In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

Still riding a high on the success the inspired Storyteller event as part of the Classic Yass Arts Trail, an event where music, song and poetry melded into a great afternoon's entertainment, I'd like to consider a poem beloved of many.

In 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge sat down in the English countryside to write down the 300 or so lines of this poem, a poem composed in the grip of a laudanum-induced dream of fantastic images. He had been reading 'Purchas, His Pilgrimage', an early 17th century account of voyages and travels in the far east undertaken by Europeans up to that time, when he fell asleep and this formed the background to his dreams.

Waking, and desperate to record the lines of poetry he'd created in his dream, he had written all the lines we now know as the poem 'Kubla Khan' when there was a knock at the door. He rose, dealt with the 'person from Porlock', returned to his desk and found all the remaining lines had gone from his memory. We are left with just those extraordinary surviving lines that have such a hold on our collective memory.

Let me quote a few: “a stately pleasure dome”, “caverns measureless to man”, “forests ancient as the hills”, “a savage place!”, “woman wailing for her demon lover”, “ancestral voices prophesising war”, “a damsel with a dulcimer”.

Coleridge was an educated man. To be reading Purchas who had drawn on Hakluyt's narratives (and who had drawn on Marco Polo's accounts) meant he was familiar with descriptions of the court of Xanadu, the summer residence of the Mongol ruler of China, Kublai Khan, great grandson of the scourge of Asia, Genghis Khan.

Was the dream and the resulting poem mere hallucinatory fantasy? There is more than enough evidence for the accuracy of some of the lines describing Xanadu.

There was a great river, considered sacred, outside the city. It's still there, though shrunken to a shadow of its former self. The heart of the city really was “with walls and towers girdled round” and there were “gardens bright with sinuous rills” and “a mighty fountain” within those walls. Marco Polo describes the palace within these walls as walled with marble.

But what about the "stately pleasure dome”? Marco Polo's description, The Secret History of the Mongols' and Chinese records all confirm Kublai's ordering of a spectacular demountable domed meeting house outside the city in the style of a Mongol ger, the collapsible house of his nomadic origins.

It is described as splendidly roofed in gilded tiles, its supporting pillars painted with images in the most brilliant colours and being anchored to the ground by 200 silken cords. Archaeologists have located the site of this vast building but, of course, nothing remains of the bamboo structure. However, forensic architects, using the dimensions recorded by Marco Polo, have worked out how such a bamboo structure could be built and confirm that it could indeed be dismantled and packed away at the end of every summer.

There are no seas, sunless or otherwise, and no caves of ice but certainly a waning moon over grasslands where a woman's wail would travel for miles, a river that travels with “a mazy motion” and the “stately pleasure dome” that did indeed exist.

Jane Baker's contributes regularly to our Webs, Weeds and Wisdom column.

Jane Baker's contributes regularly to our Webs, Weeds and Wisdom column.


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