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Literature / Kubla Khan

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a dream one night while in a stupor from opium. In his dream, he saw the great palace of the ancient Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, and he described it in great detail. The opening stanza of the poem is often remembered vividly:

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 poem goes on to describe considerably more about the palace. Coleridge apparently ran for paper and pencil and recorded as much of the story as he could remember, when he was interrupted by a visitor, a "person from Porlock [Somerset]" and by the time he finished with the person, he had forgotten the rest of the poem. (Literary scholars continue to debate to this day whether the person from Porlock actually existed, or whether the story was an elaborate invention by Coleridge, either to excuse a case of writer's block or as a literary device to justify the poem's fragmentary form.)

"Xanadu" was a real place, now called Shangdu, and located in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.

This work provides examples of:

  • Colon Cancer: The full, original title was "Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment"
  • Cut Short: Thanks to the man from Porlock, we'll never know how Coleridge planned to continue the story of Kubla Khan's pleasure dome and the narrator's admiration of Khan's creativity.note 
  • Historical Domain Character: Kublai Khan, Great Khan of the Mongol Empire from 1260 to his death in 1294.
  • Mushroom Samba: The poem is said to be the result of a drug-induced vision. In fact, the poet notes that, if he could recall the vision fully, he would recreate what he saw — which would terrify observers, because he’d clearly be in the grip of extraordinary inspiration.
    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.
  • Patchwork Map: A range of climates are placed within a ten-mile circumference:
    It was a miracle of rare device
    A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
  • Supernatural Floating Hair: The author describes himself as having this, if he had managed to recall the glimpses of his vision of paradise:
    And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
    His flashing eyes, his floating hair!