Coleridge's Ancestral Voices

By Ball, Stefan | Contemporary Review, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Coleridge's Ancestral Voices


Ball, Stefan, Contemporary Review


WE all know now that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan is a masterpiece. But how do we know this? And has it always been known?

Kubla Khan was first published in 1816 in a booklet that also contained Christabel and The Pains of Sleep. Looking back at the first reviews, it is clear that the poem's importance was at first in some doubt. The Monthly Review of January 1817 is typical -- its review felt the poem was 'below criticism' -- and the opinion of the Critical Review of May 1816, in its entirety, was that it was 'one of those pieces that can only speak for itself'. As for the British Lady's Magazine of October 1816, it rounded off five and a half columns on Christabel with the words: 'Kubla Khan, or a Vision in a Dream, Mr Coleridge describes as the real production of sleep: it is wild and fanciful'.

Most of the reviews adopted the same strategy as the British Lady's Magazine, and concentrated on Christabel to the near-exclusion of Kubla Khan and The Pains of Sleep. There were of course reasons for this. Christabel was the first and far and away the longest of the three poems, so it seemed natural to treat it as the central part of the book. And it had been read and talked of in admiring terms by the literati for quite a few years before it was actually published, whereas Kubla Khan was little known even among Coleridge's friends.

But perhaps the main reason for the neglect of Kubla Khan was Coleridge's notorious preface, in which he claimed that the poem was composed during a profound sleep. 'Perhaps a dozen more such lines', suggested the Edinburgh Review in September 1816, 'would reduce the most irritable of critics to a state of inaction'. The Academic was equally scathing in September 1821: '...all his works appear to have been composed in a sort of day-dream; and in this he has the advantage over his readers, who must exert themselves to keep awake'.

Perhaps surprisingly, no-one seemed especially intrigued at the idea of involuntary composition. In June 1816 the Eclectic Review found nothing strange in the idea that people who wrote a lot of poetry should dream in it as well, while a month later the Literary Panorama agreed and the Augustan Review recalled tales of Milton waking from sleep and writing down 'twenty or thirty verses, inspired during the night'. But while the role of unconscious processes in artistic creation was taken for granted, art was considered admissible only if it was tempered and controlled by conscious thought and technique: 'There seems to be no great harm in dreaming while one sleeps's the Augustan Review concluded, 'but an author really should not thus dream while he is awake, and writing too'.

Coleridge was writing at the tail end of the Age of Reason. The conscious mind was the key to progress and enlightenment; unbridled self-expression had yet to become fashionable; tradition and continuity were valued more than novelty; and artifice in art was still a sign of quality. With few exceptions the reading public adhered to critical standards based on experience and reason, and there was little room in either for unadorned dreaming. Indeed, it wasn't until the Surrealists and their popularisation of Freud and Jung that the idea of dreams as somehow intrinsically artistic became even remotely respectable. Before then, the automatic writing of an Andre Breton or the admission by a Samuel Beckett that he didn't know what his works meant would have been met with blank looks and derision.

Coleridge was of his time. He made no attempt to claim that Kubla Khan should be valued more highly or read more carefully because of its supposed dream origin, but presented it instead 'rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits'. With no reason to doubt Coleridge's word, the Augustan Review was understandably impatient: 'it was poetry, and not psychology, which the public were likely to expect from him'.

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