“A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw”
One night in October, 1797, the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from an opium-influenced dream. Before he nodded off, he’d been reading a description of Shangdu — aka Xanadu — a city built by Mongol Emporer Kubla Khan as the his summer residence. Coleridge’s dream was so vivid that he immediately set quill to parchment to transform his inspiration into a poem.
Entitled, “Kubla Khan,” it’s only 54 lines long. Dense, but delightful, it is deservedly famous. Read it here.
The first five lines are among the most well-known in English-language poetry:
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.
From there, he describes the landscape and its wonders, including a chasm, a fountain, and the river — “five miles meandering with a mazy motion” — that flows to the sea. The imagery is fantastic, the language sensational, and the impression otherwordly, yet lucid.
The tension builds, and we are warned of imminent disaster:
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
Soon after, the second stanza ends, returning to the poem’s initial image, the pleasure dome:
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
And there, just as we are presented with this fanciful place of opposites in intriguing coexistence, there is a break in the poem, in tone and content. It was here that a knock came at Coleridge’s door and, against his better judgment, he left his writing desk to answer. It was nobody important and nothing he couldn’t have lived without, but when he returned to the poem, the images were gone, the next lines forgotten. The spell had been shattered, and he never recovered it.
Hence, the final stanza begins:
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
Whereas up til now the poem had been immersing us in the incredible features of an outlandish place, now it yanks us out, and has us…