Did Opium Make Coleridge Forget the Rest of ‘Kubla Khan’?
Scholars question whether the ‘person from Porlock’ Coleridge blamed for making him lose his train of thought writing ‘Kubla Khan’ was real, or just a convenient phantom scapegoat.
It’s a trope that’s as old as the written word: the brilliant artist whose creative genius is intricately tied to substance abuse—or so the genius usually believes. For Hemingway, it was alcohol; for Ken Kesey, LSD; and for Hunter S. Thompson, it was cocaine, acid, alcohol, and much more besides.
For Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the turn of the 19th century, the drug of choice was opium. Coleridge’s addiction wasn’t initially recreational—he became hooked as a young man after taking laudanum, a form of the drug considered medicinal during his time.
Regardless of the catalyst, the poet initially embraced the creative inspiration that came from his opium-induced dreams. And, in at least one instance, he was quick to give opium the credit—and blame—for the fact that one of his most famous poems, “Kubla Khan; or, a Vision in a Dream,” was just a fragment of the masterpiece that he thought it should have been.
In the summer of 1797, Coleridge was suffering from health issues yet again—he had something of a chicken-or-egg issue when it came to illness and his opium addiction—so he repaired to the English countryside to convalesce in the fresh air.
It didn’t hurt that his two-year-old marriage was already a disaster and his best friends, the Wordsworths (yes, those Wordsworths) were conveniently living only two miles away from his farmhouse retreat.
Coleridge was in his mid-twenties by this time, and he had already led something of a colorful life.
At the age of 10, after his vicar father had died, Coleridge, who had always been an avid reader fascinated by tales from the Far East, was sent away to London to continue his education.
While attending university a decade later, he encountered financial difficulties and decided to enlist in the military under the dramatic pseudonym Silas Tomkyn Comberbache.
Unsurprisingly, he was utterly unsuited to life as a dragoon. He was saved from his misery by his brothers, who learned of his predicament, rescued him from the military—and his hilarious new name—and helped put him back on the path to becoming a man of letters.
It was clear early on that Coleridge was something of a literary and intellectual genius. “Like all the Romantics, Coleridge was interested in exploring such extreme states of mind and feeling, ‘the dark groundwork of our nature’ as he called them,” Richard Holmes wrote in The Guardian in 2010. “But he was unusual in that he combined this with a lifelong fascination with philosophy, psychology and the physical sciences… these gave extraordinary range, authority and depth to all his writing.”
He was a man who followed his interests and his creative inspiration wherever it may lead. And, at least at first, his increasing dependence on opium only smoothed the way.
“Laudanum gave me repose, not sleep; but you, I believe, know how divine that repose is, what a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands!” Coleridge wrote in letter to his brother George in April 1798, reporting on a bout of illness caused by a toothache which he treated with his favorite medicinal drops.
Given his delight at the enchantment of opium, the poet must have been pleased when, most likely in the fall of 1797 while he was recuperating in the English countryside, he woke from an opium-induced dream one day with the verses of a complete poem filling in his head.
Coleridge recounted the details of how “Kubla Khan” came to be several times over the years.
Little details would change here or there—and scholars have cast doubt on the veracity of his account—but the broad outline remained the same, at least in his telling.
He was convalescing in Somerset, so the story goes, when he decided to go on a long ramble through the village of Linton and the Valley of the Stones. He took ill—around 1810 he would write that the cause was dysentery—so he treated himself with two grains of opium.
Shortly thereafter, he fell asleep while reading the 17th-century clergyman Samuel Purchas’ book Purchas His Pilgrimage, in which the author wrote about the legendary palace Xanadu built by the Mongolian warrior-turned-ruler Kubla Khan.
During the three hours in which Coleridge was experiencing “a profound sleep,” two-to-three hundred lines of a complete poem formed in his mind.
In the preface to the first publication of the poem nearly two decades later, Coleridge would explain the creation process, speaking about himself in the third person, writing, “if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.”
When he woke, he quickly started scribbling down the verses that had appeared in his mind, verses that are now lodged firmly in the popular imagination. “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree,” opens Coleridge’s now-famous poem “Kubla Khan.”
He had only transcribed 54 lines, Coleridge recounted, when he was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock,” who detained him for over an hour.
When he had finally dispatched the unwelcome visitor, Coleridge discovered that the hundreds of remaining verses had “passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.” He couldn’t remember the rest of the poem.
He claimed his intention was to sit down and finish the poem, but he was deviled by the curse of centuries worth of writers—procrastination—and he never did.
He regarded the poem, now considered one of his finest, as an incomplete fragment, something that should be read as a “psychological curiosity [rather] than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.”
It’s clear that his self-critique of “Kubla Khan” was unduly harsh, a sentiment shared by his peers, who were known to call him “a giant among dwarfs.” Coleridge recited the poem on several occasions in the nearly two decades it took him to officially publish it.
After one of these public performances, his friend and fellow writer Charles Lamb exclaimed that he recited “[‘Kubla Khan’] so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and elysian bowers into my parlour when he says or sings it to me.”
Coleridge’s poetry standards were notoriously high and exacting. But even by his definition of what made a poetic genius, it’s clear that “Kubla Khan” is an undeniable masterpiece.
As Coleridge wrote in a letter in July 1802, “A great poet… must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child.”
In 1816, at the insistence of Lord Byron, Coleridge finally published “Kubla Khan” in a book of work he titled, Poems, where he also included a lengthy preface explaining how the poem came to be, helping to bind forever the 54 lines of verse with the tale of their opium origins.
As the reputation of “Kubla Khan” has risen over the centuries, many scholars have challenged the veracity of Coleridge’s story.
It has been called “a great piece of mythmaking” and “most likely a fiction.” Scholars have questioned whether the “person from Porlock” was real, or whether he was a convenient scapegoat for Coleridge’s own inability to achieve his creative vision for the poem.
Regardless of Coleridge’s original vision, the 54 lines of “Kubla Khan” read as complete. The poem is only considered a fragment because its creator called it so.