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For a week I have been traveling steadily to the east, and now at the rim of the world, I found my destination. The travel exhausted me, robbed me of the vigor needed for the work ahead. But another day beckoned. I rose coughing, unable to sleep with the first light of morning and looked out on the street and beyond. The city was filled with haze accumulating from the leaf and garden debris fires of its residents, but golden leaves clung to the chinar trees and in the distance rose green valleys leading up to the snow-capped peaks of the Celestial Mountains. It matched my own sense of the world around me, I felt dampened and distant from the physical world, more distant because of the drugs I had taken to help me sleep and to alleviate the symptoms of my affliction, as well as the excessive heat from the radiator, fending off the biting cold of the early morning hours at high altitude. But I drank in the mountains before me. I imagined myself above this landscape. Around the bend in the Alatoo range to the ruins of ancient Balasagyn, then climbing in sharp ascent to the great Warm Lake, a mirror to the heavens with its schools of trout, evergreens on its fringes, ringed with mountains, at the roof of the world. And on the far end of the range, not so far ultimately from where I sit writing, the fabled Upper Capital, Shangdu, Xanadu. Fabled, of course, but factual, in a different time and world. Perhaps not in reality exactly as in the poet’s vision. But perhaps he sees a deeper truth.
How does a great tale of Inner Asia come to furnish the material for one of the greatest poems in the English language, perhaps the greatest? I was always captured by the magic of Coleridge, his magnificent visions, his ability to see the inner truth deep under the surface of the quotidian, his artistry with language. Sometimes perhaps he is tempestuous and silly. But when Coleridge masters the grand vision, he knows no competitors. And when I travel to Central Asia, I think of this poem. Especially in the presence of the Celestial Mountains, whose beauty commands silence first, then recognition of the power of nature.
As we learned in school-time English courses, ”Kubla Khan” encapsulates the themes of Coleridge’s Romanticism. It gives us exoticism, a figure of great human power and accomplishment, the great khan, humbled in the presence of nature. It is a paean to the forces of creation. Most importantly though, it is a torrent of rapturous, lyrical words presented in a crystalline structure.
Like much great poetry, “Kubla Khan” is a meeting between sound and thought. It can’t really be appreciated just as something written and read silently from paper. It requires being read out loud; it must be sounded. So my advice to any reader of “Kubla Khan” is simple. Start by reading it in your mind. Then read it out loud. And then listen to it being read. And of the several dramatic readings, this one by Ben Kingsley is my favorite—his voice is mellifluous, the resonances and cadences perfect to the piece.
Why is Kubla Khan the subject? Is it exoticism, orientalism? What does Coleridge’s Kubla Khan have to do with Khubilai Khan (to the modern Mongols, ??????? ????)? Much, I think. A romantic figure, perhaps. But Coleridge knew more of this last Great Khan than many would give him credit. His Kubla Khan is a man of power almost without precedent in the world up until his day. He forged a great empire, for while we associate his realm with China, he was the Great Khan. Russia, Central Asia and much of the Middle East were under the Great Mongol’s sway. Coleridge’s choice of Kubla Khan can’t be coincidental.
In Kubla Khan, we have the embodiment of man’s creative force; the drive for aggrandizement and power. We associate ruthlessness, wanton excess in violence with the Mongols (though this is largely perhaps because our historical accounts continue to rest upon the writings of their victims. An unusual fact. The victors usually write history.) But Kubla Khan is a quite remarkable figure among the great Mongols. He was sent as governor of the southern provinces, that is, China, during the reign of the Great Khan Möngke. During this period he developed a great fondness for Han Chinese culture and refinement, even as he was suspicious of the Han Chinese themselves, and especially their warlords. He was driven by a will to better his peoples. And he had an extraordinary vision of the world as a single realm. He was an absolute ruler within his realms, with a power of life and death over his subjects. But he also seems to have embraced the notion of the mandate of heaven, a right to rule that brought with it obligations to those governed.
Kubla Khan’s reign was a period of remarkable development and progress. His engineers pushed forward the great canal that linked Beijing and Hangzhou. He introduced a system of paper money and banking. His military masters developed the use of gunpowder and explosive devices. He built observatories and institutes for scientific pursuits.
Kubla Khan and his realm were also an amazing bridge between peoples and cultures. As Marco Polo famously recounted, Kubla Khan knew and respected the great faiths of his realm—though he had contempt for Taoism, which was essentially a religion designed to enshrine the Chinese state system he was trying to overthrow:
He also showed a great tolerance towards various religions, which was also not only the expression of his character but also a useful approach which prevented conflicts in the empire. He asked the Christian Bible to be brought to him for Easter and Christmas, which he would then kiss. He also worshiped Saracen [Muslim], Jewish and Buddhist feast days. When asked why he did so he answered: “I respect and honor all four great Prophets: Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Moses and Buddha, so that I can appeal to any one of them in heaven.”
He had a fascinating variation on divide and conquer for his Chinese realm—he sought always to elevate minorities and put them in control over the Han Chinese. It was history’s first recorded affirmative action program.
All of this, I think, makes Kubla Khan a perfect subject for Coleridge. Like no other man before him, Kubla Khan was master of the world, and was transforming it to match his design. He was a creative genius in an historically potent sense.
What gave rise to this poem? Coleridge left a curious note on the poem:
In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas’s Pilgrimage: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.” The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter! …
Yet from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him.
Critics have derided this as a ridiculous artifice. But Coleridge’s claims stack up with many of the known facts. Although published first in 1816, we know it dates to a text written in 1797. Coleridge tried to include “Kubla Khan” in a volume that Wordsworth was then preparing for publication, and Wordsworth rejected it as unsuitable. And the text Coleridge quotes from Purchas’s Pilgrimage reads accurately and certainly influenced the poem. And it seems that Coleridge must have read several other works about Kubla Khan. Their traces appear in the poem. One is the famous account of Marco Polo’s travels, Il Milione, which could be a source of several details surrounding the “pleasure dome,” as well as Kubla Khan’s drinking habits, to which I will come later. Coleridge was, moreover, a prodigious researcher and reader, as anyone familiar with Biographia Literaria can attest.
So Kubla Khan is master of the world like no man before him, and he is a man of transformational and creative force. Therefore he is the perfect subject for the poem, a work which celebrates both the powers and limitations of the creative force. This work is a series of balanced visions—a real world set against a world of fantasy and imagination; a world made by men set against a world crafted by the forces of nature; the creative forces of man weighed against the forces of destruction and warfare; the power of artistic creativity set against the morbid and daemonic. All is carefully counterpoised.
And the poem itself, 54 lines, a fragment? Is it really a fragment? In the sense that each creative work is a momentary vision only, a glimpse at a greater whole, certainly it is a fragment. Yet this poem has the structure of a crystal, it seems perfectly thought through and complete in itself.
But in the end, this work is a vision of Inner Asia, of a culture passed into the mist, though with traces still on earth. It is an Inner Asian vision of art and human achievement. And Kubla Khan is not some feeble or exotic ornament, a bit of Romantic chinoiserie, rather his name and legacy are essential to this vision.
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
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.
Here, Coleridge draws again on Marco Polo account of the meeting in Xanadu from Il Milione, the rituals performed to show reverence for the emperor, and his banquets. And what is this “milk of Paradise”? It is kumyz (?????), the fermented mare’s milk of the Great Khan’s herd of a thousand white mares, which he prized above all earthly things. And which any Middle Asian today will tell you, is the essential elixir of life.
I drank the milk of paradise, though to my palate it was rancid and peppery. And I remembered the Great Khan and his scribes. I was restored. Another day beckons us to do what we may.
More from Scott Horton:
Conversation — August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm
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Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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