In 1829, five years before his death, Samuel Taylor Coleridge published an essay titled The Constitution of Church and State, According to the Idea of Each, in which he described the two opposing forces that are ever in struggle, and necessarily so, in order for a state to survive; they are Permanence and Progress. Permanence pertains to the elements of stability and continuity; its Progression the elements of growth and experiment. Coleridge was indebted to Edmund Burke as he was influenced by the latter’s political writings. What my essay endeavors to achieve is to elucidate how this idea of Permanence and Progress showed up over thirty years earlier in his poem Kubla Khan and how it is the underlying struggle that makes the poem cohere.
Kubla Khan, which takes its name from the ruler who lived from 1216 to 1294 and was the grandson of Genghis Khan, and who led the conquest of China and began the Yuan Dynasty, was written in the summer of 1797. According to the author in his preface, the poem was published at the request of “a poet of great and deserved celebrity,” i.e. Byron. The events surrounding the poem are well-known: how the author had fallen asleep after taking a drug of some kind for the treatment, according to him, of physical ailment; how because of reading an account of Kubla Khan’s plans to build a palace had dreamt of it and dreamt up the poem; how when he awoke he began to write what he remembered; was interrupted for over an hour by a person on business from Porlock; and when he returned to his desk could hardly recall anything else. Thus we have the fragment that he at first was hesitant to publish, but because of the persuasion of Byron it was made public. It is the most imaginative of poems in that it was dreamt up, is about the imagination, more than most poems and occurs in the imagination.
This poem also possesses that quality of the Sublime that Edmund Burke spoke of in his essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful with several other additions; it contains the elements that affect our senses and give us a sense of the sublime. He includes what Burke says is essential, which is obscurity. This is in part two and sections three and four. He (Burke) writes at the beginning of section three: “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.” Burke continues his explanation of this quality in the section four that deals with “the difference between clearness and obscurity with regard to the passions.” He says, “It is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination. . . . the most lively and spirited verbal description I can give raises a very obscure and imperfect idea of such objects; but then it is in my power to raise a stronger emotion . . .” He continues and speaks of the clearness of ideas as opposed to “a crowd of great and confused images; which affect because they are crowded and confused.”
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.
In this the opening stanza, the meter varies from iambic tetrameter to trimeter to iambic pentameter. The language is very fluid, as it is throughout the whole poem. The first three lines are perfect iambic tetrameter. The reader is injected right into the poem and introduced to the place, Xanadu, and the character, Kubla Khan. When read aloud and with attention to the rhythm, one hears the beat as not monotone, but is girded underneath by a strict adherence to form and rhythm, the adherence to the elements of stability and continuity. If we scan the line, it would read as follows, × / × / × / × /. But then we come to the fourth line that can read as either iambic tetrameter or the first syllable could also be read as a trochee; thus the line would scan as follows, / × × / × / × /. This variation would incorporate the idea of Progress, the elements of growth and experiment. If a poet writes in strict iambic meter, he runs the chance of coming off as stifled and dead; also, his language would not be reflective of his speech. One can already instinctively feel the tension in the form or frame, rather, of the poem, similar to that always existing tension that is understood to be necessary within a society.