In Exmoor, England, in opium haze, did S.T. Coleridge his stately vision enscribe. Upon waking from a laudanum-induced stupor in which he apparently had a mystical vision, Coleridge quickly set about writing down in poetic form the elements of his revelation. He had grand ideas–a poem of at least 300 lines that precisely recorded even the smallest detail of his God-given vision [via the opium, of course]. Unfortunately, in the midst of his poetic elucidation, Coleridge was interrupted by the infamous Person of Porlock, an notorious figure of literary lore who has been supposed to be Coleridge’s doctor, Dr. P. Aaron Potter (delivering more laudanum, no doubt) or even Coleridge himself (i.e., he intruded upon his own thoughts and thus interrupted himself). Still others claim the character is a work of fiction and was created for the sole purpose of endowing the fragmented poem with a sort of legend. Whichever story you believe, the ultimate end is that “Kubla Khan” is just a fragment of the larger, grander poem Coleridge originally had in mind, and we have the Person of Porlock to thank for it.
The poem begins with Kubla Khan declaring that Xanadu is a true paradise, a heaven-on-earth. Speaking in terms of archetypes, this renders Xanadu the Garden of Eden: a place that is as close to heaven as any place on earth can get. It also means that this paradise will eventually be lost. Coleridge spares no detail in his description of Xanadu, revealing that
there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forest ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. (8-11)
Not only is this paradise pleasing to all of the senses, Coleridge explains, but it is also much older than human beings, specifically, “older than the hills”. We can also tell by the prevalent usage of the color green–archetypically symbolic for fertility–that this is a land of thriving life, a place where reproduction comes easily. Not surprisingly, there is a “sacred river” (the Alph, apparently fictitious) flowing through Xanadu: rivers are archetypal symbols for the life cycle. It makes sense, then, that the life cycle flows through a fertile, life-giving land. The life cycle is further emphasized by the presence of a “deep romantic chasm [a symbol for the opening of our lives, specifically the vagina] which slanted / Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover [i.e., the pubic mound of the vulva]” (12-13). Coleridge embellishes this metaphor to the fullest with the overt imagery of conception:
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. (25-28)
As the spermatozoa races through the vagina until it enters the uterus, the lively Alph flows through a fertile land and then ultimately sinks into a lifeless ocean. Certainly, the uterus is lifeless until an egg is fertilized and an embryo is formed. That this all occurs under Kubla’s “pleasure-dome”, that “The shadow of the dome of pleasure / Floated midway on the waves [of the now-lively ocean]” (31-32) is not a coincidence: conception takes place, after all, after an orgasm. Thus in the first three stanzas, Coleridge describes for us his vision of paradise: an Edenistic domain where sex is not a sin, but is instead recognized as the pleasurable and cataclysmic act of producing life.
But as the Eden symbology from the beginning of the poem implies, this paradise–like our own happy lives–must end at some point. For Coleridge, it seems that his paradise vanished with the appearance of the Person of Porlock, for following the first three stanzas of reverence for Xanadu’s sublimity, we have a concluding stanza discussing Paradise lost:
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid*
And on her duclimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air. (37-36)
[*Because Abyssinia [now Ethiopia] is in northwestern Africa, it is thought by some to be the possible location of the actual Garden of Eden. From this, we can apply to this Abyssinian maid an Eve-like persona; perhaps we should not proclaim her to be Eve herself, but rather a woman like Eve–someone who has experienced but has lost access to paradise.]
Coleridge makes it plain for us that this is post-Porlock, so to speak, for he now describes the vision in the past tense: he once saw it, which implies he cannot see it anymore; whoever interrupted him simultaneously robbed him of his Edenistic daydream. He remembers now an Abyssinian maid–an Eve-like persona–singing a mournful song of Mount Abora, a feature, it seems, within the bounds of Xanadu. He wishes that he could remember her song, for if he could, he would replay it and thus rebuild the pleasure-dome–i.e., he would relive his vision. But alas, he cannot remember the maid’s song, and so his vision is nothing but a memory, dim and pale in contrast to the brilliant vitality of the daydream.
In a mere 54 lines, Coleridge provides an illustration of Paradise Lost, not specifically imitating Milton, but most assuredly taking cues from him. Though the poem is fragmented, we nevertheless have a clear description of heaven-on-earth, complete with its fertile gardens and life-giving/life-beginning atmosphere, and its ultimate loss. We, too, experience this in our lives, for we reap boundless joys in our life-times, only to lose them as time goes on. But at least we can be contented with the quaint memories of these happier times, and be happy having once upon a time “drunk the milk of Paradise.”