How Coleridge’s Kubla Khan Defied Poetic Convention
Setting up a novel idea is just one way to produce a creative work, like poetry. But, another important way is to stimulate our imagination. Most people behave unimaginatively not because they lack imagination, but because they fear the reaction their ideas will receive. In time, they grow used to suppressing ideas that differ from the norm, ideas that might raise eyebrows. This is exactly what Samuel Taylor Coleridge surpassed when he published his celebrated poem “Kubla Khan”. He defied suppressing his “creative imagination” and demonstrated his lively interest in how the creative imagination works.
“Kubla Khan” was not published until 1816, but the reviews which it then received justified Coleridge’s hesitations. Most found the poem unintelligible and uninteresting. Coleridge’s early and generally conventional poems received high praise. What most critics bash about “Kubla Khan” is how Coleridge gave inconsistent reports of his poetic experience, and that some of his reports are flatly contradicted by documentary evidence. Mahony (1999) informed that:
Nineteenth-century critics tended to dismiss it [Kubla Khan] as a rather inconsequential or meaningless triviality. In large part, this was due to Coleridge’s own introduction to the poem. When it was first published in 1816, he subtitled it “A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment.” The preface went on to note that it was only being “published at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity [Lord Byron], and, as far as the Author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merit.” Coleridge was taken at his word, and for nearly a century the poem was dismissed. After its publication, poet and critic Thomas Moore included the previous quote in his critique in The Edinburgh Review, adding that he totally agreed with Coleridge’s evaluation of its merit. That same year another critic, Josiah Condor, voiced a similar opinion in The Eclectic Review, expressing regret that Coleridge had even bothered to have the poem published and comparing it to a “mutilated statue.”
Aside from the inconsistent historical reports of the poem, Coleridge was also criticized of its lack of poetic merits. As Hewitt (1988) noted,
The Khan’s method results in an illusory order, a shaky structure on the brink of overthrow by the elements it could momentarily ignore but not permanently exclude. The first section draws to a close by adumbrating the destruction of the Khan’s little world: it addresses “ancestral voices prophesying war,” and it shifts its focus from the pleasure-dome to the shadow of the pleasure-dome appearing on waves, waves to which the excluded river and fountain have contributed and which can, by a bit of agitation, break up the mere illusion reflected on them. Following from the architectural vehicle, the tenor of the metaphor indicates the unstable and incomplete nature of a Neo-classicism that tries to exclude structural and thematic elements inconvenient to its limited design. It implies that the poet must take into account all parts of the organic, natural order, for these elements belong in poetry and will surface there despite all rules to the contrary.
However, the many introspective reports of a pleasure-dome, a damsel, and a paradise strongly suggest that creativity cannot be explained by conscious processes alone. Artists and scientists alike have argued that relevant mental processes must be going on unconsciously too. Coleridge, for instance, regarded the unconscious as crucial in the creation of poetry. He was fascinated by the mind’s ability to conjure up many different but surprisingly relevant ideas, and he spoke of the ‘hooks and eyes’ of memory. Indeed, it was because he was so interested in the unconscious associative powers of memory that he troubled to record the sentence he had been reading just before his exotic dream of Xanadu. Moreover, he saw associative memory as relevant not only to literary creativity but to scientific originality as well. Hedley (1998) defended Coleridge’kind of poetry by saying:
Coleridge would not have seen a conflict between the drama of self-consciousness and classical and religious mythology. In “Kubla Khan” he is primarily drawing upon ancient symbols. Furthermore, the imagery in the poem does not represent a shift from the vision of God through ancient myth to the mind of man in “travels, voyages and histories” but is part of his abiding interest in renewing the vision of the divine. It is evident… that Coleridge believed that sublime poetry has a special function in Christian apologetics in its capacity to convey something of the enigmatic perception of the Godhead in religious experience.
Fact shows that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetic vision of Xanadu came to him in an opium-induced reverie. In this case, the new ideas were fleeting, and easily lost through distraction. The haunting imagery of Kubla Khan, with its breathtaking mixture of sweetness and savagery, would have been even richer if the “person on business from Porlock” had not knocked on Coleridge’s cottage-door. As Hedley (1998) wrote:
“Kubla Khan” is undoubtedly influenced by Coleridge’s use of opium, the luxuriant Somerset countryside, and the contemporary interest in travel literature. Yet the link between the Garden city and prophetic or mystical vision in the Christian tradition is so strong that it seems unlikely that the combination in Coleridge’s poem is merely fortuitous. It is a mark of a great artist when he can draw upon deep traditional symbols and images, and employ them in an unusual and perhaps alien context.
In sum, the surprise that we could relate to Coleridge on encountering a creative idea often springs not merely from an unfamiliar activities, but from our recognition that the novel idea simply could not have arisen from the generative rules (implicit or explicit) which we have in mind. As George Santayana said “The degree in which a poet’s imagination dominates reality is, in the end, the exact measure of his importance and dignity”, we could easily forgive the inexact historical references of Coleridge because what is important is that he displayed how his “opium-induced” dream because like much any other creative work, poetry can be open-ended, with no particular goal or aim. Or rather, its goal is a very general one: exploration – where the terrain explored is the mind itself.
Merits of “Kubla Khan”
For what Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” lacks in historical accuracy and poetic structure, the poem redeemed itself in its rich imagery. The marvelous imagery of the poem composed of a paradise surrounding a river rising from underground to drop into the sea has been adduced as a prototype of the distinctive imagism of modern verse: it points the way to “thinking in images.” This affiliation would not have been conscious for Coleridge, whose promotion of reflective poetry made him uneasy with such stunning images. For these distracted from real thinking. His apprehensions have been confirmed by the poem’s success. The sources and associations of its imagery have been traced at exhaustive length. Coleridge’s evocative images have consumed critical response; leading to a conventional view of “Kubla Khan” as an allegory of imagination. The poem has become an oracle of sorts, Xanadu the sacred ground of this arch-romantic power.
Also, “Kubla Khan” possesses a special kind of unity and that it engages its reader in a particular mode of reception, one that mobilizes the poem’s scattered parts into a working whole. Even those critics who very sensibly object to the cult of the fragment–the wholesale imposition of coherence upon the most shattered of texts–cannot resist proposing coherent and encompassing explanations of “Kubla Khan.” This is because “Kubla Khan” enacts and ultimately resolves the poet’s ambivalence toward the poetic model which could be identified as Coleridge’s imaginative ideal. Readers could emphasize the poem’s internal tensions, where they will locate the poem’s generative dichotomy–loosely, a dialectic–in the contrasting descriptions of Kubla’s empire (lines 1-11). On the one hand, more imaginative (that is, holistic and unconscious) creative modality can be seen in lines 12-36.
Thus, the poem’s dialectical structure and its different themes could be connected in the end. It develops through a series of opposing images which are resolved into “mingled measures” and committed to an ideal harmony. Imagination appears here as to have the unifying power to the poem, a source of vision. In a quite different vein of response, “Kubla Khan” can be read as exemplifying Coleridge’s search for a voice as a poet.
This is the reason why; not until the mid-twentieth century, critics began to realize xplore the poem’s meaning and found that it presented a remarkably coherent picture. Despite the fact that critical interpretations of key images and phrases would usually be different from all critics, more and more scholars believe that the main reason, perhaps the only reason, that the poem has been considered incomplete for all these years is because Coleridge said so in his preface. “Kubla Khan” is complex and, at times, ambiguous; the variety of critical interpretations demonstrates this. Obviously, when one read it in its incomplete state, the images would be inexplicable. However, it has some very specific and unambiguous themes, including creation, inspiration, and the loss of that inspiration (Mahony, 1999). With this, Mahony (1999) simplified her own interpretation of “Kubla Khan”. She deemed that the opening stanza introduces a marvelous earthly paradise that Kubla Khan has created. The second stanza takes its readers to “a chasm”, a place of passionate nature that cannot be controlled by any of man’s rules or volition. Incidentally, this section also presents the lifeless ocean. These areas are bound together by the sacred river, which connects the uncontrolled chasm and stagnant ocean with the ordered world of Kubla Khan. Symbolically, the river runs through from passion to order to chaos, from birth through life to death. As the river sinks into the realm of death, it is possible to hear in the tumult the prophecies of war. The stanza ends by mourning the loss of this wondrous pleasure dome where art and nature had briefly been blended together. The third stanza would appear to switch subjects abruptly, opening with a vision of a damsel. Yet, it contains the same theme of creativity and loss that was presented in the first two stanzas. The poet, like Kubla Khan, has a creative vision. If he can recall it–a point that Coleridge leaves undetermined in the poem, he will be able to recreate a vision of Khan’s paradise/pleasure dome. However, both the stanza and the poet fail to do so. The reader sees only the shadow of the pleasure dome at the end of stanza two and is left with the tantalizing promise of what might happen in stanza three.
Mahony (1999) deemed that Coleridge’s elegant rhyme in “Kubla Khan” could assist the reader to create unity around the poem. One example could be drawn from the very first line, in which every syllable is connected by some form of rhyme. Also, almost every line includes some form of alliteration. The second stanza, which is less metrically regular than the first, is equally filled with alliteration: “cedarn cover,” “mighty fountain momently was forced,” “woman wailing.”
Moreover, a detailed reading of “Kubla Khan” one would realize that it exudes a “miraculous musical quality” of the poem, where it is amazingly sprouts from the intricate structure of metric and poetic devices. Also, the unpredictable end-rhyme scheme compels the reader or listener to focus on the words of the poem. This also reinforces the poem’s themes and it is fraught with breaking the conventions of poetry structure. Mahony (1999) explained that:
While the opening seven lines of the first two stanzas follow the same pattern, the third stanza breaks the rule. The subsequent rhyme scheme is different in each stanza. Throughout the poem, the end rhyme is quite elaborate, including some feminine rhymes, in which the rhyme extends for two or more syllables, such as in seething and breathing. Establishing a rhyme scheme and then breaking or embellishing that pattern provides yet another example of creation that initially stays within formal limits, but eventually surpasses its boundaries. It mirrors the difference between Kubla Khan’s formal garden and the sumptuous realm of nature, between the calm of the damsel and the frenzy of the poet.
Aside from breaking poetic conventions, Coleridge is using imagination in precisely the sense which includes fantasy. These “unreal” images might seem, and may be, the products of “fancy” since they are, like the images in a dream, composed of shattered fragments of memory. Fancy too puts together forms, but as in the case of allegory or figures of speech, these are forms constructed in terms of the intelligible discursive order, rearrangements of concepts and parts of concepts which have already been and remain fixed. What imagination “dissolves” is not the familiar thing, but the familiar conceptual order in which should be replaced by an imaginative order whether the images are drawn from familiar landscapes or from strange seas and pleasure gardens which we never have, and never will, see with see with our own eyes.
With Coleridge’s extensive use of imagination, Hewitt (1988) wrote that Coleridge “turned to the imagination to find the alternative to the theories of poetic creation he had inherited from previous generations and found unsatisfactory”. This is why we can consider that “Coleridge ranks the poet among men of genius and characterizes those as intelligent, industrious, temperate, and hard-working”. Where Coleridge failed to follow the conventions of usual poetry, he triumphs in his ability to stem from an “inability to pander to popular taste”:
His is “the poem that does not exist” because it cannot and should not. His is a private ecstasy. It results from an esoteric fantasy and not from an insight into nature. Failing at poetic creation, this poet falls back on the exaggerated affectations of “irritable” genius, relishing his ability to mystify others (“And all should cry, Beware! Beware!”) instead of welcoming a chance to convey his insight to them (as a true poet would).
During its publication, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” bravely faced the odds of poetry structure and convention. “Kubla Khan” belonged to the movement that is not dramatized within the poem. The poem presents us with both vision and visionary, but the visionary appears only afterwards, in the second section of the poem. We are not led to vision; we are simply presented with it. But we are presented with it in such a way that we are forced to read it symbolically. “Kubla Khan” can be, and has been, read as ‘meaning’ nothing but its surface. But so can any poem. It can be, and has been, read as ‘allegory.’ But so can any poem. It is possible to refuse what a poem demands. “Kubla Khan” ‘dissolves’ the normal discursive order, forces us to awareness of a symbolic order, not by leading us away from the familiar but by disregarding it. It would not be quite accurate to say that the poem has no discursive pattern. The gardens occupy twice five miles of fertile ground, and their construction follows upon the Emperor’s decree. But the poem’s space and time definitely not coincide from ours, and we cannot use them to connect it with any conceptualized world which we know. We do not find out anything about the poem by looking up Kubla Khan in a history or by looking for his garden on a map. As a poet, Coleridge triumphed by putting his “world” on paper and let other people experience what he have seen, felt and heard.
As only few intelligent readers of poetry would appreciate “Kubla Khan”, most would either see it as a meaningless dream or as an allegory whose meaning could be stated with equal accuracy in abstract terms. Fortunately, we now have various ways of talking about such poems and time has redeemed Coleridge to belong to the premier poets of modern English tradition, as he is distinguished for the scope and influence of his thinking about poetry as much as for his innovative verse which defied literary convention.
Hedley, Douglas. “Coleridge’s Intellectual Intuition, The Vision of God, and The Walled Garden of ‘Kubla Khan,’” Journal of the History of Ideas, 59.1 (January 1998): 115-34
Hewitt, Regina. “The False Poets in ‘Kubla Khan,’” English Language Notes, 26.2 (December 1988): 48-54.
Mahony, Mary. “Critical Essay on ‘Kubla Khan’,” Poetry for Students, vol. 5, New York: Gale, 1999.