In 1816, Coleridge began “Kubla Khan” with an introduction that explained why others should not destroy the poem in their criticism, but enjoy it for itself. He begins his preface by claiming that another title might be “A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment,” but that the poem itself seems complete. This is akin to a young artist claiming that his art is not yet perfected, and then parting the proverbial curtain to reveal a painting of such skill that the ancient masters might have envied. This may be done to defend the poem, which has relatively of what typifies Romantic poetry, against the attacks of critics in Coleridge’s own day, as it does not seem to be true about the poem itself.
By attributing the images of “Kubla Khan” to a dream (identified later as a drug-induced reverie), Coleridge allows people to dream a bit themselves as they read the poem, something forgotten in the Neo-Classical period, but seeing something of a rebirth with the Romantics. Imagination is the key to “Kubla Khan,” and is the source from which it stems. The work Purchas his Pilgrimage is in part to blame (or praise) for Coleridge’s dream, according to the introduction, because the plot of the poem resides within it, and was his last thought before falling into sleep.
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As Benjamin Franklin once claimed to do, Coleridge goes on to quote himself with much gravity. His carefully cited poem tells how, though his concentration was broken, the great dream he had known would come to light again. He makes excuse as to why his poem has not yet reflected the true image of his dream, and lets readers make do with what fragments he can attach to the fleeting reminders that remain.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree,” the poem begins. The cadence of the words is unmistakable, and the words seem to have a power of their own. Where is this place, this Xanadu, readers ask themselves, and what of Kubla Khan? Astute readers might recognize Kubla from Chinese history, the warlord who began the Mongol dynasty. Those who do not look too deeply, see instead the wonder of fantastic times and places, enjoying more and thinking somewhat less. A stately pleasure-dome, these readers postulate, is not such a bad idea at all, perhaps I shall make one for myself.
The power of Kubla Khan (as indeed of “Kubla Khan”) is implied rather than stated. Coleridge does not describe a stately throne or golden crown, but simply that Kubla has the power to create by will alone. This is much like Coleridge’s own power in the creation of “Kubla Khan” and of all poets to their works. A pleasure-dome is made because Kubla wishes it to be so. Through his mind’s eye and his vast imagination, Kubla has envisioned a great dome girdling miles of beautiful nature. By will and imagination, Kubla subdues nature and makes it an object of his own. This wouldn’t have won Kubla any points with Coleridge’s friend Wordsworth, and perhaps it is that very voice of Coleridge’s Romantic ancestor that later prophesies war.
There are two blemishes on Kubla’s power, outside forces that run deep and confound even the great builder. The first mystical blight on Kubla’s world is a chasm running through the hills and forests. It is a magical place that seems to breathe, and erupts into violent spasms, coughing up vast chunks of earth. This chasm disturbs the river upon which Kubla has constructed his great walls and towers, and thus disturbs Kubla himself. It seems as though this chasm might be the result of an earthquake, a primal natural force, that changes forever the Alpheus’ course. The river runs a similar course, through wood and dale to deep dank caverns, but its tumult, which was once within Kubla’s realm, is now heard from far. The shadow of Kubla’s dome, which once girdled the whole of a beautiful stretch of nature, fed by the river, now falls midway upon the waves it once encircled.
If the chasm did alter the course of the river (it is rather difficult to say for certain from the poem itself), then this could symbolize the power of nature to overcome the ingenuity of man. Like the theme of Jurassic Park, this implies that man’s imagination might be better spent on more innocent pursuits, and that perhaps nature has a wisdom of her own that humanity ought to let lie. The chasm, whether or not it affects directly the river, does have a negative effect on Kubla, for it is during the eruption of the chasm that he hears of an impending war.
The second dark force in Kubla’s life is the prophecy of doom. Sounded by ancestral voices crying out to Kubla, war is prophesied, but is not seen in the poem. Instead, the poem changes to the first person, praising the idea of the pleasure-dome and wishing to build the dome in air. This seems to be Coleridge lamenting the loss of his vision, and claiming that if it were to be had again that he could do great things with it. This opium-induced dream never does return, or if it does it was never put to paper, for as Coleridge says more than fifteen years after the work’s composition, “the to-morrow in yet to come.”
If imagination is the basis for the poem, power is the theme. Kubla, for all his might and majesty, faces the fact that he is not a god. Coleridge, on realizing that his dream has faded with time, and that he may never reach the truest form of it by description and poetry, realizes that he too is not a god. Like in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge creates a situation and a world that are entirely his own. The power of creation, “Kubla Khan” warns, is the danger of overextending one’s boundaries. Kubla became mad with power, and nature struck him down, while Coleridge felt the ultimate muse brush past him, leaving him with fragments of what might have been.
This life we have, this beauty that we have around us, Coleridge seems to say, is enough. It needs not to be captured, nor does it need to be fully explored to understand its nature. It is by overreaching the power that God grants to men that each will find his downfall. The poem “Kubla Khan” is about poetry, and art in general. It is about power and rulership. It is about living to fulfillment, and not being dissatisfied when we come near our mark but fall just short. Enjoying the near perfection that we are allowed, this call to art rather than to arms, is the only way for each person to drink deeply of the milk of Paradise.
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