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Kubla Khan

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Background Information

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Draft of "Kubla Khan"

"Kubla Khan, or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment." is a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which takes its title from the Mongol and Chinese emperor Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty. Coleridge claimed he wrote the poem in the autumn of 1797 at a farmhouse near Exmoor, England, but it may have been composed on one of a number of other visits to the farm. It also may have been revised a number of times before it was first published in 1816.

Structure and theme

The poem's opening lines are often quoted, and it introduces the name Xanadu (or Shangdu, the summer palace of Kublai Khan):

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Coleridge claimed that the poem was inspired by an opium-induced dream (implicit in the poem's subtitle A Vision in a Dream) but that the composition was interrupted by a person from Porlock. Some have speculated that the vivid imagery of the poem stems from a waking hallucination albeit, most likely, opium-induced. Additionally a quotation from William Bartram is believed to have been a source of the poem. There is widespread speculation on the poem's meaning, some suggesting the author is merely portraying his vision while others insist on a theme or purpose. Others believe it is a poem stressing the beauty of creation, and some read sexual allusions throughout.

However, it is important to remember that inspiration for this poem also comes from Marco Polo's description of Shangdu and Kublai Khan from his book Il Milione, which was included in Samuel Purchas' Pilgrimage, Vol. XI, 231.

When he declared himself emperor the historical Kublai claimed he had the Mandate of Heaven, a traditional Chinese concept of rule by divine permission, and therefore gained absolute control over an entire nation. Between warring and distributing the wealth his grandfather Genghis Khan had won, Kublai spent his summers in Xandu (better known now as Shangdu, or Xanadu) and had his subjects build him a home suitable for a son of God.

This story is described in the first two lines of the poem, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree” (1-2). The end of the third paragraph gives us another close-up view of Kubla. At his home Kublai had, on hand, some ten thousand horses, which he used as a means of displaying his power. Only he and those to whom he gave explicit permission (for committing miscellaneous acts of valour) were allowed to drink their milk. Hence the closing image of “the milk of Paradise.” (54)

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Musical adaptations

In 1954 the Australian composer Robert Hughes wrote a three-movement ballet suite Xanadu, inspired by the poem.

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