‘Kubla Khan’ – Lament for a Lost Eden

By Allen Ashley
How strange that Samuel Taylor Coleridge has chosen such a title for this magnum opus because Kubla Khan the poem is not strictly about Kubla Khan the person.  This is not a character sketch of a man but is more an invocation of a place, an exploration of ideas and a delineation of an ideal.  That ideal is Xanadu AKA Paradise.  As I shall go on to demonstrate, my contention is that, for all its Oriental trappings, this piece is firmly and essentially located in England.

The ‘real’ Xanadu was known to Western minds via the explorations of Marco Polo.  The historical site for Xanadu is in modern day China.  It’s a classic lost civilisation which naturally fires the mind but is also something of a blank canvas upon which to create one’s own “miracle of rare device” (l. 35).  One must also consider the appeal to the educated European of the idea of the ‘Orient’, a realisation that throughout our so-called Dark Ages more developed cultures had flourished in the Far East.

But Coleridge’s geography is far from perfect.  The beguiling, dulcimer playing maid (ll. 37-41) is not Cantonese or Manchurian but instead Abyssinian – modern-day Ethiopia.  Far from the Far East.  Coleridge died before the opening of the British Museum, which holds many Abyssinian treasures; but already in the 1800s the British aristocratic gentlemen of science were busy collecting artefacts and treasures from Abyssinia, Egypt, and the classical education’s founding edifices of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome – all of these may have created something of an inspirational “tumult” (l. 28) as Coleridge crafted his poem.

One cannot read Kubla Khan without considering the popular anecdote that it was composed under the influence of opium and that Coleridge was disturbed in its transcription by a visitor from Porlock.  This possibly apocryphal tale, perhaps invented by rather than recounted by the author himself, is as beguiling as the “damsel with a dulcimer” (l. 37) herself.

Firstly, the suggestion that the poem is incomplete makes us appreciate the (apparent) fragment even more.  Then begins the conjecture – did Coleridge ever try to return to this reverie?  Are there ‘lost’ verses that we may one day discover?  The trimming down of line lengths from line 37 onwards causes the reading mind to hurry along at this point and might be said to reflect the poet hastily jotting down his composition whilst he could still recall it.  Then again, the haste may just be a by-product of Coleridge’s increasingly dramatic intent, complete with exclamation points:
I would build that dome in air / That sunny dome! those caves of ice! (ll. 46-47)

The veracity or otherwise of the Porlock interruption doesn’t matter too much.  As students, scholars and fellow poets we can only deal with what remains.  But it must be admitted that Kubla Khan gains almost mythic qualities on the back of this memorable – and critically contentious – anecdote, rather in the manner of Rossetti digging up Lizzie Siddal’s grave in order to reunite himself with the only copy of his poem Jenny.

The drugs link led to Coleridge being feted throughout the Psychedelic 1960s.  His visionary poem had a more subtle influence over the LSD pioneers than the more obvious Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which gave us Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and cast a nonsensical spell over John Lennon’s I Am The Walrus.  One can feel Coleridge’s influence on, for example, Tomorrow Never Knows, the final track of The Beatles’ Revolver album: when the newly turned-on Lennon urges us to “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream” , he is invoking Eastern mysticism and guiding us back along “Alph, the sacred river” (l. 3).  It’s Alph as in Alpha, the first, the original river.  Coleridge has equated Xanadu with “Paradise” (l. 54) and one can take lines from Kubla Khan and relate them back to the biblical tale of the Fall of Man – “the woman wailing for her demon-lover” (l. 16) may be Eve still craving the Serpent with “His flashing eyes” (l 50) – equally as enchanting as the maiden’s music.  And yes, she’s a maid, a virgin: in Biblical terms unfallen until that fateful meeting.

But I want to place the poem within the English tradition of laments for lost Edens, a rich vein that takes in many of the bands from the late 1960s / early 1970s such as early Pink Floyd, Caravan, early Led Zeppelin, The Beatles as noted, Peter Gabriel’s Genesis… the list is extensive and might also include pop hits such as Rainbow Valley by The Love Affair.  In the hippie dream world of the Woodstock Generation, suddenly everybody was looking back and evoking their own visions of Avalon, Albion’s Isle, the Forest of Arden…  The key poetic avatar for all this is probably William Blake and his relocation of Jerusalem, nay Paradise itself, as a past possibility or future goal for England’s “green and pleasant land”.  The lineage continues: Mallory gave us a fully fleshed Arthurian saga; Housman made the Shropshire countryside mythical; the Pre-Raphaelites painted Arcadian visions into vivid full-colour life.

My key contention is that Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, which should perhaps be more appropriately titled Xanadu, is a description not of a lost kingdom in China or even of the vanished Garden from the Holy Land but an equation of a mythical version of England as a once-was or should be heaven on Earth.  Coleridge has seasoned the locale with some Bible-land trappings: “a cedarn cover” (l. 13), “an incense-bearing tree” (l. 9) but, truly, the setting is a Sunday afternoon stroll into the verdant tracts of Britain’s unspoilt countryside – “that deep romantic chasm” (l. 12), “Through wood and dale” (l. 26); even “chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail” (l. 22) which takes us into a dewy-eyed town dweller’s view of bucolic utopia that would later be echoed in William Morris’s  News from Nowhere.

“I would build that dome in air” (l. 45) reminds us inevitably of Blake’s “Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”.  Paradise is less to be found or dug up but is instead to be constructed here and now in Albion’s Isle… if only in our dreams and recorded musings.  Kubla Khan places Coleridge firmly within this British lineage of artists, thinkers and seekers.

But it seems that we humans are always destined to flee or destroy paradise.  Maybe its perfection is something to be rightly feared and we should content ourselves with approximations and artistic facsimiles.

For the final septet of strident lines, Coleridge changes viewpoint and begins speaking about himself in the third person:

…Beware! Beware! / His flashing eyes, his floating hair!  (ll 48-49)

This somewhat crazed and insistent person is the poet himself, the “I” who would build that pleasure dome.  Knowing that his zeal may make him a pariah and may place him outside staid society, he still believes that he has glimpsed / experienced / tasted moments in Paradise.  Kubla Khan is his document, his evidence, his rallying cry.  This is a direct call to arms – urgent, vivid, ultimately personal.  One might even be tempted to say revolutionary: in its perhaps deliberately fractured and fragmentary format (partly depending on one’s view of the Preface); but also in its depiction of a different England, a better world, new ways of thinking – what would later be termed a revolution in the head.

In the final four lines, the prevailing Christian hegemony is restored and something approaching an exorcism, or at the very least a protective measure, is accomplished – “Weave a circle round him thrice” (l. 51) – three being the number that holds the greatest magical properties.  Visions of Eden are not for the likes of us ordinary mortals – “And close your eyes with holy dread” (l 52). From the straitjacketed dominant religion’s point of view, the fruits of Paradise – the fact of creating or discovering the place – have driven the man mad.  And yet there is an uplift in the conjunction of “honey dew” (l. 53) and “milk” (l. 54), traditional signifiers of a land where life will be easy and our needs catered for.

This poem is all about creation – Kubla Khan and his palace, the damsel and her music, the poet and his wish for perfection.  Many critics have cited Kubla Khan as being a poem about poetry itself, with the latter half showing Coleridge as a modernist of his time, freeing himself from expectations of form and content.  Kubla Khan is an imaginative leap and bears many interpretations.  As a fragment in appearance – deliberately so or otherwise – it is a towering shard, refracting.  We are in awe of its beauty; yet part of us wonders how mighty the completed vision, the whole might have been.  If it ever truly existed.

In Kubla Khan, Coleridge has offered us a glimpse of Eden.  His rhyme scheme and his focus have at times been as “meandering with a mazy motion” (l.25) as “the sacred river” (l, 3) itself.  He has fed us on sensual pleasure, rumours of war and forbidden knowledge.  Perhaps he intended to truly write about Kubla Khan’s homeland with an underlying parallel of the Biblical Garden.  But writers very rarely fully escape their own time and place.  Coleridge’s depiction of Xanadu is a brief but potent and concentrated vision that sees our own land reflected and refracted by “those caves of ice” (l. 47).  He has offered us a glimpse akin to Avalon, Arcadia, Jerusalem, Utopia, Nowhere…

Allen Ashley works as a creative writing tutor with five groups currently running across north London. He is the author or editor of eleven published books, the most recent of which is the poetry collection Dreaming Spheres: Poems of the Solar System written in collaboration with Sarah Doyle and published by PS Publishing (UK) in 2014. www.allenashley.com