The Portrayal Of The East And Imagery In Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

Despite the fact that Europeans have always been determined to divide themselves from the Easterners, they have always had a profound interest in the latter- the interest which established that the East and everything related to the East must be separated from the West and everything related to the West. It is also evident as to what the reason behind Europe’s firm footing in the east is: exclusive political reasons. It could be said that this vague interest surpassed the Middle Ages period of the Crusades, who attempted to retain the holy land in the East as theirs, to the 14th century when Marco Polo set sail to explore Eastern China, up until today. All these Western “explorers” have built up anecdotes, translations and observations during their travels to the East which have contributed to the Western perception of the East, thus, establishing stereotypes, narratives and descriptions about it. It cannot be denied that some information brought about the East by the Western scholars is relatively true, such as the religions expressed in their land in addition to the various social customs and civil laws. However, some of the information about the East presented by these Orientalists is definitely not true at all (Fleissner, 1971). Edward Said believes that all the information gathered about the East overwhelmingly contributes to the exotic and mythical writings and portrayals of it. He adds that these “journalistically objective” writings about the East had either been written by an Orientalist scholar who had already been influenced by his country’s political agenda or a scholar who was merely influenced by the former, but unfortunately both accounts are claimed, by Said, to be heavily subjective. Edward Said accused these literary works to hold false portrayals of the East as erotic, exotic, irrational and lazy (Said, 1978). Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is one of these misleading literary works that are affected by the predecessors’ construction of the East because the poet has contributed to the exotic image of the East through the poem’s discourse, imagery and stereotypes of Orientalism.

Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan published in 1816 is a poem that describes an emperor, Kubla Khan, and his magnificent castle in Mongolia. The narrator of the poem continues to describe the interior and exterior of the castle, shedding light on, obviously, the natural environment surrounding it from the heavy river and caves to the soil and trees. Everything is described as beautiful, positive and lively in this poem until the image of the mysterious woman who screams for her lover, and until the image of the river reaching Xanadu. The poem ends with Khan contemplating war, the past and the future when the narrator sees him resembling a god.

In GH Cannon’s A New, Probable Source for Kubla Khan, William Jones who had worked in India as a judge for over a decade is said to have influenced the perceptions and, therefore, writings of the romantic Samuel Coleridge. Due to his long stay in India, Jones managed to attain a highly notable rank amongst his fellow Orientalists. However, referring to Said’s concept of knowledge, he claims that “no one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society” (Said, 1978). Consequently, the fact that Jones was a Supreme Court Judge in India –making him gain a respectful position amongst Western Orientalists- aided to the probability that his “knowledge” of the East is biased. In other words, Cannon believes that Jones was able to bend the reality of the East in a way that satiates his and the European’s appetite, thus working for Europe’s political agenda (Cannon, 1955).

Before even analyzing Coleridge’s poem itself, one must take a look at the resemblance it carries to Jones’ A Hymn to Ganga where some aspects are clearly the same such as the sacred river, the mountains and the caves. The most beneficial allusion in the two poems is the fountain which erupts and the rivers which might symbolize the sexual activity executed. Cannon concludes that Coleridge’s fascination with the East, and thus painting it in such an imaginatively exotic and sensual manner could have been the result of the way Jones constructed his poem (Cannon, 1955).

Edward Said discusses in his book Orientalism that all knowledge collected today about the East is a result of pieces and fragments of probably untrue experiences Westerners have had in the East. In his view, what has been collected about the east is a mere “European collective day-dream of the Orient” (Said, 1978). He also reinforces his argument by accusing Silvestre de Sacy of presenting the East in a chunk of fragments and pieces, hence rendering the knowledge incomplete. Samuel Coleridge adapts this issue in his poem Kubla Khan which contains fragmented information about Mongolia when the speakers admits to have imagined a dome in heavens, heard an Eastern maid playing an instrument out of nowhere and watching the fountain confuse him with its volatile pressure. This fragmentation is discussed by Karen Fang who is certain that Coleridge is endowed with an imperial imagination “Coleridge’s fragmented poem is an earlier version of the romantic focus on China as a symbol for genius” (Fang, 2003).

Finally, Edward Said’s concept of discourse and power in Orientalism serves crucial in Coleridge’s poem. Said refers to Michel Foucault to serve the interest of his next theory. As a poststructuralist, Foucault believes that there is no ultimate truth; truth becomes truths, and the more powerful truth imposes over the rest. This concept could be traced to the idea that Coleridge is a European poet after all, and he is so acknowledged worldwide. Therefore, whatever he said and described in Kubla Khan contributed to the orientalist discourse, whether true or untrue (Fleissner, 1971).

Edward Said goes on to highlight the distinction Westerners have established between the Orient and the Occident, concluding by listing the multiple scholars who had preconceived ideas about the East. For instance, Said mentions Flaubert who experienced sensuality in the Orient and claimed that “the oriental woman is no more than a machine: she makes no distinction between one man and another man” (Said, 1978). However, fellow traveler Burton did not experience this type of East. Either way, these travelers have contributed to a fixed discourse that represents “all” the East, thus making it the “reality” of the Orient. Furthermore, the binary oppositions emphasized between the East and the West include the superiority the latter has on the former, in addition to the West represented as rational, superior, objective, humane and developed whereas the East is erotic, exotic, barbaric and undeveloped.

The discourse, imagery and language used in Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan are heavily compatible to the system of vocabulary discussed by Edward Said in Orientalism, especially when it comes to the portrayal of women and sex. Even though Coleridge is referred to as a prototype of Romanticism, he consciously or unconsciously drew the East in his poem via a systematic set of erotic and sensual diction and imagery. If his poem is studied with intense scrutiny, then it will be evident that it embodies Said’s overall theory of eroticism in language and discourse (Said, 1978). At the beginning of the poem, the narrator discovers a “pleasure-dome” for the Mongol Emperor, which is depicted as a place for sexual pleasure “pleasure-dome refers to the breast. Similarly, the “sacred river Alph” that runs through the “fertile ground” can also be depicted as a sort of sexual activity, with the river representing the phallus while the fertile ground representing the woman (or women). So, the narrator is portraying the women as highly fertile and extremely sexually active. Moreover, the narrator describes seeing a ‘woman wailing for her demon-lover!’ who is situated in a ‘deep romantic chasm’. Coleridge’s careful choosing of specific terms such as “demon-lover” provide as evidence to Flaubert’s portrayal of women’s high sexual drive, which adds exoticism to the poem. Coleridge’s obvious importance to women is presented in the poem when the Abyssinian maid plays “a dulcimer”; she is given the aura of the enticingly passive inspirer of sensuality. Moreover, it is mentioned that there are “many an incense-bearing tree”. Incense, which is unique and special to the East, is a sensual and mystical item, which adds to the eroticism and magic of the Oriental realm. The setting that Coleridge provides to the reader is evident in the first few verses of the poem, drawing a fertile, magical and sexual atmosphere to the Orient. Furthermore, according to Said, the West presents the East as savage, devilish, barbaric and undeveloped through chosen vocabulary (Nagra, 2014). This is highlighted in the following verses:

… A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty fountain momently was forced.

The first two verses of the above stanza show that the East is enchanting, savage and haunted, carrying the supernatural beliefs that the Orient holds. The following verses create a specific image of the Eastern woman who is devilish by calling out to her demonic and instinctive lover to probably have intercourse with on the savage land, which shows that Eastern women are infatuated with sex unlike polite and proper Western ladies (Nagra, 2014). Moreover, Coleridge uses the phrase “wailing into the night” which provides the Eastern woman with a sense of animosity, like a beast howling for its mate. Finally, “the fountain” could be read as the result of the sexual intercourse. The sensually alluring imagery and language that Coleridge uses in Kubla Khan provides an example of how a European poet imagines the East to be: a haven for eroticism.

Next come the binary oppositions in Coleridge’s poem that Edward Said is highly fond of. In the first stanza of the poem, the narrator mentions “caverns measureless to man” that the area away from the emperor’s castle is terrifying, unknown and undiscovered. He later moves on to describe the greenery and fertility of the landscapes that surround the castle, which also corresponds to the landscapes in the East “And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills/Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree.” In addition , the Alph river is illustrated as uncontrollably violent and loud “A mighty fountain momently was forced” when it is far from the castle but then suddenly becomes quiet and peaceful as soon as it reaches the castle grounds “Five miles meandering with a mazy motion”. This brings this section to the symbol of the castle itself: it is a place surrounded with walls and towers for protection, conveying that it is a private place, meaning that no one is allowed to enter it. In other words, the East is prohibited from entering or being part of the West (castle), and the two will remain separated no matter how much the East attempts to imitate the West. Similarly, the contrast that is drawn between the unfamiliar areas away from the castle and the familiar and comforting ones surrounding it represents the chaos and bizarreness about everything that is not the West. Through a Saidian reading, the faraway areas which are wild, untamed, dark and uncivilized are the feminine East “According to ancient belief, forest, with its moist, earthy, womb-like darkness, is linked with the ideas of germination and the feminine principle” whereas the perimeters surrounding the castle which are peaceful, organized, light and civilized are the masculine West. The Emperor can also be seen as the colonizer who is forcing the people of foreign undiscovered land (the faraway area from the castle) to become tamed and become part of the West itself (the mission of colonizing). Hence, the implied message of the East vs. the West is reinforced in the dichotomy between the East -as an erotic place- whereas the West -a more rational one- intends to implement control and domination (imperialism) over the former.

Even the Emperor in the poem is depicted as ancient, mythical and magical when he narrates hearing “ancestral voices”, as opposed to the sane and logical narrator. He is implied to be irrational and somewhat barbaric to listen to voices that are not even there, but rather belonging to dead people, or ghosts. Also, these voices discuss war, which brings back the reader to the idea that Easterners are obsessed with violence, war and chaos (Said,1978). On a different notion, the narrator in the poem is portrayed as peaceful and quiet, merely observing his surroundings, which can be seen in relation to Kubla Khan’s obsession with war and violence. As the poem slowly unravels, a strange spirit appears, and the narrator advises the readers to perform rituals to protect themselves from the demon “Weave a circle round him thrice”. Taking this incident from a Saidian perspective, the narrator implies that this strange demon is the transformation of Kubla Khan, changing himself into a demonic creature. This sudden transformation can be seen as a failed attempt to be a noble emperor, or an eligible ruler of the people because he is an Easterner by nature, and therefore an evil dark monster by blood. Therefore, the European narrator is calm and rational whereas the Emperor is wild and untamed and inevitably controlled by his primitive instincts.

Finally, in the last verses of the poem, the narrator discusses a beautiful Eastern woman he sees in a dream-like vision “Her symphony and song/ To such a deep delight ’twould win me”. This mysterious woman is seen as a dream, a pleasantly unreal fantasy, which consequently contributes to Said’s argument that non-European women are described as dream-like, sexy and mysterious. The narrator continues to mention that she might charm him with her songs and continue to seduce him. This implies that Eastern women are enticing and exotic in the way they attain their men (Said,1978).

A key concept that Edward Said stressed on was the misconceptions the European explorers created during their expeditions to the East, which is found in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. The opening lines of the poem discuss the majestic Alph river that flows heavily. However, this sacred river does not exist in reality just like Mount Abora in the Abyssinian maid’s song. Hence, the poet transformed the setting of the poem into his own creation. The contradiction in the matter is that Coleridge chose a real place called the Xanadu in the Mongolia area but continued to describe it with fabricated places such as the river and mount. It is also vital to note that Samuel Coleridge had never been to or experienced the East himself, but he depended on works of his predecessors such as William Jones and Marco Polo to narrate his literary pieces, which merely resulted in re-envisaging the cultural stereotypes and preconceived ideas and notions of the Oriental knowledge (Fleissner, 1971). His imagination contributed to the fantasy and Eastern beauty of the Orient, an issue that Said condemns inexcusable as it is not the European scholar’s duty or right to present a land that is foreign to him (Nagra, 2014). Similar to his contemporaries, Samuel Coleridge bestowed to Said’s unfortunate concept that the Orient is “a European invention, and has been a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”. Coleridge could also be accused of viewing the Orient in his poem as “nothing more than a British and French cultural enterprise” (Said, 1978).

In brief, Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan further solidifies the influence of cultural misconceptions and stereotypes the West drew about the East. He refers to explicitly exotic and erotic descriptions in his narration to depict the East, which has come off as quite racist and stereotypical because he revolves his plot around a fabricated land in the Orient in addition to fabricated characters who evoke feminine sexuality and animosity. The poet’s creation f a fantasy people and land based on historically true events and people illustrated what Edward Said called Orientalism. Indeed, the East is an alluring canvas for writers and poets to paint artistic works on since it represents a strong source of muse and imagination, especially since without these lands, the Western texts would be void of phenomenal imagery.

Primary Source

Coleridge, S. (1816). Kubla Khan; or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment. Poetry Foundation.

Secondary Sources

Cannon, G. (1955). A New, Probable Source for ‘Kubla Khan’. College English, 17(3), 136-142.

Fang, K. (2003). Empire, Coleridge and Charles Lambis Consumer Imagination. Rice University

FLEISSNER, R. (1971). Passage from ‘Kubla Khan’ in Forster’s ‘India’. Indian Literature, 14(3), 79-84. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23329919

Nagra, D. (2014). Kubla Khan and Coleridge’s exotic language. Retrieved from https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/kubla-khan-and-coleridges-exotic-language

Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. Pantheon Books.

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