Nov 2, 2016

Kubla Khan by Coleridge: A fragment or A Coherent Whole


"Kubla Khan", Coleridge's record of an opium dream, interrupted by a visitor from Porlock, has been taken to be a beautiful but chaotic fragment where images float about confusedly. However, "Kubla Khan", with its pleasure dome, its sacred river, its panting fountain, its caves of ice and its portrayal of the frenzied poet presents a
super-literary connection of thought led by imagination. This Imagination, as Coleridge puts, is the faculty by virtue of which metaphors are created and symbols gain their particular signification. Coleridge pointed out that a great poem is characterised by the employment of "Secondary Imagination" and achieves "the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities." This is the governing principle behind his creation of "Kubla Khan".
The apparent chaotic disconnection is only a signifier of the poet's conception of creation and his reaction to it.
The readers are primarily misled due to their preconceived notion about a poem's beginning as the starting point of the poetic vision. This poem, on a literal level, begins with introducing Kubla Khan and his labouring subjects, but it is not the central focus of Coleridge's vision. The focus is rather on Alph and its dark passage into a mysterious sea, the incense bearing trees and the tumultuous fountain. The opening description of pleasure seems to coexist with that of sacredness. The "sacred river" ending in a "lifeless", "sunless" sea represents both creative and destructive elements of Nature. It is, as it were, a representation of human life itself running its course through sublime splendour until it merges into the sea of Death. It is interesting to note that opposite forces of male power (river) and female mystery (caverns) are unified in the poet's perception of wholeness, in manifesting dialectic creativity.

     It is, therefore, a natural romantic reaction that the poet gives when human agents attempt to subjugate and dominate Nature. In Coleridge's mind, Tartari represented a land of violence which made him present Kubla as Satanic, with singularity of daring, grandeur of suffering and ruined splendour. Kubla's attempts to build the pleasure dome becomes an echo of Satan's attempts to recreate Paradise on earth. The images of "sinuous rills", "lifeless ocean", "caverns measureless to man" accentuate the satanic connection of Kubla, an isolated figure. His dream of the dome can never be fulfilled as its image floated precariously amidst warnings from his ancestors.

     The first sign of vengeance is seen in the erupting fountain which is mythologically associated with Typhon, who envied the love between Isis and Osiris and killed Osiris. The idea of tremendous power of nature and man's futile attempts to control it gains momentum in the climactic image of the dome's reflection on water.

     The second part of the poem is, therefore,not a complete break from the preceding part. Both the damsel and the Abyssinian maid become emblematic of the creative muse who doesnot disrupt or attempt to violate Nature but participates in it: "singing of Mount Abora". In Abyssinia, there was a tribe of cave dwellers called Troglodytes who were traditionally connected with mystical knowledge. They were also believed to possess the "fountain of the sun". The image of Abyssinian maid certainly has a direct connection with both "fountain" and "sun worship"- the two recurrent images in the poem.

     From a Biblical point of view, the figure of wisdom or inspiration is personified as a woman who sits amidst trees of paradise and is compared to a stream that first waters a garden and then becomes a river, and finally a sea. This interweaving of Christian and Pagan elements is achieved in the representation of the damsel. Milton writes in Paradise Lost: "...where Abassin kings their issue grand, Mount Amara... Paradise under the Ethiopine" The maid is, as if, singing of both lost paradise and of poetic creation to compensate that loss.

     This compensation is what the poet really speaks about in the poem-- if he could revive within him that music, he could then build the spiritual dome of perfection through imagination. His paradise,unlike Kubla's, would not be an earthly one, not precariously unstable but harmonised with Nature. Throughout the poem, images call forth sensations- visual, auditory, olfactory and even tactile, as if to condition the reader's perception of a higher order of perfection. One can almost see the dome being built, the meandering river, the deep caverns; one can hear the wails and prophesies; one can breathe in the incense upon the blossomed trees; and one can feel the force of erupting stones and coldness of the marble. This is the sensuousness that Coleridge always excelled in achieving.

     The dream about Xanadu is an inspired vision- the artist's purpose is to capture such vision in words. In attempting to do so, he encounters two serious difficulties: first, language is an inadequate medium that reveals only a part of visionary intensity; second, the visions themselves, by the time the poet attempts to write about them, have faded into the light of the day and must be reconstructed from memory. Between the conception and the execution falls the shadow. The vision of Kubla's Xanadu is replaced by that of a singing damsel, an experience more auditory than visual and therefore less expressible through words. 

     The fragmented images cohere to form a unified vision of transcended reality. This is the crux of Coleridge's concept of poetry- to stimulate a coherence of apparently discordant sensations. The poem is not just an exploration of the choices available to man for creation, whether he should adopt the ways of Kubla and suffer extinction or embrace the ways of the damsel and live in harmony with nature for sustained happiness. It is a poem about poetic creation as well. The man who has "drunk the milk of paradise" is the inspired poet, admired by all but is isolated within his innermost core of imaginative awareness.