Coleridge's Kubla Khan: a new historicist study.
Introduction: The New Historicist Approach
This article is an account of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan largely from the New Historicist perspective, which takes the historical and political situation of the writer as a starting point to analyze a literary text. It draws upon a series of diverse references to demonstrate the historical concerns of the poet, arguing that the poet's description of nature in the poem is deeply informed by the contemporary culture and discourse of the philosophical sublime, travel literature, earth sciences, and psychoanalysis. The essay also demonstrates that the poet's representation of the political figure of the title derives from, and is illuminated through, comparisons with a number of historical personages whose conduct and actions equally inform the poem as a whole. The reading I propose interprets the poem as a simultaneous confrontation and engagement with the concept of the natural sublime, deep geological time of natural history, Napoleon as a child of the French Revolution, his ambiguous excesses, and finally the Orientalist implications and intertextualities of the Kubla Khan reference.
Since its publication in 1816 (it was composed early November 1797), Kubla Khan has been discussed as a key Romantic poem about imagination and the organically unfolding process of imaginative creativity, however linear or capricious, vague or distinct that process may be. Such examination of the poem has been done in line with what has been described as the traditional academic ideology of reading practices by which a text, especially a Romantic text, is explained by a reader-scholar in terms of its aesthetic and spiritual transcendent feelings rather than its social thought and historical reference. This academic discourse, critiqued to be insufficiently objective, simplifies the varieties of Romanticism(s), imposes a coherent leveling pattern on them, and calls for a text's synthesizing and homogenizing qualities to be highlighted at the cost of its humanitarian contributions and its influence on culture and society. (1) Rarely historicized by placing it
in its socio-historical and socio-cultural context, Kubla Khan has been read as yet another work of imaginative introspection and solitary self-communing, which New Historicism considers as anti-social and conservative. It is this spirit of reactionary introversion that the foremost Romantic New Historicist critic Jerome McGann claims professional academic critics identify with-to the extent of being "propagandistic" proponents of the said Romantic ideology--disregarding the significance of a text as a fundamentally socio-cultural product.
In Romantic Ideology, McGann "seeks to explain and restore an historical methodology to literary studies" (ix). (2) Critiquing the "uncritical absorption in Romanticism's own self-representations" or in the "self-definitions" of the "Romantic characterizations--both artistic and critical"--McGann proposes "a new, critical view of the subject that calls for a radically revisionary reading of Romanticism," as apears on the back cover of the book. He claims that:
The poetry of Romanticism is everywhere marked by extreme forms of displacement and poetic conceptualization whereby the actual human issues with which the poetry is concerned are resituated in a variety of idealized localities. A socio-historical method ... helps to expose these dramas of displacement and idealization without debunking or deconstructing the actual works themselves. (1)
The "socio-historical" method McGann advances involves not only the historical elements, direct or oblique, in a text, but also a rediscovery of its engagement with those which may be "present" through their so-called absence, evasion, or erasure. One of the latter is a text's engagement with other texts, major or minor, neglected or underrepresented, contemporary or of the past, and its demonstration that its status was/is determined culturally by the influence of those texts upon it.
It is with such historical-mindedness that Kubla Khan will be analyzed in this article. It will be approached with what David Ayers calls "a mode of reading in which a theoretically informed historical attentiveness is substituted for a traditional narrative historicism" and what he defines as "a non-rigorous, speculative and comparatively freewheeling approach to reading" (186). In agreement with Roy Harvey Pearce, who says "Poems are not a means of transcending history ... but rather of meeting it" (559), this study will illustrate how Coleridge's poem faces and stands up to history rather than escape from it. It will explore the poem's disguised involvement with its times and open up several dimensions of contemporary history which need to be taken into account in determining its meaning.
Much has been said, from the viewpoints of structuralism, formalism, New Critical close reading, and deconstruction, about the poem's symbolism and the ironies, ambiguities, contradictions, and instabilities in it, based on a rigorous, intellectually demanding, text-only analysis (Cronin 265; Thomas 514). Also the subject of much critical examination was the circumstances of the poem's composition and publication, the relationship between the preface and the poem, the poem as a puzzling fragment or a unified whole, and as an equally puzzling dream vision in which the poet experiences a blend of poetry and politics, the cultivated and the (super)natural, the feat of a completed task that is Kubla Khan's pleasure dome, and the uncompleted process by which the Romantic ideology of imagination sets itself in motion. Critics have also focused on the series of oxymoronic, paradoxical, and repetitive contrasts throughout the poem that have been noted by Jack Stillinger: sacred and demonic; green and icy; tumult and quiet; light and dark; Kubla as "the triumphant creator, or arrogant tyrant" (73); his autocratic yet successful exercise of power by decrees in creating something beautiful befitting his royal taste (perhaps in a parallel to the way God dispenses his powers), on the one hand, and, on the other, the nature of imperfection and incompleteness about the act of poetic creativity (paralleling human endeavor), and "wishfulness, as opposed to accomplishment" (78). Stillinger rightly says:
There are, of course, numerous different ways to read Kubla Kkan, in part because Coleridge provided so many contrasts of symbol and image. Kubla Khan's pleasuredome is set in opposition to the sacred river; the measured and finite ("twice five miles," "girdled round") against the "measureless"; the convex shape of the dome against the concave imagery of caverns, chasm, and caves; surface spaces against the subterranean; "sunny" against "sunless"; "fertile" against "lifeless"; and so on. (77)
Such critical examinations ultimately served the purpose of the Romantic idea of transcendence through imagination, spiritual quest, and aesthetic beauty free of all kinds of moral and edifying content. As noted at the outset, the poem's disarming magic inspired an ideologically oriented over-identification by academic professionals who read it as an attempt to symbolically describe the poet's internal journey to revive lost worlds in the realm of imagination.
From a New Historicist perspective, however, no imaginative flight or aesthetic experience can be pure and absolute in itself; nor can it rise above the actual human situation on the ground (whatever the art for art's sake concept may mean); and it always contains a class and culture bias (in this case, imperial). It is from the same point of view that the poem's magical elements can be demystified and explained in terms of its historical context--the French Revolution, Napoleonic invasions, contemporary scientific/geological theories, (declining/rising) interest in the orient, local Lake District landscape, and other political and poetical works of the time by Coleridge and his circle--which has been excluded for too long by critics catapulted into what New Historicism considers insufficiently critical yet powerful academic practice. In tune with the Foucauldian theory of "the circulating movements of power in many spheres of society outside the strictly political" (Johnston 170), (3) the prevailing professional scholarship becomes absorbed into the poem's Romantic/Coleridgean commitment to the principle of poetic imagination unfolding through its dream strategy. What follows is an attempt to show how the poem achieves its transcending powers, not by evading its specific historical context, but by actually locating itself in it and getting completely incorporated to it. It is by being time- and place-specific that the poem becomes entirely true to itself, thereby speaking to us, to use McGann's term, through a "historical differential" (Romantic Ideology 14), which actually makes it relevant to us. This study aims to expose the poem's Romantic "incorporation" and challenge its "cooptation" by "the cooptive powers of a vigorous culture like our own," the terms McGann applies to literary products in general (Romantic Ideology 2).
Relating the poem to Coleridge's later works, including Allegoric Vision, McGann argues that the organically unifying idea of poetic vision is "reciprocally related to the poet's [allegorical] sense of the world as a field of loss, division, and betrayal," of "illusions," "false-consciousness" and "divided or alienated consciousness" (Romantic Ideology 96). Despite the fact that the poet's dream is as precarious as Kubla's stately pleasure dome--itself symbolizing a human civilization, which, as a matter of historical irony and inevitability, is subject to war and destruction prophesied by those "ancestral voices"--and that the subject of the poem, like that of the Dejection Ode, is "loss and the threat of loss of the poetic faculty itself," the shaping spirit of imagination and the possibility of its renewal are presented as "the poem's ultimate defense" against any threat to "imagination's own self-renovating powers" and its integrity (Romantic Ideology 98). McGann claims: "Raised up against the barbarism of history along the stream of time, which threatens to carry all things 'down to a sunless sea' ... Coleridge's poem works at all points to sustain its generative energy at the ideological level, and to drive out the fears which beset the mind of his poem" (Romantic Ideology 99-100).
According to McGann, Kubla Khan demonstrates a "conclusive emotional affirmation of the ideology it sets out to reveal, interrogate, and finally confirm" and transcends "historical divisions" by its connections with Imagination (Romantic Ideology 100). He continues to say that its "concrete symbols deliberately forgo any immediate social or cultural points of reference in order to engage with its audience at a purely conceptual level," and that its "immediate historical and social points of reference are all displaced into symbolic forms" (Romantic Ideology 100-01). In contrast with Simon Bainbridge, McGann agrees with Norman Rudich's political interpretation of the poem, that it "has all the markings of Coleridge's reactionary politics," that it is "directed against the two Tartar despots, Kubla and Napoleon" and that it is about the historical flux of "political revolutions betrayed by tyrants" (qtd. in McGann, Romantic Ideology 102). Their agreement continues when Rudich says that the poem is "Coleridge's flight from the political realities of his day metamorphosed into an heroic assault on the bastions of human prejudice and delusion, with the inspired poet leading the vanguard of enlightened spirits," and that "the poet alone can truly lead mankind out of the infernal cycle and to the happiness of spiritual peace in harmonious reconciliation with himself and God's nature" (qtd. in McGann, Romantic Ideology 102).
McGann expresses his continued agreement with Rudich by referring to what the latter calls the poem's "mythopoeic" and aesthetic transformations, which "raise the poet's vision to sublime heights, heroic grandeur," and by which the poem becomes "an exhortation to abandon political struggle for the sake of the highest cultivation of the aesthetic, moral, and religious qualities" (qtd. in McGann, Romantic Ideology 102). McGann asserts that the poem in the end affirms "the basic articles of Coleridge's aesthetic and cultural beliefs ... [his] basic ideology of poetry and the power of the creative imagination" (Romantic Ideology 102). Therefore, although "the Khan is the conqueror and master of the world ... in Coleridge's view he is really no more than a passing historical representative cast up from the central 'Romantic chasm' at the root of the stream of time" (Romantic Ideology 102). McGann's observation that there is in the poem a direct correlation between the ultimate master Idea, which is God, and the Idea of "the manipulators of the creative imagina tion in the mortal sphere" (Romantic Ideology 102), which are the poets, is an approving explication of Rudich's view that the poem "separates poetry from history, sublimating its meaning into the theological realms of absolute Truth and eternal categories of Good and Evil" (qtd. in McGann, Romantic Ideology 102).
Both Rudich and McGann at best provide the broad outlines of a historicist interpretation of the poem, but neither of them is exhaustive in giving the details of socio-political and socio-cultural context which provide the rich and complex historicist dynamics of the poem. In explicating such dynamics, let us start with the following (second) stanza of the poem first, which is perhaps also the most problematic part of the poem:
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. (4) (Coleridge, "Kubla Khan" 523)
The source and meaning of these lines could also be found outside the text in terms of biographical or, more importantly, socio-politico-cultural relations that could plausibly be established as being among the circumstances of the composition of the poem. As such, the above lines, along with the fiver Alph running down to "a sunless sea," may have been inspired by the beautiful hilly coastline of the Culbone and Lynton area, location of the farmhouse to which Coleridge retired for a short time to recover from his low spirits sometime in the summer or autumn of 1797 ("Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Exmoor." n. pag.). As Coleridge wrote to a friend, in spring, the area turned to be in its full "pride of woods and waterfalls, not to speak of the august cliffs and the green ocean, and the vast Valley of Stones" ("The Wordsworths and Exmoor" n. pag.). The flowery nook described in his poem Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement seems to be the one near Lynton. Being home to his maternal ancestors, where he took frequent walks, Coleridge knew the Porlock-Culbone area well, whose autumn landscape made its way into Osorio (to be renamed Remorse later), which he was finishing during this time of retirement, in addition to composing Kubla Khan ("Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Exmoor." n. pag.).
Contextualizing Kubla Khan
The Personal Context In the preface to the poem, Coleridge claims that the farmhouse was located "between Porlock and Lynton on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire" (Coleridge, "Kubla Khan" 523). As a keen observer of nature, like Wordsworth, he was drawn to Exmoor, and had daily walks on the Quantocks:
making innumerable studies in his notebook, like a painter making sketches, to be introduced later into his poems.... In October ... he followed a difficult zig-zag path from Porlock to Culbone, climbing through woodland ... the sound of the waves breaking below and distant views across [the Irish Sea] to Wales filled him with pleasure and astonishment. ("Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Exmoor." n. pag.)
One day early in November, he joined Wordsworth and Dorothy, then living at Alfoxden house, just four miles away from the former's cottage in Nether Stowey, to show them the way to Culbone and beyond. Next day, they were off again, now to the Valley of Rocks, the setting of Coleridge's prose narrative of murder and remorse, The Wanderings of Cain, which remained unfinished because it never saw Wordsworth's contribution to their intended joint collaboration. (5) Within a week, they started again for Exmoor when Coleridge was inspired to lay out the plan for and partly compose The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, not only on the basis of some specific details provided both by Wordsworth (the idea of the crime of shooting a black albatross plus a few lines) and Coleridge's friend and neighbor John Cruickshank (who had shared with him his nightmarish dream about a specter ship), but also some physical locations in Culbone itself. (6)
Kubla Khan is not only a Coleridgean reconciliation of opposites, and so an exemplification of the Coleridgean concept of imagination as defined in Biographia Literaria (Chapter XIV), but also an exercise in the aesthetics of the sublime as understood by him as well as by Edmund Burke, before him, in his A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). According to the lat ter, the notion of the sublime includes the elements of pain, terror, and self-preservation in the face of the larger aspects of nature and the transcendental experiences of the human mind, as opposed to the beauty of harmony, order, control, smoothness, and self-propagation in the sphere of the finite. This is exactly what Coleridge also expresses in a letter to John Thelwall in the autumn (14 October) of 1797:
... the universe itself, what but an immense heap of little things? I can contemplate nothing but parts, and parts are all little! My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible--and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns, give me the sense of sublimity or majesty! But in this faith all things counterfeit infinity! (qtd. in Wu 460; my emphasis)
With "a sunless sea," "caverns measureless," "dancing rocks," "forests ancient as the hills," a "mighty fountain" or a "sacred river" forcefully coming out of the "deep romantic chasm," flinging up rebounding vaults of "huge fragments" in the midst of its "swift half-intermitted burst" and ceaselessly flowing in all its fury as if the earth were in a state of deep panting, thus making it "A savage place, as holy and enchanted," until it falls into "a lifeless ocean," the landscape of Kubla Khan has all the characteristics of the sublime. In poem after poem of about the same time (7) and influenced by the (Erasmus) Darwinian idea of life in plants, Coleridge advances the theme of the sublime through pantheistic "one life" tropes about man and nature as well as a religious contemplation of the presence of "the Almighty Spirit," "one omnipresent Mind," "supreme reality," and "joy's deepest calm," perceived through a heightened state of spirituality. In his Unitarian belief, human sublimity lies in the collective perception of individuals on fraternal basis as part of the all-creating "one Mind": "Parts and proportions of one wondrous whole;/ ... 'tis God/Diffused through all that doth make all one whole" (Religious Musings, 11. 142-44).
As mentioned above, both Coleridge and Wordsworth, in their universal pantheistic spirit during the early and most creative phase of their poetical career (to be distinguished from their almost simultaneously developing Christian ideals, which were to last throughout their later life), were influenced by Erasmus Darwin's concept of external nature being imbued with conscious and animated fife, however limited that may be, with humans possessing such life to the highest degree. The two poets were to explore this sublime idea of creative throbbing in all nature ("A motion and a spirit that impels.... And rolls through all things" to quote from Tintern Abbey [Wordsworth 268]) in their brilliant conversation poems, just as Shelley was to do so in "The Sensitive Plant." What Darwin did in his panoramic The Botanic Garden (1789-1791)-rendering in rhyming couplets the reproductive "love" or "sexual" life of plants--was done by Coleridge and Wordsworth in those poems, of course much more poetically and transcendentally, including Coleridge's Kubla Khan.
The Scientific Context
In fact, Kubla Khan's response to contemporary science is deep and wide, and provides a fascinating key to its content. It is a common knowledge that contemporary sciences, hailed by Coleridge in Religious Musings as "heavenly Science" leading to "Freedom" from the narrow confines of the established order, left their legacies on the imaginative literature of the time. During the Enlightenment through the Romantic period, both arts and sciences were thought to have common origins in human imagination and human creativity, both wanting, as Tim Fulford says: "to discover the vital powers that animated mind, matter, man, nature--everything.... Poets and natural philosophers thought they were lifting the veil that covered the workings of nature. They made common cause.... Their methods were different, their goal the same" (90). (8) In providing insight into both the human and physical worlds at work, Kubla Khan reveals what Fulford calls the "dynamic interplay of creative powers" that made the "one life" philosophy possible (Fulford 90).
Again, as Coleridge makes it clear in Religious Musings, freethinking and collaborative knowledge of both science and literature were thought, in the 1790s, to be serving the cause of political emancipation from tyranny and injustice. Naturally, this view of knowledge faced opposition from the conservative establishment, but, later, by early 1830s, to the disappointment of Coleridge, it fell apart from within as the new men of science lost their interest in abstract philosophical or intuitive matters. According to Fulford, Coleridge thought they were no longer interested in "the quest to find the vital powers, settling for more pragmatic aims like inventing processes to aid industry" (90). Nevertheless, putting aside their strong reservations about the industrial exploitation and technological advances such as machines, factories, and railways as the practical effect or outcome of science, Romantic poets responded with excitement to the pioneering scientific developments as they did to geographical exploration and the expanding empire. As said above, one of their common interests was natural history/philosophy, especially the field of geology, which, along with other areas of natural science, transformed the perception of the thinking minds, and made Coleridge's "one life ideal" seem possible. The geological study of the earth brought to attention the correlation between the history of life and the history of the formation of the earth, thereby starting the debate about "biblical" chronological time versus geological "deep" time, and creating the notion of the depth and immensity of the universe (see Gould).
Coleridge was the most scientifically knowledgeable of all the Romantics--Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Keats being the others with a good knowledge of the same. (9) It is, therefore, no wonder that Kubla Khan projects a pronounced sense of the new sciences, especially the evolutionary ones related to geology, astronomy, and chemistry. (10) The "deep romantic chasm" passage in the poem, quoted above, perhaps the most problematic part of the whole poem, is an illustration of the geological sublime as suggested by geological theories concerning the creation of the earth and its different layers of water, soil, rocks, and fossils. Influenced by Thomas Burnet's Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681), which was mainly theological in its argument about the origin of the earth, but which, nonetheless, came to be regarded as "larger and more diverse than anyone had previously believed" during the last quarter of the 18th century, Coleridge also concurred that the natural world, as a fallen world, was marked by signs of God's punishment for the evils of mankind (qtd. in Roe 686).
As Marilyn Gaull describes Burnet: "Under the weight of sin, the surface of the earth had collapsed releasing the inner waters in a great flood that produced irregularities of landscape, caves, and shorelines, and left the world 'lying in its own rubbish' as a monument to human error and God's power" (687). James Hutton, who came to be regarded as the founder of modern geology through his Theory of the Earth (1785, 1788, and 1795), secular and scientific in approach, disagreed with Burnet's description of the providentially-driven cause and state of the changes in the earth. The Scottish geologist thought the universe was neither originally created for human beings nor did it care for their interest or existence. They were rather a later phenomenon, an accidental addition in the "great recycling process" of nature (690). Humans were left to themselves to find their own way on this indifferent earth, which, in Hutton's empirical view, "simply occurred" (690). Despite his significant differences with the younger and deeply Unitarian Coleridge, Hutton was saying something that would have a striking resemblance to Kubla Khan's elemental and ecological sublime: that "This was a world of process, transformation, conflict, destruction, generation, evolution, with 'no sign of a beginning ... no prospect of an end'" (Gaull 686).
If Burnet is true in saying that "God had created the earth 6,000 years ago as a round, smooth, symmetrical sphere under a dome-like heaven across which the stars were evenly distributed" (687), then the opening part of Kubla Khan with the emperor's stately pleasure dome and embellished gardens symbolizes the first stage of the earth and the second ("deep romantic chasm") part symbolizes the post-Flood situation, with ancestral prediction of destruction already come true or likely to come true again and again. In Hutton's view, the earth was formed long before 6,000 years--that is, it was overwhelmingly old, and its changes occurred through a gradual process rather than a sudden Deluge-like catastrophe.
Fulford points out the kinship between Hutton's and Wordsworth's visions of man alone in a cyclical landscape in "A slumber did my spirit seal." He continues to say:
Nature is not decorative in Wordsworth but a place that, as in Hutton, opens under one's feet into visions of vast, slow ineluctable power. So too in Shelley, who admired both [Hutton and Wordsworth] and saw Mont Blanc [in 1816] more as a process than a place, since the mountain is being built and destroyed by nature's huge forces as the poet, fascinated, watches. (91)
The layers of sediment "produced pressure, and generated heat, earthquakes, subterranean fires, and volcanic eruptions from which the whole cycle started again" (Gaull 689). Hutton's was "a vision of self-sustaining earth that decayed and was renovated, renewed, shaped by wind, water, heat, erosion, deposition, combustion, and uplift" (Gaull 689). His theory, which established the 'Vulcanist' interpretation of the primacy of the volcanic activity in elevating new land masses as opposed to the 'Neptunist,' "retreating-ocean model ... in order to balance the forces of erosion," was attacked as "a godless denial of Genesis and the Flood which fostered the atheism of the French Revolution" (McCalman 551-52). As mentioned above, even though Coleridge had fundamental differences with the Huttonian theory in terms of either divine or secular causation of the earthly changes, he seems to be presenting a complex poetical vision of the wrestling ideas of both Burnet and Hutton in Kubla Khan.
The poem's closeness or response to other contemporary literary-scientific developments continues. It describes the compound of Kubla Khan's stately pleasure-dome as a garden:
So twice six miles of fertile ground With walls and towers were compassed 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. (Coleridge, "Kubla Khan" 523)
Such an image of the garden was popular at the time and is comparable to the way the natural scientist and poet Erasmus Darwin used the same image just a few years earlier as a microcosm of the organic natural world in his Botanic Garden. Darwin's long poem of vast canvas helped to propagate not only the work of James Hutton but also that of Hutton's acquaintance, the originally-German astronomer Sir William Herschel, who likened the ever expanding heavens to a "luxuriant garden" (qtd. in Roe 692). (11)
As a demonstration of continued kinship between poetry and science, the chemist Sir Humphry Davy was writing poetry in the 1790s. Davy was also helping Wordsworth edit the second edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1800. Davy's "rapturous lectures on chemistry and geology infused scientific discourse with the languages of sensibility and sublimity" (McCalman 479). The close friendship between Davy and Coleridge, as pointed out by critics (Fulford, Gaull, and McCalman), not only helped Coleridge to find some measure of emotional steadiness but also launch his career as a public speaker, on the stage of the Royal Institution, on literary, cultural, and philosophical matters. Both of them believed that "the languages of chemistry and poetry could mutually resist the advances of French scientific and political rhetorics in the age of Napoleonic war," in Fulford's words. Fulford saw Kubla Khan, therefore, as certainly a realization of the "lasting myth of British Romantic science," which both Davy and Coleridge collaborated together to foster. It belongs to the kind of "poetry realized in nature," the voice of a vitalist "active universe" (qtd. in Roe 100).
The Political Context
Moving to the immediate origins of the poem in Purchas and the Napoleonic historical figure--just as Wordsworth got the albatross idea from Captain George Shelvocke's 1726 A Voyage Round the World By Way of The Great South Sea, in which Shelvocke described his rounding Cape Horn in Chile, the southernmost point of South America (Wu 194)--Coleridge, by his own admission, got the idea of Kubla Khan from yet another history/travel book, that is, Samuel Purchas's 1613 Purchas his Pilgrimage, Or Relations of the Worm and the Religions Observed in All Ages and Places. Both Richard Hakluyt and Purchas started the tradition of travel literature. Purchas' last work Hakluytas Posthumous, or Purchas his Pilgrims (1625), containing "A History of the World in Sea Voyages and Land Travel," and dealing with voyages to India, Japan, China, Africa, the West Indies, and many other places, is actually an expansion of his 1613 work for which he used Hakluyt's unpublished papers and East India Company records (Thornley and Roberts 30). The original passage in Purchas, Coleridge's primary source, goes like this:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan build a stately palace encompassing sixteen miles of plain ground with a wall, wherein are fertile meadows, pleasant springs, delightful streams, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middle thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place.... He has a herd of horses and mares, about ten thousand, as white as snow; of the milk whereof none may taste except he be of the blood of Chengis Khan. According to the direction of his astrologers or magicians, he on the eighth and twentieth of August spends and pours forth with his own hands the milk of these mares in the air and on the earth to give drink to the spirits and idols which they worship (Purchas 415).
As we can see, the passage describes the superstitious practices of the Tartar/Chinese astrologers or magicians, who arranged to have Kubla Khan throw the milk of the beasts they held in reverence both in the air and on the earth for the spirits and the idols they worshiped to drink, in the hope that such deities would then preserve "the men, women, beasts, birds, corn, and other things growing on the earth" (Purchas 416). Purchas goes on describing, among other strange uses of magic, the "marvelous" yet "devilish art" and the deceiving "holiness" and "sanctity" of the necromancers, who could make it possible for the rain to tall around the palace of Kubla Khan without touching it and for him to drink from the bottles flying through the air. Clearly, all this, conceived in oxymoronic terms, is exploited by Coleridge in the last part of the poem, which in its equally oxymoronic details-such as the longing of the poet to build exactly the type of dome that resembles Kubla's in the air, magic circles woven around him, who has drunk "the milk of paradise" and the sense of the audience in "holy dread"--is full of echoes from Purchas. The sunny dome with the "caves of ice" that the poet aspires to build in the air is perhaps symbolic of his autonomous or willed imaginative creations of great beauty and "a circle round him thrice" perhaps symbolizes the willful or self-imposed isolation of the romantic poetic genius. As Religious Musings (1794-1796) and The Picture; or, The Lover's Resolution (1802) from which Coleridge quotes in the preface to the published version of Kubla Khan (1816) show, the symbol or image of the circle is common in his poems, which use it for different purposes at different times. If the magical thrice-drawn circle in Kubla Khan encloses the poet from the outside world--to provide him with the necessary isolation he needs to create--philosophers and bards, in Religious Musings, spread the message of political freedom and liberty in "concentric circles" (1. 228). The direct correlation between poetry and politics in Religious Musings is reaffirmed in Kubla Khan with both the emperor and the poet either celebrating or wishing to celebrate their achievements by similar means, although there is the obvious difference of building the visual physical structure on the ground and the visionary dome in the air.
Given the ample evidence available, it can be said that Kubla Khan stands for Napoleon, whom, it is well-known, the Romantics both loved and despised. At first, they admired Napoleon because they found a heroic savior in him, and then they hated him because he turned into an aggressor and a usurper, who interrupted the progress of the Revolution and instated order at the expense of liberty. According to some historical accounts, Kubla Khan also was thought to have been autocratic in bringing all China under his control. But he was also thought to be a comparatively enlightened and tolerant ruler, which is the position I take in this article and I think Coleridge takes in the poem.
Despite the later unambiguous hostile attitude of the older generation of the Romantics towards Napoleon, their emotions of praise, grief, disappointment, and disillusion with him during the second half of the 1790s were far from easy and simple, and ultimately favorable. They went through a full range of complex emotional reactions--glorification, equivocation, castigation--to his rise and fall as they previously did over the fast-unfolding events of the French Revolution and its failure during first half of the decade. (12) After all, both Coleridge and Southey, who were at the time constantly corresponding with each other over the actions of the charismatic and messianic Napoleon, described him as having many identities: a military general, a man of science, man "of various talent, of commanding genius, of splendid exploit" (qtd. in Bainbridge, Napoleon 24), poet, philosopher, peacemaker, etc. It is significant that one of Coleridge's three essays on Napoleon, published in the Morning Post, March 11, 1800, suggests his deep ambivalence, however, more in favor of, than against, Napoleon and concludes with an image which recalls Kubla Khan's "miracle of rare device." The essay reads: "In his usurpation, Bonaparte stabbed his honesty in the vitals; it has perished ... but the mausoleum, where it lies interred, is among the wonders of the world" (qtd. in Bainbridge, Napoleon 23).
Equally significant is that his notebook entry of May 1802 describes Napoleon as "Poet Bonaparte--Layer out of a World-garden" (qtd. in Bainbridge, Napoleon 25). I agree with Bainbridge that this suggests that Coleridge thought of Napoleon as a formidably sublime figure who could arouse a sense of awe in him, and who could therefore unite the dual roles of both the political Kubla Khan laying out his "gardens bright" and the great poet building "that dome in air." Bainbridge, who does not contest Richard Holmes's contention that the dating of Kubla Khan could be as late as October 1799, points out that the final image of milk and honey in Kubla Khan could be straight out of Southey's letter of May 13, 1799 to his wife Edith (Bainbridge, Napoleon 20). The letter praised Napoleon's 1798-1799 expulsion of the despotic Ottoman/Mameluk dynasty from Egypt, followed by his administrative, scientific, and cultural reforms there, which, combined, presented themselves as a highly desirable alternative to the evil political system at home under William Pitt, which made Southey remember the long extinguished spark of Pantisocracy: "Well, well Buonaparte is making a home for us in Syria, and we may perhaps enjoy freedom under the suns of the East, in a land flowing with milk and honey" (qtd. in Bainbridge, Napoleon 20). "Milk and honey" is, of course, a phrase from Exodus in the Bible used to describe the heavenly food that the Israelites received from God during their forty years long plight, also mentioned in the Quran (2:57, 7:160, and 20:80). The expression was used by the first-generation Romantics not only to praise Napoleon's political and military measures in freeing the Egyptians from the Ottomans but also to refer to the Quantocks, the hilly area of great natural beauty near Nether Stowey where Coleridge lived during his most creative period, which included the writing of Kubla Khan (Holmes 166). (13)
David Pirie also supports the idea that Coleridge had Napoleon and his Egyptian campaign in mind when he composed Kubla Khan (248-49; see also Maxwell). So does Jerome McGann, who finds a contrast in the poem between the temporary ("precarious," to use his term) political power represented by "the two Tartar despots, Kubla and Napoleon" (qtd. in Bainbridge Napoleon 21) with the former being "the notorious Tartar who brought the whole of China under his absolute control by military force," on the one hand, and, on the other, the lasting quality of the poet's creative power (25). Bainbridge takes issue with Norman Rudich's (and implicitly McGann's) simplistic negative equation of Kubla Khan with Napoleon, and thinks that, on the contrary, the equation is quite positive. He argues that both Coleridge and Southey had at the time a far more serious, mainly favorable, though not totally unqualified, attitude towards Napoleon, in stark opposition to the then British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. The two poets generally continued to remain enthusiastic and excited about what Southey described as Napoleon's "greatness and his glory" in the East even after their previous fears about his aggressive policies (Bainbridge, Napoleon 22). (14)
Kubla Khan is not like Shelley's anti-Napoleonic Ozymandias (1817), written two years after the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo. Through the empty remains of the statue of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Ramses If, Shelley's sonnet makes an ironic and universal statement about the autocratic dispensation of power by tyrants and the vanity of their ambition. To borrow from Bainbridge, "[Napoleon's] dominating influence can also be detected in several of the most famous representations of political figures in the period, from Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' with its juxtaposition of political and poetic creators, to Shelley's portrait of the hubris of a fallen dictator in 'Ozymandias'" (Bainbridge, "The Historical Context" 20). The positive connection made by Coleridge between Napoleon and Kubla Khan becomes further confirmed when we consider what William Hazlitt, who was a lifelong liberal admirer of Napoleon (unlike the liberal-turned-conservative Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge, and Landor), has to say critiquing the Lake poets: "While they were building castles in the air, he gave law to Europe. He carved out with the sword what they had only traced with the pen" (qtd. in Bainbridge, Napoleon 3). This does not only recall the fundamental imagery of the poem but also suggests--as pointed out by Bainbridge--the major Romantic theme of the relationship between the poetical and the political. Bainbridge claims that this relationship has been well-explored in Kubla Khan, a poem which attempts to synthesize the law-giving, decree-issuing political authority of Kubla Khan with the poet's desire to "build that dome in air." Again, that the poem in its synthesis may have much to do with Napoleon's Egyptian expedition can be gauged from Alan Bewell's description of the French move:
A distinctive feature of Napoleon's Expedition of 1798 was that it was not represented strictly as a military invasion, but was more generally perceived as a major cultural and scientific event: the beginning of the process whereby modern thought would unlock the mysteries of the Orient. (qtd. in Bainbridge, Napoleon 20).
History is the witness that it did in fact "unlock" those mysteries. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt followed by British intervention there in 1799-1804 not only opened a gate for Europe into the ancient Egyptian customs and cultural heritage but also paved the way for the establishment of an eastern Mediterranean empire.
The Orientalist Context
Without exception, Kubla Khan, since its publication, with its references to China/Mongolia and Abyssinia (Ethiopia), has been playing its part in unlocking the mystery of the Orient. Like many other works by the Romantics, the poem is a creative exercise in Romantic orientalism, but it is also a continuation of a long oriental tradition in English literature. Ever since the phrase The British Empire was invented in the late sixteenth century by the English mathematician and astrologer John Dee, who gathered descriptions of newly discovered countries for Queen Elizabeth, the way was paved for others to make use of Arab and Near Eastern elements as part of the broader East extending from North Africa and the Mediterranean through Turkey and Persia to India and China. Lady Macbeth knew that all the perfumes of Arabia were not enough to mitigate her conscience of guilt. The merchants under the East India Company presented Sir Francis Bacon with a cabinet of oriental jewels. Seventeenth-century humanist and natural philosopher Robert Boyle, who was a Director of the East India Company, got the New Testament translated into Arabic in order to send it to Arab and Muslim countries (see Dick). It was during the same century that the meaning of the holy Quran first saw its English and French translations, erroneous though they may have been in some ways. (15)
Following the lead of Richard Knolles's General History of the Turks of 1603 (much admired by Dr. Johnson, Lord Byron, Southey and Coleridge), there were Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage of 1613 (immediate source of Kubla Khan) and some minor Restoration works dealing with the East by Dryden and Waller, among others. However, it was actually the eighteenth century that marked the genuine literary interest in the Orient, beginning with D'Herbelot's encyclopedic Bibliotheque Orientale of 1697 (itself translated from Ottoman sources, and upon which Thomas Moore and Leigh Hunt drew heavily in their creative encounter with the Muslim East) and Antoine Galland's highly influential Les mille et une nuits of 1704-1712, both of which were instrumental in creating a fascination for oriental tale. The other oriental English landmarks of the eighteenth century include Dr. Johnson's philosophical fable, Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia of 1759 (which had owed much to the Portuguese Jesuit Father Jerome Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia translated from French by Johnson himself in 1735, and which left a mark on Wordsworth's "The Arab Dream" in The Prelude and Coleridge's Kubla Khan), William Collins's Persian Eclogues of 1742 (reprinted as Oriental Eclogues in 1757), Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1778), Beckford's Gothic Caliph Vathek of 1786, and William Jones's scholarly works from Arabian, Persian, and Indian sources during the 1770s-1790s. As J. J. Clarke discusses the creative and intellectual contact between Asian and Western thought in his Oriental Enlightenment, the body of the century's English/French/German literature of Eastern origin (especially Chinese, Indian, Persian, and Arabian) dealing with the influence of the political, moral, and religious practices of those regions is considerable and consists of philosophical treatises, poetical translations and imitations, essays, letters, political speeches, epistolary novels and fictional, travel and historical accounts with many English and Continental authors contributing to the tradition (see Clarke).
It was this increasingly popular and widely practiced "Enlightenment" orientalism that made Dr. Johnson open "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (1749) with the famous couplet: "Let Observation, with extensive view,/Survey mankind, from China to Peru" (qtd. in Leask 138). Both Johnson's title and verse would be echoed in Kubla Khan, which with its own observation from China to Abyssinia and the suggestion of the destruction of great achievements can in fact be read as Coleridge's version of the vanity of human wishes, romantically framed as it is. Johnson's verse also anticipated the idea of what Edmund Burke described in 1777 as "the Great Map of Mankind... unrolled at once" with "no state or gradation of barbarism and no mode of refinement" that was "not at the same instant under our view" (qtd. in Leask 138). Burke was a great observer of the English affairs both in America and India. His "great map" kept on unrolling as the East India Company kept on extending its business empire with far-reaching political impact. Then there was the issue of growing antagonism between France and India, to be settled through the mediation of the Persian emperor. Although the British embassy headed by Lord Macartney failed in its mission to win favorable trade deals from the Chinese emperor Chien Lung in 1793-1794, the two other members of the delegation, Sir George Staunton and John Barrow, produced travel books about their visit to the geographically outlying locations such as China. Such travel literature, Nigel Leask claims, may have worked as a catalyst for Coleridge's poetic evocation of the Mongol/Tartar emperor Kubla Khan, who was the ancestor of the Manchu dynasty of that time, the last ruling dynasty of China, from 1644-1912 (140).
Clarke gives an account of the rise and decline of European "Sinophiles," "Sinophilism," or the cult of China in the field of arts and letters in the Age of Enlightenment through the early nineteenth century, tracing the rise to early seventeenth century (37-53). (16) He discusses how the worship of China and writings about Chinese antiquities, culture, and religion were a significant part in the making of the Orient by the West. "Sinomania" was being eclipsed not only by the criticism of Chinese culture and civilization by many thinkers and philosophers and the recantation by some of them of their earlier devotion to China, (17) but also by the revival of Hellenism during the 1750s, rising enthusiasm for India, and the expulsion of the Christian missionaries from China in 1770. Kubla Khan marked an attempt at a cultural re-engagement with "Chinoiserie" just as the Macartney embassy's efforts did at a political and economic one earlier in the same decade. Even in his formalist/new critical close reading, Richard Cronin would acknowledge the historicist dimension of Kubla Khan's China connection. He argues: "Kubla Khan decrees his dome to celebrate the peace that he has achieved by uniting all of China under his rule, but the peace he has secured is the product of conquest, and Coleridge's Khan dimly foresees that it will not survive him" (Cronin 266). Coleridge's interest in Kubla came at a time when the cultural allures of China were not holding any longer, metaphorically suggesting the cycles of historical change--the same theme suggested in the poem itself. As Sinomania gave way to a new love of the Orient in India, Persia, Turkey, and Arabia, the fascination with the East would continue with his contemporary Romantics (Southey, De Quincy, Byron, Shelley, Moore, and Hunt), producing works of the color and content of those countries. As the vast British Empire reached its peak during the nineteenth century, it also started witnessing nationalistic aspirations of its colonies, and thereby showing signs of unraveling disintegrative tensions and anxieties over its controversial, at times oppressive, hold over the East, regardless of whatever integrative and assimilative measures it attempted to take, until it had to relent at last, again repeating the cycles of history alluded to in Kubla Khan and also both by Rudich and McGann. (18)
The Euro-American Connections
Kubla's stately palace by "the sacred river" Alph in Xanadu is an ideal establishment representing a towering achievement in human history. Reading about it and being forewarned about its possible destruction in the future ("from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war" [Coleridge 523]) reminds us about the rise and fall of the Homeric Troy and Arthur's Camelot in ancient Britain, mentioned by Cronin, though in a different context. It also reminds us about the noble Danish king Hrothgar and his great hall Heorot subject nightly to the ravages of the monster Grendel in Beowulf. More interestingly, it is emblematic of the recent failed French Revolution, probably one of the symbolic meanings of William Blake's "The Sick Rose." The doom that Kubla's pleasure-dome may soon face reminds us of Coleridge's own plan for his failed Pantisocracy in 1794--a plan partly prompted by the disillusionment of the French Revolution as well as the contemporary evil political system in his own country. Under the utopian scheme, he, together with Robert Southey, was supposed to establish an ideal egalitarian community on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the United States, but by the following year, Southey started having doubts about the practicability of their trans-Atlantic project, and instead proposed to change the site to Wales. The two men could not agree on the location, and the project did not materialize. However, influenced by the utopian writings of the past (of Plato, Thomas More, and Francis Bacon, for instance), Coleridge and Southey, in their conception of Pantisocracy, were influenced by the rosy travel accounts of the new continent on the Americas, free from the corruptions of the Old World (Europe), of J. P. Brissot, Thomas Cooper, and Joseph Priestley.
Conclusion: Kubla Khan as the Eastern Other
The evanescent qualities of Kubla's palace also prove to be prophetically true about the rise and fall of civilizations in general throughout history. In addition to Volney's The Ruins: A Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires (1791), Coleridge knew and commented (in Table Talk) on Edward Gibbon's highly influential The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). In particular, as by his own admission he was reading at the time of composing Kubla Khan about the history and culture of the Chinese and Central Asian regions in the fourth of the nine books of Purchas his Pilgrimage (1613/1614), Coleridge may have had in mind what could be seen as the Eastern "other" for the Western empires--rise and fall of the huge empire under the Mongol Khans (Chinggis Khan and his grandson Kubla Khan, to name the two most famous), more than twice the size of Alexander's or Julius Caesar's.
The historiography covered by Samuel Purchas in 1613 was vast. While the title page of the fourth book alone says, "Of the Armenians, Medes, Persians, Parthians, Scythians, Tartarians, Chinois, and of Their Religions," the main title of the whole work is really daunting and formidable. It reads:
Purchas his Pilgrimage Or Relations of the World and the Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation up to this Present. In Four Parts. This First Contains a Theological and Geographical History of Asia, Africa and America. Declaring the Ancient Religions before the Flood, the Heathnish, Jewish, and Saracenical in all Ages since ... with brief Descriptions of the Countries, Nations, States, Discoveries, Private and Public Customs.
Such a historiography, at least in the context of the fourth book, included the Chinese Sung and Ming dynasties (who saw their fortunes turned during the century-long Mongol rule), the fourteenth century Timurid empire under the Central Asian conqueror Tamburlaine, and the rising Mughal empire in India about the same time, all of which had their stories of death and destruction, occupation and defeat, side by side with the economic and cultural ties they established all across the East, from India to Persia to the Islamic heartlands in the Middle East and North Africa, both by land and sea.
While the Mongols invaded Baghdad in 1258, their fleet against Japan was destroyed in 1274, and Tamburlaine caused violence and bloodshed in many places as far as Delhi and Damascus, and Turkey and Egypt. The Mongols, especially under Kubla Khan, and the Chinese after him, had relied heavily on Muslim officials and established a network of diplomatic, cultural, and business connections with Muslims, fostering tolerance and understanding between the two regions, historically symbolized by the famous Silk Road. The thirteenth-century Venetian traveller Marco Polo (d. 1324), who served Kubla Khan for seventeen years before returning to Italy, and the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta made their travels to India and China known to the world centuries before Samuel Purchas. During his final voyage back home, Marco Polo was accompanying, on behalf of Kubla Khan, a bride for the Mongol Ilkhanate Sultan Argun, then ruling the Islamic heartlands. Journeying in the opposite direction, Ibn Battuta was accompanied by Abyssinian warriors to repel attacks by Hindu pirates as he was taking the royal gift of horses and other valuables from Sultan Mohammad Shah II of Delhi to the Chinese emperor around 1341. The epochal circumnavigating voyages of the past--including the ones by Ferdinand Magellan (in early sixteenth century) and Francis Drake in the 1570s rounding the southernmost tip of South America, Cape Horn, located in the Chilean waters, about which Wordsworth read in a book and shared with Coleridge--left a mark at the planning stage of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Likewise, both recent and distant travel narratives also left their impact on Kubla Khan. (19)
Apart from France, Spain figured prominently in the writings of the first-generation Romantics--Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge, Landor, even the younger Byron and Leigh Hunt. Many of their works--such as Sophia Lee's Almeyda, Queen of Granada (1796), a tragedy set in Moorish Spain, Coleridge's fellow pantisocrat Southey's Letters Written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797), which was a result of his visit to those countries immediately following the failure of their jointly planned Pantisocracy, and Landor's oriental Gebir (1798), which was an attack on the Spanish prince Gebir's invasion and colonization of Egypt--came about the same time as Kubla Khan was being written. At the time Coleridge was composing the poem, he was also finishing his tragedy Osorio (later to be revised as Remorse), set in Granada at the time of the Spanish Inquisition instituted in 1478 onwards. Together with the contemporaneous and jointly authored (with Southey) The Fall of Robespierre, Osorio is an expression of Coleridge's radical views about Catholic Spain's oppression and injustice against the Jews and Muslim Moors of the time. It follows that the historic rise and fall of civilizations that Kubla Khan is argued as alluding to includes the Muslim/Moorish (southern) Spain, called Andalusia, of about eight hundred years, from 711 to 1492, when Islamic Granada was regained by the Catholics in what came to be known as Reconquista. It was during the Nasirid dynasty in the last centuries of Muslim rule in Spain that many aesthetic and engineering wonders of dazzling palaces, pools, and courtyard gardens were built, fed by a network of underground fountains, canals, and the nearby mountain rivers.
For a long time, European Christians believed in the legend of an Earthly Paradise as well as the realm of a Christian monarch named Prester (or Presbyter) John, both of which were thought to be somewhere in the East, possibly Ethiopia, also known as Abyssinia (from Abassens/Habassens/Habasha, meaning those inhabiting the extended part of the southern Arabian into the African/Ethiopian desert). The heavenly realm was believed to have been the land of four major rivers flowing out of it--the Nile, the Senegal, the Niger, and the Congo--whose origins explorers, especially from Portugal, sought to find. The Nile was traditionally identified with the great river that was rumored to have existed in sub-Saharan Africa. Naturally, one of the easiest ways to reach the earthly paradise was to follow the Nile to its source. Although Ethiopia was finally reached after a series of Portuguese missions during the fifteenth century, it did not turn out to be the land of earthly paradise or the ideal Christian kingdom as dreamt about. However, these geographical misconceptions led to expeditions that finally made possible the discovery of not only the sources of those great rivers but also the sea route to India around Africa by the end of the century.
A large part of Purchas his Pilgrimage, Book Seven, has been devoted to the legendary Prester John (or Priest John), described as "the Alpha of learned men in our age" (671), and his Ethiopian empire with constant references to Abyssinian associations, the "great" Queen of Sheba (Coleridge's Abyssinian maid?), and the "holy" Nile, which may be taken as the original of the "sacred" river Alph in Kubla Khan. With its descriptions of antiquities and rarities, this part of Purchas strikingly asserts its presence in the landscape of Kubla Khan. They include the stately (pagan, later Christian) temples, "the most magnificent in all Ethiopia," standing at the foot of the divinely blessed hill Amara, "the place of our forefathers' paradise," and built in honor of the frequenting deities as well as the sun and the moon, the surrounding "sweet, flourishing and fruitful gardens," and the "pleasant spring" passing down the hill through a "great" plain, making a lake, and giving rise to a river near the Nile, which falls into "the father and great king of waters, the sea" (Purchas 677). The reference to Mount Amara, of which the Abyssinian maid, Coleridge's muse, is singing, again, unmistakably alludes to Ethiopian/Abyssinian paradise in Purchas, where there is a detailed description of the hill revealingly anticipating/echoing what is there in the poem. The hill is a steep one, "dilating itself in a round form ... with impassable tops thereof, many fruitful and pleasant vallies wherein the kindred of [Prester John] are surely kept ... a mountain glittering in some places like the sun, saying all that was gold" (672). In Purchas, there is yet another similar passage, just five pages later, which is also highly suggestive of the landscape of Kubla Khan (Wu 462, n. 8). (20)
There is a striking resemblance between these descriptions in Purchas of the Abyssinian paradise of the Amara valley and that of the palace of the Amhara valley in Johnson's History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, so much so that it seems not only Lobo's book on Abyssinia but also Purchas's account of the same was an important source for the setting of Johnson's philosophical tale, both in turn having influenced Kubla Khan. Like Purchas, Johnson also describes Abyssinia, at the very outset, as the land of a "mighty emperor," where the Nile, "the Father of Waters, begins his course, and whose bounty pours down the streams of plenty, and scatters over half the world the harvests of Egypt" (Johnson 2680). Johnson goes on describing the happy valley and the palace therein, the details of which suggest ringing parallels between him and Purchas, and anticipate Coleridge's poem.
Coleridge was fascinated by James Bruce's popular Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (1790). The narrative of the travels is highly romantic, and mostly takes place in Ethiopia/Abyssinia. Coleridge quotes Bruce in his Religious Musings, (21) and once even thought of writing about "seeking the fountains of the Nile" ("Kubla Khan Sources--Brace" n. pag.). In 1807, Dorothy Wordsworth wrote to Lady Beaumont: "Coleridge says that the last edition of Brace's Travels is a book that you ought by all means to have" ("Kubla Khan Sources--Bruce" n. pag.). Citing the catalogue of details in Bruce such as thick woods and cedar groves, which seemed a cover from which savage animals might jump out at any moment, hills with cliffs and caves, and downhill slopes, John Livingston Lowes argues, in his famous The Road to Xanadu, that Coleridge adopted many striking images from Bruce and that his Xanadu resembles the area around the fountain from which the Nile begins, the Nile itself being the equivalent of the Alph ("Kubla Khan Sources--Bruce" n. pag.).
In its description of the royal palace enclosed by gardens, Kubla Khan shows an influence, through William Jones (1746-1794), of the scriptural, especially Quranic descriptions of both earthly and heavenly paradises. Jones, the foremost eighteenth-century British Orientalist who "discovered" the treasures of ancient classical Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit, and recommended that European literature be given new life by borrowing from fresh Eastern imagery, had a pioneering influence on the English Romantics in paving the way for inculcating a new taste for natural beauty and spontaneity suffused with oriental color and flavor (see Jalal Uddin Khan's "The Beautiful" and "Influence"). He says in his essay on the "Poetry of the Eastern Nations" (1772):
Mahommed, in his Alcoran, in the Chapter of the Morning [Al-Fajr], mentions a garden called Irem [or Iram], which is no less celebrated by the Asiatic poets than that of the Hesperides by the Greeks. It was planted, as the commentators say, by a king named Shaddad and was once seen by an Arabian, who wandered far into the desert in search of a lost camel. (Chalmers 435).
As the king of a great non-Semitic people who settled in southern Arabia, Shaddad built the earthly paradise called in the Quran Irama Dhati'l-Imad, which means "Many-columned Iram" or, in the translation of the meaning of the Quran by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, "the (city of) Iram, with lofty pillars/The like of which were not produced in (all) the land" (1732). It is important to note that the context in which God mentions this--to illustrate how He destroyed the ancient 'Ad and Thamud people and their cities due to their transgressions--resonates well with the prophetic warning of war and destruction in Kubla Khan. They were the great-grandchildren of the prophet Noah, and, in consequence of their violations against the warnings of the prophet Hud, were smitten into the desert sands. Iram, as a romanticized lost/ruined city or palace, came to be known to the Western world through the Arabian Nights, and just in a couple of years of the composition of Kubla Khan, Southey would refer to Iram as a safe haven for his Muslim hero Thalaba in his epic Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), set in the Middle East, providing evidence that both works may have shared some common sources indeed. (22)
The landscape of Kubla Khan resembles not just Shaddad's paradise as described by Jones and Scott but also the fertile gardens surrounding the legendary Ma'rib dam and the magnificent throne of the Queen of Sheba, who--together with her son--founded the Abyssinian dynasty and ruled over the same happy and blessed southern Arabia (modern Yemen and Ethiopia/Abyssinia combined), described in the Biblical as well as Quranic texts in connection with her contemporary the wise Solomon and his temple, again in the context of the retributive justice of God that followed the violations of her people in the ancient kingdom of Sheba/Saba'. All these ancient religio-historical details, together with those related to the descendants of Cush and Sham including the Ethiopians or Abyssinians in the empire of Pres(by)ter John, are described, even before the Seventh Book mentioned above, at the beginning of the Third Book of Purchas Pilgrimage, called "Of The Arabians, Saracens, Turkes, and Of the Ancient Inhabitants of Asia Minor and of Their Religions" (227-29, 659, 683). Purchas mentions a number of Arabian cities such as Mecca, Medina, and Aden but describes "Theima or Theman" as "a city walled fifteen miles square, enclosing ground for tillage in the walls" (Purchas 229), which anticipates Kubla Khan's enclosed palace ground.
It is possible that Coleridge's poem, with its references to great structures, sacred rivers, fruitful gardens, and the milk and honey of paradise may also have something to do, by way of Johnson and Jones, with the oft-repeated descriptions of paradise throughout the Quran, which says, for example: "But it is for those who fear their Lord. Those lofty mansions, one above another, have been built: beneath them flow rivers (of delight)" (39:20, Ali 1242; my emphasis), "Verily God will admit those who believe and do righteous deeds, to Gardens beneath which rivers flow" (47:12, Ali 1380; my emphasis), and "(Here is) a Parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised: in it are rivers of water incorruptible; rivers of milk of which the taste never changes; rivers of wine, a joy to those who drink; and rivers of honey pure and clear. In it there are for them all kinds of fruits; and Grace from their Lord" (47:15, Ali 1381-82; my emphasis).
As if Johnson's poet-philosopher Imlac were William Jones's model predecessor or mouth-piece, he says: "I was desirous to add my name to this illustrious fraternity. I read all the poets of Persia and Arabia, and was able to repeat by memory the volumes that are suspended in the mosque of Mecca" (Johnson 2693), referring to the Quran and other sacred texts hung on the wall of the holy mosque called the Kaaba. Jones, with his knowledge of classical Arabic (and Persian and Sanskrit too), translated the pre-Islamic competition prize poems (Odes) known as Mu'allaqat, suspended from the walls of the Kaaba. The grandness of God's House on the earth, as Muslims believe the Kaaba to be, lies in its cubical simplicity, with its immediate vicinity in the surrounding valley famous for the living memories of Abraham, Ishmael, Hajar, and especially the holy miraculous spring, Zam-Zam, ceaselessly gushing forth, for thousands of years now, out of the still unknown underground source. These aspects of the holy sanctuary have their resounding echoes in Kubla Khan.
Kubla Khan can be, and has indeed been, read in many different ways. Critics have reacted to its structural and symbolic multiplicities and intertextualities; on my part, I have attempted a post-structuralist and new historicist study of the poem, relating it to a wide breadth of cultural and culturally heterogeneous representation rather than typical Romantic spiritual introversion and introspection, expanding the disciplinary boundaries into the interdisciplinary. By definition, any historicist study has a progressive import, a forward-looking thrust with an objective and dispassionate liking for the social and humanitarian, not necessarily what is radical and revolutionary. As observed by Johnston, historicism may not be very interested in distinguishing a good poem from a bad one, but it "values poems for their historical influence or socio-political impact" (171). And that is what Kubla Khan does, for it speaks to that effect and leaves behind a trail of historicist thought.
Historicism is a move far beyond, in the words of Aidan Day, "the self-referential, self-mystifying, self-transcendentalizing Romantic ideology," which, by contrast, contains implications of reactionary politics, political conservatism, and the tendency of anti-social and anti-humanitarian thought (161). He, therefore, argues, in line with the New Historicist direction towards a representation of a range of cultural forms which include both the literary and non-literary, that "the politically radical aspects of literature of the period would more usefully be described as 'late Enlightenment,' while the term Romantic may be taken to define, among other things, an essentially conservative tendency of thought" (Day 5). Putting aside the Romantic ideology-related emotional identification with and absorption into the state of self-communing, and read, instead, with historicist thought and mind, Kubla Khan is seen to be navigating through a host of political and cultural reflections, creating a ramification of its meaning and achieving an augmented status of social significance. The series of overt allusions it makes to diverse materials surely invites a historicizing analysis of it. The way the poem blends poetry and politics, dream and reality, the imaginary and the documentary, and process and product, and correlates poetical longing with political fulfillment, religious impulse with magical enchantment, contemporary sciences with historical travel literature about the Orient, and finally the local landscape with the exotic settings turns it into a fertile ground for a historically attentive cultural studies critic.
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(1) Kenneth Johnston points out that this ideology was most prominently established, among others, by M. H. Abrams in his The Mirror and the Lamp, published in 1953, and Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, published in 1971 (Johnston 170).
(2) Also relevant in this connection is his A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, published about the same time as the initial part of his project to articulate the theory and method of historical criticism.
(3) Johnston explains that while Marxism has a linear tendency with class and money at the base, with everything else being superstructure, Foucault's theory is more diffuse, extending to "the power of professions or disciplines, the complex powers of gender, the power of language" (170).
(4) In terms of psychoanalytical reading, which is well within the purview of historicism, this part of the poem personifies the constant underground geological activity with an analogy connotative of the mother's womb, climaxing sexual intercourse, reproduction, and childbirth. Karen Mahar argues that Coleridge metaphorically describes the process of creative imagination by that of male/female psycho-sexual orgasm and female anatomy. Mahar views the quoted verses as symbolizing the geologic activity by the climax in sexual pleasure, vagina, pubic hair, visual and audible aspects of a woman experiencing orgasm, and male ejaculation (n. pag.).
(5) It seems likely that Coleridge's retirement to the farmhouse took place at the time of this walking tour to the Valley of the Rocks with the Wordsworths. Then, the probable date of the composition of Kubla Khan is early November 1797 (Wu 461, note 1).
(6) "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was to take Coleridge five months to complete.... The harbor from which the mariner set out was undoubtedly Watchet, where they stayed, and the hermit's woodland home was at Culbone" ("Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Exmoor." n. pag.).
(7) See, for example, Effusion XXXV (later "The Eolian Harp"), This Lime Tree Bower My Prison, Religious Musings, and Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement.
(8) For example, apart from Erasmus Darwin versifying science, consider William Blake engraving the scientific papers of the Royal Society; Wordsworth defining poetry as "the history or science of feelings" (in the headnote to The Thorn) and describing the subject of The Excursion as "Man, Nature, and Human Life." Coleridge championed the writer-chemist-natural philosopher Joseph Priestley as he did the chemist-writer Humphry Davy; he and Southey hailed Edward Jenner who invented vaccination for pox as a national hero. The writer-scientist Benjamin Franklin is another example (see Fulford and Gaull).
(9) For their scientific involvement, see Levere, Grabo, and Kipperman.
Byron's Cain and Heaven and Earth are a humanist response to the geological and astronomical theories of his time. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a critique of the inhuman loneliness and the isolation of researching scientists as well as the egotism of literary geniuses.
(10) For a study of the relationship between the conception of nature and science in the Romantic period, see Lussier, Eiseley, and Wilson.
(11) It is worth mentioning here that John Keats drew inspiration for his "new planet" simile in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," composed in 1816, from Herschel's discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781, just as he was inspired by Herman Cortes's geographical exploration of 1519 in his "Cortez" simile (Gaull 691).
(12) The following brief chronology is provided for the convenience of the general readers: the French Revolution (storming of Bastille), 14 July 1789; Birth of the French Republic, 22 September 1792; Execution of Louis XVI in February 1793; England declared war and joined the alliance of Austria and Prussia against the revolutionary France in 1793; Robespierre's Reign of Terror, October 1793-July 1794; Napoleon's Italian campaign of 1796-1797; his invasion of Switzerland, January 1798; his Egyptian expedition, 1798-1799; his retreat from Acre (Egypt) after the French army had been desolated by plague in the spring of 1799; his coup d'etat of November 1799.
(13) Also see Southey's letter of October 18 to Humphry Davy about Napoleon's campaign in Italy and Egypt (Bainbridge, Napoleon 32).
(14) It is not only Bainbridge but also Dominic Pino who is highly critical of Rudich's (mis)reading of the poem in "Coleridge's Kubla Khan," saying he (Rudich) is "wrong on many accounts." Convincingly demonstrating that the word "daemonic" is used in Kubla Khan to mean "a benevolent, transcendent power that is associated with nature" just as "savage" is used "to represent a primordial state, a place unaffected by the corruption of man," Pino too claims that Rudich takes those words in today's sense of something brutal and evil (which is wrong in the context of the poem), and that Rudich's analysis highlighting the negative similarities between Kubla Khan and Napoleon is simply "incorrect" (n. pag.).
(15) The first English translation was by William Bedwell in early seventeenth century followed by that of A. Ross in the 1650s, which was done from the French translation by Du Ryer in 1647. George Sale's 1734 English translation was from Maracci's Latin translation of 1689.
(16) In discussing the China cult in Enlightenment Europe, Clarke refers to the enthusiasms for China of these authors: (English) Sir William Temple, John Webb, Sir William Chambers, the deists (David Hume and Matthew Tindal), Alexander Cozens and his son John, and Oliver Goldsmith (1762); (French) Montaigne (late sixteenth century), La Mothe le Voyer (1642), Isaac Vossius (1660), Malebranche (late seventeenth century), Pierre Bayle (late seventeenth century), the works of the French Jesuits, Jean-Baptiste Du Halde (1735), Marquis d'Argens (1739), Voltaire (1755), Diderot, Helvetius, and Francois Quesnay (1767); (German) Leibniz (late seventeenth and early eighteenth century) and Christian Wolff (eighteenth century).
(17) According to Clarke, Diderot and Helvetius backed down from their earlier praise of China. Montesquieu, Friedrich Grimm, and, more importantly, Rousseau and Condorcet were highly critical of Chinese culture and society (37-53).
(18) For an understanding of British imperialism and Romantic orientalism, see Saree Makdisi's Romantic Imperialism (1998); Tim Fulford and Peter Kitson's Romanticism and Colonialism (1998); J. J. Clarke's Oriental Enlightenment (1997); Alan Richardson and Sonia Hofkosh's Romanticism, Race, and Imperial Culture (1996); Nigel Leask's British Romantic Writers and the East (1992); Javed Majeed's Ungoverned lmaginings (1992); John Barrell's The Infection of Thomas De Quincey (1991); C. A. Bayly's Imperial Meridian (1989); Edward Said's Orientalism (1985); Raymond Schwab's The Oriental Renaissance (1984); and P. J. Marshall and Glyndwr Williams's The Great Map of Mankind (1982).
(19) Such voyages and narratives also include those by Sir John Mandeville in the mid fourteenth century, Vasco da Gama, who completed his voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to India in 1499; Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci (in late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries), Ahmad Ibn Majid in late fifteenth century, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), Richard Pococke's A Description of the East and Some Other Countries (1743), James Cook and Bligh in the 1780s. Admiral Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim, who descended from a Mongol warrior, made seven voyages across the south and south-east Asia and the Middle East, beginning 1405.
(20) For revisions from original "Amora" to "Amara" to "Abora," see Wu 462, n. 8.
(21) In a footnote to line 269, Coleridge quotes a passage from Bruce's Travels describing the suffocating heat and haze which accompany the tropical desert storm called simoom (Noyes 384).
(22) Influenced by Jones, his contemporary John Scott (1730-1783) describes Shaddad's paradise garden Irem in the poem "Zerad; or, the Absent Lover: An Arabian Eclogue," the whole poem being prompted by the description of the sublime Arabian desert life in Jones's essay. "The Atlantis of the Sands," as T. E. Lawrence would call Iram, continued to appear in many works of literature.
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|Author:||Khan, Jalal Uddin|
|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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