Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Kubla Khan

The son of a vicar from the parish of Mary St Ottery in rural Devon Samuel Taylor Coleridge was to become one of the most significant literary critics of his time and the founder along with his friend William Wordsworth of the Romantic Movement which would later also include Byron, Shelley, Blake, and the always somewhat detached Robert Southey.

Suffering from ill-health and depression all his life there is a darkness in Coleridge’s soul that etched in the ink of his quill is perhaps lacking in the other Romantic Poets with the exception of Blake.

Coleridge took drugs not just for recreation but from pain and was a laudanum addict from an early age. Whilst staying with Wordsworth and his sister in the Lake District he began taking a potent mix of opium and alcohol known as Kendall Black Drop that gave him the most terrible nightmares that tormented his sleeping hours but inspired his waking ones.

Kubla Khan, written in 1797 but not published until 1816 was, he later wrote, inspired by an opium induced vision of Xanadu – but it was a dream not a nightmare.

Kubla Khan

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
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.

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