Coleridge: "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan"

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

"Christabel" and "Kubla Khan"

"Christabel" and "Kubla Khan" were first printed in 1816, in a pamphlet along with "The Pains of Sleep," a sort of contrast to "Kubla Khan" composed in 1803. In the Preface to this pamphlet Coleridge informs us that the first part of "Christabel" was written at Stowey in 1797 and the second part at Keswick, Cumberland, in 1800. The poem was intended originally for the "Lyrical Ballads," and it was with the hope of finishing it for the second edition that Coleridge took it up again in the fall of 1800. There is a good deal of uncertainty as to just how much of the work was done at that time. In two letters of that period he speaks of it as "running up to 1300 lines," and "swelled into a poem of 1400 lines," so that it is no longer suitable for the "Lyrical Ballads"; but hardly half of this amount was printed in the 1816 pamphlet or has ever been found since. One suspects that already in 1800 dreams and projects had begun to be confounded with performance. In the latter of the two letters mentioned above he relates how his "verse-making faculties returned" to him, after long and unsuccessful struggles with "barrenness" and deep "dejection," as the result of drinking, "at the house of a neighbouring clergyman, ... so much wine, that I found some effort and dexterity requisite to balance myself on the hither edge of sobriety." On the whole, it seems probable that "Christabel" owes little to the forced efforts of his first year in the Lake country. Like most of the other poems in this volume, it is a product of the great year at Stowey. He himself told a friend in later years: "I had the whole of the two cantos in my mind before I began it," adding very truly, "certainly the first canto is more perfect, has more of the true wild weird spirit than the last."

Down to the close of his life he dreamed of finishing this work. He amused his listeners at Highgate with a continuation of the plot; and in 1833 he declared that if he "were perfectly free from vexation and were in the ad libitum hearing of fine music" he could yet finish "Christabel," "for I have, as I always had, the whole plan entire from beginning to end in my mind; but I fear I could not carry on with equal success the execution of the idea." Wordsworth had a different recollection. He told Coleridge's nephew in 1836 that he did not think Coleridge "had ever conceived, in his own mind, any definite plan for it; that the poem had been composed while they were in habits of daily intercourse, and almost in his presence, and when there was the most unreserved intercourse between them as to all their literary projects and productions, and he had never heard from him any plan for finishing it"; and added, what is fully borne out by a study of Coleridge's life: "schemes of this sort passed rapidly and vividly through his mind, and so impressed him, that he often fancied he had arranged things, which really, and upon trial, proved to be mere embryos."

"The unfinished window in Aladdin's tower
Unfinished must remain,"

wrote Longfellow, alluding to "The Dolliver Romance" that Hawthorne left incomplete at his death. There is strong kinship, moral and artistic, between Coleridge and Hawthorne; both believed that the heart is more than the head, and neither could force his imagination to work under unfavorable conditions. But Hawthorne's failure of imagination came at the end of a fruitful and consistent career, and his life failed with it; in Coleridge the poet died half a lifetime before the man, and left the man-the preacher and philosopher-to lament his loss.

Whether or not Coleridge had the story complete in his mind, what we have is a fragment, and does not enable us to divine, as some broken statues do, the plan of the whole. What it gives us is the romantic mood, the sense of "witchery by daylight," and this it does more hauntingly than anything else in the English language. It is a series of magical and unforgetable pictures. It owes a good deal to the old verse romances and ballads that so impressed the imagination in those days of the mediaeval revival, but it was itself a far stronger influence. It operated as an original force, both by its form and by its spirit, upon the poetic imagination of the first half of the nineteenth century more widely and deeply than the work of any other man, Burns and Keats not excepted. Scott heard it read from manuscript, and the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," with the series of verse romances that followed, may almost be called a result of that reading; the verse form of Scott's romances certainly is. Poe's poetry is as far as the poles removed from Scott's; yet a close study of Poe's work shows the influence of "Christabel" to be even deeper here than in the "Lay of the Last Minstrel."

Coleridge was fully aware of a special power, both of imagination and of verse-music, in the poem. His attempts to complete it in 1800 brought persistently to his mind the project of a philosophy of poetry, and especially of this poem, as we may infer from a letter to Poole in March, 1801: "I shall ... immediately publish my 'Christabel,' with two essays annexed to it, on the 'Preternatural' and on 'Metre.'" When the two cantos were at last printed in 1816, Coleridge wrote in the Preface: "The metre of the 'Christabel' is not, properly speaking, irregular, though it may seem so from its being founded on a new principle: namely, that of counting in each line the accents, not the syllables. Though the latter may vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accents will be found to be only four. Nevertheless this occasional variation in number of syllables is not introduced wantonly, or for the mere ends of convenience, but in correspondence with some transition, in the nature of the imagery or passion." This is not to be taken quite literally. The accentual principle was assuredly nothing new in English verse, and syllable-counting, though introduced by Chaucer, had to be reintroduced by the Renaissance poets and did not become an unquestioned convention till the latter part of the seventeenth century. But the return to free accentual verse in the "Christabel" was an innovation at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is to be noted, too, that there are lines of three and even of two accents in Part I.

In chap. XV. of the Biographia Literaria, in a list of the "specific symptoms of poetic power" in Shakespeare's early work, Coleridge places first "the perfect sweetness of the versification; its adaptation to the subject; and the power displayed in varying the march of the words.... The sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination; and this, together with the power of reducing multitude into unity of effect, and modifying a series of thoughts by some one predominant thought or feeling, may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learnt. It is in these that Poeta nascitur non fit."

"Kubla Khan" is the remembered fragment of a dream. All that we know about it is contained in the note Coleridge prefixed to it in the pamphlet of 1816. In the summer of 1798 (Coleridge says 1797, but this seems to have been a slip of his memory[1]) "the author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house 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 effects 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 inclosed 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 has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!"

Opinion will ever vary as to its poetic worth. Coleridge himself professed to consider it "rather as a psychological curiosity" than as a thing "of any supposed poetic merits"; to Lamb he repeated it "so enchantingly that it irradiates and brings heaven and elysian bowers into any parlour when he sings or says it," and it has been a sort of touchstone of romantic taste ever since. It supremely illustrates that "sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it," which the poet declared to be a gift of the imagination that can never be learnt.


See notes to this poem in the Globe edition, and E.H. Coleridge's "Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge," Vol. I, p. 245, note.

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