Selected article from a scholarly journal: Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”: Creation of Genius or Addiction? By Karen Mahar
In this article, Mahar doubts the creative ability and imagination of Coleridge as expressed in the poem “Kubla Khan.” In fact, the author believes that Coleridge’s creativity, in this poem, is not natural, but influenced by opium. Mahar begins by acknowledging the literary abilities and skills of Coleridge as a chief Romantic poet and theorist (Mahar 1). The author further acknowledges that Coleridge’s most famous poems, including Kubla Khan, combine great elements of lyric genius and fantasy; however, the imagination and style in Kubla Khan is not consistent with normal human imagination. In other words, the author argues that Coleridge was not normal when presenting this literary work; he might have been under the influence of opium.
In “Kubla Kahn,” (as argued by Mahar) Coleridge conjures and personifies bizarre and surreal imagery that takes priority over any actual characterization of a narrative structure. The style of the poem is quite uncharacteristic, and creates doubt in Mahar, whether it was a pure work of genius, or an unexpected result of narcotic influence (Mahar 2).
The poem contains several allusions to sexuality and sex. The poet’s reference to “pleasure-dome,” as Mahar argues is followed by illustrations of scenery that is associated with female anatomy, indicating that the pleasure referred to is sexual pleasure. Mahar makes reference to lines 12 and 13 of the poem that says, “But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!” (Mahar 3). According to the author, “slant” or “chasm” is suggestive of a vagina, while its “cedarn cover” suggests pubic hair. Mahar also refers to lines 16 and 17 of the poem, “woman wailing for her demon-lover! and from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething” (Mahar 3). These metaphors, the author argues, invoke visual and audible interpretations characteristic of a woman experiencing orgasm (Mahar 3).
Mahar continues to argue that Coleridge symbolizes the sexual climax of a male through the depiction of geologic orgasm as presented in lines 18 to 25 of the poem. The auditory image of “fast thick pants” symbolizes a heavy that normally occurs near orgasm. Mahar equates the “mighty fountain” and the “huge fragments” to ejaculation. The “half-intermitted burst,” according to Mahar, is characteristic of the pulses of male climax (Mahar 3). The use of earth and nature personify human experience. The author argues that the poet’s use of such vigorous words as “vaulted,” “forced,” and “flung,” emphasizes the passionate joining of man and woman as a climax is reached with the “dancing rocks” going up the “sacred river” (Mahar 3). Here, the “dancing rocks” is equated to ejaculation, while the “sacred river” is equated to the vaginal tract.
While the author is not sure whether the poet normally had sexually explicit fantasies or thoughts; she is certain that these fantasies manifest themselves so clearly in his drug-induced dream and in “Kubla Khan” poem (Mahar 3). She further argues that the poet’s varied visions of “Kubla Khan,” as filled with scenes of light and darkness (such as “shadow of the dome,” “sunless sea,” “gardens bright” and “sunny spots”), in addition to the large differences in depth between the caves, landscape, and caverns, and the various types of uncontrolled movement (such as “floating,” “forced,” “flashing,” “flail” and “burst”), are all impressions of created by the eye while under the influence of opium. All these visions uniquely surface in the poem.
Mahar further clarifies that Coleridge’s poem contains images that are devoid of hope such as “lifeless ocean” and “sunless sea.” The speaker doesn’t see the human faces, but hears their voices, as evidenced by the “wailing woman.” The author affirms that if Coleridge had been working through the primary or secondary imagination, he could have recalled all the texts that appeared in the dream. Sadly, the poet was only able to see the words of “Kubla Kahn” in his drug-induced, tertiary level of imagination (Mahar 6). Being in this level, the poet lacked the cognitive ability to remember all the texts. While he had the capability to write incredible works, Coleridge’s vision of “Kubla Khan” was influenced by opium, argues the author.
While Mahar’s interpretation of the imagery in Coleridge’s poem is well thought, I tend to disagree with some of her allusions. First, I believe that this work was a genuine creation of Coleridge. The poet was simply portraying his vision. Every reader can interpret the poem in a uniquely different way depending on his/her background, thus believing that Mahar is right in her interpretation is not only wrong, but also misleading. From a Christian’s perspective on the story of creation, one can believe that the poem was mainly about the beauty of creation. Xanadu, as I see it, is a symbol of the Garden of Eden, its beauty and innocence. This garden is surrounded by constant threats of destruction. The “ancestral voices prophesying war” (last line of stanza 3) can mean God’s warning to the people to stay off the tree to avoid falling as Eve did, for the snake’s persuasion and charm. The river is described as “sacred,” and Xanadu as “holy and enchanted.” Miracles are also portrayed in the poem. Outside the pleasure dome, there is hell. The demons are related to witchcraft. A picture of rituals can be seen in the last line. These rituals protect Coleridge and the reader from the evil forces.
It can also be argued that the poem is purely about the destructions that can befall a man as a result of fantasy and desire brought about by love. The reality however, is that pure love is accompanied by pain, destruction, torment, and jealousy.
I believe Coleridge is genuinely creative and can create imaginative images in the minds of the readers and make the readers think in different directions. As stated earlier, the interpretation of this literary work is not definite, but rather, depends on the reader’s background and the understanding of the images as created by the poet. This creative ability makes Mahar believe that Coleridge was under the influence of opium, while I believe that Coleridge was simply showcasing his talents. If readers can have varying images about the same writings, then, it’s beyond doubt that the writing is a real talent, capable of drawing the attention of readers into different directions.
Coleridge, S. T. “Kubla Khan.” Web. December 6, 2012.
Mahar, K. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”: Creation of Genius or Addiction?. Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal. 2006. Volume 1 Number 1. Web. December 6, 2012