On First Looking Into…Kubla Khan

The Orient as Other in Kubla Khan

By Lucille Starer Marshall

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…”

3 thoughts on “On First Looking Into…Kubla Khan”

  1. Is this how we read KK upon first looking at it? Before we “unpack the complex influence of poetry on scholarly, political, and societal discourse in history” we should try and simply experience. From Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism, pages 67-68: “Close reading … originate[s] in critical receptivity as well as in a conviction that even though great aesthetic work ultimately resists total understanding, there is a possibility of a critical understanding that may never be completed but can certainly be provisionally affirmed. It is a truism that all readings are of course subject to later re-readings, but it is also good to remember that there can be heroic first readings that enable many others after them. Who can forget the rush of enrichment [when experiencing great art] and … the sense of change in oneself [that] result[ed]? It takes a kind of heroism to undertake great artistic efforts, to experience the shattering disorientation of [their] “making” … This is proper … to the humanistic enterprise, the sense of authorial heroism as something to emulate, admire, aspire to for readers [and artists]. It is not only anxiety that drives [them to surpass their predecessors]. There is competitiveness of course, but also admiration and enthusiasm for the job to be done that won’t be satisfied until one’s own road is taken after a great predecessor has first carved out a path. Much of the same can and must be said about humanistic heroism of allowing oneself to experience the work with something of its primary drive and informing power. We are not scribblers or humble scribes but minds whose actions become a part of the collective human history being made all around us.”

  2. What a fantastic quotation — it speaks so beautifully to how Said is such an appropriate interlocutor for a first reading of Kubla Khan, as the archetypal poem that demands completion through readerly interpretation. Thanks, Dan, and thanks, Lucille, for such a thought-provoking reading of Coleridge.

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