One of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s best known works is the poem Kubla Khan. Yet it was Coleridge’s love of opium, rather than his provocative prose, that has often captured the imagination of many of his critics and admirers alike. And while it is somewhat tragic that his personal habits may have at times overshadowed his uncommon talent, the extent to which his tremendous creativity was in fact fueled by his own lust, is a very interesting question indeed.
Born on October 21, 1772 near Exeter, England, Coleridge’s life was certainly influenced by some of the sad misfortunes that occurred very early in his life. He was one of ten children, fathered by a vicar who passed away in 1782, just a short decade after Coleridge’s birth. At this time, the precocious young Coleridge was sent as a charity student to Christ’s Hospital School.
Even before his father’s death however, it was discovered that Coleridge possessed an extraordinary memory. By his own admission, by the age of six he was a voracious reader, having devoured a considerable number of books. They included Count Belisarius, Robinson Crusoe and Arabian Nights. Each of them was said to have made a considerable impression upon him.
By 1791, he, like some other gifted students of his generation, enrolled in Jesus College, Cambridge. There, he became enthralled with many of the ideas that had spurred the French Revolution. Coleridge even participated in a number of demonstrations to protest against England’s existing war with France.
The shadow floated midway on the waves
By the time Coleridge wrote Kubla Khan in 1797, a date that has been the subject of some debate, his relationship with opium was purportedly still in its infant stages. Triggered by toothache, facial neuralgia and various rheumatic pains, many would argue that the seeds of an addiction had been firmly planted deep within the soil. Yet if we examine Coleridge’s history prior to the onset of his notorious opium use we find that his health was certainly not without incident.
By 1791, Coleridge was immersed in terrible debt. His fondness for opium, alcohol and women were also well known. And as a means to reduce the affects of his impoverishment he joined the army to improve his lot. This however proved to be a big mistake.
Shortly after his admission to the military he was discharged for psychiatric reasons. It has however been suggested that his diagnosis and discharge may have been facilitated, at least in part, by his elder brother, Captain James Coleridge. Protecting his brother from the frightful realities of England’s war with France certainly may have been a motive that led to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s early departure from the British armed forces. And malingering may have also been a factor in his fateful release.
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice
In a thought provoking analysis of the nature of Kubla Khan, American literary critic Elizabeth Schneider discusses the various theories about the extent to which the images in the poem were the product of an “opium dream.” Clearly the reference to the “sunny pleasure dome” coupled with widespread knowledge about Coleridge’s own drug use could lead one to believe that that the poem was the product of chemical compounds activating pleasure deep within the brain.
Other theorists have argued that the structure and nature of the poem itself provides all of the necessary evidence to prove that Coleridge was in fact in a dreamlike state when the poem was first written. Among the most prominent theorists to make this claim is Johnathan Lowes, who says ” Nobody in his waking senses could have fabricated those amazing eighteen lines” “for they possess the distinctive attributes of dreams.” He describes “the dream wrought fabric” when the “sleeping images flock up … from the deeps”.
“The will as a consciously constructive agency was in abeyance”, “with no intervention of a waking intelligence intent upon a plan.” Hence “the linked and interweaving images irresponsibly and gloriously stream, like the pulsing fluctuating banners of the North. And their pageant is as aimless as it is magnificent.”
Mayer Abrams writes that ” the great gift of opium for Coleridge and other writers was access to a new world as different from this as mars may be, and one which ordinary mortals hindered terrestrial conceptions, can never from mere description quite comprehend”. ” It is a world of twisted exquisite
experience”. “Coleridge’s verse caught up the evanescent images of an opium dream and struck them into immobility for all time”.
Kubla Khan 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-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 burst like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the threshers 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 Abysinnian 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.
Beware! Beware! For he on honey dew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise
Surely one could argue that efforts to deconstruct the confounding cryptic nature of Kubla Khan could only miss the mark. Others may even argue that such efforts may undermine the natural beauty that resides in the various images that exist within the poem. And while such criticisms may in some respects be quite valid, the brilliance that shines so brightly invites the reader to take even a closer look.
In an attempt to unravel these images, H.W. Piper contends that the poem contains a depiction of “two paradises.” The first paradise is similar to Old Testament descriptions of the Garden of Eden. Within this garden, life is less restrained, unbridled passions are common, and puritanical conceptions of sin have not yet come into play. Within the poem however it is not long before this paradise is subject to a very long siege. Ancestral voices can be heard prophesying war. Visions of the garden subsequently fade. And a great apocalypse is then fatefully called to the readers’ fearful mind.
In a description that is similar to the vivid imagery of the New Testament’s final chapter Revelation, Piper contends that the poem is a religious revival of sorts. It is a redemption of the human spirit; a divine example of spiritual transcendence.
And at its conclusion a majestic maid, “a damsel with a dulcimer” then appears, purportedly signifying “the Second Coming of Christ”. To Christians the world over “the Second Coming” is considered the final means to rid the earth of man’s scourging sin, and even more importantly, to establish an everlasting Christendom for all who were made in the sacred image of God.
An Absynnian maid singing of Mount Abora
While Piper’s conclusions about the poem are certainly fascinating, other readings are perhaps much more valid. Certainly the poems oblique nature and its relationship to Coleridge’s unconscious mental processes make it quite a challenge to understand.
And while it is debatable whether the final segments of the poem signify “a paradise found” or “a paradise lost,” it is arguable that the latter rather than the former is much more likely.
While it is clear that the “damsel with a dulcimer” refers to a woman from Ethiopia, who is perhaps a
slave, references to Mount Abora are much more opaque. Lane Cooper highlights the confounding, perplexing imagery in Kubla Khan as he describes various images that are sometimes quite conflicting.
Lane Cooper indicates that there is no mountain named Abora in Absynnia, although the name may have been introduced by an ancient traveler. He says that the name Abora may be connected with the river Atbara which rises in Absynnia and falls into the Nile. And Abora may also be a variant of Amara that may have been written in one of the 17th and 18th century books that touch upon the location of a terrestrial paradise.
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
As Coleridge left a subsequent note indicating that he was in fact under the influence of opium at the time in which the poem was first conceived, it is very likely that his psyche was very much focused upon the sensations of pleasure rather than abstract esoteric ideas of religious transformation. It is true however that as Coleridge’s unconscious mind came fully into play while under the influence of opium he may have associated these exquisite drug experiences with some sort of twisted religious belief, at least at the time of his intoxication.
It is also quite interesting to note that despite Coleridge’s opium addiction and the vivid images described within Kubla Khan, he spent much of his life contemplating the realities of the existence of God. Two of Coleridge’s most mature works are Aids to Reflection (1825) and Church and State (1830). In the twilight of his life however it must be noted that Coleridge rejected Unitarianism, the religion of his youth, only to accept a personal form of Christianity he considered to be much more orthodox in nature. Many suggest that the rejection of his childhood faith stemmed from his need to absorb a belief system that would provide the necessary strength to accept his own personal shortcomings.
It is perhaps reasonable to conclude that the poems’ final images refer to a form of bondage representing a state of personal conflict between his desires and efforts to censure such impulses. This state of conflict is consistent with the image of the circle woven round him thrice. Certainly this
symbol as well as other symbols in the poem, is not an image of religious redemption in the biblical sense. The symbols are perhaps more symptomatic of a profound sense of isolation from others; or perhaps even worse, a dreadful alienation from God.
With this in mind it is reasonable to conclude that Coleridge’s acute sensitivity to the unique realities of his own life, and the realities that exist beyond ordinary boundaries, he was able to convey a timeless description of human experience. It is however quite clear that his exceptional abilities did not come without considerable cost. Whether his opium use was sparked by episodes of melancholia or periods of manic fantasy is an issue that has yet to be confirmed.
Kubla Khan or A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (1816).
The Dream of Kubla Khan, Elizabeth Schneider, PMLA, Vol. 60. No. 3, (Sept, 1945) pp. 784-801.
The Two Paradises in Kubla Khan, H.W. Piper, The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol 27, No. 106 (May 1976) pp. 148-158.
A Jungian Reading of Kubla Khan, S.K. Henninger Jr., The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol, 18. No. 3 (Mar.1960), pp. 358-367
The Abysinnian Paradise in Coleridge and Milton, L. Cooper, Modern Philology, Vol. No. 3 (Jan 1906)