An introduction to 'Kubla Khan: or A Vision in a Dream'

An introduction to Kubla Khan: or A Vision in a Dream

Dr Seamus Perry considers the composition and publication history of Kubla Khan, and explores how Coleridge transforms language into both image and music.

Coleridge’s famous and mysterious poem was written, probably, in the autumn of 1797. According to a note written at the bottom of the one manuscript that survives (it is in the British Library) Coleridge was taken ill at a farmhouse, presumably while out walking; and he took some opium to quell the pain. Opium has an exotic or transgressive tang to a modern reader, but it was the pain-killer freely available in Coleridge’s day: he didn’t take the drug to provoke a dream vision, but that (so he claims) is what happened, ‘in a sort of Reverie’.

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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An enquiry into the nature of the human soul

An enquiry into the nature of the human soul [page: vol. 2 title page]

In An Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Soul, Andrew Baxter writes about the kind of knowledge to be found in dreams. Coleridge read and admired the work throughout his life, saying that he 'should not wonder [if] Andrew had thought more on the subject of Dreams than any other of our Psychologists'.

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The pleasure dome

What did he see? The short answer is, to begin with, an extraordinary piece of architecture, ‘A stately pleasure-dome’ (l. 2), which was built in the Mongolian summer capital by one of the great Emperors of ancient Tartary, Kubla, the grandson of Genghis Khan; but Coleridge’s interest does not seem especially drawn by the cruel despotism that would probably have been his reader’s first association. Coleridge’s Khan is a kind of artist, summoning into being with a God-like command not only the beauty of the pleasure-dome but the ordered loveliness of its cultivated gardens, full of sweet smells and tinkling streams, all sheltered from the outside world by robust ‘walls and towers’ (l. 7).

The natural history of Xanadu

The second verse then turns to picture that outside world, which it places in stark antithesis to the pleasures of the garden: ‘But oh!’ Outside, nature is exuberant, tumultuous, violent, ‘savage’, full of erotic feeling (‘woman wailing for her demon-lover’), and punctuated chiefly by exclamation marks (l. 12; l. 14; l. 16). The energy of the scene is superbly conveyed through breathless, on-running sentences, and the verse comes to a close with a vivid sense of that energy’s potential for destruction: ‘And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far / Ancestral voices prophesying war!’ (ll. 29–30). We learn no more about the character of this strange family curse, if that is what it is; but the mention is enough to cast some doubt on the survival of the pleasure-dome, a magnificent creation which now feels perhaps somewhat over-shadowed by the unruly splendour of the sublime scenery that surrounds it.

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; it described Chinese design in a way that was more authentic than most previous writing on the subject.

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‘A miracle of rare device’

At this point Coleridge pulls off one of the great surprises of the poem: having set before us two antithetical territories of the imagination, he now finds a way of blending them together, as though a fuller kind of creativity should partake of both. The blending happens, not in the objective world, but within an act of consciousness: we are to imagine someone standing by the river, seeing the dome’s ‘shadow’ (which can mean ‘reflection’ at this period) on the water, and at the same time listening (‘Where was heard’) to the sound of the mighty fountain, which is its source, and the noise of the dark underground caverns into which it crashes (l. 31; l. 33). The opposing ingredients of the poem are brought together in ‘a miracle of rare device’ (‘device’ meaning ‘devising’, ‘inventing’): this act of artistry feels like it surpasses even what the mighty Khan had managed in the first verse (l. 35). Many years later Coleridge would describe how the imagination reveals ‘itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities’[1], a view which his early poem seems to anticipate in more intuitively sensory terms.

A damsel with a dulcimer

But then the poem makes its second surprising turn: when it felt like it had done its dialectical business, miraculously synthesising opposites into reconciliation, it changes tack with an almost comic abruptness, introducing the ‘I’ of the poet for the first time. He imagines an enigmatic ‘damsel’, playing on a musical instrument, and singing about ‘Mount Abora’ or, as Coleridge originally had it, ‘Mount Amara’ (l. 37; l. 41). Like the poem at large, this is as much a lovely piece of word music as it is a gesture to a real geography; but it carries meaning too: Mount Amara was one of the candidates for the site of Paradise that Milton mentions in Paradise Lost (Book 4, l. 283); and the thought of Eden, once set loose in the poem, now casts its retrospective influence on our sense of the fragility of Kubla’s walled garden. The damsel is a figure of poetic inspiration, but her powers are evoked here only to be felt missing: were she to sing, the poet would then be able to recreate the dome and its landscape; but the conditional mood of the lines (‘Could I …’, ‘I would …’) conveys this to be a wish rather than any realised achievement (l. 42; l. 46). The troubled reception his possible act of creation would gain is very striking, and suggests one last bursting out of the disruptive energies which the poem, like the Khan, has struggled to restrain: the hypothetical audience treats the inspired poet as a danger, best kept within the safety zone of the woven circle.

So, Coleridge ends his poem on an unexpectedly ambiguous note, with the triumphant act of creativity that we might reasonably have thought we had just witnessed turning out to be deferred to another day and more propitious circumstances. Coleridge’s attitude towards his ‘Kubla Khan’ is correspondingly hard to pin down. He did not print the poem for years, and when finally he did publish it, in 1816, he added a preface which described it as a mere ‘psychological curiosity’ and told an elaborate story about its composition. The poem, he says, was inspired by a sentence from the Renaissance historian Samuel Purchas: ‘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’. (What Purchas actually wrote was closer to the poem: ‘In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately palace, encompassing sixteene Miles of Plaine ground with a wall …’.) The poem arises magically unbidden in Coleridge’s sleep (‘all the images rose up before him as things’); and upon waking he begins to transcribe what his inward eye had seen – at which point he is interrupted by a tenacious ‘person on business from Porlock’ who detains him so long that when he gets back to his desk he has forgotten the rest. It is a great piece of mythmaking, and in its funny and rueful way, it rehearses the note of incomplete creativity that the poem will generate much more charismatically. But is the poem itself really unfinished? It is hard to think of a poem that sounds more utterly completed when we arrive at its last lines (‘And drank the milk of Paradise’); but then, as the distinguished scholar John Beer once remarked, ‘One can continue a poem in the middle ... as well as at the end’.[2]

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

This work by Samuel Purchas (1625) was the source for Coleridge’s information about Xanadu, ‘Xamdu’ in Purchas’s text. The book describes the flora, fauna and architecture of the palace and its grounds.

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[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), chapter 14.

[2] John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary (London: Chatto & Windus, 1959), p. 275.

  • Seamus Perry
  • Seamus Perry is a Fellow of Balliol College and an Associate Professor in the English Faculty, University of Oxford. He is the author of books and articles about, among others, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, T S Eliot, and W H Auden.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.