The Road to Xanadu

Last November, I visited Beijing and whilst there went to visit the “Forbidden City”. The Forbidden City was the residence of the Emperor except for some of the summer months when he went to his Summer Palace. The Forbidden City was a very luxurious place where the Chinese Emperor and his court and his concubines lived in great splendour and sumptuousness. The Chinese Emperor who built both these palaces was Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan. Kublai established the Yuan dynasty that ruled over Mongolia and China.

It is interesting that Kublai trying to unite the two peoples sought to find a name for the new dynasty. If he anointed his dynasty with a Mongol name in honouring his own tradition, he would alienate the Chinese. His advisor, Liu Bingzhong came up with the solution. The first word in the great book of divination, the I Ching, is “yuan”. The dictionary definition of yuan is first, principal, fundamental. But more than this yuan implies the ultimate source, the movement behind the absolute origin of the universe. It is obvious that Kublai thought big! He consequently called his rulership the Yuan Dynasty. Interestingly enough yuan still prevails as the name of the Chinese currency.

Kublai’s main residence was in Beijing, than called Dadu. But he also built a marvellous palace, his summer palace, in Jangh Du province. The Venetian explorer and trader Marco Polo, after a long and arduous journey found himself in the emperor’s summer palace around 1275 in what is now called Inner Mongolia. Marco Polo translated the name of the palace as Xanadu (an interpretation of Jhang Du.). Marco Polo earned the confidence of the emperor and acted as his emissary and even for a time ruled as Governor of one of the emperor’s regional dynasties.

Kublai Khan was a tolerant and conciliatory leader striving to unite the Mongolian and Chinese peoples over whom he ruled. In the summer palace, after some initial conflict, he allowed the Taoists and the Buddhists each to establish temples and to promote their religious beliefs without impediment by the State. He was also interested in Christianity and had previously asked the Polos, (Marco’s father and uncle had been to China before) to bring him emissaries from the Pope so that he might understand that religion. Due to machinations in the church at that time they were unable to meet the Emperor’s request.

The travels of Marco Polo constituted a marvellous adventure. He travelled to places where Europeans had not previously ventured. He had been a confidante in the court of the Emperor and had become a trusted emissary. But finally, in 1296 after an absence of twenty five years he (who had also been accompanied by his father and uncle) returned to Venice.

One might have thought that would have been sufficient adventures for the Venetian. But in 1298 Marco Polo became involved in a naval battle between the Venetians and the Genoese. The Genoese prevailed and in the aftermath Marco Polo was captured and thrown into prison. Fortuitously, a fellow prisoner turned out to be a minor writer of romance called Rustichello (or Rusticiano – there are various spellings). Rustichello became Marco Polo’s ghost writer and thus his extraordinary adventures were recorded for posterity.

Modern scholars dispute some of Marco Polo’s claims but have found sufficient corroboration to have us believe that most of his recorded story is true. It is surmised that he was encouraged by his ghost writer to occasionally enhance his story to titillate his expected audience.

Marco Polo’s adventures soon became well known and stimulated an interest throughout the Western world in the exotic East.

Let us concede that some of Marco Polo’s reminiscences may have been a little fanciful. But if we move forward another five hundred years we find the most creative and engaging fancy one could imagine intersecting with the history of Marco Polo. The architect of this fancy is one Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

One of Coleridge’s favourite notions was that of a correspondence between fancy and imagination on the one hand and delirium and mania on the other.

One of Coleridge’s friends, Crabb Robinson, recorded in his diary:

“He (Coleridge) made an elaborate distinction between fancy and imagination. The excess of fancy is delirium, of imagination, mania. Fancy is the arbitrarily bringing together of things that lie remote, and forming them into a unity. The materials lie ready for the fancy, which acts by a sort of juxtaposition. On the other hand, the imagination under excitement generates and produces a form of its own.”

In 1614, the English clergyman Samuel Purchas published “Purchas his Pilgrimage – or Relations of the world and the Religions observed in all ages and places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present.” This book contained a brief description of Xanadu, based on the early description of Marco Polo:
“In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.”
In the summer of 1797 Coleridge, then in ill-health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, as I understand it, on the border between Somerset and Devonshire. Coleridge, suffering from a bowel complaint, was prescribed an anodyne which seemingly was opiate based. He apparently was reading the above extract from Purchas when on taking the anodyne he fell asleep in his chair. He slept for some three hours.

On waking he recalled a marvellous and vivid vision from his dream. He immediately sat down and began to write out a poem describing his dream. He believed he had 200 or 300 lines of poetry already laid out in his mind. Unfortunately after only writing some fifty four lines he was interrupted by a knocking at the door. He reported that he was interrupted by “a person from Porlock.” After dealing with the interruption he hastened back to his desk only to find that the vision was gone.

Coleridge never published the poem which he eventually titled Kubla Khan until 1816 in a collection of poems. He subtitled the poem, “A Fragment”. In his final printing of the poem in his Poetical Works in 1834 he expanded the subtitle to “A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.”

The mechanism by which Coleridge came to construct the poem has been a source of great interest for many (not onlypoets!). Much of the poem could have been influenced by Coleridge’s opium induced dream or as his friend Robert Southey joked, “Coleridge had dreamed he had written a poem in a dream!” (Recall the Chinese sage Zhuangzi who couldn’t distinguish whether he was a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man!)

Anyhow, it seems a popular misconception that under the influence of opium and inspired by a tract from Purchas following on from Marco Polo, Coleridge effortlessly wrote fifty four lines of poetry that are held up as being the epitome of Romantic poetry. We all wish we could make such effortless contributions to the Arts. But unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way.

Forty years ago I read a book whose title I have subsumed for the title of this essay, “The Road to Xanadu.” The book was published in 1927 and its author was the Harvard scholar and Professor of English, John Livingston Lowes. Lowes had painstakingly dissected two of Coleridge’s major works, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan”. He was able to show the source of most of Coleridges’s references, metaphors and literary devices. He unearthed literally hundreds of sources that Coleridge consciously or unconsciously drew upon. It is a fascinating book of literary detective work. The reference to Purchas frequently mentioned in this context is a minuscule contribution to the menu of material available to Coleridge.

Remember the quote from Robinson’s diary above? “Fancy is the arbitrarily bringing together of things that lie remote, and forming them into a unity.” It is imperative that the creative person should have a plenitude of “things that lie remote” creating the resource thus to form more marvellous unions.

Let me quote from Lowes:

“Suppose a subliminal reservoir thronged, as Coleridge was thronged, with images which had flashed on the inner eye from the pages of innumerable books. Suppose these images to be fitted as it were, with links which render possible indefinite combination. Suppose some powerful suggestion in the field of consciousness strikes down into this mass of images thus capable of all manner of conjunctions. And suppose this time, when in response to the summons the sleeping images flock up, with their potential associations, from the deeps – suppose that this time all conscious imaginative control is in abeyance. What, if this were all so, would happen.”

Well obviously “Kubla Khan” would happen. Whilst the creative processes might sometimes seem easy it is only because the perpetrator, the activator has built a huge reservoir of resources. If Coleridge’s opium had a role in his creation it was only to open a gate to access the huge store of images his prolific readings had built up. Coleridge’s inquisitiveness and intelligence, evidenced by the copious notes in his diaries, had over many years manufactured a platform for his creative outpourings.

(I hasten to add that I have no misconceptions that my little essays are so well-endowed!)

And for those of you who may have forgotten I append the poem in full.

Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced;
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves:
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘t would win me
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in 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.

4 Replies to “The Road to Xanadu”

  1. Thanks for the lovely piece Ted and reminding me of this searchingly beautiful poem. The output of creative genius is certainly sometimes the result of ‘wrenching’ rather than ‘flowing’ yet how powerful and evocative are the fruits of its labours…

  2. Coleridge was a genius, Ted. Did you happen to see the movie – later a 3-4 part TV series -called “The Trip”? Two English comedians, Coogan and Brydon, visited Coleridge’s house as part of a road trip. You would enjoy it, if you haven’t already.

  3. Sorry Di, but I haven’t seen the TV series to which you refer. I will look out for it and would certainly enjoy such a show. Thanks.

Comments are closed.