Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kubla Khan - Coleridge

I'm not a person who enjoys poetry generally , I think it's overrated. I dislike romantic poems , socially conscious or self-obsessive poems. But there are few poems which have made an impact on me , and I never do get tired of revisiting them again and again. One such poem is 'Kubla Khan' by Coleridge.

Kubla Khan (A Vision in a dream - A fragment) was written by Coleridge in the autumn of 1797 in a farmhouse in Exmoor , England. The legend behind this poem is quite interesting. Coleridge , an inveterate opium eater developed this poem in one of his opium-induced dreams. On waking up , he began to furiously write down what he remembered of that dream. However , he was interrupted by a 'mysterious visitor' from Porlock who detained him for an hour. After that meeting , Coleridge was unable to recall the rest of his Vision , and thus , the poem remained a fragment. This person from Porlock can also be interpreted as a metaphor for all the obstacles/turning points  a man faces in his life , which throws him off track and perhaps , changes the course of his dreams and actions.

The poem is based on Kublai Khan , the prominent Mongol ruler of the 13th century Yuan dynasty. It describes his summer capital at Xanadu , a surreal and enchanted place , besides the sacred river Alph and the Xanadu Hills , both based in Antartica.

"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."       
The 'sunless sea' described here , reminds me of another Coleridge poem , where he describes with contempt ,  the slimy creatures which seemed to eat up the base of the ship...

"The very deep did rot: O Christ! 
That ever this should be! 
          Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs 
           Upon the slimy sea. " (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner)

Coleridge further describes that , despite the enchanting beauty of it all , the place is haunted by a woman wailing for her 'demon' lover. Or maybe it's enchanting because of the supernatural elements it posesses. 'Demon lover' suggests that the woman has been betrayed by the man she loved and thus she wails 'beneath a waning moon'. Her seething emotions bursts out in the form of a 'mighty fountain' whose intensity is described as follows :

"And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
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 :"

This mighty river flows into the 'lifeless ocean' , creating an altogether tumultous scene. And amidst all this , Kubla Khan heard strange voices prophesying war.

Coleridge calls the whole series of events as a 'miracle of rare device' , a 'shadow of the dome of pleasure' :

"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!"

Coleridge further recounts his vision of an Abyssinian maid playing a dulcimer (a plucked musical instrument) and singing of Mount Abora. The poet further claims that if he could revive that music within him , he'd build that 'pleasure dome with caves of ice' in air ,  implying that that damsel's music could be equalled to the surreal happenings of Xanadu. 

"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 !"

I'd compare this to another poem , written by Coleridge's counterpart , Wordsworth :
"...No nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travelers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands;
A voice so thrilling ne'er heard
In springtime from the cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
....Whate'er the theme, the maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending;
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more."
(The Solitary Reaper , Wordsworth)

All those who heard him build that dome would cry in horror and close their eyes in holy dread , for he had drunk the milk of Paradise or Opium.

"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."

And thus the poem ends...rather unconvincingly. But then , it's a fragment and noone knows how the original poem was like , in Coleridge's dream.And despite its limitations , the poem is regarded as one of Coleridge's masterpieces , along with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Frost at Midnight. 

However , some parts of the poem confuse me. For example : Kubla Khan's summer palace is said to be built beside the river Alph and Xanadu Hills , both located in Antartica. Why would a summer palace be built in Antartica? And the lack of continuity between the fourth and the fifth paragraph..the damsel with the dulcimer part is unsubstantial and does not fit into the scheme of the poem. But maybe , there is an abstract meaning in the structure of the poem which I fail to understand and it all probably does  makes sense. 

This poem has also served as a reference for many writers to come. William Dalrymple , especially in his travelogue 'In Xanadu' pays a tribute to this poem when he finally reaches Jerusalem , after a long and ardous journey. That book , and Dalrymple in particular , is fodder for another post altogether :)

1 comment:

ZARDY said...

Hey Vaishali, long back when you told me about Kubla Khan, I did read it. But I couldn't understand it one bit. I therefore lost interest and closed the window. But now, I believe that you have actually translated it quite well for me. Thank you!

And good job! I like your comparisons between Kubla Khan, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Solitary Reaper. It's definitely a good job. I hope you try more of these, occasionally.