Kubla Khan - Background


In September 1797, Coleridge lived in Nether Stowey in the south west of England and spent much of his time walking through the nearby Quantock Hills with his fellow poet William Wordsworth and Wordsworth's sister Dorothy; (His route today is memorialized as the "Coleridge Way".) Throughout the autumn, he worked on many poems, including "The Brook" and the tragedy Osorio. Some time between 9 and 14 October 1797, when Coleridge says he had completed the tragedy, he left Stowey for Lynton. On his return, he became sick and rested at Ash Farm, located at Culbone Church and one of the few places to seek shelter on his route.

Coleridge described how he wrote the poem in the preface to his collection of poems, Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep, published in 1816:

In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in 'Purchas's Pilgrimage:' '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.' The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter:

Then all the charm
Is broken--all that phantom-world so fair
Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread,
And each mis-shape the other. Stay awhile,
Poor youth! who scarcely dar'st lift up thine eyes--
The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon
The visions will return! And lo! he stays,
And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
Come trembling back, unite, and now once more
The pool becomes a mirror.

Yet from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him. but the to-morrow is yet to come. As a contrast to this vision, I have annexed a fragment of a very different character, describing with equal fidelity the dream of pain and disease.

The book Coleridge was reading before he fell asleep was Purchas, his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present, by the English clergyman and geographer Samuel Purchas, first written in 1613. The book contained a brief description of Xanadu, the summer capital of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. The text about Xanadu in Purchas, His Pilgrimage, which Coleridge admitted he did not remember exactly, was:

"In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place."

This quotation was based upon the writings of the Venetian explorer Marco Polo who is widely believed to have visited Xanadu in about 1275. In about 1298-1299, he dictated a description of Xanadu which includes these lines:

"And when you have ridden three days from the city last mentioned (Cambalu, or modern Beijing), between north-east and north, you come to a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan now reigning. There is at this place a very fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

Round this Palace a wall is built,inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to

supply food for his gerfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew.")...

Marco Polo also described a large portable palace made of gilded and lacquered cane or bamboo, and supported against the wind by two hundred silk cords, which could be taken apart quickly and moved from place to place. This was the "sumptuous house of pleasure" mentioned by Purchas, which Coleridge transformed into a “stately pleasure dome.”

In 1934, a copy of the poem known as the Crewe Manuscript was discovered and it contained a note about the origin of Kubla Khan. Coleridge attributed the poem's origins to one of his stays at Ash Farm, possibly the one that happened in October 1797: "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 dysentry, at a Farm House between Porlock & Linton, a quarter of a mile from Culbone Church, in the fall of the year, 1797".

Unlike Coleridge's normal approach to his poetry, he did not mention the poem in letters to his friends. The first written record of the poem is in Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal, October 1798. It is possible that the poem was recited to his friends during this time and was kept for private use instead of publication. However, the exact date of the poem is uncertain because Coleridge normally dated his poems but did not date Kubla Khan. Coleridge did write to John Thelwall, 14 October 1797, to describe his feelings related to those expressed in the poem:

I should much wish, like the Indian Vishna, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotos, & wake once in a million years for a few minutes – just to know I was going to sleep a million years more ... I can at times feel strong the beauties, you describe, in themselves, & for themselves – but more frequently all things appear little – all the knowledge, that can be acquired, child's play – the universe itself – what but an immense heap of little things? ... My mind feels as if it ached to behold & know something great – something one & indivisible – and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns give me the sense of sublimity or majesty!

The thoughts expressed in Coleridge's letter date Kubla Khan to October 1797, but two alternatives have been postulated by Coleridge's biographers: May 1798 and October 1799. These were both times he was in the area, and, by 1799, Coleridge was able to read Robert Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer, a work which also drew on Purchas's work. It is possible that he merely edited the poem during those time periods, and there is little evidence to suggest that Coleridge lied about the opium-induced experience at Ash Farm.

The work was set aside until 1815 when Coleridge compiled manuscripts of his poems for a collection titled Sibylline Leaves. The poem remained buried in obscurity until a 10 April 1816 meeting between Coleridge and George Gordon Byron, a younger poet, who persuaded Coleridge to publish Christabel and Kubla Khan as fragments. Leigh Hunt, another poet, witnessed the event and wrote, "He recited his 'Kubla Khan' one morning to Lord Byron, in his Lordship's house in Piccadilly, when I happened to be in another room. I remember the other's coming away from him, highly struck with his poem, and saying how wonderfully he talked. This was the impression of everyone who heard him." Byron arranged for John Murray to publish the poem with Christabel and "The Pains of Sleep" along with prefaces to the works. A contract was drawn up on 12 April 1816 for 80 pounds. Charles Lamb, poet and friend of Coleridge, witnessed Coleridge's work towards publishing the poem and wrote to Wordsworth: "Coleridge is printing Xtabel by Lord Byron's recommendation to Murray, with what he calls a vision of Kubla Khan – which said vision he repeats so enchantingly that it irradiates & brings Heaven & Elysian bowers into my parlour while he sings or says it". Coleridge stayed in London to work on the poem and also to try and break his opium addiction.. However, not everyone was happy with the idea of the poem's being published, as Coleridge's wife, who was not with him, wrote to Thomas Poole, "Oh! when will he ever give his friends anything but pain? he has been so unwise as to publish his fragments of 'Christabel' & 'Kubla-Khan' ... we were all sadly vexed when we read the advertisement of these things."

The collection of poems was published 25 May 1816, and Coleridge included "A Fragment" as a subtitle to the 54 line version of the poem to defend against criticism of the poem's incomplete nature. The original published version of the work was separated into 2 stanzas, with the first ending at line 30. Printed with Kubla Khan was a preface that claimed an opium induced dream provided Coleridge the lines. The poem was printed four times in Coleridge's life, with the final printing in his Poetical Works of 1834. In the final work, Coleridge added the expanded subtitle "Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment". In some later anthologies of Coleridge's poetry, the Preface is dropped along with the subtitle denoting its fragmentary and dream nature. Sometimes, the Preface is included in modern editions but lacks both the first and final paragraphs.

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