Opioids, Industrialism, and Decadence: An Autobiographical Reading of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan follows the journey of a Mongol emperor through Xanadu, an ancient capital city described through themes of nature, decadence, and human dreams and visions. While the poem may seem justified for the time as Coleridge was a part of the Romantics, its intense imagery and overall odd descriptiveness is the result of an opioid-infused dream. Coleridge awoke from his dream and immediately began writing Kubla Khan, however, he was interrupted by a visitor and stopped writing because he could not remember the rest of the dream. Prior to reading Coleridge’s biography, and prior to knowing the poem was written under the influence of an opioid drug, the imagery present in Kubla Khan seemed as though it just aimed to break boundaries for a new era of poetry, one that didn’t need to follow rules or preexisting norms. After learning of Coleridge’s lifestyle, however, Kubla Khan seems to express a vision of decadence unknown to most, one that is demonstrated through nature imagery.

Coleridge begins the poem by describing the palace of Xanadu and its surrounding area with great admiration. He uses words such as “sacred,” “measureless,” and “sunless” to express the unparalleled sublimity of the area, a beauty that cannot be adequately described. Coleridge writes “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran, Through caverns measureless to man.” This quotation appeals to the reader because it references something commonly known, man, and compares it to something unknown to man (the area surrounding Xanadu). This comparison stresses the inconceivable beauty that the natural scene presents in a way that shows man’s inferiority to the natural world around him. This theme of man versus nature was evident in much of the writing during the period of the Romantics, as the movement sought to counter the materialistic ideals that emerged during the Industrial Revolution by stressing the serenity, and ultimate superiority that can be found in nature.

The poem goes on to describe the scents and great scope of the land before once again, referencing the varying viewpoints between the Romantics and those in favor of industrialism.

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 [.]

Coleridge’s use of the word “chasm” is ultimately a reference to the time period itself as the word can mean either an opening in the land or a distinct difference between viewpoints or groups of people. In the natural sense, this quotation seems to mean a geyser erupted, but in another sense, it can mean the two groups disagreed and the argument eventually exploded. This second meaning can be especially noted when looking at the use of words such as “seething” and the phrase “fast thick pants” (which conjures up images of man, or humans in general).

The majority of the poem continues to describe an enchanted natural scene, before the last stanza, where Coleridge describes a “damsel with a dulcimer.” The inclusion of an instrument obviously suggests a materialistic item, but Coleridge explains that the woman is a maid singing of Mount Abora, a reference to Mount Amara which is a real mountain located in Ethiopia. This crosslink between materialism and nature brings an ongoing argument to a peaceful close. The woman uses the instrument to instill serenity and peace within the listeners through beautiful song, much like nature is capable of. This peace, however, ends abruptly when Coleridge writes a warning:

Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes

with holy dread For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The utter reality of Coleridge’s dream comes to a peak in this quotation, as its intensity is enough to scare himself. Coleridge writes to warn readers of some creature with “flashing eyes” and “floating hair,” and the very last line referencing Milton’s Paradise Lost serves as an additional warning for those who know the consequences Adam and Eve faced after eating the fruit in Paradise. Overall, Kubla Khan began as a poem typical of a Romantic, with intense description of nature imagery, but it ended with a serious warning to readers. Perhaps research into the lifestyle of Coleridge will reveal reasoning for this drastic change in tone.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in October, 1772 in Devonshire, England. Coleridge was the youngest of fourteen children and went on to attend school in London after his father’s death. Coleridge eventually went on to attend Jesus College at the University of Cambridge in 1791, ultimately following his father’s wishes for him to become a clergyman. Coleridge’s views changed drastically over the course of his time at Cambridge, however, and he became very interested in philosophical ideas, and religious and political discussion. He also became very dependent on others as he spiraled into great debt. A few years later, Coleridge met Robert Southey and the two shared many of the same philosophies. Coleridge and Southey idealized an equal government by all and even imagined migrating to the New World with others to set up a new life in Pennsylvania. In order to live in the New World, however, the two men would need to be married, and so they married two sisters named Edith and Sarah Fricker (Academy of American Poets).

Coleridge’s marriage was a transition point from a period of freedom and self-growth to a distant and lonely life. Unhappy in his marriage, and with him and Southey’s plans falling apart, Coleridge dropped out of Cambridge and spent the next few years becoming a writer. Years later, Coleridge befriended William Wordsworth, another Romantic poet who influenced Coleridge’s life greatly. The two poets focused on a natural writing style, much like the rest of the Romantics, and Coleridge often turned to the experiences of his friends for subjects to write about. This symbiotic friendship between the two poets continued even on their travels to Europe, but faded once Coleridge returned to England in 1800.

The remainder of Coleridge’s life is characterized by a combination of self-growth and self-destruction. Coleridge continued to study and lecture on philosophy and politics, furthering his knowledge on the subjects, and he also published some famous poetry and prose. On the other hand, he struggled with an opium addiction and other health issues. He lived on the island of Malta for a few years, working as a secretary to the governor as he tried to quit his drug addiction. He was unable to give up opium, however, and he continued to spiral into a financial disaster and ultimately resorted to living off of donations and grants. In 1816, Coleridge moved in to live with a physician in one last effort to battle his drug addiction. During this time, he continued to publish while dealing with health issues, and he died in July 1834 while in London (Academy of American Poets).

While the beginning of Coleridge’s career was full of free expression and new knowledge, his time spent dealing with an opium addiction likely inhibited his newfound writing potential. Coleridge’s addiction may have resulted from a lack of familial support (they did have fourteen children after all), financial depression, or a feeling of failure after his plans with Southey did not pan out. After reading Coleridge’s biography and learning of his opium addiction, the tone present in Kubla Khan changes to something unknown to most, visions of decadence that can only be seen under the influence of an opioid drug. While Coleridge was a part of the Romantic movement and ideas of superiority of nature are associated with the era, the point to which he describes the natural world is almost too great a degree for any normal[1] human being to be capable of imagining. His description of the land surrounding the palace, and the palace itself, shows decadence, much like his act of using an opioid drug. This over-the-top imagery is especially present in the specificity evident in the poem such as “five miles of fertile ground” and “sinuous rills.” It seems logical that Coleridge’s ability to describe his dream in such detail is partly due to him being under the influence of an opioid drug.

Additionally, after reading Coleridge’s biography, it seems as if his description of a terrifying creature in the last stanza is actually a description of himself under the influence of the drug. Coleridge writes “For he on honey-dew hath fed, and drunk the milk of Paradise.” This quotation references the simple act of consuming something through its use of “fed” and “drunk,” and, knowing what we do about Coleridge’s drug use, it seems possible that the “milk of Paradise” or “honey-dew” could be referring to opium. Coleridge’s addiction likely makes the drug seem very appealing, but later he suffers the consequences of its use. Prior to these last two lines, he warns readers of this creature that seems unordinary, and it is possible that he is writing about his unordinary behavior when under the influence of the drug.

In examining the life of Coleridge, it becomes evident that he suffered through many losses and encountered several obstacles that ultimately caused him to resort to drugs. In first reading Kubla Khan, the poem seemed extremely descriptive, but not too far-fetched for a poet of the Romantic movement. After learning of Coleridge’s addiction, however, it’s quite possible that the level of specificity and overall decadence portrayed in Kubla Khan would not have been possible had the author not taken a drug. Additionally, knowing of Coleridge’s opium use adds an element of randomness to the poem, because the drug could have caused the author to dream of anything, but it specifically led the author to write about the Mongol emperor and Xanadu. Coleridge’s life was full of ups, but also many downs, and his drug use most definitely leads the reader to take on a new perspective regarding Kubla Khan.

Works Cited

Academy of American Poets. “Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 6 Oct. 2015, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/samuel-taylor-coleridge.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 2017, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan.

[1] Normal meaning not under the influence of any drugs

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