"Kubla Khan": Genesis of an Archetype

Article excerpt

At least partly dictated by a dream, "Kubla Khan," whose structure, in spite of appearances, is very coherent, constitutes a superb metaphor of language and heralds the advent of psychoanalysis. Its dramatic development-fusion, loss and hallucinated recovery-expresses the very essence of Freud's discovery; Coleridge's poem amounts to a representation of representation. An Urpoem, an archetype, it also tells us that language and literature have the structure of the dream.

keywords: Coleridge, Kubla Khan, Xanadu, psychoanalysis, dream, language

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_silhol01.shtml

"Kubla Khan" has been so often cited as a dream specimen that a curious belief has grown up-accepted even in scholarly quarters-that the work now floats in a vast sea of psychoanalic interpretation. But in fact scarcely more than an occasional Freudian or Jungian spray ever reaches the poem. (Norman Fruman, Coleridge : The Damaged Angel, 394)


The circumstances of the composition of "Kubla Khan" (1797) are well known, at least if we trust Coleridge's reminiscences, some nineteen years afterwards (1816), though many questions arise as to his trustworthiness.1

For the time being, however, it is simpler to retain the general picture drawn by the poet in his introductory account, for, in the end, all we have at our disposal is a text, a piece of discourse, and the question of knowing whether it is the result of a deliberate intention or not can in no way lead us to a fuller understanding of "Kubla Khan." The particular circumstances described by Coleridge evoke the idea of what takes place when a dreamer, on awakening, reports his or her dream. The 1816 annotation gives a good, although general, description of the process : while reading-and here we already have an example of what psychoanalysis calls day's residue-, the poet fell asleep, and in a state of "profound" sleep composed, or rather reports he composed, from two to three hundred lines ("he could not have composed less than[. . .]"), nevertheless prudently adding: " if that indeed can be called composition." On awakening, he seems to remember those lines and starts putting them down on paper until, unfortunately, he is disturbed by a caller. When he resumes his task, an hour or so later, the "vision" has disappeared "with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images[. . .]"2

Can we take Coleridge at his word and accept that "Kubla Khan" is only a fragment of what could have been a much longer poem had he not been disturbed? I do not think so, and it is my opinion that we should simply take the said "fragment" as the complete narrative of the mentioned dream, and therefore as a complete poem; in other words, there is no reason to imagine it could have had a sequence. Indeed, dreaming one composes a complete, and generally splendid, piece of work is a well-known experience, a fantasy in fact which is never-at least to my knowledge-followed by actual realization. As it is, then, what we have is a poem written after a dream, remarkably, therefore, like the account of such a dream, that is to say of what remained of the "actual" dream that took place while the poet was asleep.

I know that Coleridge insisted that what he dreamt was the poem itself, the text as we have it, with words, lines and stanzas complete, but however fascinating a remark this may be it needn't have any bearing on the nature of our object, as I have just remarked above. Indeed, no one can tell what was really dreamt: the images of which the poem is made and which the poet would have put into words, or these words themselves, these lines even, organized as we can see them in the final text, complete with rimes, alliterations and assonances? But this, in the end, is of little importance to us since-as is the case with all dreams, let me repeat this-what is left of what the dreamer experienced during sleep is only what he or she remembers afterwards. …