Fair warning: I’ve been immersed in Samuel Taylor Coleridge-related reading for the past month or so and am spilling over with observations & anecdotes. Buckle up!
In Early Visions, the first of his two-part biography of STC, Richard Holmes gives the genesis of “Kubla Khan,” and what it got me thinking about is the ways in which the kingdom described gets mapped and re-mapped as it goes from source material to poem and then to interpretation of the poem.
When he published “Kubla Khan”, Coleridge explained in an attached note that its inspiration came from John Purchas’s Pilgrimage, a nine-volume anthology of travel stories and folk tales published in 1614 (“Kubla Khan” was written in 1797). Here’s the relevant paragraph of the Purchas, which Holmes quotes in full:
In Xanadu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddows, pleasant Springs, delightful Streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the midst thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place. Here he doth abide in the months of June, July, and August, on the eight and twentieth day whereof, he departeth thence to another place to do sacrifice in this manner: He hath a Herd or Drove of Horses and Mares, about ten thousand, as white as snow; of the milke whereof none may taste, except he be of the blood of Cingis Can. Yea, the Tartars do these beasts great reverence, nor dare any cross their way, or go before them. According to the directions of his Astrologers or Magicians, he on the eight and twentieth day of August aforesaid, spendeth and poureth forth with his owne hands the milke of these Mares in the aire, and on the earth, to give drink to the spirits and Idols which they worship, that they may preserve the men, women, beasts, birds, corne, and other things growing on the earth.
So that was the source. Now read the poem. Then here comes the next layer of imagining of the kingdom, in the mind of the reader/ critic — in this case, Ted Hughes, whose book of essays Winter Pollen includes a wonderful study of the poem:
Looking at the paradise depicted in what I called the Overture, one gets the impression of a great sphere, or perhaps an ovoid, broader at the bottom.
The ‘sunny pleasure dome’, with its gardens, woods, and river valley, is at the top. A little below, tucked in somewhat under the dome, beneath a forested overhang, removed from the direct sunlight that falls on the dome but mysteriously open to the moon, a deep fold encloses the sources of the river. These are the upward, outward features, like the hair and splendid brow, with the spiritual eyes, and beneath it the sensuous perhaps rather crude mouth, of an exotic humpty dumpty.