I pulled my old tome of English Romanticism off the shelf today, one of the books I saved from college. I opened to “Kubla Khan” and first read Coleridge’s disclaimer about the poem. In his disclaimer, he asserts that he penned the lines while under the influence of sleep-inducing drugs, in a state of reverie. He was called away and when he returned, looked at the lines and claimed they made no sense to him, so he left them unfinished.
Personally, I don’t buy it. Coleridge was a brilliant poet and scholar and would not have published random lines. He calls the poem a fragment in the subtitle, so we must ask ourselves what Coleridge means by a fragment.
Coleridge was influenced by the ancient mystical writers, particularly Plotinus. Plotinus had a concept of emanation, where the godhead was the center of all and everything else was emanated outward. Each subsequent emanation was a fragment of the source, and the farther out the emanations, the more fragmented and separated something was from the Divine. Coleridge references this concept directly in his poem: “A mighty fountain momently was forced:/ Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst/ Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail.”
In “Kubla Kahn,” fragments represent poems that spring forth from the divine subconscious, and Coleridge believes that these poems contain the same power as the word of God, that the words of the poem actually have the power to create. Hence, he is putting himself on the same level as God. A bold and dangerous thing to do in the late 18th century. This is evident in the last lines of the poem:
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in the air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
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.
Coleridge is claiming that he has been to Paradise and has grasped the secrets of the Divine. His poem is a fragment in the sense that it is an emanation from his divine self, or his subconscious mind.
To read the complete poem online, click here.