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Kubla Khan and Orientalism : The Road to Xanadu Revisited


By Leask, Nigel Romanticism; 1998, Vol.4 Issue 1, p1, 21p

In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn A stately pleasure-dome decree: Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea. So twice five miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were girdled round: And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

But oh! That deep romantic chasm which slanted Down he green hill athwart a cedarn cover! A savage place! as holy and enchanted As eer beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon-lover! And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, A mighty fountain momently was forced: Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

It flung up momently the sacred river. Five miles meandering with a mazy motion Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, Then reached the caverns measureless to man, And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean: And mid this tumult Kubla

The shadow of the dome of pleasure Floated midway on the waves; Where was heard the It was a miracle of rare device, mingled measure A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! A damsel with a dulcimer From the fountain and In a vision once I saw: the caves. 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! And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

There is lack of reference to Kubla Khan in Coleridges copious journals and letters of the late 1790s This meant that many critics over the years have speculated as to what exactly inspired Coleridge, the meaning within the poem, the purpose of the structure of the poem and the social and cultural comments it makes. Reaching any sort of consensus about the poems meaning has been problematical... Agrees with Coleridges description of the poem, stating it to be a psychological curiosity

Suggests that the preface to the poem (written in 1816) ...distances the reader from the specific imagery and content of the poem by explicitly focusing his attention upon the poem as an instance of poetic creation... -K.M. Wheeler The poem isnt simply a drugged, unconscious composition but rather a highly organised and structural poem.

Leask suggests that critics often focus on the celebration of the sublime and imagination in works associated with the Romantic period, and states that ...by recovering the lost cultural narrative of the poems visionary elements we might restore a geopolitical specificity to its original setting absent in the High Romantic published version.

In summary...

I will argue that not the syncretic links between the poems two oriental settings, China and Abyssinia, but rather a cultural contrast dependent upon their abrupt juxtaposition, determines the geopolitical meaning of Kubla Khan, a meaning virtually suppressed in the 1816 published version of the poem. Orientalism: of or characteristic of E. Asian civilisations etc. (The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary) Southey is seen as someone whom may have directly influenced Coleridge in his composition of Kubla Khan, through the text Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) which critiques the politicotheological ... Of ... Mahomet ... Mahomet was the subject matter of a poem considered to be written by both Southey and Coleridge (of which all remains cannot be found) regarding an ... idol-breaker and liberator of Mecca ...

Marilyn Butler suggests ...that it was Southeys work-inprogress Thalaba which first introduced Coleridge to the catalogue of oriental gardens... The legend of Aloadins false paradise is also seen as a source for inspiration for Coleridge. The legend involves the tale of three young men being drugged by Aloadin, or the Old Man of the Mountain then forcibly removed from the paradise, only able to return if various acts of political murder are undertaken. However the garden/scene depicted in Kubla Khan is implied to have ...no function except to give pleasure to its solitary maker... this contrasts the power of the garden and its creator as portrayed in the legend.

Tartar: a member of a group of Central Asian peoples including Mongols and Turks. (The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary) The poem is said to embody the power of the Tartars, whom conquered the majority of the Asian continent (in the early 1000s) through the majesty depicted as the environment ...represent a landscape garden; in other words an artificial rather than a natural landscape.

For Coleridge the entire landscape...for all its aesthetic potency, is massively contrived, quite literally a miracle of rare device... This suggests that the poem is in fact a vision, however was inspired by Coleridges knowledge of Chinese gardens and geopolitics. This puts forward the notion that the poem might not be simply a vision that came to him whilst under the influence of opium, but inspired by his studies instead.

Had China been accessible to Mr Browne and Mr Hamilton..I should have sworn they had drawn their happiest ideas from the rich sources which I have tasted this day... - Macartney