailed experiments in this field see F. C. Bartlett, Remembering: A Study in Experiential and Social Psychology (Cambridge, 1932).

  36. R. Lowth, De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum, tr. G. Gregory (1787), i, pp. 148-9. Coleridge borrowed the original Latin edition of 1753 from Bristol Library from 16 to 22 Sept. 1796. Bristol LB, p. 123.

  37. ‘I saw Milton in imagination and … he wished me to show the falsehood of his doctrine that the pleasures of sex arose from the Fall.’ E. J. Morley, Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and their Writers (1938), i, p. 330. See also my discussion in Blake's Humanism (Manchester, 1968), pp. 31-2.

  38. See J. M. Evans, Paradise Lost and the Genesis Tradition (Oxford, 1968), pp. 48-50.

  39. Line 806. A more likely reference is to the wailing for Thammuz: see Paradise Lost, i. ll. 446-57.

  40. Paradise Lost, iv, l. 239. It is also reinforced when Satan resolves to fold himself in the ‘mazy folds’ of the serpent; ibid., ix, ll. 161-2. Milton's use of ‘mazy’ in Book Four was no doubt responsible for the extraordinary popularity of the word in eighteenth-century verse.

  41. See Coleridge the Visionary, pp. 63, 208, 241, 252f, 342.

  42. ‘Keys to “Kubla Khan”', pp. 16-17.


BL S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Engell and W. Jackson Bate, CC vii (2 vols., 1983)

BLS S. T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (2 vols., Oxford, 1907)

BRH Bulletin of Research in the Humanities

Bristol LB George Whalley, ‘The Bristol Library Borrowings of Southey and Coleridge', Library, iv (Sept. 1949) pp. 114-31

CC The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bollingen Series lxxv, (London and New York, 1969-)

CL The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs (6 vols., Oxford, 1956-71)

CM S. T. Coleridge, Marginalia, ed. George Whalley, CC xii (5 vols., London and Princeton, N.J., 1980-)

CN The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. K. Coburn (6 vols., New York, 1957-73)

C&S S. T. Coleridge, On the Constitution of the Church and State, According to the Idea of Each, ed. J. Colmer, CC x (1976)

DWJ The Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. E. de Selincourt (2 vols., Oxford, 1941)

EC Essays in Criticism

ELH English Literary History

EOT S. T. Coleridge, Essays on his Times, ed. D. V. Erdman, CC iii (3 vols., 1978)

EY The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, ed. E. de Selincourt, 2nd edn, The Early Years, 1787-1805, revised by C. L. Shaver (Oxford, 1967)

Friend S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, ed. B. Rooke, CC iv (2 vols., 1969)

H Works The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (21 vols., 1930-4)

Lects 1795 S. T. Coleridge, Lectures 1795 on Politics and Religion, ed. L. Patton and P. Mann, CC I (1971)

LL(M) The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. E. Marrs (3 vols., New York, 1975-8).

LS S. T. Coleridge, Lay Sermons, ed. R. J. White, CC vi (1972)

McFarland, ‘SI’ Thomas McFarland, ‘The Origin and Significance of Coleridge's Theory of Secondary Imagination', New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth, ed. Geoffrey Hartman (New York and London, 1972), pp. 195-246

Misc C Coleridge's Miscellaneous Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (Cambridge, Mass., 1936)

MLA Modern Language Association of America

M Phil Modern Philology

N&Q Notes & Queries

Norton ‘Prelude’ William Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1799, 1805, 1850, eds. J. Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, S. Gill (New York and London, 1979)

Oxford ‘Prelude’ William Wordsworth, The Prelude, ed. E. de Selincourt, 2nd edn, revised by H. Darbishire (Oxford, 1959)

P Lects The Philosophical Lectures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. K. Coburn (London and New York, 1949)

PMLA Publications of the Modern Language Association (Baltimore, 1886-)

Prose Works The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, ed. W. J. B. Owen and J. W. Smyser (3 vols., Oxford, 1974)

PW The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. H. Coleridge (2 vols., Oxford, 1912)

Sh C Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism, ed. T. M. Raysor (2 vols., 1930)

SIR Studies in Romanticism

SM S. T. Coleridge, The Statesman's Manual, ed. R. J. White, CC vi (1972)

TLS The Times Literary Supplement

TWC The Wordsworth Circle

WPW The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. E. de Selincourt and H. Darbishire (5 vols., Oxford, 1940-9)

Ken Frieden (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Frieden, Ken. “Conversational Pretense in ‘Kubla Khan.’” In Modern Critical Views: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 209-16. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Frieden presents a rhetorical analysis of “Kubla Khan” as it both demonstrates and undercuts Coleridge's conversational poetic mode.]

Coleridge's conversation poems extend the conventions of dramatic soliloquy to an apparently autonomous lyrical form. Dramatic soliloquy and poetic monologue both generate illusions of individual speech, yet the difference in genre has decisive implications. In the dramatic context, soliloquy retains mimetic pretensions as part of a represented world, while the written conversation poem tends to draw attention to its own representational illusion. The poetic monologist is typically less concerned to describe the world than to reflect on the experiences that constitute it.

Coleridge, whose finest lyrics are representative of the Romantic monologue, writes most enthusiastically of Shakespeare's genius in connection with the great soliloquist, Hamlet. Perhaps because Coleridge identifies with Hamlet, monological forms characterize his strongest poems. Although the conversation poem does not inherently carry abnormal associations, the solitude it implies creates an opening for the aberrations of “phantom magic.” Coleridge further develops the conversational mode suggested by Shakespearean soliloquy and Augustan poetry and clusters a set of related poems around supernatural phenomena.

The rise and fall of Coleridge's conversational pretense may be traced as a fictional biography, from his identification with Hamlet, through “The Eolian Harp” and “Frost at Midnight,” until the subversion of the conversational mode by “Kubla Khan.” The multiple voices of “Kubla Khan” disrupt the scene of vision, revealing a potential threat to composition. If Coleridge's early poetry succeeds by virtue of its firm control of the conversational tone, his more radical lyrics disturb the poetic voice that had been established.


“Kubla Khan,” the culmination of Coleridge's conversation poems, both employs and destroys the conversational mode. Replete with exclamations that indicate a presumed immediacy of feeling, Coleridge's strongest short poem no longer begins with a corresponding, intimate scene. Rather than present a scene of intimacy as the point of departure for imaginative wanderings, “Kubla Khan” opens with a fantastic landscape of Xanadu. The speaker's present is initially an absence from the poem, a lack that Coleridge's preface counters by describing the conditions of composition. But Coleridge presents a most peculiar scene of composition, in which the words of the poem purportedly accompany private imagery of a dream. On one level, the conversation poems strive to represent commonplace domestic situations, while “Kubla Khan” breaks off its elaborate fantasy in conjunction with a threat of madness.

The prose preface operates as do the opening lines of “The Eolian Harp” and “Frost at Midnight,” delineating a place and time of creative activity. Whereas the conversation poems only implicitly represent the moment of writing in their scenes of monologue, the preface explicitly discusses the genealogy of “Kubla Khan.” Narrating a scene of interruption, the preface fosters the conception of “Kubla Khan” as “a vision in a dream” that has been only partially recovered by waking memory.

Although prefaces are conventionally more literal than poems, critics have doubted the accuracy of Coleridge's autobiographical data. A naïve reading wishes to accept the preface as an accurate description of the scene of composition, while a more sober reading concludes that it is unreliable. If we recognize preface and poem as equal literary fictions, however, neither half of Coleridge's double text merits special status. Both preface and poem voice a pseudoautobiographical “I,” a parallel that unsettles the facile dichotomy between prose and verse as literal (or referential) and figurative (or fictional). Preface and poem unsettle the conventional notions of representational correspondence in different genres. Too marvelous for strict autobiography, but not too literal for fiction, the preface need not depend on a pretension to autobiographical truth.

The preface, “Of the Fragment of Kubla Khan,” insistently refers to “the following fragment,” emphasizing a part-whole relationship between present words and some unspecified totality. Coleridge denies independent status to the poem “Kubla Khan,” perhaps because it breaks the familiar pattern of the conversation poems. The synecdoche is accompanied by a perspectivizing allusion to “a poet of great and deserved celebrity,” whose estimation of the poem contrasts the author's. Is the fragment great or small, heavy or light? “Fragments” also “vaulted like rebounding hail” in line 21 of the poem, before compared with “chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail.” The ground of this literary fragment shows itself to be as unsteady as are the fragments in “that deep romantic chasm” and will not support weightier pretensions. The fragment is published, “as far as the Author's own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits” (Pr. 1) [The preface (“Pr.”) is cited by sentence number and the poem (“KK”) by line number as they appear in Coleridge's Poetical Works, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge.] The request of Lord Byron, whose fame appears secure, provides ground for publication, even if not on the basis of “poetic merits.”

If “Kubla Khan” is a “psychological curiosity,” the preface further insists on the authenticity of its narrative by citing purportedly real chronology and geography (Pr. 2). Yet Coleridge discusses the poem's “Author” at a distance suggested by the third-person form. The language of cause and effect, illness and cure, add to an impression of necessity in the narrated events: “In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that 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 with a wall'” (Pr. 3-4). The author reads Kubla's command at the moment when a drug induces sleep, allowing him to evade the problems of conscious borrowing. The poem's allusions are thus casually ascribed to the influence of a virtually unconscious reading rather than to a controlled act of writing. Purchas' words appear to ground Coleridge's fragment more firmly than do “poetic merits.” Sleep further frees the author from responsibilities associated with deliberate action: “The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses” (Pr. 5). If Coleridge as dreamer does not consciously control the act of composition, an external-internal opposition gives his creativity the appearance of self-generation.

By describing a three-stage procedure, Coleridge effectively traces “Kubla Khan” to a creative act based on unconscious processes.

Step 1, dream composition, is also not composition, because the author “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” (Pr. 5). Can that be called composition “in which all the images rose up before him as things”? The previous images of “substance,” “ground,” and “fragment” suggest an affinity between physical and textual realities; here the extraordinarily substantial images may be either visual or poetic. The visionary moment is itself presumably extralinguistic, because Coleridge writes of a “parallel production of the correspondent expressions.” Simultaneous with but not equivalent to the images, the correspondent expressions appear as if naturally or necessarily linked to what they express. Although words suggest themselves in parallel, the narrator indicates that the unusually concrete images are his primary impression. In contrast to this claim, the underlying poetic meaning of “images” keeps his “vision” in literary bounds from the start. The ambiguous “image” begins to undo the primary claim of an effortless vision that naturally gives rise to correspondent expressions.

Step 2, transcription of the dream composition, follows immediately, when the author “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” (Pr. 6). The instantaneous impulse to write implies that the poetic lines precisely reproduce the dreamed expressions. Unlike the prolonged dream period of “about three hours,” the secondary scene of writing condenses into an instant. There is no need to judge whether the fifty-four crafted lines of “Kubla Khan” could actually be instantly or automatically composed: Coleridge's claim to a later, synchronic “recollection of the whole” is an aspect of his double text. The alleged instantaneous scene of writing strives to unify the diachronic process during which “all the images rose up before him as things.” This moment captures the dream sequence as a simultaneous order, admitting no break until the author completes “the lines that are here preserved.”

Step 3, interruption, occurs as suddenly as does the transcription. The “moment” of reading already appears in sentence 3 when the author “fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence.” The necessity of a secondary act of reading, or dream interpretation, shows itself with the event of interruption. The published preface eludes any intimation of deliberate craft, however, by reducing the time interval to a moment: “At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour” (Pr. 7). The dream and period of detainment both have measurable durations, but the transcription seems to break off in the midst of its lightning-fast burst. The preface subsequently refers to “the vision” retrospectively; on returning to his room, the author “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 images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!” (Pr. 7). The mention of dissolving images affirms the independent, picture like quality of an initial vision. But the speaker's subsequent “mortification” establishes a gloomier connection between the fading vision and loss of life: mortificare is to cause to die. The interruption of the processes of writing is a symbolic death, especially for the older Coleridge, who knows that he has lost his poetic genius.

As if to revise the preceding simile and derive new assurance, the preface cites ten lines from Coleridge's poem “The Picture.” This allusion is part of the effort to ground “Kubla Khan” visually. A “poor youth” suffers a loss like that of the narrator, and “then all the charm / Is broken—all that phantom-world so fair / Vanishes” (Pr. 8). But for the youth of “The Picture,” in a narcissistic fantasy, natural events restitute what has been lost:

The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon
The visions will return! …
And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
Come trembling back, unite, and now once more
The pool becomes a mirror.

[Pr. 9-10]

Coleridge's conversation poems and reading of Hamlet similarly revolve around this quest after a mirror of the self. For the preface narrator, however, the metaphor fails: although he retains “some vague and dim recollection” of the vision, his fragments do not unite. In the narrative that describes the author's dream and transcription, the disruption is nonreversible and does not end in restoration. Falling short of the author's “phantom-world,” the preface only mirrors another text.

The final paragraph of the preface contrasts the author's deliberate intentions and his spontaneous creation: “from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him” (Pr. 11). The author's sleep writing takes on the aura of an inspired moment, “given” by unexplainable forces and inaccessible to conscious intentions. The preface thus claims that “Kubla Khan” is an inspired fragment never resumed after its abrupt interruption. The closing sentence projects a hypothetical future and readership by citing Theocritus' words, “I'll sing to you a sweeter song another day” (later emended to “I'll sing to you a sweeter song tomorrow”). Like the final lines of the poem, this final proleptic awareness combines positive anticipation with a negative moment: “but the to-morrow is yet to come.”

The last stanza of “Kubla Khan” does not appear to derive from the same effortless, unreflective impulse that allegedly produces “the lines that are here preserved.” Thus critics have been as skeptical of the poem's formal unity as doubtful of its genetic unity. Several interpreters consider the poem to be divided into two disparate parts, before and after the shift to first person in the third stanza. According to the critical cliché, an impersonal voice describes Kubla's pleasure dome and grounds, after which a first-person speaker recalls a past vision, loosely associated with Xanadu. Based on the shift in “vision” that occurs in the last stanza, this received idea ignores the complications of the middle stanza, yet a two-part structure of the poem is commonly admitted.

In the closing lines of the poem, a first-person voice presents an alternative version of origins. Like the preface, these lines interpret the mysteries of vision: “A damsel with a dulcimer / In a vision once I saw” (“KK” 37-38). Discontinuous with previous descriptions by the first stanza, these words implicate the speaker in his visionary experience and locate the vision at a distinct, past time. The dream is over. No longer speaking as if the forests were “here” and the gardens “there,” the nostalgic voice recollects something that is no longer immediately present, even to imagination. The first appearance of Kubla's world emphasizes the visual, but the damsel vision attends to sound:

It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.

[“KK” 39-41]

A new set of proper names displaces Xanadu, Kubla, and Alph. The modified proper names, like the damsel's song, introduce additional words into the vision. As his earlier imaginative scene is superseded, the speaker loses his referential assurance, breaks off his representational pretense, and tries to recall the song of his imaginary figure: the Abyssinian Maid sings of a place, in a referential mode. Rather than strive to regain his attempted correspondence to immediate vision, the speaker gives up his own song in order to seek hers:

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!

[“KK” 42-47]

An imagined recollection of the damsel's music replaces the visions of Xanadu. But the relationship between damsel and dome is mysterious: what does the new vision have in common with the old? If the visions are linked, why is the damsel absent from Kubla's domain? The speaker's imagined damsel, playing her “sweet” instrument, contrasts the “woman wailing” he projects into Kubla's turbulent pleasure grounds. The speaker implicitly acknowledges the instability of poetic constructs when he anticipates building “that dome in air.”

As he longs to regain his lost vision, the speaker echoes intentions stated by the preface: “from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him.” As in the citation from Theocritus (Pr. 12), completion depends on the existence of an imagined audience: “And all who heard should see them there.” The audience retraces the sequence of the author's creative process: his vision gives him a voice, and their hearing produces a visionary sight. Could the author speak his vision, the private would become public, establishing a previously isolated vision as a common referent. At the same time, the speaker would be perceived as mad and banished to a circle for the purposes of exorcism.

This hypothetical communication would be incomprehensible, and provoke excommunication, because the audience could only respond with fear: “all should cry, Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair!” (“KK” 48-49). The speaker is inscribed in the prosopopoeia that presents others' imaginary discourse, and hearers try to remedy the inspired state he now has them represent and invoke. The previous occurrence of things visionary makes relevant a warning to “weave a circle round him thrice, / And close your eyes with holy dread.” Suddenly the auditor-speakers are like Kubla: they seek to enclose the threatening poet, as Kubla's decrees try to secure his pleasure grounds. A reversal takes place: whereas the speaker earlier identifies with Kubla and the poetic effort to stabilize a dome of pleasure, now he and his vision specifically endanger customary boundaries. Once the speaker renounces efforts to build on ground, instead seeking to “build that dome in air,” he is associated with the destabilizing forces that undo Kubla's pleasure. Deviation from the conversational mode unleashes dangerous forces. The radicalized mode of monologue, a self-referential innovation that pretends to present the language of a dream, threatens to overturn the entire monological reference.

Similar to the second half of the preface, the final stanza of “Kubla Khan” recognizes that the vision has faded. The preface explicitly narrates the scene of interruption and accepts the poem as a fragment. The poem, however, only implies and does not directly acknowledge the disappearance of vision. Without thematizing this loss, the speaker attempts to recuperate what has gone or rather considers the possible consequences of such a recuperation. The imagined speech of auditors at first affirms the preceding visionary stanzas, yet their response also works against affirmation. Because “I cannot” is implied by the conditional statement that begins, “Could I,” the first two stanzas are undermined. If the poet cannot “build that dome in air,” then the speaker himself judges his rendering of Xanadu unsuccessful. At the moment the voice reads and speaks its own failure to represent, the fictional pretense is undone and the poem ends. Though the poem ultimately strives for assurance, its final prosopopoeia narrates as complete a deterioration as the preface, only figuratively. While the preface unifies the poem by linking it to a single scene of writing, the final stanza of the poem shifts scenes as it projects voices and intensifies the speaker's retrospective confession of dissolution. The preface recalls a visionary writing that is abruptly disrupted; the poem (p)refigures this external interruption as an internalized self-undoing.

Coleridge's conversational poems and “Kubla Khan” exemplify one stage in the shifting traditions of literary monologue. Expressing a particular moment in time and treating “Kubla Khan” as a psychological curiosity, Coleridge presents a text that purports to transcribe mental processes. Romantic and postromantic monologues combine lyrical voice and dramatic scene to create a moment of feigned discourse, on the boundary between writing and representation.

Coleridge's conversation poems turn against their origins in Shakespearean soliloquy. Because the fictive speaker does not form part of a dramatic scenario, this persona is haunted by an absence that inheres in its pretense. “Kubla Khan” brings an end to the naïve conversational mode, which it interrupts through the final acknowledgment: the dream is over. Whereas the conversation poems affirm the solitary voice, “Kubla Khan” shows its inadequacy, as it succumbs to a combination of external and internal pressures. The monologist, compelled to follow the peculiar constraints of written conversation, tends to lose touch with mimetic conventions. Pointing the way beyond Hamlet and toward poetic monologues by Shelley and Browning, “Kubla Khan” uncovers the affinity between monologue and madness. As developed by nineteenth-century authors, the conventions of poetic monologue both create and disrupt the illusion of a speaking subject. Monologue as a rhetorical swerve joins with monologue as a fiction of solitude. Mad monologues gradually displace the eolian monologue of meditation and move toward a new literary type that finds further expression in first-person narratives.

Stefan Ball (essay date 2001)

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SOURCE: Ball, Stefan. “Coleridge's Ancestral Voices.” Contemporary Review 278, no. 1624 (May 2001): 298-300.

[In the following essay, Ball comments on the ensuing debate over the meaning of “Kubla Khan,” particularly as it reflects on the past, present, and future of literary scholarship and textual interpretation.]

We all know now that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan” is a masterpiece. But how do we know this? And has it always been known?

“Kubla Khan” was first published in 1816 in a booklet that also contained “Christabel” and “The Pains of Sleep.” Looking back at the first reviews, it is clear that the poem's importance was at first in some doubt. The Monthly Review of January 1817 is typical—its review felt the poem was ‘below criticism'—and the opinion of the Critical Review of May 1816, in its entirety, was that it was ‘one of those pieces that can only speak for itself.’ As for the British Lady's Magazine of October 1816, it rounded off five and a half columns on “Christabel” with the words. ‘“Kubla Khan, or a Vision in a Dream,” Mr. Coleridge describes as the real production of sleep: it is wild and fanciful.’

Most of the reviews adopted the same strategy as the British Lady's Magazine, and concentrated on “Christabel” to the near-exclusion of “Kubla Khan” and “The Pains of Sleep.” There were of course reasons for this. “Christabel” was the first and far and away the longest of the three poems, so it seemed natural to treat it as the central part of the book. And it had been read and talked of in admiring terms by the literati for quite a few years before it was actually published, whereas “Kubla Khan” was little known even among Coleridge's friends.

But perhaps the main reason for the neglect of “Kubla Khan” was Coleridge's notorious preface, in which he claimed that the poem was composed during a profound sleep. ‘Perhaps a dozen more such lines,’ suggested the Edinburgh Review in September 1816, ‘would reduce the most irritable of critics to a state of inaction.’ The Academic was equally scathing in September 1821: ‘… all his works appear to have been composed in a sort of daydream; and in this he has the advantage over his readers, who must exert themselves to keep awake.’

Perhaps surprisingly, no-one seemed especially intrigued at the idea of involuntary composition. In June 1816 the Eclectic Review found nothing strange in the idea that people who wrote a lot of poetry should dream in it as well, while a month later the Literary Panorama agreed and the Augustan Review recalled tales of Milton waking from sleep and writing down ‘twenty or thirty verses, inspired during the night.’ But while the role of unconscious processes in artistic creation was taken for granted, art was considered admissible only if it was tempered and controlled by conscious thought and technique: ‘There seems to be no great harm in dreaming while one sleeps,’ the Augustan Review concluded, ‘but an author really should not thus dream while he is awake, and writing too.’

Coleridge was writing at the tail end of the Age of Reason. The conscious mind was the key to progress and enlightenment; unbridled self-expression had yet to become fashionable; tradition and continuity were valued more than novelty; and artifice in art was still a sign of quality. With few exceptions the reading public adhered to critical standards based on experience and reason, and there was little room in either for unadorned dreaming. Indeed, it wasn't until the Surrealists and their popularisation of Freud and Jung that the idea of dreams as somehow intrinsically artistic became even remotely respectable. Before then, the automatic writing of an André Breton or the admission by a Samuel Beckett that he didn't know what his works meant would have been met with blank looks and derision.

Coleridge was of his time. He made no attempt to claim that “Kubla Khan” should be valued more highly or read more carefully because of its supposed dream origin, but presented it instead ‘rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.’ With no reason to doubt Coleridge's word, the Augustan Review was understandably impatient: ‘it was poetry, and not psychology, which the public were likely to expect from him.’

After Freud, we modern readers can if we wish recuperate “Kubla Khan” as a poem by claiming that it shows the poetic unconscious at work. But this isn't the only strategy open to us. In these times of textuality and author-functions and the so-called death of the author many readers feel free to ignore the preface and the author's psychology with equal aplomb. And the empiricists can do the same thing, on other grounds, thanks to the discovery in 1934 of a draft of the poem which showed traces of revision, traces which hardly supported the poet's claim that composition had happened ‘without any sensation or consciousness of effort.’ Since this discovery the main drift of the reasonable and experienced inheritors of the Age of Reason has been to praise the poem for the amount of controlled and conscious artistic effort it displays.

In recent years a further way has opened up for the determined critic: that of questioning the truth of the famous story of opium, sleep and the person from Porlock, while accepting its presence in the name of a kind of poetic truth. Readers can treat the preface as an integral part of the poem, a kind of restatement of the main argument, which is that the vision has passed and left the poet with nothing but a fragment that would amaze the onlooker if it could only be completed. This is part of a broader movement that seeks to make the ‘romantic fragment a literary genre in its own right.’ By pulling in the preface and making a perceived lack of conclusion part of the message, this approach has the advantage of forging greater unity in the work. As readers generally demand unity in literary texts, this strategy appears peculiarly satisfying.

In his book Doing What Comes Naturally, the American academic Stanley Fish suggests that the changing reception of a work of art can be explained by the extent to which readers see other beliefs, events or techniques as being relevant to what they read and the way they read it. We can see this process at work in the different weight given to unconscious composition before and after readers started to take Freud's theories into account. We see the other side of the coin, the discounting of evidence once taken as conclusive, in the decision of many to call Coleridge a liar in order to stress the amount of work he put into his writing. And we see the same appeal to presupposed ‘truths in the activities of those who, having assumed unity in all literature, come to the less than startling conclusion that bits of literature must be meant to be in bits, and so must be complete.

The present state of affairs in the appreciation of “Kubla Khan” is, I would suggest, a fairly good guide to the state of literary appreciation as a whole. We have Freudian Kubla Khans, Jungian Kubla Khans, structural Kubla Khans, deconstructed Kubla Khans, generic Kubla Khans, prophetic Kubla Khans, political Kubla Khans and sexual Kubla Khans, feminist, gendered and secular Kubla Khans, and on and on, depending on which particular theory (or theorist) has persuaded the reader into its (or his or her) way of thinking. In the last few decades especially, the acceptance by smaller and smaller groups of readers of endlessly proliferating, widely differing criteria for interpreting and valuing literature has turned relative unity of purpose into a babel of argument, and has opened up the unsettling possibility that the process may continue indefinitely.

Of course, no-one has so far suggested that two words in the title and 54 lines prove that “Kubla Khan” is really a crossword clue with a two word answer of 5 and 4 letters. But when some critics look for anagrams and others diligently try to read what isn't said, there is nothing intrinsically absurd about such a project. From a point in 1816 where “Kubla Khan” was meaningless, it could at some time in the future come to mean anything, or everything. Today's lovers of words no longer enjoy the firm certainties of “Kubla Khan's” first reviewers. Instead we are faced with so many different ways to make sense of a text that, knowing too much, we end up knowing hardly anything, including what we are reading and why we are reading it. Whether this will lead to the death of literature as an object of serious study, provoke some draconian or Leavisite backlash, or spur us on to dizzier heights, only time and the press will tell.

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Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)