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