July 29, 2021

#08-115: Kubla Khan

color photo of an archaeological site; a wooden walkway traverses below-ground stonework
Alas, all that remains of Shangdu, the real Xanadu

Note: Few fantastic realms have captured the imagination like Coleridge's Xanadu, domain of the emperor Kubla Khan. Let's visit!

Get Ready: What value is there in reading poetry that portrays a fabulous land that never could exist in this world?

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.

With these lines, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge began what many consider to be one of his three great masterpieces (along with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel).

Kubla Khan is not really about the famed Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, though it does have echoes of his biography. "Xanadu," for example, is inspired by Kublai's summer capital, Shangdu. But the account the poem gives is of a fantastical realm, with "caverns measureless to man," described as

A savage place! as holy and [as] enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

The bizarre imagery is really not so surprising: Coleridge is believed to have written the poem in an opium-induced dream. In the poem's preface he says that, when he awoke from that dream, he immediately started writing, and the words just flowed out--until, that is, he was interrupted by "a person on business from Porlock."

This visit, which lasted longer than an hour, he writes, caused the complete poem in his head to break up "like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast." Thus, the poem, which in its completeness would have run 200 to 300 lines long, is cut off at line 54.

A substantial number of critics believe the "person from Porlock" to be a fabrication. In her own poem, "Thoughts about the Person from Porlock," the English poet Stevie Smith wrote:

I think, he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan.
He was weeping and crying, I am finished, finished
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.

So this "Person from Porlock" has taken on many personas. In some, he is the familiar phenomenon called "writer's block," the hindrance to creativity. In others, he is a lame excuse.

In any case, the poem as it stands, though fragmentary, is indeed a work of genius. It evokes a world that never was, one created by a dreamer who, as the last line says, has "drunk the milk of Paradise."


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kubla_Khan

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. bizarre
  2. decree
  3. evokes
  4. fabrication
  5. fantastical
  6. fragmentary
  7. hindrance
  8. lame
  9. opium
  10. personas

  1. command; announce
  2. in pieces
  3. ineffective; weak
  4. a drug derived from poppies
  5. a lie
  6. strange; odd
  7. obstacle; difficulty
  8. identities; personalities
  9. calls forth
  10. strange and wonderful, like in a story; imaginary

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for July 29, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. f; 2. a; 3. i; 4. e; 5. j; 6. b; 7. g; 8. c; 9. d; 10. h