Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'

00:00 Fri 05th Apr 2002 |

One of the greatest poems written in English, 'Kubla Khan' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is loved by many, loathed by some but acknowledged as a classic by almost all.

Q. So, what's all this about sacred rivers and Abyssinian maids Does anyone understand it

A. Does anyone understand it Well, many have claimed to possess the key to the vision of the poem, but whether you do or you don't it's hard not to be carried away by the sheer power of the imagery. And it is simply this which makes it such a great work, unfinished though it is, that the poem's timeless beauty and surrealistic qualities make it stand out as one of the great works of English literature. The vision of a palace built for the mighty Kublai Khan seems to have been inspired by the book Purchas's Pilgrimage, which Coleridge says he was reading when he fell asleep.

'Kubla Khan, Or, a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment' was written in 1797 or 1798, but not published until 1816, after much lobbying by Lord Byron. The preface to the poem, written by Coleridge himself, explains in some detail how it came to be written. Specifically, he claims that the original work came to him in a dream while he was under 'medication' - though Coleridge was well known to be a recreational user of laudanum, a tincture containing a large amount of opium, and modern interpretations tend to concentrate on the drug-related aspect of Coleridge's hallucinatory work.

According to the preface the poem was meant to be some 200-300 lines long and came to the poet fully formed. However, on waking from his dream Coleridge was interrupted after writing only 54 lines.

Q. Enter the 'Man from Porlock'

A. Indeed, the famous man from Porlock. Porlock is a village on the Somerset coast, close to where Coleridge was staying at the time, and its most notorious - but unnamed - son detained the poet mid-flow on some business matter for an hour or more. As a result the man from Porlock has earned himself a place in literary history, even becoming a character in fiction, notably in Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987). In it a modern lover of 'Kubla Khan' goes back in time to try to stop Coleridge being interrupted. Eventually, concerned that no one has turned up, he knocks at the door to find that he himself is the man from Porlock.

Q. OK. Any more

A. After Coleridge's visitor had left all that remained were '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!'

Q. Where was Xanadu anyway

A. Shang-tu, also known as K'ai-p'ing, in south-eastern Mongolia. It was where Kublai, the grandson of Genghis, was elected Khan in 1260 after the death of his elder brother M�ngke.

Q. And a little about STC

A. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772, the 14th child of a Devon clergyman. By the time of his death in 1834, he had written hundreds of poems and prose works, often of a religious or spiritual nature, which have become recognised as significant works within the Romantic canon. His work was varied, ranging from short lyrical ballads through epic supernatural poems to long philosophical tomes.

He is often seen as playing second fiddle to his close friend Wordsworth's lead, but was responsible for shaping much of the other's major writing. Coleridge's work is often beautiful, strange and haunting and his poems are still popular today, especially pieces such as 'The �olian Harp', 'Christabel' and, of course, 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', which, along with 'Kubla Khan', must rank as one of the really great poems in English.

Q. So he was part of the Romantic Movement

A. He was. Taking place roughly between 1780 and 1830, the Romantic Movement, in poetry particularly, can be seen to be the beginning of modern thinking about nature, spirituality and philosophy. During this period poets began to challenge traditional views of rationality, religion and human interaction with the world around us. While still drawing upon the images and sensibilities of their predecessors, the Romantic poets began to assemble a vision of a harmonic universe that did not rely on the old hierarchy of God, human, beast and plant.

The populist view of these men and women is almost one of proto-hippies, wandering around the countryside stoned, hallucinating and becoming one with nature. While some of these elements do hold true, this simplistic interpretation misses many of the deeper social, political, religious and intellectual issues raised by these pioneers. Some of the great names to be associated with the movement were William and Dorothy Wordsworth, William Blake, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Thomas de Quincey.

Q. Not to be confused with

A. The British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912), whose works included a trilogy based on the story of Hiawatha.

For that text in full plus lots of critical material and Coleridge's preface go to

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By Simon Smith

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