Kubla Khan (Or a Vision In A Dream), di Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most important poets of English literature. He was born in 1772 in Devonshire and he was not only a poet but also a literary critic and a philosopher. Together with Wordsworth, he founded the Romantic Movement in England. His most important works are The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which appears in Lyrical Ballads, Christabel, Kubla Khan and Biographia Literaria. Throughout his life, Coleridge suffered from crippling bouts of anxiety and depression (neuralgia) and doctors prescribed opium to ease his bodily pains but he developed a growing addiction to this drug. One of the results of the influence of opium is the unfinished poem Kubla Khan (or “A vision in a dream”, “A fragment” ). This visionary poem is one of the most famous poems of the Romantic Period. Here Coleridge transcribes a vision that he himself has had in a dream. A vision that seems incomplete, because of an unexpected visit of a friend that made Coleridge forgot the end of the dream, and incomprehensible by a first reading for the absolute lack of logical connections. It was written in 1798 but published only in 1816.

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.

This poem describes Xanadu, the palace of Kubla Khan, a Mongol emperor and the grandson of Genghis Khan. The poem's speaker starts by describing the setting of Emperor's palace, which he calls a "pleasure dome." He tells us about a river that runs across the land and then flows through some underground caves and into the sea. He also tells us about the fertile land that surrounds the palace. The nearby area is covered in streams, sweet-smelling trees, and beautiful forests.
Then the speaker gets excited about the river again and tells us about the canyon through which it flows. He makes it into a spooky, haunted place, where you might find a "woman wailing for her demon lover." He describes how the river leaps and smashes through the canyon, first exploding up into a noisy fountain and then finally sinking down and flowing through those underground caves into the ocean far away. The speaker then goes on to describe Kubla Khan himself, who is listening to this noisy river and thinking about war. All of a sudden, the speaker moves away from this landscape and tells us about another vision he had, where he saw a woman playing an instrument and singing. The memory of her song fills him with longing, and he imagines himself singing his own song, using it to create a vision of Xanadu. Toward the end, the poem becomes more personal and mysterious, as the speaker describes past visions he has had. This brings him to a final image of a terrifying figure with flashing eyes. This person, Kubla Khan, is a powerful being who seems almost godlike: "For he on honey-dew hath fed/And drunk the milk of paradise".

The author himself narrates that in summer 1797, being in bad health, he retires into the countryside; under medical prescription he took on a sedative made with opium, which made him fall asleep, while he was reading a book of journeys of XVII century, Purchas’ Pilgrimages. During the sleep, lasted less of three hours, Coleridge declares to have dreamt some images that presented themselves to him like “things” and he affirms to have had an inspiration so deep as to write more than two hundred verses, as if they were dictated by a mysterious voice. When he woke up, he still kept a clear memory of these lines and therefore he dashed in putting them down in writing. Nevertheless, he was very soon interrupted by an unexpected visit that distracted him from the drafting of the poem, on which he could rework on it only an hour later. So, he perceived, with “a lot of surprise and mortification” that he had still in mind only a vague and generic memory of the vision and that he was able to write a further eight/ten lines at most. Everything else disappeared, like an image on the surface of a river in which a stone is thrown, but unfortunately without showing itself again.
Coleridge, apart from the introduction to the poem, will speak of it very seldomly. Still today, a debate is open on the authenticity and truthfulness of his story: some scholars believe it considering his drafting under sedatives’ effects credible. Others believe, instead, that the author was a prey to a substance assumed to calm his strong rheumatic pains and of which he became in short time dependent. Others support the idea that the story is completely groundless and that the poem had been composed with a perfect clearness of mind, besides being revised and corrected many times before its publication, occurred as a matter of fact only in 1816, almost twenty years after the dream.
On the trustworthiness of Coleridge’s story a theory was founded about dreams highly imaginative provoked by opium, which had a large influence on the Romantic and Decadent literates. Modern science, on the contrary, seems to exclude that drugs can stimulate dreams; if this happens, it considered this an isolated phenomenon. But the person who ceased using stupefacient substances, makes terrible dreams and nightmares.
The name of the poem comes from the ancient Mongolian khan, Kublai Khan (1214 – 1294) who dreamt of a huge palace and on awakening he ordered that an identical one be built, surrounded by a large garden. This is a strange coincidence. In the XIII century the Mongolian Emperor dreamt of a palace and the he had it built; in the XIX century an English poet dreamt of a poem about the same palace, of which he knew only the existence of it but not the reasons of the construction. These were revealed only by Jorge Luis Borges’ essay titled “Coleridge’s dream” (published in 1925) in which he declares that twenty years after the poet’s dream, in Paris, a Persian universal history in fragments appears, named “Compendium of stories of Rashid ud-Din” (dated XVI century). “At East of Shang-tu, Kublai Khan erected a palace, in accordance with a plan that he saw in a dream and about which he kept the memory. This was written by the visionary Ghaza Mahmud, descendant of Kublai. So Coleridge could not know about Kublai’s dream. These circumstances gave charm to the poem; it is as if a spirit that endures in the space of centuries, sometimes appears in a dream to different people, utilized as messengers. This adapts itself to the role that the Romantic artist acknowledges to himself, that of mediator between men and divinities, between real world and afterworld.
The positions of critics and experts are various as regards this fragment; according to someone, it deals with a musical composition besides a poem. Others see in it the explanation of Coleridge’s aesthetic theories (the primary fantasy come from unconscious elements, like visions, that rationality arrange in the formal perfection, that is the secondary fantasy); others think, at last, that this fragment expresses with words the images dreamt by Coleridge. The impossibility to give a unique explanatory key to this work, a key that is completely exhaustive, is evident.
Xanadu is the name of a Chinese province that Coleridge got from a travels book of the XVII century, Pilgrimages (by Samuel Purchas), that he used to create an exotic and adventurous atmosphere. With these words, Coleridge denotes “the magic place of literary memory”. Xanadu is the present Shanton, the summer residence of the first Mongolian Emperor, exactly Kubla Khan, in the XIII century.

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