Deciphering Kubla Khan (Multi-lens Theory)

Deciphering Kubla Khan (Multi-lens Theory)

In 1797, a writer by the name of Samuel Taylor Coleridge took to penning a poem that would come to be published in the year 1816. Known to the world as Kubla Khan; or, a Vision In A Dream: A Fragment, the meaning of the text has long remained a mystery and continues to carry varying interpretations within the academic sector. In this essay, I will attempt something radical- that is to say, my aim is to prove, through historical documentation, scientific evidence, an existing work of art, and use of the Holy Bible, that Kubla Khan is a poem with objective meaning. As I hold to the belief that no lens in isolation from the factors that influence its composition is entirely possible, my aim is to give credibility to the dismissed contemporaries who had the audacity to question the authenticity of the poem’s composition.

Of interest to my person is the fact that the author’s account of inspiration changed. While in one, Samuel holds to an anodyne-induced sleep having birthed the poem, by his same hand, a different description exists on the back of the original Crewe manuscript.1 Of further interest, is the notion that the original words vastly differ from the modern publication, which is indicative of conscious masking. Of these alterations, valuable insight into the mind of the poet is provided.

As the nature of man is to receive and respond to meaning, it is of significance to note that Samuel was ‘deeply interested in’ ‘detailed knowledge of the two Paradises’ from the years 1795-96, for even the scholar H.W. Piper noted in The Two Paradises in Kubla Khan,

The echoes in Kubla Khan of Milton’s description of Paradise are well known, and the obvious contrasts between these evocations of Paradise and the other imagery of the poem have often been pointed out.”2

Therefore, the author’s insistence that a reading of Samuel Purchas’s Purchas, his Pilgrimes, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present, possibly influenced his dream, is not to be seen as an isolated, literal explanation for the poem. Rather, given the nature of Samuel’s interest, and admission of drug use, we are to see it as complimentary to the testing of effect.

Siphoned from that same work is this descriptive:

In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.”3

If we are to believe Samuel did indeed take opium, it is of great importance to the artistic product that we note ‘what’ opium does to the creative’s brain and how this portion was internalized in a drug-induced state.

We know from a letter to Dr. James Gillman, that Samuel had been ‘in the habit of taking large quantities of opium’4. However, medically-speaking, his account is one of suspicion seeing, Drugs as opium and cocaine, when taken in medicinal doses, produce a sense of well-being and comfort and so tend to promote pleasurable fancies. These drugs, when taken in sufficient doses, cause sleep dreams which are not remembered. Many persons are much distressed by these drugs and others, in place of awaking refreshed, awake tired and dimly conscious of disturbing dreams.”5 Further, the same study goes on to read of either application that, “Dreams are, thus, reflections of the subconscious mind and are caused by a variety of pharmacological agents.”

As Samuel was a noted opium-addict, two possibilities of the poem’s origin emerge. Either 1) The poem was penned in a subconscious, pleasurable state and later edited in a conscious-state or 2) The poem was penned in a subconscious, afflicted-state and later edited in a conscious-state. By the previously quoted study Drugs and Dreams, it is also worth noting that, “Dreams caused by such drugs are, however, influenced by the physiological action of the drug taken, the amount used, the idiosyncrasies of the individual and the mentality.” Which is why, in theory, Samuel’s personal beliefs would translate to the sleeping vision.

Being that Samuel was a Unitarian preacher from the years 1796-1797, religious contemplation was a central part of his identity. As coupled with his love of Scripture, the works of Milton, and an exposure to Purchas’s book before the vision, it’s unlikely these loves are to be seen as divorced and that the Crewe manuscript is tied to an additional, omitted inspiration for the work: the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. In conjunction with the written text, it is startling how perfectly the imagery aligns.

In the first lines we read,

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.6

In Bosch’s painting, a pellucid globe depicts what some art historians have speculated to be the third day of creation. As it was not until the fourth day the sun, moon, and stars were created, the line ‘down to a sunless sea’ can be drawn directly from observation of the outer panels. In Genesis 1, the word ‘dome’ appears several times in verses 6-8, thus reading, “God said: Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other. God made the dome, and it separated the water below the dome from the water above the dome. And so it happened. God called the dome “sky.” Evening came, and morning followed-the second day.”7  However, the word pleasure, before the hyphen, will come into play near the end of the second paragraph.

In the beginning, the sacred river ‘Alph’ (note the capital A) ran, ‘Through caverns measureless to man’. In scripture, God is written as the Alpha, (the Greek word for the beginning) and the Omega (end) in Revelation 1:8, 1:11, 21:6 and 22:13. As John 7:38 reads: “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this observation, one can deduce the lines “Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man“, is a testament to the purpose of creation being understood by God alone and that Adam and Eve, in being tempted by the serpent in Genesis 3:5 to ‘be like God, knowing good and evil’, undertook a quest to obtain measureless knowledge which led to the formation of the pleasure-dome (original sin on the earth). It is in these ways that roughly, the passage translates to: Before man recognized he had fallen, God had gifted the world salvation.

For these reasons, it is my belief Kubla Khan is a synonym for Satan as the English translation of ‘Khan’ stems from the word for ‘ruler’. If the synonym were to be replaced with the word ‘Satan’ or any of the many names ascribed to the devil, the first two lines would translate to, “In paradise, the ruler of the earth decreed a world of sin”, for scripturally, references to Satan as the ruler of the world can be found in (John 14:30, John 12: 31-33, Ephesians 2:2 and 2 Corinthians 4:4). As a stately pleasure-dome was not decreed by God, but desired by Satan in Genesis chapter three and achieved when Adam renounced his crown by biting into the forbidden fruit, one can suppose this is the literal translation. In turn, as Job 2:2 describes Satan as “From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it” and 1 Peter 5:8 reads “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour….”, the Bible’s references to the devil being the ruler of this world would mean the fall of man was a direct result of the serpent’s decree in the Garden of Eden (Xanadu).


So twice five (six) miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled (compass’d) round;

And there (here) were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed (blossom’d) many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Perhaps the most significant change to the text is why the word ‘here’ was changed to ‘there’. If Bosch’s second panel represents the fall of man, then it also represents an earthly purgatory, for why else would the word ‘here’ hold any merit? ‘There’ is a word signifying distance and displacement, yet ‘here’ is far more personal. If once existed such a paradise, then the gradual decay of Xanadu would mean that like Milton’s Paradise Lost, we, the fallen, long to return to such a place. As both Adam and Eve knew not of sin before they bit into the forbidden fruit, the words ‘walls’ and ‘towers’ would be symbolic of the metaphoric shield God implemented to prevent the pair from being aware of sin, which is why the following three lines beginning with the word ‘where’ are but more descriptions of the beauties in Xanadu. In this light, line four of the excerpt: “Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree” can be directly siphoned from Genesis 2:12 in which the land is known for its ‘sweet-scented resin’.

As the next section is rather long, to explicate it, I must divide it into sections. When we begin with,

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!

 the fall of Eden has just begun. In having bitten into the forbidden fruit, man now realizes he has forfeited his stay in Paradise. The phrase ‘cedarn cover’ alludes to Genesis 3:8 which reads, “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.” As Adam and Eve can now comprehend the beauty of Eden, their expulsion brings about a newfound appreciation and yet subsequent longing for what they sacrificed. With “As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted” it’s similar to the how the spread of evil is described in many works such as the curse of ice in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and famine under Scar’s reign in The Lion King. Such is the case when Eden gradually slips into a cover of darkness, but is not completely devoid of light.


When we get to the line “By woman wailing for her demon-lover”, the poem jumps forward in time to the middle portion of the painting, shortly after the second coming of Christ. Humanity, described as displaying ‘a certain adolescent sexual curiosity8 by art historian Laurinda Dixon, is about to face judgment for their actions on the earth, which is why the painting will soon transport the story to the third panel, justifying why the work took on the varying titles it did.

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And from (From forth) this chasm, with (hideous) 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!

Of Samuel’s Unitarian beliefs, perhaps one of the most fascinating edits was the revision of ‘hideous’ to ‘ceaseless’. According to historical study, early Unitarians believed hell was a place of eternal (ceaseless) torment. Further, with reference to Purchas’s text, the association is striking.

In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.”

Not only by the middle portion are there ‘all sorts of beasts of chase and game’/’in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure’ but quite literally, according to the placement of the panel, the persons are about to be projected into the next for having pursued temporal pleasure.

On a deeper level, the painting carries with it its own history- that is to say Bosch used The Vulgate to code his depiction with meaning. For example, to understand Coleridge’s attention to intentionality, we must briefly look at what, historically, the painting did for Christianity. According to Nicholas Baum, “In chapter two of the book of Genesis, it says, “But there went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground.”9 The Vulgate, the only Bible that Bosch knew, instead of mist has in Latin ‘fons’: fountain and he naturally painted a fountain and not a mist.” Additionally, Baum went on to state that, ‘Bosch places the fountain on a rock encrusted with precious stones and that I found in the book of Ezekiel.” The passage he is referring to is Ezekiel 28:13, which is why it’s important to note that not only can paintings disguise symbols of scripture (similar to a practice like floriography), but poetry can compliment and/or expand upon similar themes in exercising the same approach.

In this (pictured) scene, the fountain (symbolic of God’s presence on the earth) disintegrates, fulfilling Revelation 14: 14-19 and Matthew 3:12 which reads, “He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.” As ‘the sacred river’ is symbolic of believers in Christ via John 7:38, the Lord’s presence weaves through the earth much like Exodus 12:23 in the sense, He passes over the doorways of those who’ve painted the top and sides of it in blood, taking up those who’ve devoted their lives to Him and sinking into the caverns Adam and Eve were unaware of before they bit into the forbidden fruit. ‘Lifeless ocean’ comes from Revelation 16:3 in which it is written, “And the second angel poured out his vial upon the sea; and it became as the blood of a dead man: and every living soul died in the sea.” To boot, the line “And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war!” alludes to the devil knowing he only has so much time left after the Battle of Armageddon. The phrase ‘vaulted like rebounding hail’ foreshadows the plague of hail that has yet to come in Revelation 16:21.

   The shadow of the dome of pleasure

   Floated midway on the wave(s); (the s is omitted in Crewe)

Where was heard the mingled measure

   From the fountain and the cave(s).

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

“The shadow of the dome of pleasure/Floated midway on the wave/ Where was heard the mingled measure/Form the fountain and the cave” signifies the old earth floating away in Revelation 21:1 which reads “Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” The line “It was a miracle of rare device,/A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” points directly to the third panel in which not only are two ships stuck in a lake of ice, but a beast and man use skates to navigate across a frozen wasteland. In Bosch’s rendering, the painting depicts the anomaly of ice and sun both being in hell.

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A damsel with a dulcimer

   In a vision once I saw:

   It was an Abyssinian maid

   And on her dulcimer she played,

   Singing of Mount Abora (Amara).

   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 (in) with holy dread

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

“A damsel with a dulcimer/In a vision once I saw: It was wan Abyssinian maid/ And on her dulcimer she played, Singing of Mount Amara.” is cryptic if you suppose he’s talking about the maid below.

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If that’s the case, then the maid singing of paradise in hell would make sense. As the Crewe manuscript’s original Mount was labeled ‘Amara’ (A place Milton compares to Eden in Paradise Lost) and not ‘Abora’, a nonsensical word, the maid, in having been blind to her decisions earth, would then recognize what she sacrificed to sing of paradise in hell. It is my belief the word Abyssinian was not intended to reflect a woman from Abyssinia, but rather, a domestic servant of the Abyss.

   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!

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!” alludes to him being so enraptured by the maid’s siren-like song, that he pays no mind to how it awakens the desire to create everything as it is all over, just so he can replay the indescribable beauty of Eden in his mind.

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 (in) with holy dread

For He on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

When we move onto, “And all who heard should see them there” the scene then describes those who heard God’s word but chose to ignore it. Loosely put, those who heard, but didn’t change their ways, would be greeted by ‘them’: Bosch’s creatures, in hell. As Revelation 1:14 reads “The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire” the third line would be the creature’s dread upon seeing the return of God. “Weave a circle round him thrice, And close your eyes (in) with holy dread” would be the moment the creatures recognize ‘him’ is, in fact, the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit, which is why they wince in horror at their fate and why the Greek symbol (Omega) is present in hell. Interestingly enough, with an admission of the Trinity in writing, Coleridge would later come to denounce Unitarianism in February 1805 and go on to critique the religion with such statements as, The Unitarians and Socinians are not Christians in any proper sense of the word.”/ “No Trinity, no God!”, “”Unitarianism in all its forms is idolatry.”10

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As the Crewe manuscript capitalizes the word ‘He’, I can only imagine this passage is referring to how those in hell see God. Originally, I thought the last two lines referred to Satan, but in the context of the poem, it wouldn’t make sense. Sadly, the creatures in having been deceived on earth depart with, “For He on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise” a line which can be traced to Exodus 33:3 in which it states, “Go up to this land that flows with milk and honey. But I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way.” As Genesis 3:4 describes Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden, one can suppose the creatures see their punishment as being unjust.

What began as a poem written by a Unitarian preacher was published once the author became an orthodox Christian. In explicating this poem, it is my belief Coleridge under use of narcotics was inspired to convey what many had trouble interpreting solely in looking at Bosch’s painting. As even the author himself wrote, ‘the Author has frequently purposed to finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him11, the poem’s meaning is to be understood within the frame of belief. Though translations of this poem vary, I hold to it that such works: Bosch’s painting, the Holy Bible, and Kubla Khan complement each other, much like the triptych, in describing the origin and destination of human kind.


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The presence of the fountain (God’s presence) on earth

Works Cited:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge,

Indian Journal of Clinical Practice, Mar. 2013,

Page 626

Ashton, Rosemary. The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge . Oxford, 1997.

Bosch, Hieronymus. The Garden of Earthly Delights. 1490, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep . 2nd ed., William Bulmer, 1816.

Reproduced in The Complete Poems, ed. William Keach, Penguin Books, 2004.

Dixon, Laurinda S., and Hieronymus Bosch. Alchemical Imagery in Boschs “Garden of Delights” Tryptych. Vol. 63, Art Bulletin, 1981.

Remnants of a ‘Fossil’ Science

Dormandy, Thomas. Opium: Realitys Dark Dream. Yale University Press, 2012, .

Piper, H W. The Two Paradises in Kubla Khan. vol. 27, Oxford Univeristy Press, 1976, The Review of English Studies,

Pobes, F J. Waning Moon. 2010,

Purchas, Samuel. Purchas His Pilgrimes. John Adams Collection, vol. 4 5, 1625, Boston Public Library.

“Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Kubla Khan, Crewe MS,

Baum, Nicholas, director. The Mysteries of Hyronimous Bosch. BBC TV, 1983.


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