‘Kubla Khan’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
A savage place ! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover !
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced :
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail :
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war !
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves ;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

When I was 18 I wrote half a very bad and naive novel in which the hero died, and this hero’s epitaph consisted of the last two lines of this poem. I mention this embarrassing anecdote simply because the fact that I chose these lines to sum up my hero’s life demonstrates what in incredible impact this poem had on me at that time. When I first read Kubla Khan I couldn’t believe its beauty and had to read it again and again. And another thing that happened, and that happens with all my favourite poems, is this: I felt the need to read it aloud. I feel like that is the sign of a poem that I will keep: one that I want to read aloud.

I think that perhaps it is the pure music of this poem that has made it so famous and enduring. And then there is also the story. The story is one with which Coleridge prefaced his poem, asserting that he wrote Kubla Khan upon waking from an opium-induced sleep. He supposedly had a dream about Kubla Khan and when he woke up this beautiful verse simply poured out of him, without strain or effort (I know, I don’t believe him either.) Then poor Coleridge was interrupted by a visitor at the door, and this broke his flow of poetry. So, he could not finish the poem. This is why, in his poetry collection, Kubla Khan is categorised as a Fragment. I think the “damsel with a dulcimer” part and beyond is the post-interruption part of the poem. Up until this point you have this incredibly rich description of the fictional land of Xanadu with its “sacred river”, its “caverns measureless to man” and the “forests ancient as the hills”. Then the latter part of the poem seems to be the poet grasping frantically in the dark for the “vision once [he] saw”, which he cannot recover.

If only the poet could “revive within [himself]” the “symphony and song” of his vision, he could write the most glorious, heavenly poetry, in fact, he would “build that dome in air,/ That sunny dome! those caves of ice!” This unattainability of a vision which has come from some source uncontrolled by the poet (i.e. the Muse?) is a very Romantic notion.

But it is the last part of the poem that I love the most — the part where Coleridge tells us what he would do if he could only recreate the magnificence of his vision. When he says, “And all who heard should see them there” it makes me think that Coleridge longs to recreate what he has seen so faithfully that readers would physically “see” the vision for themselves. Then there is that couplet I love so much:

And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !

I just adore the drama of these words, the delicious rhyme setting you up for the crashing finale:

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

This weaving a circle round him thrice brings to mind the idea of ritual for me, and that “holy dread” reinforces it. There is certainly something holy or sacred about this poem — about all great poems. The poet who can recreate his visions is one to be revered, one to ritualise (haven’t we made some sort of ritual or religion of our greatest authors? Shakespeare? Criticising Shakespeare is like blasphemy, even to people who have never heard one of his poems or plays.) The final two lines — my poor hero’s epitaph — express, in my opinion, the awe we can feel before the works of great artists, poets and musicians. Heaven is occasionally attained in art — by those blessed artists who have “drunk the milk of Paradise” — and when it is, it leaves us in a slightly dazed state, not quite sure where we are anymore. As a final thought I will say that that I think the last lines of this poem are akin in tone to those of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: “fled is that music: – do I wake or sleep?”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh