The Pleasure Dome

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the leading figures of the first generation of English Romantics writers, along with Wordsworth and William Blake. An influential critic he was first to advance the idea of ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ as a necessary component for the aesthetic enjoyment of certain types of art and literature. He was also injected the heady idealism of German Romanticism to British literature. However his best remembered for two extraordinary poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the fragmentary Kubla Khan.

Subtitled A Vision in a DreamKubla Khan is perhaps as well known for the manner of its composition as the actual poem. Coleridge relates in the introductory preface that after falling into an opium induced sleep while reading a book about Kubla Khan he experienced a astonishingly vivid dream that formed into a entire poem of about two or three hundred lines. Upon awaking the poem he retained the lines and set about writing them down exactly as is. After he completed 54 lines he was interrupted ‘by a person from Porlock’ (a nearby village in Somerset) who wished to discuss some unspecified business. Upon his return to his desk Coleridge discovered that the vision and the poem had disappeared, never to be recaptured.

Given the manner of composition, it is  hard not to see Kubla Khan with its lushly sensual and opiated imagery  as a proto-surrealist work. It certainly seems to prestige the darker strains of romanticism that would dominate as the 19th Century progressed.

Kenneth Anger’s cult movie Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (full movie with the original score below) is obviously inspired by Coleridge, and one version that was screened on German TV in fact included a recitation of the poem at the start of the movie. This baroque psychedelic (and very camp) movie is a re-creation of Crowleyite ceremony that involves Anger, The Scarlet Woman herself Marjorie Cameron, Curtis Harrington and other members of the LA occult scene getting off their tits whilst on acid. Oh and for some inexplicable reason Anais Nin sports a birdcage as headgear.

Kubla Khan

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment

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.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

S.T Coleridge 1816

36 thoughts on “The Pleasure Dome

  1. What a visionary dream, Cake! In high school, we had to study “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The American nun who taught us English literature never mentioned “Kubla Khan.” Too sensuous for young girls, I guess.

    I was especially struck by Coleridge’s dual reference to the sacred river (Alp) that ran “down to a sunless sea” and later “sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean.” It’s a pretty ominous vision given what’s happening to life in our oceans with rising oceanic temperatures, plus the build-up of our plastic waste.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All great poets are prophets in a sense. Coleridge’s opium addiction probably accounts for the morbid and apocalyptic imagery, as it features heavily in other writers with the same affliction. I once read a very book called Opium and the Romantic Imagination that shows the similarities. Thanks for the comments Rosaliene and I am glad you enjoyed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Arr, that was related to that ‘ah Sue, now you’re being so harsh and mean’ comment… I wrote earlier that I’m really fond of the post. And that I want it to be my new bedtime story… What higher praise could there possibly be from a person like me, Sleeping Beauty… *sending soothing, mending thoughts*

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  2. One of my absolute favorites. I love the backstory but am forever left wondering what the rest of the vision had produced. I’m sorry to say (maybe not that sorry…) the story of Kublai Khan was influential in my own youthful experimentation with mild altering substances. Who wouldn’t want to go to such lengths for their art after all? The film clip is so over the top. Great stuff, Mr. Cake. I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much, you know I love my tenuous connections, but this one isn’t that tenuous. The full movie is 36 mins long as is quite a trip. Love Anais in her birdcage. As for the poem, simply sublime.

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      1. Yes, the birdcage is pretty funny. I’m sure there’s some symbolism to it. At least in the minds of the participants. This is really not how I imagine the Pleasure Dome, however. Trippy yes, campy no.

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      2. Definitely some Crowley symbolism. The man eating jewels is playing The Great Beast. Another inspiration for the movie was a fancy dress party Anger attended in Hollywood where the theme was Come As Your Madness. I imagine The Pleasure Dome as you do… trippy but not camp. But it is quite deliriously mad.

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  3. I read this post yesterday but was unable to view the links until this morning, I wanted to be able to watch without and distraction. This is madness, I love it so much. Anger is new to me…the man…he is without doubt a master of surrealism, thank you for the introduction and lovely and disturbing links. The poetry you reference is among my favorite, the Mariner in particular. Not a fan of rhyme but one cannot criticize this gem of romanticism. Coleridge s true genius, opium not withstanding. Thank you for this lovely post, as always, dear Cake.

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    1. Thank you Heart…you know I like to make connections (well they are connected in my head at least, not sure that is a good thing or not). Anger’s movie is quite quite mad, but it was made in 1954 and one can see the influence it had on say music videos decades later. I am also not really a fan of rhyme, you very rarely see me rhyming, but one must make allowances for the conventions of the time and this is really a gem. Thanks again for the lengthy comment.

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  4. Dear Mr. Cake, “A Vision in a Dream: Kubla Khan” is wonderfully surreal, the visuals are amazing as is, “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”. The color in the film is so wonderfully vivid and the score is fantastic. Maybe I’ll eat a necklace for lunch. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. Interestingly enough Anger may have thought the same. This is the original score for the 1956 version, later he put ELO’s El dorado as the soundtrack. He commissioned Jimmy Page for the soundtrack for another one of his movies but Mr Page was in the midst of his heavy heroin use so he didnt complete it. Anger was, well angry and put a spell on Mr Page (I think). There was also further bad blood when they got into a bidding war over some of Crowley’s possessions. So loads of Midlands connections there, bizarrely enough. Crowley was from Leamington Spa by the way.

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