Eclipsed by the Pleasure Dome: Poetic Failure in Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'[Notice]

  • David S. Hogsette

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  • David S. Hogsette
    New York Institute of Technology

'Kubla Khan' is now one of Coleridge's best known and most widely read poems, yet it still presents twentieth-century scholars and readers with many of the same critical problems that confounded its contemporary reviewers. It's textual history remains unclear, Coleridge's prefatory explanation of the poem's production is often considered dubious, and scholars just can't agree on what it 'means' or if it means anything at all. Most readers interpret 'Kubla Khan' as an allegory for the creative process, relying heavily upon a perpetuated Romantic formulation of the redemptive imagination as described separately by M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Hartman. Such critics as Humphry House, Harold Bloom, and Kathleen Wheeler ignore the melancholia of the preface and the last stanza, and decide that the poem celebrates the creative imagination. Other readers like R. H. Fogle and Peter Huhn argue that Coleridge achieves thematic and structural unity by reconciling the celebratory and melancholic opposites evident in the poem. Finally, readers such as Kenneth Burke, Paul Magnuson, and Anne Mellor suggest that Coleridge sustains a contradictory duality in which he bemoans the poet's creative limitations while simultaneously hailing the power of the imagination and celebrating the process of life, thus expressing what Mellor calls Romantic irony. While seemingly different in their final readings of the poem, these various critical stances locate the redemptive power of the creative imagination within the poet. Further, these readings do not explore in any great detail the rhetorical relationship between the preface and the poem proper and the ways in which this relationship informs Coleridge's complex representation of the creative imagination and the poet figure. If we analyze the subtitle and preface as metalinguistic keys to the poem's interpretive and performative context, we will discover that the poem is not about imaginative redemption or Romantic irony. Rather, 'Kubla Khan' offers its readers a series of false poetic figures, ultimately demonstrating that the ideal (pro)creative and redemptive imagination lies beyond the grasp of the mortal poet, remaining an external and unobtainable other. The subtitle and preface to 'Kubla Khan' are indeed curious aesthetic and thematic elements that elicit numerous interpretive responses, editorial practices, and critical perspectives. One of the most common readings views the subtitle and the preface as rhetorical apologies added by Coleridge in an attempt to assuage his guilt and/or to avoid harsh criticism. Such a reading ascribes a biographical legitimacy to the introductory note, assuming that the speaker is indeed Coleridge. As a result, the preface is elevated to the literal and (mis)construed as an expository addition to the imaginative poem, a supplement that should be distinguished from the aesthetic experience of the poem itself. But what if we denature this (artificial) separation between the prose preface and the imaginative poem and thus include it in the reading experience or, more accurately, in the performance context of the poem? Indeed, critics such as David Perkins, Fred Milne, Marjorie Levinson, and Paul Magnuson have considered this question, analyzing the rhetorical dimensions of the preface and noting the ways in which it informs the reader's interpretive horizon. I am much indebted to these critical perspectives, for they indeed begin to answer my question concerning the relationship between the prose preface and the imaginative poem. However, they limit their discussions to textual considerations. On the one hand, the preface and the poem are obviously (printed) texts, and it makes sense to address the interpretive relationship between these texts in terms of rhetorical theory. On the other, however, the reading experience—that dialectic between the text and the reader which produces the aesthetic work—is also characterized by a performance context. In …

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