1816 | Highgate

The Damsel With A Dulcimer

Samuel Taylor Coleridge takes a trip to Xanadu.

In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effect of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas’s Pilgrimage: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto: and thus ten miles of fertile ground were enclosed with a wall.”

The author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two- to three-hundred lines; 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. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter:

Then all the charm
Is broken—all that phantom world so fair
Vanishes, and a thousand circlets spread, 
And each misshape the other. Stay awhile,
Poor youth! who scarcely dar’st lift up
    thine eyes—
The stream will soon renew its smoothness,
    soon
The visions will return! And lo! he stays,
And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
Come trembling back, unite, and now once
    more
The pool becomes a mirror. 

Yet from the still surviving recollections in his mind, the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him. 

As a contrast to this vision, I have annexed a fragment of a very different character, describing with equal fidelity the dream of pain and disease.     —1816.

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. 
So twice five miles of fertile ground 
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-
    bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! That deep romantic chasm which
    slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
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:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ’mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

    The shadow of the dome of pleasure 
    Floated midway on the waves; 
    Where was heard the mingled measure 
    From the fountain and the caves. 
It was a miracle of rare device, 
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice! 
    A damsel with a dulcimer
    In a vision once I saw:
    It was an Abyssinian maid,
    And on her dulcimer she play’d,
    Singing of Mount Abora.
    Could I revive within me
    Her symphony and song,
    To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air, 
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice! 
And all who heard should see them there, 
And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 
His flashing eyes, his floating hair, 
Weave a circle round him thrice, 
And close your eyes with holy dread, 
For he on honeydew hath fed, 
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

“Kubla Khan; Or, a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.” The anodyne that Coleridge mentions having taken was laudanum, opium dissolved in alcohol, a common painkiller. Around the same time that this vision came to him, he composed “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which appeared in the collection Lyrical Ballads, co-published with William Wordsworth in 1798. Coleridge’s use of laudanum increased in the 1800s to the point where he consumed a pint a day and at night dreamed of being clawed by talons and buried alive.