Introduction | A Priestley Polemicist | A Faithful Disbelief  | Mad Shelley | Escaping the Infernal Abode | Kubla Khan

Kubla Khan, or the Milk of the Masses

Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (1482) shows the fertility of spring, yet the principle figure in the center, Venus, can also be understood as the Virgin Mary, an example of two different levels of discourse for two different classes of people.
Kubla Khan is traditionally and accurately read as an allegory of the creative poetic process. The poem describes Xanadu, the palace of a Mongrel ruler, Kubla Khan, and its natural surroundings. The poem ends with an account of an Abyssinian, or Ethiopian, woman who feverishly sings, dances, and plays an instrument, and the effect she has on the narrator. Famous for its fragmentation, and the account Coleridge gives us of its composition, specifically that it was the result of an opium inspired hallucinatory vision, the poem’s religious language often goes unnoticed. It can be read, however, in terms of the Greek Eleusinian mystery rites, of a contrast between the initiated, or sacred, elites, and the profane masses. In “Religious Musings” (1796) Coleridge wrote of the poet that his role is “under the disguise of popular superstitions…to communicate as much and no more of the doctrines preserved in the Mysteries as should counteract the demoralizing influence of the state religion, without disturbing the public tranquility.” This sentiment reveals a certain degree of religious orthodoxy combined with radicalism, which is usual for Coleridge. As Martin Priestman suggests, it is the public who should “cry, Beware! Beware!” since the figure who “[drinks] the milk of Paradise” (49, 54), is an initiate of the mysteries. Furthermore, as Priestman argues, the sunny dome is the public face of the state religion and the caves of ice represent the sphere of the hidden mysteries of the soul’s death and resurrection. The “voices prophesying war!” (30) are heard only by Kubla Khan, who possesses the secret knowledge of the mysteries. The “deep romantic chasm” is a “savage place! as holy and enchanted” (12, 14), comprised of two meanings; one holy and superstitious, constructed for the masses, or those who believe in the orthodox religion and are controlled by the church and state; the other, enchanted and true, revealed to the ruling class, or those who control the masses. The poem shows how Coleridge views religion as both tool of liberty and trap of superstition.

Brent Robida

Selected Bibliography

Priestman, Martin. Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999.