Xanadu and the Love of Isolation
Samuel Taylor Coleridge seemed to have quite an afternoon when he wrote one of his most interesting and famous poems; Kubla Khan. What is thought to be words inspired by a laudanum daydream, turns out to be a poem about the isolation of the human mind amidst the unlimited powers of it’s facility; imagination. He writes, “A stately pleasure-dome decree Where ALPH, the sacred river, ran Through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea,” (670) which to me is reminiscent of the garden of Eden in which Adam and Eve enjoy holy pleasures of the natural world while at the same time being isolated to any form of humanity outside of themselves. What this implies is that Kubla Khan, who seems to be an alias for the universal Man, is building his own garden in which he may escape to, so that in turn, Coleridge himself is commenting on his own escape into the euphoria that accompanies opium, as well as the pleasure that constitutes the psychology of Dream. In more simple terms, Coleridge seems to find something holy and good in the escape unto his imagination. The vision is “A savage place! as holy and inchanted As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for her demon-lover!” (670) savage probably meaning wild or ungoverned (according to the OED) or primal, helping the interpretation that this place is a form of reversion unto a more original kind of human good; that of the isolating nature of the human mind, something of unlimited imagination filtered and harnessed as a place only the dreamer and poet can truly see. As readers we are in awe at the beauty of endless rivers and sunless seas but only Coleridge has experienced this vision. However, the pleasure-dome is similar to images that everyone experiences in dream, linking the independent object of poetry with the independent objects of the rest of humanity’s dreams. The woman wails for her demon-lover, who represents the dualistic nature of man’s dissonant mind; demonic while at the same time good and loving. Coleridge finishes the poem with, “I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice! … And close your eyes with holy dread: For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drank the milk of Paradise,” (671) positing that this dream was religious and the same time terrifying, for the imagination lets loose an awful power that is at the same time beautiful and down right scary. That drinking from the milk of paradise is unloosening the infinite power of man’s creative energy by escaping into an isolation that is so incredibly beautiful that it becomes almost impossible to accurately portray to a reader.
I recently watched a movie by Wes Anderson, called Moonrise Kingdom that echoes some of the ideas presented above. It is a love story between two younger children who run away from their families to a nature that is sublime in it’s beauty. The pair eventually reach a beach that is apply named Uncharted Cove in which they share their first kiss. It is not until the end of the movie that you realize that they have placed rocks on the beach that from the air reads “Moonrise Kingdom,” and that the community that retrieves the pair decide to remove the cove from the map of the island. This area of love is the main character’s own Xanadu, in which the cove becomes their own “dome of pleasure,” that only they have truly experienced. I became reminiscent of the poem because the isolation occurring with love is an isolation that two entities share, just as Kubla Khan’s Paradise is at the same time a connection to the natural world and a escape into the dreadful beauty of the human experience and psyche.
Does this reading remind you of the idea of Pantisocracy that we learned at the beginning of the course? What about dreaming connects one to one another? What I fail to talk about here is the anxiety of empire and the fact that this place Coleridge makes in his dream seems oriental, so do you agree with my Garden of Eden-type reading or is it more about the anxiety of empire? Watch Moonrise Kingdom sometime, it’s a wonderful movie made by a UT alum and let me know if you think that Uncharted Cove is in the same style or trope that many poets (including Coleridge) and utopian writers seem to really like talking about. And finally what does the milk of paradise seem to represent?