Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Kubla Khan”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

One of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poems is “Kubla Khan” – and it not only tells (or starts to tell) a fascinating story but also comes with a unique story of its own origin.

The poem – written in 1797 and published in 1816 – tells the story of the great 13th-century Mongol ruler and Emperor of China and the beautiful Abyssinian maid who plays the dulcimer. The short poem – a fragment, Coleridge claimed – is lush, rich, evocative. I love reading this poem, and I especially love reading it aloud. You can hear me read it by clicking the link in the Listen box below, but I invite you to read it aloud yourself so you can experience the full power of the words.

But what has fascinated readers since the poem was first published in 1816 is Coleridge’s account of how the poem came to be. According to Coleridge, he had taken some opium and fallen into a drugged sleep. He woke up from that sleep with an entire poem in his head and sat down to write it out before it flew from his brain. Then, when he was only partway into the poem, there was a knock at his door. When he returned to his desk, the rest of the poem had evaporated, and he was left with only the fragment he had managed to write down. You can read Coleridge’s account of writing the poem at The Victorian Web.

Readers have debated ever since whether Coleridge’s story of the poem’s origin is true and whether it is indeed a fragment of a larger poem, as Coleridge claimed, or actually a carefully constructed poem that is whole in itself.

Readers who accept Coleridge’s story point to the widespread drug usage of people – especially artists and writers – during the Romantic period. It’s entirely conceivable, these readers say, that Coleridge did take opium that night and that he might very well have believed, as some other Romantic artists did and as counter-culture hippies did in the ‘60s, that drugs could allow the artist to tap into the raw, unfiltered state of the human unconscious, to access the “source” of creativity. In presenting this story of the poem’s birth, Coleridge could have been drawing attention to the primal power of the unfettered imagination.

Other readers have concluded that Coleridge’s story of the poem’s creation is hogwash. The poem is so finely crafted, they say, that it cannot be the product of a dream but must have come from an intentional act of writing. And these readers assert, it can be argued that the poem is not a fragment but is actually a finished, coherent poem about the act of creativity. A thorough synopsis of the various critical readings of the poem can be found on Wikipedia.

I have a definite opinion about which of these takes on “Kubla Khan” is closer to the truth, but I’m not going to give it away. I’m interested in what StoryWeb readers think. Weigh in with your opinion in the comments section: drug-induced fragment or consciously crafted finished poem?

If you want a good edition of Coleridge’s poetry and prose, check out the Norton Critical Edition. It provides a great collection of Coleridge’s poetry (including “Christabel” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) as well as an in-depth look at his literary and philosophical criticism.

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Listen:Listen as I read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan.” The reading runs three minutes. You can follow along with the poem here.


Image Credit: “Samuel Taylor Coleridge” by Pieter van Dyke,, held at the National Portrait Gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons,