drinking the milk of paradise:  on falling in love with coleridge's kubla khan

by Lauren McCormick

I have always been an excited student. Excited to pick my classes, show up early, and learn anything and everything I could. Children’s poems were my introduction into the world of reading; I loved the sing-songy nature and cadence. I had a horrible stutter growing up, but my words put to a rhythm came out unencumbered. Eventually, reading word-wranglers like Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss helped me overcome that stutter. Unfortunately, my love for poetry waned during middle and high school. We passed each other via Shakespeare in English; we had brief encounters, but nothing that endured.

It wasn’t until my second year at university that my ‘first poem’ found me. I had asked permission to take an upper level English class on Romantic Poetry (always the excited student) and my request was accepted. During that first week I was drowning in catch-up reading, wondering what I had gotten myself into, when the professor passed around a sheet of paper and asked us to each pick a poem that we would recite in front of the class at the end of the semester. When the sheet got to me, I didn’t recognize a single poem. I panicked. As I scribbled my initials beside one, I tried to look confident--”I meant to do that. I love this poem.”

That poem was Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and I had no idea how it would haunt me for years to come. The first five lines of this poem beg to be read aloud with their alliterative, sweeping rhythm. At once, you know a tale commanding your attention is about to start.

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.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

There’s an air of remembrance in this poem; its dreamlike state asks you to remember things you thought you had forgotten. Its iambic meter makes you comfortable, but the rhyming lines are always changing, nearly chaotic--one provides stability, while the other unsettles. You’re halfway through the second stanza when you realize how effectively you’ve been swept up in the spiraling current of this poem.

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!
  The shadow of the dome of pleasure
  Floated midway on the waves;
  Where was heard the mingled measure
  From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

The thing that always strikes me about Kubla Khan is that it’s unfinished. Coleridge woke up from an opium-induced dream and, from the nature of the poem, frantically wrote down this story before he was called away by a man from Porlock. When he returned, his memory of the dream was gone. As much as the dream was fleeting, the poem fills that void and resonates so strongly.

No other poem has ever captured my attention so fully. As soon as I hear those first few lines, the rest rush in and cascade down to the close.

  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 with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Kubla Khan compels and bewitches the reader; it lures you into a false sense of security with a recognizable meter until you are part of the dream narrative. The final line of this poem makes me slow down--those four feet seem to span an eternity. Finally, we’re left with this terrifying and haunting image. I always close my eyes and take a deep breath here. This poem needs a bit of empty space at the end.


Lauren McCormick has been webmaster intern for Mass Poetry since Fall 2014. She is from a small town in North Carolina and holds an Master’s in English/Creative Writing - Poetry from SNHU and a Bachelor’s in Ancient Greek Language and Literature  from UNCG. Lauren loves to read--you can find her on her blog and YouTube channel under the name BurntFiction, reviewing and talking about books. burntfiction.com  BurntFiction YouTube