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 Dream: Kubla 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.
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.
Margot insisted that Max needed to change first, as the doorkeepers at Xanadu could refuse admission for any reason they saw fit. ‘And you do look a rather young eighteen,’ she said teasingly. ‘Don’t you think Max?’
‘Not really… Well, OK maybe a little. But I still look older than you, Margot. Come on, you can’t deny it.’
‘I don’t deny it even a little,’ she said. ‘But Max, no door is ever closed to me. Nobody would dare to turn me away.’
What a puzzling thing to say, Max thought. How could she be so sure? Was Margot that well connected? Whatever the case, Margot wore such an expression of serene self-confidence that his doubts quickly evaporated.
With each passing moment, Max was learning ever more about her personality. Yet this knowledge only reinforced how much of a mystery Margot was. Who was this gamine, rather gauche, well-read and upper-class rebel, who —without ever stating the fact— just seemed to know things that others could only guess at?
From what Max had gathered from her off-hand remarks, Margot had been expelled from several exclusive boarding schools, much to the disgust of her wealthy, French father, who had subsequently disowned his incorrigible, troublesome daughter.
Margot, in return, had no time for him either. She explained that she had overheard her father justify his daily visits to prostitutes by saying that he preferred people to have expertise in their respective fields. ‘And well, they are professionals, after all…’
Her hatred of her father was only matched by her contempt for her mother, a terminal depressive who wandered vaguely around their Knightsbridge townhouse arranging and then re-arranging ornaments before absentmindedly breaking them…
And the question remained —how did Margot know Alex and how had she ended up living with him here at Elysium Crescent? Was she being coy earlier, when she had laughed off the suggestion that they were indeed lovers? Alex himself had been close-lipped on the subject. Max was half-tempted to go upstairs right away and ask him what the story was, but then he realized that Alex would, at this present moment, be zoned out on the shot that Margot had earlier administered.
Margot’s voice broke his reverie. ‘Well just don’t stand there, Max. Get a move on, will you? We have a long, long way to go, you know.’
‘OK, sorry. I was just following a train of thought.’
‘Well step off that train and concentrate on getting ready. And Max? Look smart, but try not to look like a boy trying to look smart.’
‘What do you mean by that? Exactly what should I wear then, Margot? Do tell, as you seem to be the dress-code expert for wherever the hell we are going.’
‘I may not be the expert, but I’m certainly older and wiser than you. So leave your smart remarks at the door and just do as I say, OK?’ she teased. ‘Just remember, you’re not going for a job interview, but you’re not going for a swift one at the pub, either.’ She waved him away. ‘Come on, move it. Go put something on and let me be the judge, but make it quick, otherwise we will never get out of here and we’ll end up spending the time just staring into each other’s eyes.’
Max thought it sounded like a heavenly way to spend the afternoon, but Margot’s restlessness was infectious. Besides, he wanted to see what effect the drug had on the senses beyond the four walls of the flat. It might all be too much to bear, but then again, it might just open his eyes. Perhaps he would see things as they really are. But then again… perhaps he would see things as they really are?
Max went into his bedroom and after a quick glance in his wardrobe, decided to freshen up first in the en suite bathroom. A whore’s bath would be just the ticket. Oh, and a brush of the teeth.
He had heard from someone (who) from somewhere (when) that you should never look into a mirror while tripping (if that’s what this was). Yet, the mirror was right there in front of him, staring him in the face. He could hardly not look now, could he? Besides, how am I going to get ready without checking myself out in the mirror, he thought. ‘It’s impossible, simply impossible,’ he laughed. How stupid to think that he could do all that without the aid of his reflection.
Tentatively and with a degree of trepidation, Max looked into the mirror. He smiled. Nothing to fear here. True, his eyes did seem to be constantly changing colour, from their usual copper hue, to grey, to blue and then black, before changing back to brown, but he could handle that. And yet, and yet…the longer he looked, the more he became aware of a vague double-image coalescing in the top, right-hand corner of the mirror. It was himself, but older. The eyes were slightly bloodshot and worry lines were etched into the forehead. In fact, the whole face was marked with the inedible stamp of years of strain and hard living.
Enough of this phantom from the future, Max thought and he slid the mirror over several times. After doing this for several minutes, the image finally disappeared. Focus, Max, he thought. Stop following chimeras; fight your way out of your own head for once. Right outside the door, there is a smart, pretty woman waiting to take you out and show you the world. It’s time to stop thinking and live a little.
Eventually, after much hesitation, he pulled it together and washed, brushed his teeth and changed. He hazarded another look in the mirror. Yeah, he thought, you’ll do. He just hoped that Margot would think so, too.
He returned to the living room and found it empty. No Margot. He considered calling out for her to hurry up, as he was anxious to get to wherever they were going, but decided that it would be better if he played it cool.
He sat, immediately stood up again, paced the room, spied the cigarette box on the coffee table and decided he needed one. They were Margot’s brand —Gitanes—smoked as an ironic homage to her loathed father. They were a little too rough for Max’s taste, but they were on hand and since he didn’t have a clue where he had left his own, he lit one up.
Mmmm, now that tasted good, he thought as he inhaled deeply. When did he last have a cigarette? Surely it couldn’t have been that long ago, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember. Time. Time —where did it go and what was the time now? And what time is love? Now? In some ill-defined future? Perhaps never? If only he could pin down the details, then everything would become clear. All the elements would fall into place and the seeming chaos would resolve itself into a logical order.
Max was staring at the rainbow-coloured ash, shifting like tiny crystals in a kaleidoscope, when Margot entered. She was so completely transformed, that at first, he wondered if the drug was playing tricks on his senses again. But no, this was simply what women were capable of —metamorphosis. A man, on the other hand, was compelled to stay true to the persona the world had selected for him.
Max stared at her. He had rarely seen Margot in anything but jeans and a t-shirt. She generally disdained make-up and hardly ever bothered to brush her hair. Now however, she had dressed in a simple, but stunning, black satin dress, complemented with an emerald necklace which perfectly matched her green eyes. She had wound her hair up in an elegant twist and applied subtle make-up that accentuated her high cheekbones and painted her bow lips with an exact shade of labial red.
Could this be love?
What time is love?
Can that instant last forever?
Even when time moves on and we age and fade and eventually turn to dust?
All these thoughts —along with other less pure images— were whirring through Max’s mind. However, with all sorts of marvelous words on the tip of his tongue, all he could manage to croak out in an awkward rasp was: ‘You look nice Margot.’
‘Gee, thanks Max,’ she said frowning. ‘After all that effort I went to, I’m glad I look nice.’ She gave him a once over. ‘You look nice yourself, Max. You did well with the brief. So, are you just going to sit there staring, or are we ever going to actually leave?’
‘Righty-o boss. Let’s get out of here.’ Max stood, then hesitated. ‘What about my Dad? Shouldn’t we tell him that we will be gone for a while?’
‘Don’t worry about that, Max. I checked up on him when I took a little bit of money to tide us over —you know, for taxis and train fares and general going around expenses. Oh, and I have his credit card, too. You have to pay to play in Xanadu, but don’t worry, I have the ways and means and I never lose. Well, hardly ever, anyway, and I will repay it all with interest. So relax, your Dad is fast in the Land of Nod, dreaming of distant lights or maybe of catching birds and mice —who knows with Alex, he’s a deep one.’ She winked.‘Perhaps he even dreamt us up.’
She sighed at the dubious look on Max’s face. ‘I didn’t want to disturb him so I left a note saying we will be back soon and not to concern himself about you. That you’re under my wing for the present and I wouldn’t let anything untoward happen. I’m sure he’ll find some way to entertain himself. He does so like the night.’
‘Are you quite sure about this, Margot?’
‘Positive Max. We are going to have a time. Believe you me. You haven’t really lived until you have been to Kubla Khan’s.’
‘Kubla Khan’s? I thought we were going to Xanadu?’
Margot regarded him with a look of amused pity. ‘I suppose you couldn’t know… how could you possibly? You’re still wet behind the ears aren’t you, my dear? Max, to get to Xanadu, you first have to enter the Pleasuredome, and you can only get to the Pleasuredome by visiting Kubla Khan’s. Don’t worry, it will all become crystal clear when we get there. That is, if we ever do, at the rate we are going. Enough chit-chat. We can talk on the way if you insist, but let’s just go.’
‘All right, but after you Margot. Ladies first.’
‘So Alex taught you something after all. I’m glad of that.’
Max followed Margot to the door, which he opened for her. Then they stepped out onto the street, Elysium Crescent, and into a brand new world.