1 Gloria Lloyd English 431 March 31, 2005 A Vision in a Dream: Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem
“Kubla Khan,” the poet creates images of an otherworldly dream life that can produce a paradise, or lead to a “deep romantic chasm” that becomes as inescapable as the dream itself (Coleridge 12). Coleridge writes in the prologue that the poem was created in a dream induced by opium, but he could only reproduce a fragment of it after a man from Porlock interrupted his reverie. The poem was not just created by the unconscious mind; it also represents how the unconscious world of dreams and altered states can exert itself over an entire landscape or existence. Through the unusual circumstances of its creation, and in its portrayal of Xanadu’s destruction, “Kubla Khan” displays the power of the unconscious to consume the conscious mind. The realm of the unconscious, the “caverns measureless to man,” are not only measureless but uncontrollable, thus leading to the savage underworld of the mind (4). After experiencing this, the narrator wants nothing more than to return to it. Dreams, indeed, hold a unique power. The fact that the poem was created in Coleridge’s altered state of consciousness, rather than a state of “normality” implies that the poem is of an otherworldly existence— Xanadu is not of this world, and did not exist before Coleridge’s mind achieved the opium-laced state in which it could be manifested. In the beginning, the incarnation of Kubla Khan seems to represent the more conscious, literal mind, but after the Alph runs “through caverns measureless to man,” the emphasis is more on a world that dreams can
2 present, rather than an everyday existence (4). To travel to a “sunless sea” is to travel deep into the realm of the subconscious. To enter “forests ancient as the hills,” one must enter another world, the realm of dreams (10). Throughout, Coleridge creates entirely new vistas of imagery for the reader to encounter. The poem had to be created by opium, an outside influence, rather than Coleridge, and can exist only in the imagination, because of its many paradoxes. The “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”, with the images of hot and cold juxtaposed, would not be found any place on this planet. The poem also focuses on how the world of dreams can suddenly supersede our usual thoughts. When a “mighty fountain momently was forced,” and emits “huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,” a comparison can be made to how the subconscious mind takes over the conscious mind in dreams (19, 21). The “swift halfintermitted burst” exemplifies the sporadic dream, the dream that is not expected but can take over and interrupt one’s entire existence, as the eruption of the fountain destroys Kubla Khan’s paradise (20). Like the conscious mind, the river returns to normal, “meandering with a mazy motion” and leading to a “lifeless ocean” (25, 28). The sacred river leads to the “sunless sea,” which implies that despite everything a person experiences in an altered state, from dreams or drugs or something else, and no matter what a person learns, all of these experiences only lead back to this sea without a sun and ocean without life, the conscious mind, and the experiences will be lost. Kubla Khan build a “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” (36) This marriage of opposites hint that the pleasure dome is not all that it may appear to be by its name, just as Coleridge’s vision or hallucination is not all that it seems to be on the surface. Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome does not merely bring him pleasure, but pain, too. Initially,
3 Khan’s palace is in a “deep romantic chasm which slanted/ Down the green hill”—not a scary chasm, but instead a manifestation of the palace’s majesty, overlooking Khan’s territory (12-13). In the next line, however, the chasm devolves into a “savage place” with “ceaseless turmoil seething” (14, 17). The pleasure-dome’s veneer is beautiful and pure, but under its surface lies chaos and disorder. Penetrating the deepest layers of the subconscious mind can often have the same effect—the “shadow of the dome of pleasure” is often pain (31). The woman wailing for her lost lover in line 16 is an appropriate image for the dream state, for Coleridge and the poem— dreams are fragile and are at best usually remembered vaguely, haunting the dreamer with a sense of loss for what the dreamer once fully possessed in the dream. The desire that humans all have for what is lost to them become the ravings of the unconscious, an individual incarnation of the “woman wailing for her demon-lover” (16). In a further display of the palace’s ambiguity, Coleridge consistently describes the surroundings as green: “sunny spots of greenery” enfold the palace. Green brings to mind nature and fertility, but it also is the color of jealousy and sickness. Green, as opposed to colors of ambiguity, such as gray, or evil, such as black, possesses more dual meaning. The “green hill,” therefore, is a symbol of nature and hope at the same time that it represents all that is wrong with Xanadu, and with the dream state—which can lead us to dark places our conscious minds will not allow us to explore. The unhappy ending of the poem can be related to the struggle in each of our minds between the conscious and the unconscious, the battle that Coleridge lost with a knock on the door. “Could I revive within me/ Her symphony and song/ To such a deep delight ‘twould win me”—
4 the narrator knows that, like Coleridge, he will never be able to recover his dream state, and never be able to revive the image of the Abyssinian maid. However, the presentation of these altered states of consciousness is not completely negative. While dreams and altered states are scary and haunting in their abruptness and their ability to consume our existence, as the fountain destroys the carefully built landscape of Kubla Khan, they can also lead to the paradise that Khan created in the first place. While the narrator mourns the loss of the vision of the Abyssinian maid, he nevertheless remembers this “damsel with a dulcimer,” and the image sustains him, inspiring him to seek new ways to dream and experience her again (37). He dreams of the dreams he could have, bigger and better than those of Kubla Khan: “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! And all who heard would see him there, And all should cry, Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!” By wanting everyone to fear him, as many do the emperor Khan, the narrator is wishing to recreate the circumstances of Khan’s dream, which presumably led to the narrator’s vision of the Abyssinian. While Khan’s paradise was enchanted, it was also haunted and subject to the forces of the unconscious. In the narrator’s mind, these two ideas seem to be integral to each other—in order to have the paradise, one must also experience the ramifications of that paradise. And his vision was so wonderful and intoxicating that he is willing to risk it all to experience his vision again. He has “drunk the milk of Paradise” (54).
5 “Kubla Khan” is a vision in itself, and it is therefore natural that it portrays what it is like to dream. Dreams are fragile, and can take over for the conscious mind without a moment’s notice. They can lead to savage and haunted places the conscious mind would never go. They can appear harmless, but in actuality lead to total destruction. Through the unusual circumstances of its creation, “Kubla Khan” attests to the strengths and weaknesses of dreams and altered state of minds—they can bring forth entire creations and completely new worlds, and destroy them at the same time. They are more fragile than everyday events, and therefore more precious.