Kubla Khan Essay, Research Paper Kubla Khan If a man could pass thro’ Paradise in a Dream, & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, & found that flower
Kubla Khan Essay, Research Paper
If a man could pass thro’ Paradise in a Dream, & have a flower presented
to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, & found that flower
in his hand when he awoke — Aye! and what then?
(CN, iii 4287)
Kubla Khan is a fascinating and exasperating poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (. Almost everyone who has read it, has been charmed by its magic. It must surely be true that no poem of comparable length in English or any other language has been the subject of so much critical commentary. Its fifty-four lines have spawned thousands of pages of discussion and analysis. Kubla Khan is the sole or a major subject in five book-length studies; close to 150 articles and book-chapters (doubtless I have missed some others) have been devoted exclusively to it; and brief notes and incidental comments on it are without number. Despite this deluge, however, there is no critical unanimity and very little agreement on a number of important issues connected with the poem: its date of composition, its “meaning”, its sources in Coleridge’s reading and observation of nature, its structural integrity (i.e. fragment versus complete poem), and its relationship to the Preface by which Coleridge introduced it on its first publication in 1816.
Coleridge’s philosophical explorations appear in his greatest poems. ‘Kubla Khan’, with its exotic imagery and symbols, rich vocabulary and rhythms, written, by Coleridge’s account, under the influence of laudanum, was often considered a brilliant work, but without any defined theme. However, despite its complexity the poem can be read as a well-constructed exposition on human genius and art. The theme of life and nature again appears in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, where the effect on nature of a crime against the power of life is presented in the form of a ballad. ‘Christabel’, an unfinished ‘gothic’ ballad, evokes a sinister atmosphere, hinting at evil and the grotesque. In his poems Coleridge’s detailed perception of nature links scene and mood, and leads to a contemplation of moral and universal concerns. In his theory of poetry Coleridge stressed the aesthetic quality as the primary consideration. The metrical theory on which ‘Christabel’ is constructed helped to break the fetters of 18th-century correctness and monotony and soon found disciples, among others Walter Scott and Lord Byron.
Opium and the “Dream” of Kubla Khan
Coleridge’s use of opium has long been a topic of fascination, and the grouping of Coleridge, opium and Kubla Khan formed an inevitable triad long before Elisabeth Schneider combined them in the title of her book. It is tempting on a subject of such intrinsic interest to say more than is necessary for the purpose in hand.
Since the medicinal use of opium was so common and wide-spread, it is not surprising to learn that its use involved neither legal penalties nor public stigma. All of the Romantic poets (except Wordsworth) are known to have used it, as did many other prominent contemporaries. Supplies were readily available: in 1830, for instance, Britain imported 22,000 pounds of raw opium. Many Englishmen, like the eminently respectable poet-parson George Crabbe, who took opium in regular but moderate quantity for nearly forty years, were addicts in ignorance, and led stable and productive lives despite their habit. By and large, opium was taken for granted; and it was only the terrible experiences of such articulate addicts as Coleridge and Dequincy that eventually began to bring the horrors of the drug to public attention.
Coleridge’s case is a particularly sad and instructive one. He had used opium as early as 1791 (see CL, i 18) and continued to use it occasionally, on medical advice, to alleviate pain from a series of physical and nervous ailments. But the opium cure proved ultimately to be more devastating in its effects than the troubles it was intended to treat, for such large quantities taken over so many months seduced him unwittingly into slavery to the drug. And his life between 1801 and 1806 (when he returned from Malta) is a somber illustration of a growing and, finally, a hopeless bondage to opium.
By the time he realized he was addicted, however, it was too late. He consulted a variety of physicians; he attempted more than once (with nearly fatal results) to break off his use of opium all at once; and, at last, in 1816, when he submitted his case to James Gillman (in whose house he was to spend the rest of his life), he was able to control his habit and reduce his doses, although he was never able to emancipate himself entirely.
But to return to the 1790s: what can we say about Coleridge’s experience of opium at the time of composing Kubla Khan? The effects produced by opium in the early stages were soothing and seductive: “Laudanum”, he wrote his brother George in March 1798 (in terms which recall the imagery of Kubla Khan), “gave me repose, not sleep: but YOU, I believe, know how divine that repose is — what a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountains, & flowers & trees, in the very heart of a waste of Sands!” (CL, i 394). Opium, it seems (to cite an earlier letter, of October 1797, which may well be describing a drug experience), tended to “raise & spiritualize” his intellect, so that he could, like the Indian Vishnu, “float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotos” (CL, i 350). Such an experience and such a mood are reflected in Kubla Khan.
As we know from the Crewe endnote, Coleridge took “two grains of Opium” before he wrote Kubla Khan; and this fact naturally raises the issue of the drug’s effect on the poet’s creative imagination. Early critics, guided by Coleridge’s statements in the 1816 Preface, assumed that there was a direct and immediate correlation between opium and imagination. In 1897 J.M. Robertson could not bring himself to doubt that “the special quality of this felicitous work [Kubla Khan] is to be attributed to its being all conceived and composed under the influence of opium”; and in 1934 M.H. Abrams declared that the “great gift of opium” to men like Coleridge and Dequincy “was access to a new world as different from this as Mars may be; and one which ordinary mortals, hindered by terrestrial conceptions, can never, from mere description, quite comprehend”. More recent criticism, however, grounded on modern medical studies, controverts such conclusions decisively. According to Elisabeth Schneider, “it is widely agreed now that persons of unstable psychological makeup are much more likely to become addicted to opiates than are normal ones” and that, among such neurotic users of opium, “the intensity of the pleasure” produced by the drug seems (on the evidence of medical case-studies) “to be in direct proportion to the degree of instability”. The explanation (she continues) of the supposed creative powers of opium lies in the
euphoria that it produces:
With some unstable temperaments the euphoria may be intense. Its effect is usually to increase the person’s satisfaction with his inner state of well being, to turn his attention inward upon himself while diminishing his attention to external stimuli. Thus it sometimes encourages the mood in which daydreaming occurs. The narcosis of opium has been popularly described as having the effect of heightening and intensifying the acuteness of the senses. This it quite definitely does not do. If anything, the effect is the reverse.
Alethea Hayter, although she wishes to avoid the “extremes” of the positions of Abrams and Schneider, nevertheless comes much closer in her conclusions to the latter than to the former. Opium, she argues, can only work “On what is already there in a man’s mind and memory”, and, “if he already has a creative imagination and a tendency to reverie, dreams and hypnologic visions”, then opium may intensify and focus his perceptions. Her final verdict — which “can be no more than a hypothesis” — is that “the action of opium, though it can never be a substitute for innate imagination, can uncover that imagination while it is at work in a way which might enable an exceptionally gifted and self-aware writer to observe and learn from his own mental processes”. The most reasonable conclusion to be drawn from these various explorations of the relationship between opium and the operation of the creative imagination is that, while Kubla Khan might well not have been produced without opium, it most assuredly would never have been born except for the powerfully and innately imaginative mind of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Interpretative Approaches to Kubla Khan
There is an observation Never tell thy dreams, and I am almost afraid that Kubla Khan is an owl that wont bear day light, I fear lest it should be discovered by the lantern of typography & clear reducting to letters, no better than nonsense or no sense.
In a moment of rash optimism a notable scholar once began an essay by declaring that “We now know almost everything about Coleridge’s Kubla Khan except what the poem is about”. The truth of the matter, however, is that we know almost nothing conclusive about Kubla Khan, including what it is about. In fact, by far the most intriguing question about this most intriguing of poems is “What does it mean?” — if, indeed, it has or was ever intended to have any particular meaning. For the overwhelming majority of Coleridge’s contemporaries, Kubla Khan seemed (as Lamb foresaw) to be no better than nonsense, and they dismissed it contemptuously. “The poem itself is below criticism”, declared the anonymous reviewer in the Monthly Review (Jan 1817); and Thomas Moore, writing in the Edinburgh Review (Sep 1816), tartly asserted that “the thing now before us, is utterly destitute of value” and he defied “any man to point out a passage of poetical merit” in it.While derisive asperity of this sort is the common fare of most of the early reviews, there are, nevertheless, contemporary readers whose response is both sympathetic and positive — even though they value the poem for its rich and bewitching suggestiveness rather than for any discernible “meaning” that it might possess. Charles Lamb, for example, speaks fondly of hearing Coleridge recite Kubla Khan “so enchantingly that it irradiates & brings heaven & Elysian bowers into my parlour while he sings or says it”; and Leigh Hunt turns hopefully to analogies in music and painting
in an effort to describe the poem’s haunting but indefinable effect:
Kubla Khan is a voice and a vision, an everlasting tune in our mouths, a dream fit for Cambuscan and all his poets, a dance of pictures such as Giotto or Cimabue, revived and re-inspired, would have made for a Storie of Old Tartarie, a piece of the invisible world made visible by a sun at midnight and sliding before our eyes.
Throughout the nineteenth century and during the first quarter of the twentieth century Kubla Khan was considered, almost universally, to be a poem in which sound overwhelms sense. With a few exceptions (such as Lamb and Leigh Hunt), Romantic critics — accustomed to poetry of statement and antipathetic to any notion of ars gratia artis — summarily dismissed Kubla Khan as a meaningless farrago of sonorous phrases beneath the notice of serious criticism. It only demonstrated, according to William Hazlitt, that “Mr Coleridge can write better nonsense verses than any man in England” — and then he added, proleptically, “It is not a poem, but a musical composition”. For Victorian and Early Modern readers, on the other hand, Kubla Khan was a poem not below but beyond the reach of criticism, and they adopted (without the irony) Hazlitt’s perception that it must properly be appreciated as verbalised music. “When it has been said”, wrote Swinburne of Kubla Khan, “that such melodies were never heard, such dreams never dreamed, such speech never spoken, the chief thing remains unsaid, and unspeakable. There is a charm upon [this poem] which can only be felt in silent submission of wonder”. Even John Livingston Lowes — culpable, if ever anyone has been, of murdering to dissect — insisted on the elusive magic of Coleridge’s dream vision: “For Kubla Khan is as near enchantment, I suppose, as we are like to come in this dull world.” While one may track or attempt to track individual images to their sources, Kubla Khan as a whole remains utterly inexplicable — a “dissolving phantasmagoria” of highly charged images whose streaming pagent is, in the final analysis, “as aimless as it is magnificent”. The earth has bubbles as the water has, and this is of them.
During the past fifty years, however, criticism has been less and less willing to accept the view that Kubla Khan defies rational analysis: the poem, it is widely assumed, must have a meaning, and the purpose of criticism is to discover what that meaning is, or might be. Yet despite this decisive shift in the critical temper, there remain some influential voices to argue for the mystery of Kubla Khan. William Walsh, for example, maintains that it is “an ecstatic spasm, a pure spurt of romantic inspiration”; and Lawrence Hanson treats it as an instance of “pure lyricism — sound, picture, sensation — clothed in the sensuous beauty of imagery that none knew so well as its author how to evoke”. Elisabeth Schneider, too, suggests that a good part of the poem’s charm and power derives from the fact that it is invested with “an air of meaning rather than meaning itself”.
Such opinions, while they are hardly fashionable in the current critical climate, ought not to be dismissed too lightly or seen to be no more than evasions of critical responsibility. On the contrary, they remind us that not everything about poetry is wholly explicable — especially in such poems as Kubla Khan, where “meaning” is not a formulated idea and is, at best, only adumbrated through oblique and suggestive imagery. It may well be that more is meant in Kubla Khan than meets the ear, but it is by no means easy to determine precisely what that meaning might be. And the impulse of literary critical professionalism to demystify, to reduce imaginative to merely rational statements, results too often in a kind of inversion of the alchemist’s dream: it debases gold into lead by transforming complex symbols into simple allegories.
The first and, for over a hundred years, almost the only reader to insist on the intelligibility and coherence of Kubla Khan was Shelley’s novel-writing friend, Thomas Love Peacock: “there are”, he declared in 1818, “very few specimens of lyrical poetry so plain, so consistent, so completely simplex et Unum from first to last”. Perhaps wisely, Peacock concluded his fragmentary essay with these words, thereby sparing himself the onerous task of explaining the consistency and meaning of so plain a poem as Kubla Khan. More recent commentators, however, have been much bolder.
In the criticism of the last fifty years one may distinguish, broadly, four major approaches to Kubla Khan:
(1)interpretations of it as a poem about the poetic process
(2)readings of it as an exemplification of aspects of Coleridgean aesthetic theory
(3)Freudian analyses, and
While recent critics concur in finding a symbolic substructure in Kubla Khan, there is little agreement among them as to how that symbolism should be interpreted. Critical approaches usually overlap, and individual critics often draw upon two, three or even all four of the above methods in formulating their particular explication of the poem’s symbolic infrastructure. There are, in short, as many different interpretations of Kubla Khan as there are critics who have written about it.
Kubla Khan, a poem about poetic process
Generally speaking, the most popular view by far is that Kubla Khan is concerned with the poetic process itself. “What is Kubla Khan about? This is, or ought to be, an established fact of criticism: Kubla Khan is a poem about poetry”.On this reading, the Tartar prince Kubla Khan, who causes a pleasure-dome and elaborate gardens to be constructed in Xanadu, is a type of the artist, whose glorious creation, as the ancestral voices from the deep caverns warn, is a precariously balanced reconciliation of the natural and the artificial. The dream of Xanadu itself is an inspired vision which expresses dramatically the very nature of vision: the fountain that throws up its waters from an underground ocean and so gives birth to the sacred river that meanders five miles through Kubla’s hortus conclusus before sinking again into the subterraneous depths images the sudden eruption of the subconscious into the realm of the conscious mind and its eventual inevitable recession back into the deep well of the unconscious.
The artist’s purpose is to capture such visions in words, but in attempting to do so he encounters two serious difficulties: first, language is an inadequate medium that permits only an approximation of the visions it is used to record, and, second, the visions themselves, by the time the poet comes to set them 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 . . . 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.
Coleridge?s 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.
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.
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”
Samuel Taylor Colidge by JS, mills Inc.
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