In 1797 the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) was staying at Nether Stowey in Somerset, near Dorothy and William Wordsworth, who were resident two miles away at Alfoxden. Coleridge’s time there proved intensively creative, aided by his collaboration with Wordsworth, the stimulus of Dorothy’s presence and the frequent walking tours the three of them took in the surrounding countryside of the Quantocks.
'Kubla Khan' was composed in 1797 during an excursion to nearby Linton and the Valley of the Stones. Although Coleridge recited the poem in company on several occasions it was not published until nearly 20 years later, in Poems (1816), in which he referred to it as ‘a psychological curiosity’.
Coleridge – as he describes in the preface to Poems – took a dose of opium as a painkiller and then fell asleep while reading a passage from Purchas, His Pilgrimes. Purchas was an epic religious geography published in 1613 in which the clergyman Samuel Purchas discusses Xanadu, the summer palace built by the Mongol ruler, Kubla Khan. Coleridge claimed that on waking from his opium-induced dream, he was conscious of having composed in his sleep a few hundred lines, which he then set down on the page. According to Coleridge, the poem was only a fragment of a larger work played out in his dream. He claimed he was interrupted by an unwelcome visitor from Porlock and, on returning to his writing an hour later, found that the rest of the work had slipped from his memory. Beneath the poem, Coleridge has written:
This fragment with a good deal more, not recoverable, composed, in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium, taken to check a dysentery, at a Farm House between Porlock and Linton, a quarter of a mile from Culbone Church, in the fall of the year, 1797. S.T. Coleridge.
The story of the interruption is most likely a fiction, but it has found a permanent place in literary tradition. Indeed, the account of the poem’s origin is almost more famous than the poem itself.
The manuscript is a fair copy (a neat copy), though it does have some corrections and revisions. It was written out on two sides of blue-tinted paper, in preparation for being sent to the printer. It shows evidence of numerous substantive textual changes and apparently predates the version published in 1816.