Kubla Khan

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

First published in 1816.

The text for this edition has been extracted from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Select Poems, The Scribner English Classics, 1908.

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“Kubla Khan” is the remembered fragment of a dream. All that we know about it is contained in the note Coleridge prefixed to it in the pamphlet of 1816. In the summer of 1798 (Coleridge says 1797, but this seems to have been a slip of his memory1) “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!”

Opinion will ever vary as to its poetic worth. Coleridge himself professed to consider it “rather as a psychological curiosity” than as a thing “of any supposed poetic merits”; to Lamb he repeated it “so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and elysian bowers into any parlour when he sings or says it,” and it has been a sort of touchstone of romantic taste ever since. It supremely illustrates that “sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it,” which the poet declared to be a gift of the imagination that can never be learnt.

1 See notes to this poem in the Globe edition, and E.H. Coleridge’s “Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,” Vol. I, p. 245, note.

Kubla Khan

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. 5

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills, 10

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 15

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 20

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 25

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! 30

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, 35

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, 40

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, 45

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! 50

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.

Kubla Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, was a Mongolian conqueror who stretched his empire from European Russia to the eastern shores of China in the thirteenth century. His exploits, like those of his grandfather and those of the Mohammedan Timur in the next century, made a deep impression on the imagination of Western Europe. Compilers of travellers’s tales, like Hakluyt and Purchas, caught up eagerly whatever they could find, history or legend, concerning the extent of his domain, the methods of his government, or the splendors of his court. The passage in “Purchas his Pilgrimage” to which Coleridge refers is as follows:

“In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull Streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure” (quoted in the Notes of the Globe edition).

Coleridge’s poem, however, contains suggestions and reminiscences from another part of Purchas’s book, and probably from other books as well. “It reads like an arras of reminiscences from several accounts of natural or enchanted parks, and from various descriptions of that elusive and danger-fraught garden which mystic geographers have studied to locate from Florida to Cathay” (Cooper).

The earthly paradise, which was closed to man indeed, but not destroyed, when Adam and Eve were driven from its gates, has exercised the imagination of the Christian world from the early Middle Ages. Lactantius described it in the fourth century; the author of the “Phoenix,” probably in the eighth century, translated Lactantius’ Latin into Anglo–Saxon verse; Sir John Mandeville, in the fourteenth century, though he did not reach it himself because he “was not worthy,” gives an account of it from what he has “heard say of wise Men beyond;” Milton described it enchantingly in “Paradise Lost;” Dr. Johnson used a modification of it in “Rasselas;” and William Morris in our own time made it the framework for a delightful series of world-old tales. The idea, indeed, is not peculiar to Christianity, but is probably to be found in every civilization. Christian Europe has naturally located it in the East; and since the Crusades, which brought Western Europe more in contact with the East, various eastern legends have been attached to or confounded with the original notion. One of these is the Abyssinian legend of the hill Amara (cf. l. 41, where Coleridge’s “Mount Abora” seems to stand for Purchas’s Amara). Amara in Purchas’s account is a hill in a great plain in Ethiopia, used as a prison for the sons of Abyssinian kings. Its level top, twenty leagues in circuit and surrounded by a high wall, is a garden of delight. “Heauen and Earth, Nature and Industrie, have all been corriuals to it, all presenting their best presents, to make it of this so louely presence, some taking this for the place of our Forefathers Paradise.” The sides of the hill are of overhanging rock, “bearing out like mushromes, so that it is impossible to ascend it” except by a passageway “cut out within the Rocke, not with staires, but ascending little by little,” and closed above and below with gates guarded by soldiers. “Toward the South” of the level top “is a rising hill . . . yeelding . . . a pleasant spring which passeth through all that Plaine . . . and making a Lake, whence issueth a River, which having from these tops espied Nilus, never leaves seeking to find him, whom he cannot leave both to seeke and to finde. . . . There are no Cities on the top, but palaces, standing by themselves . . . spacious, sumptuous, and beautifull, where the Princes of the Royall blood have their abode with their families.”

This legend looks backward to Mandeville, with whose account of the Terrestrial Paradise it has much in common, and forward to Milton, who used some of its elements in his description of Paradise in the fourth book of “Paradise Lost.” (See Professor Cooper’s article in “Modern Philology,” III., 327 ff., from which this is condensed.)

Mr. E.H. Coleridge (the poet’s grandson) has recently shown that in the winter of 1797–8 Coleridge read and made notes from a book, “Travels through . . . the Cherokee Country,” by the American botanist William Bartram. Chapter VII. of Bartram’s book contains an account of some natural wonders in the Cherokee country that almost certainly afforded part of the imagery of “Kubla Khan.” Bartram, says Mr. Coleridge, “speaks of waters which ‘descend by slow degrees through rocky caverns into the bowels of the earth, whence they are carried by subterraneous channels into other receptacles and basons.’ He travels for several miles over ‘fertile eminences and delightful shady forests.’ He is enchanted by a ‘view of a dark sublime grove;’ of the grand fountain he says that the ‘ebullition is astonishing and continual, though its greatest force of fury intermits’ (note the word ‘intermits’) ‘regularly for the space of thirty seconds of time: the ebullition is perpendicular upward, from a vast rugged orifice through a bed of rock throwing up small particles of white shells.’ He is informed by ‘a trader’ that when the Great Sink was forming there was heard ‘an inexpressible rushing noise like a mighty hurricane or thunderstorm,’ that ‘the earth was overflowed by torrents of water which came wave after wave rushing down, attended with a terrific noise and tremor of the earth,’ that the fountain ceased to flow and ‘sank into a huge bason of water;’ but, as he saw with his own eyes, ‘vast heaps of fragments of rock’ (Coleridge writes ‘huge fragments’), ‘white chalk, stones, and pebbles had been thrown up by the original outbursts and forced aside into the lateral valleys.’”

From these and from other like sources Coleridge’s mind was no doubt stored with suggestions of tropical wonder and loveliness, which fell together—if his own account of the making of the poem is to be relied on—into the kaleidoscopic beauty of “Kubla Khan.” It is not unlikely, too (cf. ll. 12–13), that the ash-tree dell at Stowey, which he had already used for a scene of supernatural terror in “Osorio,” bears some part in his avowed dream of Xanadu.

Line 3—Alph, the sacred river. This name seems to be of Coleridge’s own invention; at least it has not been pointed out where he found it.

Line 16—demon-lover. The demon-lover (or more often, with sexes reversed, the fairy mistress) is a favorite theme of romance, taken from folk-lore, where it appears in many forms. Cf. the ballads of “Thomas Rymer,” “Tam Lin,” and “The Demon Lover,” in Child’s “English and Scottish Popular Ballads,” and Scott’s “William and Helen” (a translation of Burger’s “Lenore”).

Lines 39, 41—Abyssinian maid, Mount Abora. See introductory note above.

Line 53—honey-dew. A sweet sticky substance found on plants, deposited there by the aphis or plant-louse. It was supposed to be the food of fairies. Not improbably Coleridge was thinking of manna, a saccharine exudation found upon certain plants in the East. Mandeville describes it as found in “the Land of Job:” “This Manna is clept Bread of Angels. And it is a white Thing that is full sweet and right delicious, and more sweet than Honey or Sugar. And it Cometh of the Dew of Heaven that falleth upon the Herbs in that Country. And it congealeth and becometh all white and sweet. And Men put it in Medicines.”

Lines 53–4—For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise. Professor Cooper, in the article cited in the introductory note above, points out that this part of the poem contains perhaps reminiscences of the stories told of the Old Man of the Mountain. This was the title popularly given to the head of a fanatical sect of Mohammedans in Syria in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, whose method of getting rid of their enemies has given us the word assassin. To quote from Mandeville’s “Travels,” which has the essentials of the story, though the chief is here called Gatholonabes, and his domain is not in Syria but in the island Mistorak, “in the Lordship of Prester John:”

“He had a full fair Castle and a strong in a Mountain, so strong and so noble, that no Man could devise a fairer or a stronger. And he had made wall all the Mountain about with a strong Wall and a fair. And within those Walls he had the fairest Garden that any Man might behold. . . .

“And he had also in that Place, the fairest Damsels that might be found, under the Age of fifteen Years, and the fairest young Striplings that Men might get, of that same Age. And they were all clothed in Cloths of Gold, full richly. And he said that those were Angels.

“And he had also made 3 Wells, fair and noble, and all environed with Stone of Jasper, and of Crystal, diapered with Gold, and set with precious Stones and great orient Pearls. And he had made a Conduit under the Earth, so that the 3 Wells, at his List, should run, one Milk, another Wine, and another Honey. And that Place he clept Paradise.

“And when that any good Knight, that was hardy and noble, came to see this Royalty, he would lead him into his Paradise, and show him these wonderful Things for his Sport, and the marvellous and delicious Song of divers Birds, and the fair Damsels, and the fair Wells of Milk, Wine and Honey, plenteously running. And he would make divers Instruments of Music to sound in an high Tower, so merrily, that it was Joy to hear; and no Man should see the Craft thereof. And those, he said, were Angels of God, and that Place was Paradise, that God had promised to his Friends, saying, ‘Dabo vobis Terram fluentem Lacte et Melle’ (‘I shall give thee a Land flowing with Milk and Honey’). And then would he make them to drink of certain Drink [hashish, a narcotic drug, whence their name of Assassins], whereof anon they should be drunk. And then would they think it greater Delight than they had before. And then would he say to them, that if they would die for him and for his Love, that after their Death they should come to his Paradise; and they should be of the Age of the Damsels, and they should play with them, and yet be Maidens. And after that should he put them in a yet fairer Paradise, where that they should see the God of Nature visibly, in His Majesty and in His Bliss. And then would he show them his Intent, and say to them, that if they would go slay such a Lord, or such a Man that was his Enemy or contrarious to his List, that they should not therefore dread to do it and to be slain themselves. For after their Death, he would put them in another Paradise, that was an 100-fold fairer than any of the tother; and there should they dwell with the most fairest Damsels that might be, and play with them ever-more.

“And thus went many divers lusty Pachelors to slay great Lords in divers Countries, that were his Enemies, and made themselves to be slain, in Hope to have that Paradise.”

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