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 was 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 the 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 ‘midst 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, Kublai 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 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 in holy dread:
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise!”
Kubla Khan – A Traveller’s Tale
Kubla Khan is full of images from Coleridge’s omnivorous reading. We know he had read James Ridley’s Tales of the Genii in which sultans, brooks and rivulets, mountains and spacious caverns figure large. John Milton’s ‘delicious Paradise’ and ‘fertil ground’, Samuel Purchas’s ‘sumptuous house of pleasure’ and ‘Damosels skilfull in Songs’, and Herodotus’s ‘fountains…unfathomable’ are all echoed in the poem; Dryden translates from Virgil that ‘Alpheus…has found/…a secret passage under ground’ and James Bruce, whose account of his Nile explorations was published in 1790, writes of a prophecy that Abyssinia will be set free after the slaying of a king. All these elements and more besides, are woven into Coleridge’s poem.
The person from Porlock – and what happened to the rest of Kubla Khan.
Coleridge probably wrote ‘Kubla Khan’ in 1797, at Ash Farm near Culbone Church, between Porlock and Linton. He was living at Nether Stowey at the time and took frequent long walks above the Bristol Channel, both alone and with the Wordsworths.
One day Coleridge had a sleep and on awaking, started to write down the poem but was interrupted ‘…by a person on business from Porlock…’ When he returned to his room the poem ‘…had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast…’ so Coleridge claims in the preface. Did this alliterative yet anonymous individual really exist? Or is he a perfect excuse for Coleridge’s chronic inability to see things through (albeit an excuse that can only plausibly be used once)?