Dreaming of Xanadu: A Guide to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”

Notes on Context

Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that he wrote “Kubla Khan” in the fall of 1797, but it was not published until he read it to George Gordon, Lord Byron in 1816, when Byron insisted that it go into print immediately. It is a powerful, legendary and mysterious poem, composed during an opium dream, admittedly a fragment. In the prefatory note published with the poem, Coleridge claimed he wrote several hundred lines during his reverie, but was not able to finish writing out the poem when he woke because his frenzied writing was interrupted:
The following fragment is here published at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity [Lord Byron], and, as far as the Author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.

In the summer of the year 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 awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

Then all the charm
Is broken--all that phantom-world so fair
Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread,
And each mis-shape the other. Stay awile,
Poor youth! who scarcely dar’st lift up thine eyes--
The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon
The visions will return! And lo, he stays,
And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
Come trembling back, unite, and now once more
The pool becomes a mirror.

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: but the to-morrow is yet to come.

“Kubla Khan” is famously incomplete, and thus cannot be said to be a strictly formal poem -- yet its use of rhythm and the echoes of end-rhymes is masterful, and these poetic devices have a great deal to do with its powerful hold on the reader’s imagination. Its meter is a chanting series of iambs, sometimes tetrameter (four feet in a line, da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM) and sometimes pentameter (five feet, da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM).
Line-ending rhymes are everywhere, not in a simple pattern, but interlocking in a way that builds to the poem’s climax (and makes it great fun to read out loud). The rhyme scheme may be summarized as follows:
(Each line in this scheme represents one stanza. Please note that I have not followed the usual custom of beginning each new stanza with “A” for the rhyme-sound, because I want to make visible how Coleridge circled around to use earlier rhymes in some of the later stanzas -- for instance, the “A”s in the second stanza, and the “B”s in the fourth stanza.)

“Kubla Khan” is a poem clearly meant to be spoken. So many early readers and critics found it literally incomprehensible that it became a commonly accepted idea that this poem is “composed of sound rather than sense.” Its sound is beautiful -- as will be evident to anyone who reads it aloud.

The poem is certainly not devoid of meaning, however.

It begins as a dream stimulated by Coleridge’s reading of Samuel Purchas’ 17th century travel book, Purchas his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered, from the Creation unto the Present (London, 1617). The first stanza describes the summer palace built by Kublai Khan, the grandson of the Mongol warrior Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan dynasty of Chinese emperors in the 13th century, at Xanadu (or Shangdu):

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Xanadu, north of Beijing in inner Mongolia, was visited by Marco Polo in 1275 and after his account of his travels to the court of Kubla Khan, the word “Xanadu” became synonymous with foreign opulence and splendor.

Compounding the mythical quality of the place Coleridge is describing, the poem’s next lines name Xanadu as the place

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
This is likely a reference to the description of the River Alpheus in Description of Greece by the 2nd century geographer Pausanias (Thomas Taylor’s 1794 translation was in Coleridge’s library). According to Pausanias, the river rises up to the surface, then descends into the earth again and comes up elsewhere in fountains -- clearly the source of the images in the second stanza of the poem:
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.
But where the lines of the first stanza are measured and tranquil (in both sound and sense), this second stanza is agitated and extreme, like the movement of the rocks and the sacred river, marked with the urgency of exclamation points both at the beginning of the stanza and at its end:
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The fantastical description becomes even more so in the third stanza:
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
And then the fourth stanza makes a sudden turn, introducing the narrator’s “I” and turning from the description of the palace at Xanadu to something else the narrator has seen:
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.
Some critics have suggested that Mount Abora is Coleridge’s name for Mount Amara, the mountain described by John Milton in Paradise Lost at the source of the Nile in Ethiopia (Abyssinia) -- an African paradise of nature here set next to Kubla Khan’s created paradise at Xanadu.

To this point “Kubla Khan” is all magnificent description and allusion, but as soon the poet actually manifests himself in the poem in the word “I” in the last stanza, he quickly turns from describing the objects in his vision to describing his own poetic endeavor:

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!
This must be the place where Coleridge’s writing was interrupted; when he returned to write these lines, the poem turned out to be about itself, about the impossibility of embodying his fantastical vision. The poem becomes the pleasure-dome, the poet is identified with Kubla Khan -- both are creators of Xanadu, and Coleridge is apeaking of both poet and khan in the poem’s last lines:
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.

Charles Lamb heard Samuel Taylor Coleridge recite “Kubla Khan,” and believed it was meant for “parlour publication” (i.e., live recitation) rather than preservation in print:
“...what he calls a vision, Kubla Khan--which said vision he repeats so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and Elysian bowers into my parlour.”
--from an 1816 letter to William Wordsworth, in The Letters of Charles Lamb (Macmillan, 1888)
Jorge Luis Borges wrote of the parallels between the historical figure of Kubla Khan building a dream palace and Samuel Taylor Coleridge writing this poem, in his essay, “The Dream of Coleridge”:
“The first dream added a palace to reality; the second, which occurred five centuries later, a poem (or the beginning of a poem) suggested by the palace. The similarity of the dreams hints of a plan.... In 1691 Father Gerbillon of the Society of Jesus confirmed that ruins were all that was left of the palace of Kubla Khan; we know that scarcely fifty lines of the poem were salvaged. These facts give rise to the conjecture that this series of dreams and labors has not yet ended. The first dreamer was given the vision of the palace, and he built it; the second, who did not know of the other’s dream, was given the poem about the palace. If the plan does not fail, some reader of ‘Kubla Khan’ will dream, on a night centuries removed from us, of marble or of music. This man will not know that two others also dreamed. Perhaps the series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last one who dreams will have the key....”
--from “The Dream of Coleridge” in Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952 by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Ruth Simms (University of Texas Press, 1964, reprint forthcoming November 2007)