One night, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wasn't feeling all that great. To dull the pain, he took a dose of laudanum, a preparation of opium used as a medicine in the 19th century. He fell asleep and had a strange dream about a Mongol emperor named Kubla Khan. Coleridge dreamed that he was actually writing a poem in his sleep, and when he woke up after a few hours, he sat down to record the dream poem. He meant to write several hundred lines, but he was interrupted by someone who had come to see him on business. When he came back to the poem, he had forgotten the rest. The lines he did manage to scribble out turned into one of the most famous and enduring poems in English literary history. (You can read more on about Coleridge's inspiration for "Kubla Khan" here.)
Not your average night, maybe, but why should we care about this story? Well, Coleridge wasn't just a guy with the flu who happened to have a weird dream. He was a famous poet, one of a group we now know as the Romantics. He was a particularly good friend of the poet William Wordsworth, and together they published a collection of poems called Lyrical Ballads. "Kubla Khan" was first published in a collection called Christabel, Kubla Khan: A Vision, and the Pains of Sleep, and it kicked off the Romantic movement. The Romantics were interested in writing about nature, and they wanted to escape the old, traditional forms of English poetry. "Kubla Khan," with its interesting rhyme scheme, variable line lengths, and intense focus on nature, is both a good example of Romantic poetry and proof that even your weird dreams can be turned into a masterpiece.
This is a poem you'll probably hear people mention at some point. They might even quote the first few lines. But we don't want you to read this just because other people think it's important.
"Kubla Khan" is interesting because Coleridge is talking about an experience we've probably all had. At the bottom of all of these odd images and ideas, he's just trying to tell us about a dream he had. Have you ever woken up from a really amazing dream and felt like you just had to tell someone? Maybe when you did tell a friend, he or she looked at you funny. Well Coleridge had a seriously intense dream, and now he wants to tell us about it.
Fortunately, Coleridge is a great poet, and he makes his dream really exciting. Even though it's only a little more than fifty lines long, this poem takes you to exotic and intriguing places. Think of it as a short, strange movie that jumps between several settings to pull you along and keep you engaged. We can assure you that this poem will take you on a wild ride.
A Clip from Citizen Kane about Xanadu
The movie Citizen Kane picked up the image of Xanadu. This clip is full of references to "Kubla Khan." The voiceover even calls the main character, Charles Foster Kane, "America's Kubla Khan."
Dramatic Reading Of "Kubla Khan"
Here's a video of singer/songwriter/performer David Olney reading "Kubla Khan." He gets pretty into it. Dramatic with a capital "D."
Robert Kelley reading Kubla Khan
See this page for a slightly more chilled-out reading of this poem. Always fun to hear multiple versions and the way they change the poem.
Coleridge Illustrations by Patten Wilson
Some cool drawings based on Coleridge poems by a Victorian artist. Be sure to check out the one of Xanadu in the lower right-hand corner.
Coleridge Life Mask
A page with a bunch of casts of people's faces. If you scroll down a little, you can see what Coleridge looked like. A little creepy, but fun.
Coleridge's Note on the Composition of "Kubla Khan"
This was the story that Coleridge included with the poem when it was published. It explains the unusual circumstances surrounding the writing of this poem.
History of the Yuan Dynasty
A good quick overview of the Chinese dynasty that was founded by Kubla Khan.