Studies in Romantic Literature
November 3, 2009
“Kubla Khan” and the Creative Genius
Fred Milne argues that the prelude prior to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” signifies how Coleridge attempted to give the vision he had had for “three hours in a profound sleep” “an externalized mode of existence” (18). To Coleridge’s dismay, his creative vision was interrupted and shattered “by a person on business from Porlock” and “thus, realizing that the essence of what would have been a poem of ‘two to three hundred lines’ had been forever lost, Coleridge ended by composing from the surviving fragments a very different poem…a poem about the creative process itself” (18). Milne affirms that this statement is nothing new among scholarly interpretations, yet it differs because it views Kubla: “As the mind’s creative power…a reflection of the divine in man…as the imagination …and as he alone who creates his transmutation of opposing elements into a unified whole symbolizing perfection” (22). The belief that Kubla is the speaker in stanzas one and two, as well as the sole creator “of opposing elements into a unified whole symbolizing perfection,” is absurd. Although it is true that the first and second stanzas can be seen as “a unit”, as Milne puts it (19), it is a misguided attempt to attach the third stanza as a part of the original vision Coleridge primarily saw. Instead, the first and second stanzas need to be approached as a fragmentation of Coleridge’s vision, only reconciling the plethora of opposites in its verses, not unifying them. The third stanza represents the creative genius of Coleridge himself as the sole creator and destroyer of whatever flows through his mind, and his realization that as a poet, only he has the power to unlock the imagination and to construct his conceptions as realities.
Although Milne misses the overall point of “Kubla Khan” by claiming that it is Kubla who creates “a stately pleasure-dome” (ln.2), he interestingly points out how “the hidden and visible regions of Xanadu correspond to the conscious and unconscious realms of the mind” (20). Beginning in the visible region of Xanadu is “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea” (ln.3-5). Alph, representing the beginning, the origin, the conscious, makes its way downward to the “sunless sea,” “the lifeless ocean” (ln.28) of the unconscious. Milne is faulty in his analysis when he claims that “the basic structural feature of Xanadu is its circularity” (19) because it is in fact a constant downward slope into the unconscious from the beginning, characterized by a “deep romantic chasm which slanted/Down the green hill” (ln.12-13) in which the sacred river is “flung up momently” (ln.24) through bursts of “a mighty fountain” “whose swift half-intermitted burst/Huge fragments” (ln.19-21) only to continue to the lifeless ocean which waits to envelop it. Nowhere in the poem does it state that the lifeless ocean replenishes the river of Alph, which need not be replenished due to its always being the beginning, thus creating this so called circularity. Moreover, he goes on to say that Alph “is the life of the mind, the unifying first principle of all mental activity, signified by its name” (21), a statement that should readily be rejected. Although it is a first principle, it does not unify the obvious oppositions within the two stanzas, such as the natural setting of Xanadu with its “fertile ground,” “gardens,” “forests,” “hills,” and “greenery” and the unnatural “stately-pleasure dome,” “caverns,” “walls and towers,” and “sinuous rills.” Rather than admitting the stark contrast between this world and the other world of Khan, Milne attempts to harmonize the two through unification, ultimately heeding to the inherent contradiction of “a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” (ln.36).
In effect, the fountain which burst huge fragments resembles the imagination, more specifically Coleridge’s imagination, which burst the fragments of “Kubla Khan” itself; Milne disagrees with this, stating that “The fountain is a necessary component for creativity in the poem, but it does not serve as a creative power in any sense that would be analogous to the imagination” (20). Instead, he argues that “Kubla Khan’s creation best justifies his identification as the imagination” (22). The pleasure-dome’s opposing elements of sun and ice are referred to as “a miracle of rare device” (ln.35) to make the point that it could not exist in a constructed reality, hence why Coleridge ends the fragmented vision there as well; for after the sacred river, the fountain of imagination, had sprung up, Kubla, who should be taken to be Coleridge, “heard from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war!/The shadow of the dome of pleasure/Floated midway on the waves;” (ln.29-32). In other words, the interruption of the man from Porlock has waged war against Coleridge’s imaginative vision, casting aside the stately-pleasure dome as nothing more than a mere shadow; As Milne states, “those voices are the harbingers of destruction and dissolution awaiting the shadow of his creation as the river carries its image toward the descent into the unconscious” (25). It is Coleridge’s creative conception that gets carried away into the unconscious, and furthermore it specifically could not belong to Kubla because he himself is a creative conception as well.
Milne closes his argument by stating that the third stanza about “A damsel with a dulcimer” (ln.37) which he also saw in a vision “symbolizes the artist in the act of executing what has been conceived or created” (26). It is interesting that he shifts his attention now to the artist, who he believes should be focused on writing down and “executing” his thoughts, while entirely missing the point that only if “I [Coleridge] could revive within me/[The damsel’s] 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!” (ln.42-47). It is within the poet only, within his own imagination, that the stately-pleasure dome can be decreed; only within and through his own visions can he invoke the burst of imagination, and the poet knows this, “For he on honey-dew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise” (ln.53-54). Milne does not fully discuss how Kubla Khan can be seen as the divine within the human mind, nor does he rightly cite the poem or the few other scholars he has scattered throughout his article. The evidence he uses as support for his main thesis do not give strength to the article in its entirety, but, scattered, were traces of intellectual competency regarding Kubla. Further, Milne appears scatter-brained throughout the article, not sure in what direction is he going, though if read carefully, it can be deciphered. The use of more scholarly insights would have helped his argument if he had explained a little bit further; instead he took piece-meal quotes throughout Coleridge’s writings, and attempted to make them fit together like pieces of a puzzle, but it didn’t appear to work too well.
Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is a dense poem, incorporating history, tradition, novelty, mystery, opposition, and few other themes. To attempt to make sense out of a poem written in a dreamy like quality, which suggests the true nature of the poem, derived from “A Vision In A Dream A Fragment,” is a daunting task if the reader is not prepared for the style and imagery of Coleridge, the creative genius, himself. All the reader is left to know is that as a poet, he can create; we may not know exactly what he created, whether it be the greatest literary piece of all time, or the failings of an interrupted dream, but we regardless know that through his imagination, he simply can create.
Milne, Fred L. "Coleridge's "Kubla Khan": A Metaphor for the Creative Process." South Atlantic
Review 51.4 (1986): 17-29. Print.
"Samuel Taylor Coleridge." English Romantic Writers. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College,
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