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©   John Spencer Hill

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The 1816 Preface and Kubla Khan as a "Fragment"
. . . for any understanding knoweth the skill of each artificer standeth in that IDEA or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself.
                      (Sir Philip Sidney, Apologie for Poetrie, 1595)
[81]   The Preface by which Coleridge introduced Kubla Khan to the public in 1816 is a vexing document, and no aspect of it has proved to be more nettlesome than its reiterated insistence that Kubla Khan is but a fragment of a much longer poem.   While the 1816 Preface raises a number of important critical issues, there are two matters that require special attention:   (1) the general worth and reliability of the Preface, and (2) the question of whether or not Kubla Khan is a fragment.
      Since the discovery of the Crewe Manuscript, the issue of the [82] reliability of the 1816 Preface has been much debated.   One school of thought maintains that it is untrustworthy and should be dismissed as a fabrication intended only to apologise for the publication of a fragment. "As a whole", argues Elisabeth Schneider, "the preface of 1816 sounds a good deal like the self-justifying memory of Coleridge on other occasions" -- and, in this particular case, "a marvellous origin and the man from Porlock could bear the blame and serve as a natural shield against criticism, while Lord Byron's admiration and the description of the fragment as a 'psychological curiosity' might justify its publication".1   Warren Ober tartly dismisses it as "a Coleridgean hoax, albeit a harmless one",2 and Norman Fruman points out that the prefatory "claim made for Kubla Khan was but one of a long series made by Coleridge concerning spontaneous composition".3   Walter Jackson Bate, more generously, sees Coleridge as trying to excuse the tardy publication of a difficult poem by escorting it, "as he was to escort so much by [1816], with a cloud of apology".4   With the exception of Bate, it may be noted, all the critics who read the Preface as an elaborate fiction also assume that Kubla Khan is not a finished piece but a fragment of a longer work.   The relationship between the poem and its preface, on this view, is succinctly stated by Edward Bostetter:
Why then did he write so extravagant a preface for Kubla Khan? . . .   It is one of his apologies for uncompleted work:   an attempt to forestall harsh criticism or ridicule by emphasizing that the poem is being published "rather as a psychological curiosity than on the grounds of any supposed poetic merits" . . . .   Opium is presented as a benign anodyne, responsible for the dream; and the man from Porlock rather than sloth or procrastination interrupts the composition.5
      A second group of critics, instead of dismissing the 1816 Preface as a hoax or an instance of Coleridge's "self-justifying memory", prefers to regard it as a prose parallel or analogue of Kubla Khan itself -- on the theory that "to ignore the Preface may be to ignore Coleridge's abilities as a literary critic".6   The critics of this group all agree that Kubla Khan is a poem about poetry and the poetic process, and they maintain that the Preface (whether or not its facts are actually true) confronts the same issues.   Bernard Breyer interprets Kubla Khan as "a kind of allegory of the poem, an essay [83] on the product of the creative imagination" and argues that, similarly, the Preface of 1816 should be seen as "an allegory of the creative process and the perennial difficulties that beset it:   the place of retirement between two towns, the ecstasy, the vision, the attempt to reproduce the vision, the interruption from the outside world, the dissipation of the dream".7   Indeed, many recent critics have adopted the view that the 1816 Preface must be seen as the prose counterpart of the poem it introduces.8   The most vigorous and convincing exponent of this approach is Irene Chayes, who attempts to show that, "If . . . the 1816 headnote to Kubla Khan is understood as largely a prose imitation of the poem it introduces, also serving in part as argument and gloss, the long-standing problems of unity, completeness, overall structure, and ultimate 'meaning' are set in a new perspective".9   On this reading, the 1816 Preface is neither an elaborate excuse nor an excrescence; it is rather, at least potentially, an invaluable key into the enchanted hortus conclusus of Coleridge's Xanadu.
      Until the discovery of the Crewe Manuscript (1934) and Elisabeth Schneider's subsequent attack (1945)10 on the veracity of the 1816 Preface, scholars accepted Coleridge's account of the poem's mysterious origin without serious reservation.   Since Miss Schneider's "exposure" of the 1816 Preface, however, it has been fashionable to dismiss Coleridge's preface almost out-of-hand.   Nevertheless, there has always been a small group of critics (whose voice, in recent years, has grown in strength and confidence) who have argued for the essential truth of what Coleridge says about Kubla Khan in the 1816 Preface.   After all, as John Beer has said, "the accumulation of various pieces of evidence has tended to confirm many features of it".11   E.S. Shaffer in her study of Coleridge's place in the "mythological school" of Biblical criticism argues at length that experiences of "secular inspiration" (as she terms it) "were in one form or another so persistent with Coleridge, and figure so largely in his theory of the imagination, that his account of the writing of Kubla should not be dismissed as a figment", for
it is perfectly possible that he should have dreamed the whole in this vivid compressed form in which all the major images are concentrated and blent, and the action concentrated at the point most pregnant with its own significance:   the creation of the holy city threatened with destruction and promised its recreation.   The prefatory "Vision in a Dream" becomes a kind of [84] authentication of the poet's right to present [such a] prophetic lay.12
What both Beer and Shaffer are claiming, though their aims and ends are quite different, is that the 1816 Preface is essentially factual -- although the facts are dressed up in a peculiarly Coleridgean manner.   The same may be said of psychological critics such as James Hoyle, who, arguing for the "essential truth" of the 1816 Preface, believes that Coleridge was driven by the lack of scientific testimony and established psychological terminology to express his experience in what (to modern eyes) appear to be fantastic and purely fictional terms.13
      It may be said, then, in conclusion, that recent studies make it more difficult to dismiss the 1816 Preface as pure fiction or as a cloud of Coleridgean apology or as a disingenuous document intended to deflect adverse criticism.   If we are to be fair to Coleridge, then we must be prepared to entertain seriously the possibility (perhaps, indeed, the probability) that the 1816 Preface contains a largely factual account of how Kubla Khan came to be written.
      The question of whether or not Kubla Khan is a fragment is closely related to the issue of the reliability of the 1816 Preface, for it is in that preface that Coleridge declares with "the most vivid confidence" that the poem as originally envisioned "could not have been composed [in] less than from two to three hundred lines" but that when he started to write it down he was interrupted by the man from Porlock.   It is important to note that Coleridge always referred to Kubla Khan as a fragment.   In the editions of 1816, 1828 and 1829 the poem bears the title "Of the Fragment of Kubla Khan", and in the 1834 edition the title reads, Kubla Khan:   Or, A Vision in a Dream.   A Fragment.   Even the Crewe endnote corroborates the story:   "This fragment with a good deal more, not recoverable . . .", it begins.   Moreover, the Coleridge circle accepted that the poem was incomplete; thus, Mrs Coleridge, for example, speaks of "his fragments of 'Christabel' & 'Koula-Khan'".14
      Despite these repeated asseverations, however, many readers have flatly refused to believe that Kubla Khan is merely the fragment of a longer poem.   "My contention", announced E.H.W. Meyerstein (in words later echoed by Humphry House), "is that there is nothing in the least fragmentary about Kubla Khan and, [85] were it not for Coleridge's preface . . . nobody would ever have dreamt of thinking that there was".15   Similarly, Walter Jackson Bate argues that, "without Coleridge's note, written so long afterwards, few readers would think Kubla Khan a fragment.   In its self-sufficiency it differs from all of Coleridge's other poems that we actually know to be fragments".16   For Meyerstein, House, Bate and many other readers as well,17 Coleridge's 1816 Preface is the main culprit -- a red herring that leads us away from the organic unity and wholeness of the poem.  It has also been argued that Coleridge called Kubla Khan a "fragment", not because it is incomplete, but because the "fragment" is a legitimate artistic device and a peculiarly Romantic sub-genre.18   And this view would support the sophisticated argument of R.H. Fogle that "Kubla Khan is in the most essential sense a completed work, in that it symbolizes and comprehends the basic Romantic dilemma, a crucial problem of art" -- for (Fogle contends) "in good Romantic poetry there is a continuous tension, compacted of the sense of the immense potentialities of his theme set off against the knowledge that they can only partially be realized".   Thus, in "the truest sense" Kubla Khan is a completed work:   "In a more obvious sense it is clearly unfinished:   as a narrative it barely commences, and it shifts abruptly with the Abyssinian maid from objective to subjective.   Considered as lyric, however, it is self-contained and whole".19   Finally, still another critical approach to Kubla Khan has involved exploring in detail its formal structure and metrical pattern:   Alan Purves has done so and concludes confidently that "We can be sure . . . that the Kubla Khan we have is a complete and carefully wrought poem:   any expansion or continuation would have to have been different in theme and form".20
      It will perhaps have been noticed that, among the critical positions outlined in the preceding paragraph, there are two quite distinct attitudes concerning Coleridge's description of Kubla Khan as a fragment.   For critics such as Meyerstein and House (and most of those listed in n. 17), Coleridge was either wrong or lying in calling the poem a "fragment".   For readers such as Fogle and Purves, however, Coleridge's probity is not in question:  their position is that, while the poet may have called his work a fragment (for whatever reason), the poem nevertheless has a total meaning that is not fragmentary.21
      But many critics would argue that Kubla Khan is a fragment [86] plain and simple. Some are only too happy to take Coleridge at his word and to assert, as T. S. Eliot does, that
The imagery of that fragment, certainly, whatever its origins in Coleridge's reading, sank to the depths of Coleridge's feeling, was saturated, transformed there -- "those are pearls that were his eyes" -- and brought up into daylight again.   But it is not used:   the poem has not been written.   A single verse is not poetry unless it is a one-verse poem; and even the finest line draws its life from its context.   Organisation is necessary as well as "inspiration".22
Most readers, however, are not so severe or so sceptical of the "inspiration" which, according to Eliot, is responsible for the poem's "exaggerated repute".   Rather, the majority of those who accept that Kubla Khan is a fragment also agree that it is a miniature masterpiece.23   Foremost among the supporters of this view are Elisabeth Schneider and John Beer, both of whom (despite their opposing views of the worth of the 1816 Preface) argue that Coleridge's assertion that Kubla Khan is unfinished is sincere and that the poem "must surely be thought of as a fragment that has been brought to a close of sorts but not wrought into a poetic whole -- perhaps, more exactly, as a fragment with a poetic postscript":
Coleridge himself called the poem a "fragment"; and, haunted as he was by the ghosts of his many unfinished works, I should think it unlikely that he would have added by a deliberate falsehood to the number of that congregation in limbo . . . .   The most likely explanation of the actual form of the poem would seem to be also the most natural.   As it stands, it clearly consists of two parts, the description of Kubla's Paradise gardens and an explanation of why the poet could not after all finish what he had begun, or, to speak within the framework of the dream, why he could not re-create the vision he had seen.   The whole reads like a fragment with a postscript added at some later time when it has become obvious to the poet that he cannot finish the piece.   The postscript is skilfully linked with the rest by the recurrence of the dome and caves of ice; but these and other devices do not conceal, and I imagine were not meant to conceal, the actually disparate parts.   If a man begins a poem, gets [87] stuck, and then adds the comment, "I cannot finish this", even though he versify his comment to match his fragment, he is not likely to produce a whole in the poetic or aesthetic sense, though he does bring his piece to an end beyond which it could not be continued.24

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  1. Schneider, Coleridge, Opium and "Kubla Khan" (cf. Introduction, n. 1), pp. 26-7.   See also ibid., pp. 87-8. *
  2. Ober, in JEGP (cf. Composition, n. 15), 414.   For a similar view, see R. Smith, "Spontaneous Overflow", LINQ:   Literature in North Queemland, 2 (1973) 25-8. *
  3. Fruman, Coleridge:   The Damaged Archangel (cf. Opium, n. 15), p. 335. *
  4. Bate, Coleridge (cf. Biographical Sketch, n. 1), p. 84. *
  5. Edward Bostetter, The Romantic Ventriloquists:   Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron (Seattle and London, 1963; rev. edn 1965) p. 85. *
  6. Alicia Martinez, "Coleridge, Kubla Khan, and the Contingent", Concerning Poetry, 10 (1977) 59. *
  7. Bernard Breyer, "Towards an Interpretation of Kubla Khan", in English Studies in Honor of James Southall Wilson, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville, Va, 1951) pp. 286-7. *
  8. Paul Magnuson, for example, argues that "the Preface need not be accepted or rejected on the grounds of its literal truth; it can be taken seriously as Coleridge's attempt to explain one process of poetic creation and the inadequacies of that process which led to an inevitable loss.   Both the Preface and the poem have creativity as their subjects; both trace, not only the creative process, but also the loss of creativity":   Coleridge's Nightmare Poetry (Charlottesville, Va, 1974) p. 40. *
  9. Irene Chayes, "Kubla Khan and the Creative Process", SIR, 6 (1966) 1- 21.   The sentence quoted is on p. 4. *
  10. Elisabeth Schneider, "The 'Dream' of Kubla Khan", PMLA, 60 (1945) 784-801.   The findings of this paper were later incorporated into Schneider's important book, Coleridge, Opium and "Kubla Khan". *
  11. Beer, Coleridge the Visionary (cf. Eolian Harp, n. 7) p. 200. *
  12. Shaffer, "Kubla Khan" and the Fall of Jerusalem (cf. Introduction, n. 1), pp. 89-90.   Shaffer goes so far, indeed, as to say (p. 90) that "In the new secular theory of inspiration, then -- and this was its triumph -- there was no difference between the brief note on the Crewe MS of Kubla Khan and the later, more elaborate prefatory 'Vision in a Dream'". *
  13. James Hoyle, "Kubla Khan as an Elated Experience", Literature and Psychology, 16 (1966) 27-39. *
  14. Minnow among Tritons:   Mrs S.T.C.'s Letters to Thomas Poole, ed. Stephen Potter (London, 1934) p. 13. *
  15. E.H.W. Meyerstein, "Completeness of Kubla Khan", TLS, 30 Oct 1937, p. 803.   Also Humphry House, Coleridge:   The Clark Lectures 1951-52 (London, 1953; repr. 1969) p. 114:   "If Coleridge had never published his Preface, who would have thought of Kubla Khan as a fragment?" *
  16. Bate, Coleridge, p. 76. *
  17. Other critics who argue for Kubla Khan as a complete and completed poem include:   George Watson, in REL, (cf. Introduction, n. 2), esp. p. 23; S.K. Heninger, Jr, "A Jungian Reading of Kubla Khan", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 18 (1959-60) 358-67, esp. p. 367; Harold Bloom, The Visionary Company:   A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (New York, 1961; rev. edn. Ithaca, NY, and London, 1971) pp. 217-20; Kenneth Burke, "Kubla Khan, Proto-Surrealist Poem", in his Language as Symbolic Action:   Essays on Life, Literature, and Method (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif., and London, 1966) pp. 202-22, esp. pp. 217-18; Norman Mackenzie, "Kubla [253] Khan:   a Poem of Creative Agony and Loss", English Miscellany, 20 (1969) 229-40. *
  18. See, for example, Breyer (above. n. 7), pp. 285-6. *
  19. R.H. Fogle, "The Romantic Unity of Kubla Khan", College English, 13 (1951) 13-19; repr. ibid., 22 (1960-1) 112-16.   The prototype of Fogle's view may be found in N.B. Allen, "A Note on Coleridge's Kubla Khan", MLN, 57 (1942) 108-13. *
  20. Alan Purves, "Formal Structure in Kubla Khan", SIR 1 (1962) 187-91; the quotation is on p. 191. *
  21. See also Carl Woodring, "Coleridge and the Khan", EIC, 9 (1959) 361-8.   Woodring argues (p. 361) that the "Germanic idea of organic unity" (which Coleridge himself propagated in the Biographia Literaria and elsewhere) "discourages a complacent acceptance of anything imperfected".   For Woodring, Kubla Khan is "imperfect" in the sense that it is a fragment, as Coleridge claimed; but that fact does not necessarily imply that the poem lacks a total meaning.   Ironically, Kubla Khan has become the victim of the success of Coleridge's own doctrine of organic unity. *
  22. T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism:   Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England (London, 1933; repr. 1975) p. 146. *
  23. See, for example, Lowes, Road to Xanadu (cf. Introduction, n. 1), pp. 312-88 passim; Bostetter, Romantic Ventriloquists (above, n. 5), p. 84; Lefebure, Coleridge:   A Bondage of Opium (cf. Composition, n. 19), p. 258; Fruman, Coleridge:   The Damaged Archangel, esp. pp. 331, 346; Shaffer, "Kubla Khan" and the Fall of Jerusalem, pp. 89-95; and L.D. Berkoben, Coleridge's Decline as a Poet (Paris and The Hague, 1975) pp. 108-20. *
  24. Schneider, Coleridge, Opium and "Kubla Khan", pp. 252, 246-8.   John Beer comes to a similar conclusion:   "Coleridge's own assertion that the poem was unfinished was probably sincere, for his notebooks contain various notes on Kubla Khan and the Tartars which were no doubt collected with a continuation in mind.   One can continue a poem in the middle, however, as well as at the end:   and it is likely that this was his plan.   Certainly it is difficult to see how the poem could be carried on after the last stanza:   the argument is there brought to an end with overwhelming finality" (Coleridge the Visionary, p. 275). *

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Document Completed:   03/05/96