Most Misunderstood, Still Enduring—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

My love affair began with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” in 1992 as an MA student. In my class, there was just another friend who appreciated the poem. Our professor spoke about opium, fragments and also spoke about the river Alph, referring to the English language. In 1995, I wrote a term paper in M.Phil. on “Kubla Khan”, talking about how all this idea of opium was Coleridge’s way of pulling wool over people’s eyes. In twenty years of teaching—from an adjunct position to a full time tenure—I have never been fortunate enough to teach one of my first loves in life, “Kubla Khan”. But then, there is always peace about how systems and structures go. While talking to my students at coffee shops on campus, over the last five years or so, I sensed that not much had changed. They were still on an overdose of ‘opium’ and ‘fragment’ when I chatted about “Kubla Khan” with them.

This is not an academic paper but just to arrive at a sense of the poet. It is my belief that Coleridge was one of the most original minds among English poets and the one who was most misunderstood.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What this “Kubla Khan” episode throughout history tells me is that if you are much ahead of your time, you are likely to face intense ridicule. Coleridge first published the poem in 1816 with a Preface, which talked about his taking laudanum, getting into ‘a sound sleep of over three hours’ and on waking up, he wrote these lines, whilst he was called away by a person. So, stood the account of the poem. The poem was also subtitled ‘Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment. ’ This immediately led to a number of attacks on the poet. The poet’s persona took over, critics talked about how the poem was written under the influence of opium and for around a century, no one really looked at the poem carefully.

It was later found out that the young Coleridge gave personal recitals of the poem and a manuscript from 1797 survives at the British Library, London. The poem, in my view, shows an exceptionally intelligent and competent, twenty-five year old, Coleridge, who is much ahead of his time and writes a poem, a masterpiece that talks about the creative process. It is also my belief that, at this young age, Coleridge was trying to develop a new romantic poetic sub-genre called ‘fragment’ and he was apprehensive about publishing the poem so early, as he feared ridicule.

“Kubla Khan”: Manuscript.
“Kubla Khan”: Manuscript.

Coleridge took a full twenty years before he published his poem and that too appending it with a poor defense. And everyone just jumped at him. William Hazlitt, a reputed critic and contemporary of Coleridge, had an unsavoury and an uncritical remark to make. In 1816, he said:

“Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verse than any man in English”.

There were a number of negative reviews and all of them took cue from the Preface that Coleridge had appended to the poem. But in 1821, the respected Leigh Hunt did write a positive review of the poem. In January 1830, writing in Westminster Review, John Bowring had this to say about the poem:

“The tale is extraordinary, but ‘Kubla Khan’ is much more valuable on another account, which is, that of its melodious versification. It is perfect music. The effect could scarcely have been more satisfactory to the ear had every syllable been selected merely for the sake of its sound. And yet there is throughout a close correspondence between the metre, the march of the verse, and the imagery which the words describe.”

Of course, much later, in the twentieth century, there were a number of critics who did put the opium controversy at rest. One such important critic was John Livingston Lowes, who wrote a book length work, Road to Xanadu (1927), on the two poems, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”. Also, in 1953, Elisabeth Schneider wrote glowingly of the poem:

The poem is the soul of ambivalence, oscillation’s very self; and that is probably its deepest meaning. In creating this effect, form and matter are intricately woven.

But what often beats me is the fact that, even in my time, young students have often believed that Coleridge took opium and wrote the poem as a kind of an outpouring. So, this also brings me to the role of the teacher in the classroom, the uncritical nature of the student fraternity, or to put it better still, the failure of the academia to inculcate critical modes of thinking into the minds of young students.

Here is the poem in its entirety for you:

Kubla Khan
Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

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 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 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 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.

One way to look at the poem is to look at Coleridge’s theories about the Secondary Imagination in The Biographia Literaria and analyze the poem in that context. I would do a fine textual analysis of the poem another time. It remains one of my favourite poems and I would certainly return to it in a later post. But I wanted to write this blog post to clarify that one should not just look at a Preface or what the author says about the text as gospel truth and relegate the text to the dustbin of history. If we do that, then as William Hazlitt, history will come to haunt us and show us as utter fools.