Kubla Khan

.. down, have faded into the light of common day and must be reconstructed from memory. Between the conception and the execution falls the shadow. Coleridge confronts these problems directly in lines 37-54 (the section beginning with the Abyssinian maid), where he enters the poem as lyric poet in propria persona. The vision of Kubla’s Xanadu is replaced by that of a damsel singing of Mount Abora — an experience more auditory than visual and therefore less susceptible of description by mere words. Moreover, it involves in an equivocal way a vision within a vision, since the remembered dream of the Abyssinian maid is the cortex of the lost vision of the content of her song. (Did Wordsworth, perhaps, later recall these lines when he composed The Solitary Reaper?) If only, Coleridge laments, he could revive within him the damsel’s lost symphony and song, if only he could recapture the whole of the original vision instead of just a portion of it, then he would build in air (i.e. find verbal music to express) the vision he had experienced — and he would do so in such a way that witnesses would declare him to be divinely inspired and form a circle of worship around him. Such a reading of Kubla Khan, however, raises at least as many problems as it solves.

What, for example, ought we to make of Kubla Khan and his enclosed garden? According to some accounts, Xanadu is Paradise Regained and Kubla symbolises the creative artist who gives concrete expression to the ideal forms of truth and beauty; according to other accounts, however, Kubla is a self-indulgent materialist, a daemonic figure, who imposes his tyrannical will upon the natural world and so produces a false paradise of contrived artifice cut off from the realm of natura naturans by man-made walls and towers. The images of the Abyssinian maid and the inspired poet in the closing section of the poem also present serious difficulties in interpretation. The problem is not so much that of the conjectured identification of these figures (though this is often attempted) as of the overall meaning and intention of the passage. Should we believe, as Humphry House and Irene Chayes have urged, that this final section must be read as a positive statement of the potentialities of poetry and a prophecy of poetic triumph? — or is Edward Bostetter correct in asserting that Kubla Khan is a symbolic expression of [Coleridge’s] inability to realize his power as a poet . .

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. and the last lines are a quite explicit statement of frustration? Scholarly disagreements such as these can be multiplied almost endlessly. In fact, the symbolic valency of virtually every image in the poem — the sacred river Alph, the substance and shadow of Kubla’s pleasure-dome, the ancestral voices prophesying war, and so on — has proved a source of unresolved (and unresolvable) debate; and it is probably no exaggeration to say that no single interpretation of Kubla Khan has ever wholly satisfied anyone except the person who proposed it. Despite the popularity of the view that Kubla Khan is a poem about poetry, then, there is no consensus about just what is being said about the poetic process. Coleridges own poetic theory Another approach to Kubla Khan, which overlaps significantly with readings of it as a symbolic statement about poetry, centres on the use of Coleridge’s own poetic theory in an effort to illuminate the poem.

Four Coleridgean dicta are frequently invoked: pleasure, genius, the reconciliation of opposites, and fancy / imagination. Such interpretations, however, while often instructive, are not without their problems. For example, although it is often pointed out that the imagery of Kubla Khan contains numerous oppositions (Kubla’s cultivated gardens set against a savage romantic chasm, the sunny dome that contains caves of ice, etc.), it is by no means clear that the poem embodies the Coleridgean doctrine of the reconciliation of opposites. Indeed, as Elisabeth Schneider has said, there is ample reason to insist that such reconciliation is avoided and that, instead, the poem illustrates the very spirit of ambiguity and oscillation. Even clearer, perhaps, as an illustration of the problems encountered in applying Coleridgean theory to Kubla Khan is the diversity in interpretations of the poem as an embodiment of the fancy/imagination distinction. George Watson asserts dogmatically that Kubla Khan is about two kinds of poem and that there is no need to resist the conclusion that Coleridge’s intention was to contrast the fanciful (and therefore inferior) fixities and definites of Kubla’s ornately palpable Xanadu (lines 1-36) with a programme of ideal imaginative creation (lines 37-54) that is hinted at but not actually realised in the poem as we have it. For Alan Purves, however, Kubla Khan and Xanadu symbolise not Fancy but the Primary Imagination, while the inspired poet in the last section symbolises the Secondary or poetic Imagination And Irene Chayes offers yet another possible reading: the opening description of Kubla’s palace and gardens (lines 1-11) illustrates the work of the arranging and ornamenting fancy; the account of the erupting fountain and the course of the sacred river (lines 12-36) represents the autonomous and unconscious operation of imagination — the fountain corresponding to Primary Imagination and the river to Secondary Imagination; and the final section, dealing with the Abyssinian maid and the inspired poet (lines 37-54), develops the symbolic representation of imagination by showing it to be, in its highest form, a willed and conscious activity: The last stanza .

. . is concerned with a new creative process, governed by a purposive will, which would replace and correct the earlier process, autonomous and unconscious, or partially conscious, that was at work in the dream-vision. Each of these interpretations, while compelling in its way, is ultimately unsatisfactory — not because it is wrong, but rather because it imposes too rigorously schematic a meaning on the poem and presupposes a theoretical precision beyond Coleridge’s grasp in 1797. Since Kubla Khan was composed well before Coleridge had worked out, even in outline, the major tenets of his critical theory, it is impossible to see how it can properly be interpreted as an illustration and symbolic embodiment of critical principles that had not yet been formulated. This is not to say, of course, that the poem is unrelated to the theory: it is only to insist that Kubla Khan, rather than being a material anticipation of later critical precepts, is a part of the process that leads eventually to the development and articulation of those ideas in a systematic way. And it is not surprising, therefore, that the meaning of the poem should be obscure and ambiguous — for Kubla Khan records an early, perhaps largely unconscious, exploration of critical perceptions united only loosely in an inchoate theory of literature.

Freudian Analysis A poem such as Kubla Khan — so provokingly enigmatic and so deliciously suggestive — also provides an irresistibly fertile ground for psychological speculation, especially on the part of Freudian critics. When Coleridge called the poem a psychological curiosity in his 1816 Preface and confessed that Kubla Khan was the record of an actual dream, he unwittingly opened wide the door to analysts anxious to expound the latent psychological implications of his symphony and song. One of the earliest of the Freudian readings was offered in 1924 by Robert Graves, who proposed that Kubla Khan expressed Coleridge’s subconscious determination to shun the mazy complications of life by retreating to a bower of poetry, solitude and opium — a serene refuge beyond the bitter reproaches of Mrs Coleridge (the woman who is wailing for her demon lover) and almost beyond the gloomy prophecies of addiction uttered by the ancestral voices of Lamb and Charles Lloyd. By comparison with recent Freudian interpretations, this is pretty tame stuff. Nevertheless, it was enough to alert I.A.

Richards almost immediately to the chilling possibilities of such an approach: The reader acquainted with current methods of [psychological] analysis, he warned, can imagine the results of a thorough going Freudian onslaught. In general, the Freudians treat Kubla Khan as an unconscious revelation of personal fantasies and repressed, usually erotic, urges; but there is little agreement about the precise nature of these subliminal drives. Douglas Angus argues that the poem illustrates a psychoneurotic pattern of narcissism that reflects Coleridge’s abnormal need for love and sympathy; Eugene Sloane, however, is convinced that Kubla Khan is an elaborate development of a birth dream, expressing an unconscious desire to return to the warmth and security of the womb (the hair in line 50, for example, is floating in amniotic fluid); and Gerald Enscoe finds the core of the poem’s meaning in the unresolved struggle between two conflicting attitudes toward the subject of erotic feeling, i.e. the attitude . .

. that the sexual impulse is to be confined within a controlled system is opposed to the anarchistic belief that the erotic neither should nor can be subjected to such control. Still other readers prefer to follow Robert Graves by concentrating on what the poem implies about Coleridge’s experience with opium: James Bramwell reads Kubla Khan as a dream-fable representing [Coleridge’s] conscience in the act of casting him out, spiritually and bodily, from the paradise of his opium paradise; and Eli Marcovitz, who sets out to treat [the poem] as we would a dream in our clinical practice, confidently concludes that Kubla Khan is almost a chart of the psychosexual history of a personality ineluctably embarked on the road to addiction: It depicts the life of the poet — his infancy and early childhood, the pleasures and deprivations of the oral period, the stimulation and dread of his oedipal period, the reaction to the death of his father at nine, the fear of incest and genitality with the regression to passive-femininity and orality, and the attempt to cope with his life’s problems by the appeal to the muse and to opium. Who would have supposed, without guidance, that so much repressed meaning was compressed into fifty-four lines? Even this brief sampling illustrates clearly enough the limitations and liabilities of using Freudian keys to unlock the mysteries of Kubla Khan. In the first place, of course, there is no received consensus (as we have just seen) about precisely what the poem reveals about Coleridge’s subconscious mind. Nor is there agreement about the symbolic significance of the major images: is the stately pleasure-dome to be identified as the female breast (maternal or otherwise), or does it represent, as some think, the mons veneris? Similarly, what are we to make of the violent eructation of the fountain forced with ceaseless turmoil from the deep romantic chasm — the ejaculation of semen, or the throes of parturition? And then there is the hapless Abyssinian maid, who has been variously identified as Coleridge’s muse, as his mother, as Mary Evans (an early flame), as Dorothy Wordsworth, and (since Abyssinian damsels are negroid) as the symbol of Coleridge’s repressed impulse toward miscegenation.

A second and more serious problem with many Freudian readings, as the foregoing examples make clear, is a tendency to ignore basic rules of evidence and to indulge, as a consequence, in strained and unwarranted speculation. In one account, for example, we are asked (without irony) to believe that the last two lines of Kubla Khan point by indirection to fellatio, cunnilingus and deep oral attachment to the mother. Another analyst, James F. Hoyle, interprets Coleridge’s enforced retirement to the farmhouse near Porlock as the neurotic person’s ‘vegetative retreat’ to para-sympathetic preponderance with overstimulation of gastrointestinal functions, resulting in diarrhea — and then, as if this were not enough, goes on to conclude that the costive opium taken to check the attack of dysentery probably helped in converting depression to hypomania and so was instrumental in transforming the diarrhea of [Coleridge’s] failure in poetry and life to the logorrhea of Kubla Khan. A third problem with Freudian analysis is that, in general, it is more interested in the poet than in the poem and, in addition, often accords the 1816 Preface a stature at least equal to that of Kubla Khan itself.

As with the source-studies examined in the previous section, Freudian readings use the poem largely as a pretext for exploring extrapoetic matters: the roads of psychological criticism customarily lead away from Xanadu into the charted and uncharted realms of the poet’s biography and subconscious psychosexual history. Jungian interpretations Unlike the Freudians, who stress the psychological particularity of Kubla Khan, Jungian critics focus on the way in which the poem draws upon and perpetuates traditional images in which the age-long memoried self is repeatedly embodied. Often the results of such an approach are illuminating and useful — largely because Jungian criticism, when it resists the reductivist temptation to explain away images with psychological tags, allows for ambiguities and the existence of half-seen truths. As Kathleen Raine points out in an engaging essay, Kubla Khan was written in that exaltation of wonder which invariably accompanies moments of insight into the mystery upon whose surface we live. The earliest (and still probably the best) Jungian interpretation is found in Maud Bodkin’s Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934). Her argument, in essence, is that Kubla’s pleasant gardens and the forbidding caverns under them correspond in some degree to the traditional ideas of Paradise and Hades: the image of the watered garden and the mountain height show some persistent affinity [in Western literature as a whole] with the desire and imaginative enjoyment of supreme well-being, or divine bliss, while the cavern depth appears as the objectification of an imaginative fear.

In Kubla Khan the heaven-hell pattern, presented as the vision of a poet inspired by the music of a mysterious maiden, evokes in the reader an organic response (through the collective unconscious) to these atavistic emotional archetypes. Subsequent Jungian critics have undertaken (with various degrees of success) to extend Bodkin’s thesis — by developing the implications of the Edenic archetype, by invoking Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis or recollection, and by analysing Kubla Khan as a descriptive illustration of Jung’s individuation process. There are, too, less respectably, some extreme Jungian (or pseudo-Jungian) interpretations: for example, Robert Fleissner’s catachrestic argument for Kubla Khan as an integrationist poem. The summary of criticism in the preceding pages has not, of course, exhausted the diversity of approaches to Kubla Khan. It has also been read as a landscape-poemand as a poetical day-dream; there are provocative interpretations of it as a political statement contrasting the profane power of the state with the sacred power of the poet; and there are theological readings — quite important ones, in fact — which explore the visionary and apocalyptic theme of fallen man’s yearning to recover the lost Paradise. What, then, shall we say of Kubla Khan? — that it has too much meaning, or too many meanings, or (perhaps) no meaning at all? Grammatici certant et adhuc sub iudice lis est: critics dispute, and the case is still before the courts (Horace, Ars Poetica, 78). In the circumstances, I will not presume to render a verdict, but merely to offer some advice. Literary criticism has more and more become a science of solutions.

When a lurking mystery is discovered, analytical floodlights are trained upon it to dispel the shadows and open its dark recesses. But Kubla Khan, as Charles Lamb acutely perceived, is an owl that won’t bear daylight. We must learn to take the poem on its own terms and, instead of attempting to salvage it by reducing it to a coherent substratum of symbols, we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that no single interpretation will ever resolve the complexities of so protean a product of the human imagination. Mystery and ambiguity, verisimilitude and teasing suggestiveness, are essential ingredients in Kubla Khan — a poem which reflects, though darkly, Coleridge’s largely subconscious ruminations on poetry, paradise, and the heights and depths of his own unfathomable intellectual and spiritual being. Kubla Khan is one of those ethereal finger-pointings so prized by Keats; it is a poem that has no palpable design upon us, and it provides at least one instance of an occasion on which Coleridge did not let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge Bibliography Samuel Taylor Colidge by JS, mills Inc.