Friday, October 2, 2009


The Kublai Khan at his Palace Court with High-Ranking Officers (mural by Yu Shan, 2007-2008)
"Today, Xanadu is a forgotten ruin halfway between the Great Wall and the Mongolian border. A ruin without stones - the traces of its mounds lightly etched in the grasslands." (Photo essay by Jan Leenknegt, 2005)

Let's have another read of the poem "Kubla Khan, or A Vision in a Dream" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834):
(click on link for the rest of the poem)
I first read this poem in high school and was intrigued by the story behind it. In a note published with it in 1816, Coleridge explains that while reading about Mongol leader Kublai Khan, he fell asleep for 3 hours after taking a prescribed anodyne and had a very vivid dream. He writes (in the third person), "On awakening [the author] 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." He was interrupted and wasn't able to return to the poem for an hour, at which time all but a few of the lines and visions had passed away like an image on a pond into which a stone is cast.
The anodyne was opium, to which Coleridge - speculatively and posthumously diagnosed as bipolar - had become addicted. Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty and a grandson of Ghengis Khan, ruled Mongolia from the Pacific to the Urals and from Siberia to Afghanistan - 1/5th of the world's inhabitable land mass. Xanadu, better known as Shangdu, was his summer capital and became a metaphor - through Coleridge's poem - for opulence.

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