With Ceaseless Turmoil Seething, the World's Greatest Drug-Induced Poem Turns 200

Jun 01 2016

With Ceaseless Turmoil Seething, the World’s Greatest Drug-Induced Poem Turns 200

June 1st, 2016

Ah, those Romantics. If they weren’t bedding their half-sisters or drowning in the Gulf of La Spezia, they were guzzling opium.

Perhaps the most Romantic of all Romantic poems is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”—a fabulously conceived, breathlessly paced, exclamation point-punctuated vision of Xanadu, the Mongol emperor’s summer palace, that is ultimately more about the power and energy of imagination itself.

A sample stanza:

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!

So Romantic is the poem that it was birthed, apparently, by an opium-induced dream and then, like the lives of many poets of the time, cut tragically short, leaving only a “fragment.”

To explain this brevity, Coleridge provided in the preface to his work—published on May 25, 1816, years after its completion, at the insistence of Lord Bryon—one of the most famous excuses in literary history.

Setting the Romantic scene:

In the summer of the year 1797, the author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne [read: opium or laudanum, a tincture of opium alkaloids] had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas’s Pilgrimage: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.”

Unconscious composition:

The author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.

Work begins:

On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.

But—oh no!

At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

It beats “the dog ate my homework.”

Since then, the “Person from Porlock” has become shorthand for any unwanted intruder who interrupts creativity. The American scholar John Livingston Lowes (1867-1945) is reported to have told his classes, “If there is any man in the history of literature who deserves to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, it is the man on business from Porlock.”

An understandable sentiment. But it’s quite likely that Porlock Person was himself a figment of Coleridge’s fevered imagination—a conveniently contrived reason for leaving “Kubla” as a perfect miniature, a testament to the beauty of the fragility of creation.

Real or imagined, opium-induced or not, Coleridge’s “milk of paradise” has gotten plenty of people high over the last couple of centuries.

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 `twould 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 honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.