'Kubla Khan': The Poet in the Poem

Geoffrey Little


For many readers 'Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment' (the full title is important) has offered indulgence in a magical mystery tour of exotic places and erotic imagery which, like such tours, leads nowhere. Others have found enticing symbolic equations, sometimes abandoned as unresolvable; and others again have discovered in the poem verbal clues which may be assembled in a variety of solutions, much as anagrams, puns and incomplete quotations may be made to fit into a multiple crossword puzzle. One strong tradition of readers to find the poem marvellous but meaningless begins with Lamb and Hazlitt. Lamb thought it 'irradiates and brings heaven and Elysian bowers into my parlour while he sings or says it' (the picture of Coleridge singing the poem, with or without dulcimer, has its own charm) but that it made no sense. Hazlitt remarked that it proved Coleridge was one of the best writers of nonsense poems in English. It is not far from those contemporary responses to characterizing the poem as merely the product of opium; or, indeed, as an unwritten poem. T. S. Eliot said acidly that 'faith in mystical inspiration is responsible for the exaggerated repute of Kubla Khan'; however its imagery sank in and then rose from Coleridge's consciousness, 'it is not used: the poem has not been written'. A recent critic has been still more contemptuous; for her, the mounting final lines are 'a total non sequitur ... a small masterpiece of confidence trickery' in a poem which may well have started in the romantic habit of balladmongering for money, or 'piss a canto'.

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