Kubla Khan and Coleridge's exotic language

Poet Daljit Nagra explains how Coleridge uses language, form and imagery to create the heady exoticism of Kubla Khan.
Writers often create a feeling of otherness by making exotic references. The exotic can be simply defined as a description having the characteristics of a distant foreign place. Western knowledge about the world beyond Europe originally came from explorers and tradesmen who returned with stories of remarkable places and people with strange habits and customs. The most unfamiliar settings and cultures often inspired the greatest interest. By the time of the Romantic period, poets would recreate exotic worlds as an expression of their heightened imagination. Some of these writers used drugs, which they felt would induce glimpses of the exotic. Coleridge was one such writer; he may even have exaggerated his drug use as a means of self-publicity given readers’ fascination with the idea of the heightened creativity of the drugged genius.

Under the influence of opium

Coleridge originally took opium in its medicinal form, Laudanum, to alleviate the pain in his knees, which had kept him bed-ridden for several months. His sustained use created a dependency but also, he believed, inspired his verse; to such an extent, in fact, that the absence of drugs deprived him of inspiration as in the well-known account of the writing of ‘Kubla Khan’. Coleridge claimed that the poem had come to him while under the influence of opium, but that his creative vision was interrupted by a man from the village of Porlock who knocked on his door about some business. By the time their exchange had ended, almost an hour later, the vision had fled, and when Coleridge returned to the poem he could record no more of it. Academics may have argued about the reliability of this story, but the man from Porlock now exists as a metaphor of daily realities undermining creative genius.

An Inquiry into the Nature and Properties of Opium

Samuel Crumpe's Inquiry into the Nature and Properties of Opium (1793) considers the medical uses of opium. Coleridge took opium 'to check a dysentry' as well as for more recreational purposes. 

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Exotic qualities

‘Kubla Khan’ may have been embarked upon after a drug induced state but it has been carefully crafted despite its fragmentary nature. There is a clear-headed line-by-line mastery and control of poetic forms, not least Coleridge’s deliberate use of exotic language and imagery to help him create a powerful sense of otherness. The poem’s exotic qualities are present from the opening line, which is incredibly charged and emphasises two Eastern names. The syntactically wrought nature of the opening energises the force of these names: the opening could read, ‘Kubla Khan decreed that a stately pleasure-dome be built in Xanadu’ but Coleridge instead states, much more memorably: ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree…’ We do not know who Kubla Khan is or his motive for building the dome, and this lack of knowledge allows us to focus on the fabulous construction. Alongside these decontextualised names is that of the river, Alph. Many critics believe that Coleridge is referring to Greek river Alpheus. If this is the case he is positioning our imaginations both in the Classical past of Europe and the past of the East through references to Xanadu, the palace of a Mongol ruler, and Kubla Khan, emperor of China.

Purchas his Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions

Purchas his Pilgrimage  (1613) is a survey of the religions and cultures of the world written by Samuel Purchas; Coleridge stated that he was reading it before he wrote ‘Kubla Khan’.

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Forbidden, primitive, enchanting and savage

The exotic usually has a forbidden quality because it is not easy to access. It may also appear primitive and at one with nature; its lack of modern sophistication removes it further from our western mechanised world, and Coleridge relies on these assumptions to describe the region in which the pleasure-dome exists. The pleasure-dome is described in general terms to heighten the foreign mood, the caverns are described as being ‘measureless’, the sea exists in a ‘sunless’ area, and many perfections abound such as ‘gardens bright’, ‘sinuous rills’, ‘incense-bearing tree[s]’, and even the forests are recalled in terms of time and ageless features, ‘forests ancient as the hills’. Coleridge then intensifies the exoticised landscape by describing it as being, ‘A savage place! as holy and enchanted / As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted…’ The exclamatory reference to the ‘place’ is a warning because we then learn it is seductive, ‘enchanted’, and the half-rhyme of ‘enchanted’ and ‘haunted’ all reinforce the feeling that the holiness here is heathen. Coleridge has brought us to the altar of a dark and dangerous region that he is enticed by and we in turn cannot but help enjoy as the strong rhythms and the lively language put us under the enchantment of this powerful exotic world.

Designs of Chinese Buildings and Furniture

William Chambers’s  Designs of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines and Utensils (1757) was drawn from the author’s years spent in China.

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Visions of women

Descriptions of women are central to the poem. Coleridge first mentions a ‘woman wailing for her demon-lover!’ who is situated in a ‘deep romantic chasm’. From this lowered region she has been condemned to the most intense grief by the absence of her ‘demon-lover’. Coleridge’s rich description of the effect of such grief on the woman is key to heightening the poem’s exotic mood. In the final section of the poem, which reads as if written after the man from Porlock knocks at the door, Coleridge describes an exotic vision of an Abyssinian maid playing a dulcimer and singing of Mount Abora, a place which does not exist in the real world. Coleridge expresses a desire to revive the vision to the extent that it could transport him back to the pleasure dome and frustration that this is not possible. ‘Kubla Khan’ gives us a too-brief glimpse into an exotic world and by snatching it away, gives us a wonderful insight into the limits of a great Romantic imagination.

Manuscript of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'

Manuscript of S T Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' [folio: 1r]

The ‘Crewe manuscript’ of ‘Kubla Khan’, in Coleridge’s handwriting, was made before the publication date of the poem (1816), and shows several differences from the published version.

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  • Daljit Nagra
  • Daljit Nagra comes from a Punjabi background. He was born and raised in London then Sheffield. He has won several prestigious prizes for his poetry. In 2004, he won the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem with Look We Have Coming to Dover! This was also the title of his first collection which was published by Faber & Faber in 2007. This won the South Bank Show Decibel Award, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and was nominated for The Costa Prize, The Guardian First Book Prize, the Aldeburgh Prize and the Glen Dimplex Award. His second collection, Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man Eating Tiger-Toy Machine!!! was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. His current book, Ramayana, was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize.

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