The Orient as Other in Kubla Khan
Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said, is a mode of knowledge production that sustains a basic distinction between the East and West. Orientalism produces cultural theories, political accounts, and literary representations of the Orient that maintain the world’s imbalances of power. At a time of Western imperialism and national cultivation, Romantic writers participated in constructing the image of the Orient. Through poetic style, diction, and narrative, authors established a distinct Other in order to assert the superiority of Western civilization. We encounter such Orientalism in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.
Kubla Khan demonstrates common Romantic Orientalist tropes in typifying the Orient as exotic, supernatural, and erotic. With strange names, unconventional stanza form, and intentional extravagance, Coleridge distances the poem from all familiarity and restrictions of the real world. In Xanadu, there are no constraints on sexuality, fantasy, or spirituality. Implied by the image of the pleasure-dome, pleasure itself is the most sought after object. This erotic freedom is exciting and liberating, but it is tarnished by a primitive barbarism. The poem reads, “As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/ By woman wailing for her demon-lover!” (15-16). In the sexual imagery of this second stanza, readers sense a wild, animalistic passion from words like “wailing,” “seething,” and “burst.” Coleridge depicts an untamed, fervent Orient, in contrast to the refined norms of familiar life.
Orientals are further othered by their consistent situation in dreams and visions. Kubla Khan is a transcription of Coleridge’s opium dream, and the Abyssinian maid of the final stanza is described as, “A damsel with a dulcimer/ In a vision once I saw” (37-38). The author admits that the characters, based on true figures in real places, are fully imaginary. This establishes that the Orient, in reality, is unfamiliar and irrational. In its strange beauty and danger, the Orient is both interesting and appalling.
Coleridge depicts the East as a place inherently divine and prehistoric. The Orient’s dream-state unchains spirituality from rigid formality. Kubla hears a prophecy from “ancestral voices.” Even the landscape, “the sacred river,” is holy. But again, such sublimity and spiritual freedom is tainted by a hazardous, innate primitivism — “A savage place, as holy and enchanted…” (14). The image of an untamable East contributes to the Western fascination in the Orient, arising from both attraction and revulsion. Not only does Kubla Khan create a basic distinction between the East and West, but the poem also asserts that the Orient, though enthralling, is inherently uncivilized.
Coleridge utilizes historical places and people of the East to experiment with unmediated, unrestricted expression. By illustrating the Orient as a wild fantasy of imaginative, spiritual, and sexual freedom, Coleridge implicitly portrays the East as the antithesis to modern civilization. These acts of othering create hierarchical distinctions, which work to sustain Western domination and power over the Orient. By more deeply exploring Romantic Orientalism, we may unpack the complex influence of poetry on scholarly, political, and societal discourse in history.
Lucille Starer Marshall is an undergraduate student at Columbia University, specializing in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. This post appears as part of the series “On First Looking into…”