Xanadu Blues

We’re ending Poetry Month with a bang.

“A Bang”= A 7,936 word post about the nature of poetry and the mind of the poet.



(Now we are here in) Xanadu!

Before the birth of the Romantic Era, the creative unconscious was an ignored territory.  Art and literature had grown stagnant, frequently pigeonholed into firm categories based on their relevant social, political, or scholarly merits. Ideas that expressed any degree of ambiguity, irrationality or paradox were rejected. The Enlightenment, it seems, had done its job too well and looked to be about to reject art as an extraneous gear in its precise clockwork schematic.  Coming along to change all this were the Romantics, who seemed to be the first people in a long time to dare to assert that there might be an untapped source of creative inspiration within the individual. By rejecting convention and rationality they looked deeply within themselves and embraced all that was raw, emotional and incongruous. This idea caught on, and over the course of the 19th Century a new era of art, and perhaps of human consciousness, had begun to blossom.  To illustrate the role of the creative unconscious in Romantic poetry and art, let’s take a look Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kublai Khan’, which, I believe, is one of the most telling poems yet written to explore the interplay between raw imagination and the finished work—in some circles referred to as “the gap.”

First, a bit of back story. Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived one of those difficult, unhappy lives creative types seem to favor, (or are allotted, depending your perspective.) Besides having the misfortune of being born in George the Third’s England, Coleridge suffered from the perpetual vicissitudes of his own nature. Probably bipolar, he experienced crippling anxiety and depression throughout his life, as well as the deprivations of poverty and a habit of cultivating bad relationships. By 1797 he had lived more than a lifetime’s worth of failed plans, nervous breakdowns, unhappiness and squalor. Thanks to the support of his friend William Wordsworth though, he had entered a productive phase of his career, penning such masterworks of the Romantic sensibility as ‘Christabel’ and ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Of course, during this time he also had a monkey on his back in the form of an opium addiction.  Having been prescribed laudanum to alleviate pain, he took to the stuff rather enthusiastically and suffered further diminishing health as a result.

As the well-worn story goes, one night in the autumn of 1797 he retired to bed with a pinch of laudanum and a book on the travels of Marco Polo. Falling into a dream, he saw a strange and exotic vision of Xanadu, pleasure dome of the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan.Upon awakening, he set to work transcribing the vision into a poem.  Entranced, Coleridge wrote furiously, and, without reflection or revision, the poem ‘Kublai Khan‘ sprang forth complete. Or it would have, had there not been a knock on the door. A man from the neighboring town of Porlock had come for Coleridge that morning and, before he could record all of his dream, the man took Coleridge down the road to conduct what we can only assume to be a tedious and mind-numbing bit of business. Three hours later Coleridge returned, and upon sitting down to finish his poem he discovered his vision had been forgotten. He added what vague bits of the dream he could still remember and put the poem away. It stayed where he’d left it until the year 1816, when Lord Byron encouraged him to release it and guaranteed publication.

So, on to the poem itself. The majority of the poem is devoted to descriptions of the edifice of Kublai Khan’s pleasure palace. The first stanza describes the structure and general layout of the palace, with ‘walls and towers girded round,’ ‘gardens bright with sinuous rills,’ and ‘many an incense-bearing tree.’ Further on, there are ancient, unspoiled forests and bright spots of sunlit greenery. Somewhere in this picture there is a ‘Romantic Chasm,’ a place described as being both ‘savage’ and ‘holy’. Depending on how you choose to read it, the chasm may or may not be inhabited by a ‘woman wailing for her demon lover’. This Romantic Chasm, it seems, treats Coleridge to quite a show as it begins to belch up stone and rock, throwing them into the air as if they were ‘chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail’.  Then all hell breaks loose as the torrents of rock fling up the sacred river Alph, flooding the Pleasure Dome before sinking down in to ‘a sunless sea’.  Amidst all this Kublai Khan hears his ancestors prophesizing war and Coleridge is becomes witness to the sight of the palace floating upon the water, as incongruous images and noise meld all around into a sort of dissonant harmony. Then, without even breaking the stanza, Coleridge shifts gears and begins to reflect upon another vision he had seen of a maiden playing the dulcimer. He considers her music, and states that if he could bring such beauty and music as she has produced to his vision of the Pleasure Dome, then he too will be savage and holy, and all will know that he has ‘drunk the milk of paradise’.

To my mind, Coleridge has laid out quite clearly a blueprint of the creative mindset, what the artist must witness and experience in order to produce a work that may be considered inspired. To put it another way, ‘Kublai Khan’ is a poem about writing a poem. First, consider the Dome. Khan’s pleasure palace is a well-manicured, bucolic place made attractive by its attention to form and regularity. Among possible interpretations this could be considered to be the rational, organized part of the mind, the part that is above the surface and clearly visible. It is also closed, static, and, considering its surroundings, a little dull. Further on are the ancient forests of the natural mind, and the romantic chasm which leads to caves and oceans untouched by sunlight, pretty clearly meant to represent the untrodden parts of the mind where deeper forms of creativity dwell. Considering all this to be true, we may also consider the tumult issuing forth from the caves to be the tapped force of that creativity, wreaking havoc upon the staid scene of the Pleasure Dome. Only when the waters have flooded the palace, bringing the destructive and uncontrollable forces of the creative unconscious full center into the abode of the ordered, rational mind, do we have a sight worth beholding. The final part of the poem, seemingly unrelated, actually enforces this point, as Coleridge describes all the elements of his vision intermingling and stresses the desire on the part of the poet to bring them together and harmonize them. Of course, for this image to harmonize a great deal of chaos must play out, and one can assume the Pleasure Dome will be thoroughly ruined in the process (or at least the resale value will diminish). Coleridge hardly construes this destruction as a bad thing, instead seeing only the awe-inspiring and terrible beauty before him.

Some questions regarding the poem’s true nature remain, and they affect the range of possible interpretations. Many scholars believe Coleridge’s story about an opium binge and a sinister Man from Porlock was invented to explain the poem’s fragmentary nature and to give the work some mystique. Such an event would not have been without precedent, since in Coleridge’s ‘Biographica Literaria’ he claims a letter from a friend had interrupted his train of thought by way of explanation for a promised but never delivered hundred-page exposition on the nature of imagination. The friend in question was Coleridge himself.  Although the Man from Porlock’s existence is, I admit, questionable, I suspect he truly did darken Coleridge’s door. The way I see it, Coleridge would have had no reason to lie about the poem’s provenance as that artifice would accomplish nothing. In the environment of late 18th Century England such a poem would be highly outre, and the fact that it was reported to come from a dream would only lead critics to dismiss it as meaningless garbage (which is why it did not see publication for another quarter century). As for Mr. Porlock, we can only look at the text. It seems complete enough, but the way Coleridge changes the subject at the end addresses a desire unfulfilled.  Had he been able to recall and transcribe the dream completely he (probably) would not have needed to editorialize and consider how to write a better poem. The last eighteen lines express frustration and a missed chance at transcendence— I, for one, try to let the work do the talking and tend to believe what it tells me. If Kublai Khan did not spring from a dream then it is an artifice, and we can accept that the message of the poem is that our imagination is at its most inspired when it is filtered through our conscious faculties, as the River Alph flows gently through the grounds of the Pleasure Dome. Since this is expressly not the nature of the poem (as only when all chaos breaks loose is the sublimity of the vision realized,) I think we have to trust Coleridge on the matter.

All this raises a few questions, of course. In the unconscious mind, are we capable of realizing cogent metaphors for our own journey to realization? Is the dreaming mind full of raw materials the rational mind must build upon to create something useful, or is it, rather, a matter of dexterity to capture the visions that spring from us fully-formed?  Is imagination the root of dreaming, or do dreams give us the ability to imagine? I of course have the answer to these questions, but I will give them as soon as I finish a bit of business I have one town over. Until then, good day to you.

[Read and hear the poem here.]



Posted by Kevin


Filed under Poetry Month 2010

2 responses to “Xanadu Blues

  1. Lilly

    Oh! I have had my share of Coleridge’s creative interruptus — great works of art – well, okay, maybe not so great works – but the magic never did come back in its fluidity and I was stuck with 11 billion post it notes… Seriously, what a wonderful essay! Thank you, Kevin. (And you thought you’d never top the Gaga/Rilke Dialectic, ha ha)

  2. Kevin

    Thanks as always Lilly. I think anyone who has evertried to bring a creative project to its finish knows about Coleridge’s complaint. I thin there is a degree of serendipity in Coleridge forgetting his original poem, since there in no reason to think the intended original would have the same general drive as the finished revision.

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