Kubla Khan is a fascinating and exasperating poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (. Almost everyone who has read it, has been charmed by its magic. It must surely be true that no poem of comparable length in English or any other language has been the subject of so much critical commentary. Its fifty-four lines have spawned thousands of pages of discussion and analysis. Kubla Khan is the sole or a major subject in five book-length studies; close to 150 articles and book-chapters (doubtless I have missed some others) have been devoted exclusively to it; and brief notes and incidental comments on it are without number.
Despite this deluge, however, there is no critical unanimity and very little agreement on a number of important issues connected with the poem: its date of composition, its meaning, its sources in Coleridge’s reading and observation of nature, its structural integrity (i. e. fragment versus complete poem), and its relationship to the Preface by which Coleridge introduced it on its first publication in 1816. Coleridge’s philosophical explorations appear in his greatest poems.
Kubla Khan’, with its exotic imagery and symbols, rich vocabulary and rhythms, written, by Coleridge’s account, under the influence of laudanum, was often considered a brilliant work, but without any defined theme. However, despite its complexity the poem can be read as a well-constructed exposition on human genius and art. The theme of life and nature again appears in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where the effect on nature of a crime against the power of life is presented in the form of a ballad.
Christabel’, an unfinished ‘gothic’ ballad, evokes a sinister atmosphere, hinting at evil and the grotesque. In his poems Coleridge’s detailed perception of nature links scene and mood, and leads to a contemplation of moral and universal concerns. In his theory of poetry Coleridge stressed the aesthetic quality as the primary consideration. The metrical theory on which ‘Christabel’ is constructed helped to break the fetters of 18th-century correctness and monotony and soon found disciples, among others Walter Scott and Lord Byron. Opium and the Dream of Kubla Khan
Coleridge’s use of opium has long been a topic of fascination, and the grouping of Coleridge, opium and Kubla Khan formed an inevitable triad long before Elisabeth Schneider combined them in the title of her book. It is tempting on a subject of such intrinsic interest to say more than is necessary for the purpose in hand. Since the medicinal use of opium was so common and wide-spread, it is not surprising to learn that its use involved neither legal penalties nor public stigma. All of the Romantic poets (except Wordsworth) are known to have used it, as did many other prominent contemporaries.
Supplies were readily available: in 1830, for instance, Britain imported 22,000 pounds of raw opium. Many Englishmen, like the eminently respectable poet-parson George Crabbe, who took opium in regular but moderate quantity for nearly forty years, were addicts in ignorance, and led stable and productive lives despite their habit. By and large, opium was taken for granted; and it was only the terrible experiences of such articulate addicts as Coleridge and Dequincy that eventually began to bring the horrors of the drug to public attention.
Coleridge’s case is a particularly sad and instructive one. He had used opium as early as 1791 (see CL, i 18) and continued to use it occasionally, on medical advice, to alleviate pain from a series of physical and nervous ailments. But the opium cure proved ultimately to be more devastating in its effects than the troubles it was intended to treat, for such large quantities taken over so many months seduced him unwittingly into slavery to the drug.
And his life between 1801 and 1806 (when he returned from Malta) is a somber illustration of a growing and, finally, a hopeless bondage to opium. By the time he realized he was addicted, however, it was too late. He consulted a variety of physicians; he attempted more than once (with nearly fatal results) to break off his use of opium all at once; and, at last, in 1816, when he submitted his case to James Gillman (in whose house he was to spend the rest of his life), he was able to control his habit and reduce his doses, although he was never able to emancipate himself entirely.
But to return to the 1790s: what can we say about Coleridge’s experience of opium at the time of composing Kubla Khan? The effects produced by opium in the early stages were soothing and seductive: Laudanum, he wrote his brother George in March 1798 (in terms which recall the imagery of Kubla Khan), gave me repose, not sleep: but YOU, I believe, know how divine that repose is — what a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountains, & flowers & trees, in the very heart of a waste of Sands! (CL, i 394).
Opium, it seems (to cite an earlier letter, of October 1797, which may well be describing a drug experience), tended to raise & spiritualize his intellect, so that he could, like the Indian Vishnu, float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotos (CL, i 350). Such an experience and such a mood are reflected in Kubla Khan. As we know from the Crewe endnote, Coleridge took two grains of Opium before he wrote Kubla Khan; and this fact naturally raises the issue of the drug’s effect on the poet’s creative imagination.
Early critics, guided by Coleridge’s statements in the 1816 Preface, assumed that there was a direct and immediate correlation between opium and imagination. In 1897 J. M. Robertson could not bring himself to doubt that the special quality of this felicitous work [Kubla Khan] is to be attributed to its being all conceived and composed under the influence of opium; and in 1934 M. H. Abrams declared that the great gift of opium to men like Coleridge and Dequincy was access to a new world as different from this as Mars may be; and one which ordinary mortals, hindered by terrestrial conceptions, can never, from mere description, quite comprehend.
More recent criticism, however, grounded on modern medical studies, controverts such conclusions decisively. According to Elisabeth Schneider, it is widely agreed now that persons of unstable psychological makeup are much more likely to become addicted to opiates than are normal ones and that, among such neurotic users of opium, the intensity of the pleasure produced by the drug seems (on the evidence of medical case-studies) to be in direct proportion to the degree of instability.
The explanation (she continues) of the supposed creative powers of opium lies in the euphoria that it produces: With some unstable temperaments the euphoria may be intense. Its effect is usually to increase the person’s satisfaction with his inner state of well being, to turn his attention inward upon himself while diminishing his attention to external stimuli. Thus it sometimes encourages the mood in which daydreaming occurs.
The narcosis of opium has been popularly described as having the effect of heightening and intensifying the acuteness of the senses. This it quite definitely does not do. If anything, the effect is the reverse. Alethea Hayter, although she wishes to avoid the extremes of the positions of Abrams and Schneider, nevertheless comes much closer in her conclusions to the latter than to the former.
Opium, she argues, can only work On what is already there in a man’s mind and memory, and, if he already has a creative imagination and a tendency to reverie, dreams and hypnologic visions, then opium may intensify and focus his perceptions. Her final verdict — which can be no more than a hypothesis — is that the action of opium, though it can never be a substitute for innate imagination, can uncover that imagination while it is at work in a way which might enable an exceptionally gifted and self-aware writer to observe and learn from his own mental processes.
The most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from these various explorations of the relationship between opium and the operation of the creative imagination is that, while Kubla Khan might well not have been produced without opium, it most assuredly would never have been born except for the powerfully and innately imaginative mind of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Interpretative Approaches to Kubla Khan
There is an observation Never tell thy dreams, and I am almost afraid that Kubla Khan is an owl that wont bear day light, I fear lest it should be discovered by the lantern of typography & clear reducting to letters, no better than nonsense or no sense. (Charles Lamb) In a moment of rash optimism a notable scholar once began an essay by declaring that We now know almost everything about Coleridge’s Kubla Khan except what the poem is about.
The truth of the matter, however, is that we know almost nothing conclusive about Kubla Khan, including what it is about. In fact, by far the most intriguing question about this most intriguing of poems is What does it mean? — if, indeed, it has or was ever intended to have any particular meaning. For the overwhelming majority of Coleridge’s contemporaries, Kubla Khan seemed (as Lamb foresaw) to be no better than nonsense, and they dismissed it contemptuously.
The poem itself is below criticism, declared the anonymous reviewer in the Monthly Review (Jan 1817); and Thomas Moore, writing in the Edinburgh Review (Sep 1816), tartly asserted that the thing now before us, is utterly destitute of value and he defied any man to point out a passage of poetical merit in it. While derisive asperity of this sort is the common fare of most of the early reviews, there are, nevertheless, contemporary readers whose response is both sympathetic and positive — even though they value the poem for its rich and bewitching suggestiveness rather than for any discernible meaning that it might possess.
Charles Lamb, for example, speaks fondly of hearing Coleridge recite Kubla Khan so enchantingly that it irradiates & brings heaven & Elysian bowers into my parlour while he sings or says it; and Leigh Hunt turns hopefully to analogies in music and painting in an effort to describe the poem’s haunting but indefinable effect:
Kubla Khan is a voice and a vision, an everlasting tune in our mouths, a dream fit for Cambuscan and all his poets, a dance of pictures such as Giotto or Cimabue, revived and re-inspired, would have made for a Storie of Old Tartarie, a piece of the invisible world made visible by a sun at midnight and sliding before our eyes. Throughout the nineteenth century and during the first quarter of the twentieth century Kubla Khan was considered, almost universally, to be a poem in which sound overwhelms sense.
With a few exceptions (such as Lamb and Leigh Hunt), Romantic critics — accustomed to poetry of statement and antipathetic to any notion of ars gratia artis — summarily dismissed Kubla Khan as a meaningless farrago of sonorous phrases beneath the notice of serious criticism. It only demonstrated, according to William Hazlitt, that Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verses than any man in England — and then he added, proleptically, It is not a poem, but a musical composition.
For Victorian and Early Modern readers, on the other hand, Kubla Khan was a poem not below but beyond the reach of criticism, and they adopted (without the irony) Hazlitt’s perception that it must properly be appreciated as verbalised music. When it has been said, wrote Swinburne of Kubla Khan, 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 [this poem] which can only be felt in silent submission of wonder.
Even John Livingston Lowes — culpable, if ever anyone has been, of murdering to dissect — insisted on the elusive magic of Coleridge’s dream vision: For Kubla Khan is as near enchantment, I suppose, as we are like to come in this dull world. While one may track or attempt to track individual images to their sources, Kubla Khan as a whole remains utterly inexplicable — a dissolving phantasmagoria of highly charged images whose streaming pagent is, in the final analysis, as aimless as it is magnificent.
The earth has bubbles as the water has, and this is of them. During the past fifty years, however, criticism has been less and less willing to accept the view that Kubla Khan defies rational analysis: the poem, it is widely assumed, must have a meaning, and the purpose of criticism is to discover what that meaning is, or might be. Yet despite this decisive shift in the critical temper, there remain some influential voices to argue for the mystery of Kubla Khan.
William Walsh, for example, maintains that it is an ecstatic spasm, a pure spurt of romantic inspiration; and Lawrence Hanson treats it as an instance of pure lyricism — sound, picture, sensation — clothed in the sensuous beauty of imagery that none knew so well as its author how to evoke. Elisabeth Schneider, too, suggests that a good part of the poem’s charm and power derives from the fact that it is invested with an air of meaning rather than meaning itself.
Such opinions, while they are hardly fashionable in the current critical climate, ought not to be dismissed too lightly or seen to be no more than evasions of critical responsibility. On the contrary, they remind us that not everything about poetry is wholly explicable — especially in such poems as Kubla Khan, where meaning is not a formulated idea and is, at best, only adumbrated through oblique and suggestive imagery.
It may well be that more is meant in Kubla Khan than meets the ear, but it is by no means easy to determine precisely what that meaning might be. And the impulse of literary critical professionalism to demystify, to reduce imaginative to merely rational statements, results too often in a kind of inversion of the alchemist’s dream: it debases gold into lead by transforming complex symbols into simple allegories.
The first and, for over a hundred years, almost the only reader to insist on the intelligibility and coherence of Kubla Khan was Shelley’s novel-writing friend, Thomas Love Peacock: there are, he declared in 1818, very few specimens of lyrical poetry so plain, so consistent, so completely simplex et Unum from first to last. Perhaps wisely, Peacock concluded his fragmentary essay with these words, thereby sparing himself the onerous task of explaining the consistency and meaning of so plain a poem as Kubla Khan. More recent commentators, however, have been much bolder.