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Historical Context in Kubla Khan
Romanticism: In the late 18th century, there arose in Europe an intellectual and artistic movement known as “romanticism.” The “romantics” were known for their emphasis on powerful emotions as a source of truth, as well as a desire for intense aesthetic experiences. In many ways, romanticism can be seen as a corrective reaction to the Age of Enlightenment, the shift toward rationality that dominated Western thought during the 18th century. Romantic artists discarded reason and objective truth in favor of beauty, imagination, sublime experience, and the pursuit of inner vision. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who practiced all of these values, is an exemplar of early British romanticism. In its exploration of the creative imagination, “Kubla Khan” is a quintessentially romantic poem.
The Yuan Dynasty: The Yuan Dynasty was a Mongolian dynasty that reigned from 1271 to 1368. The kingdom encompassed the vast majority of present-day Mongolia and China. The Yuan Dynasty was conquered and subsequently established by Kublai Khan, a powerful Mongolian king and the namesake of Coleridge’s poem. Shangdu—also known as “Xanadu”—was Kublai Khan’s northern capital, from which he ruled in the summer months. The venetian traveller and trader Marco Polo famously visited Shangdu in 1275. Samuel Purchas’s writings about “Xaindu” in his 1625 encyclopedia inspired Coleridge’s poem, composed in 1797.
Historical Context Examples in Kubla Khan:
"Singing of Mount Abora...." See in text (Kubla Khan)
Samuel Purchas’s Purchas, His Pilgrimes includes, along with descriptions of Xanadu, an account of Mount Abora in Ethiopia, once the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia. According to Purchas, Mount Abora was a place of overwhelming natural beauty—another Xanadu, one might say. The Abyssinian tradition held that all the king’s sons save for the heir would be sent to the royal prison atop Mount Abora to live out their days. The king feared the prospect of revolt by the non-heirs. This notion of infighting in Paradise brings to mind again the conflict between Kubla and Ariq.
"Ancestral voices prophesying war!..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
The “ancestral voices prophesying war” is likely a reference to Ariq Böke, a Mongol general who was Kublai Khan’s brother and enemy in war. The intended feeling in these lines is that of trouble brewing outside of paradise. It is a reminder of the real world.
"Alph, the sacred river..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
“Alph” is a shortening of Alpheus, or Alfeios, the longest-running river in the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece. As the Roman poet Ovid tells it, Alpheus was a river god who pursued the nymph Arethusa, who fled to the island of Ortygia in Sicily and turned into a fountain. The myth holds that the Alpheus river goes underground in the Peloponnese and resurfaces in Sicily.
"A stately pleasure-dome decree:..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
In his 1816 introduction to the poem, Coleridge describes the episode of its creation. One evening in 1797, the poet fell asleep while reading Samuel Purchas’s description of Kublai Khan’s extravagant summer palace in Xanadu. Having ingested opium as a treatment for his poor health, Coleridge awoke to an upwelling of poetic inspiration. Lines of verse began to pour from his pen. Though he was interrupted by an unexpected visitor, a “person from Porlock,” Coleridge ended up shaping “Kubla Khan” from the opium-induced outpouring. Given the backstory, many critics read the poem as a meditation on the frustrations of the creative act.
"Kubla Khan..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
Kubla Khan—often written in English as “Kublai Khan”—was a Mongolian emperor who reigned during second half of the 13th century. His Yuan Dynasty was the dominant kingdom in East Asia in its time. Kublai was the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Mongol king whose hordes of horsemen swept across the Eurasian continent from the Pacific shores of China to the rivers and plains of central Europe. Kublai and his kingdom have captured the imaginations of Western artists and writers for centuries largely in part due to the writings of Marco Polo, the Venetian trader who travelled to China and befriended Kublai Khan.
"Xanadu..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
Xanadu, also known as Shangdu, was the capital of the Khan empire in China during the 13th century. When emperor Kubla Khan moved his administration south to Beijing, Xanadu became the “summer capital.” Because of its cooler climes, Khan would conduct his affairs from Xanadu during the hot summer months.