Or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.
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-burning tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic cavern which slanted
Down the green hill hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e`re 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 afar
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.
The stories swirling around this astonishing poem are as legendary as the work itself; if Coleridge is to be believed, it is a mere fragment of a much greater whole which drifted away into the ether of his consciousness as the hallucinogenic qualities of the opiate he had taken were interrupted, and then lost when he heard a knocking on his door.
It may be too good to be true, or just a device to explain away the supposedly unfinished nature of the poem. He may have just simply lost a stitch in his creative thread and was unable to see the pattern of the weave to progress. It happens to the very best.
Whatever, the story is a fairly straightforward one as we are given a grand tour of Kubla`s palace of wonders, with it`s gardens, cloud topped towers, exquisite food and beautiful music wandering beside us like a spectral angelic host.
It possesses the self indulgent racist undertones of the society of the day, in as much as Europeans tended to view all oriental despots as idle, indulgent, pleasure seeking individuals who spent someone else`s hard earned graft on personal comfort. The White, Anglo-Saxon work ethic which had made England a world power was thought to be singularly lacking in the oriental mindset.
Whether the poem is indeed unfinished is perhaps a rather moot point: all dreams are fleeting, flighty and gossamer thin in their fragility; they more often than not end abruptly for no apparent reason.
Kubla Khan is a portrait of the mind; Romanticism`s emotionalism is projected onto words which convey a certain unease at play. Kubla has attempted to create a safe pleasure haven for himself, cocooned from the realities and terrors of the outside world; but just maybe Coleridge is saying that we must live in reality and confront our fears head on. Self delusion is just a dream within a dream, and sooner or later, life will jump up and bite us all on the backside, no matter how far, or how fast we run.