The Kubla Khan effect

2024-03-25 @Literature

Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (1798) receives mighty high praise for some of the best lines of the English language. I once met a Frenchman and a literature fanatic like myself, who, despite a limited command of English, was highly motivated by virtue of this fragmentary poem. (An analogous, reverse case had instigated my plunging into French.)

The Kubla Khan mysticism doesn’t hurt the appeal either. A vision of a castle erected by the Mongolian emperor arrives in an opium induced dream along with effectively a few hundred lines of verse ready to be transcribed, according to Coleridge’s commentary some years after. Alas, most of the vision fades following an interruption to the creative process, remaining only the 54-line fragment we know today. How often has something similar not happened to us the morning after a dream?

Borges, in El sueño de Coleridge (of the collection of essays Otras inquisiciones) further amplifies the legend. Unbeknownst to Coleridge at the time, a subsequently published history reveals that the emperor also erected the castle from a dream vision:

El poeta soñó en 1797 (otros entienden que en 1798) y publicó su relación del sueño en 1816, a manera de glosa o justificación del poema inconcluso. Veinte años después, apareció en París, fragmentariamente, la primera versión occidental de una de esas historias universales en que la literatura persa es tan rica, el Compendio de historias de Rashid el-Din, que data del siglo XIV. En una página se lee: “Al este de Shang-tu, Kublai Khan erigió un palacio, según un plano que había visto en un sueño y que guardaba en la memoria.” Quien esto escribió era visir de Ghazan Mahmud, que descendía de Kublai.

Un emperador mogol, en el siglo XIII, sueña un palacio y lo edifica conforme a la visión; en el siglo XVIII, nu poeta inglés que no pudo saber que esa fábrica se derivó de un sueño, sueña un poema sobre el palacio. Confrontadas con esta simetría, que trabaja con almas de hombres que duermen y abarca continentes y siglos, nada o muy poco son, me parece, las levitaciones, resurrecciones y apariciones de los libros piadosos.

So the emperor dreamed up an architectural layout. Five centuries later, an English poet dreamed up a poem about the same.

The entire backstory confounds me. Determinism? Transcendentalism? Mesmeric influence? (I recall something of the sort in Poe’s A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.) Or a sensational backstory fabricated in its own right?

The infinity for which Borges derives great fondness, I admit, hardly offends my agnostic makeup. In the essay remainder Borges ponders the phenomenon, surveying possible conjectures, albeit with greater eloquence and academic insight.

On the other hand, I could dismiss the folk superstition, considering the 54 lines at face value among the inexhaustible flanks of lines at least as laudable across the language. Take Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn, Milton’s Lycidas, Yeats' Byzantium, Gray’s Elegy, Spenser’s Epithalamion, Poe’s Sleeper (or my personally esteemed Al Aaraaf) among an arbitrary set of candidates.

I could likewise argue the legend part of the poetic byproduct. A poem spawning philosophical essays, diaries and probably dissertations bears heavy influence. Is the legend of lesser merit than the underlying matter? In an unconventional thought paradigm, is there a difference between the two? To be considered however you please. Need we mind the indifferentiable web of causality that really contributed to Kubla Khan, contrasted to the one we’ve crafted in our minds over the centuries proceeding?

Sometimes we intuit greatness without the merit. Then sometimes the idea sells us: propagates until expanding to a legendary proportion. Many of us readers effectively convince ourselves of the greatness a priori. The rationale certainly propelled me through Thomas Malory’s La Morte d'Arthur, the catalyst for the English-language Arthurian tradition, whatever the faults. Antoine Galland’s 1001 nuits - an incubator of Europe’s fascination for orientalism, however, I couldn’t endure past the ninety-ninth night.

Questions, comments? Connect.