Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is one of the most famous, and most frequently reprinted, poems of the past two hundred years. (Well, 212 to be exact, but close enough). By ranking it 40th on the Countdown, I hope I’m not disrespecting Coleridge. At times I’m pretty sure I could turn the Countdown on its head and go from 1 to 64 without noticing the difference; the poems are all that good.
Nevertheless, I am not including anything on this Countdown just because it’s historically important and nine out of every ten English professors would expect to see it here. “Kubla Khan” is not just famous for being famous. It’s a great achievement in language, carried out with the maximum possible panache.
“Kubla Khan,” as is apparent a few lines in, lies in the realm of fantasy literature. There was a historical Kubla Khan, of course. Wikipedia, which knoweth all things, situates Kubla (or “Kublai” Khan) as the Mongol emperor of China who ruled, at one point in the 1200s, one-fifth of the inhabited globe. For all that, he would have made little mark on Western culture. But Kubla Khan was the emperor who met Marco Polo – and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Kubla of the poem has almost exactly zero to do with the historical Kubla, to say nothing of the fact that if you tried to get on a first-name basis with Kublai Khan, he would probably have had you disemboweled. Coleridge’s speaker imagines a compound that has become the type of all crazy paranoid rulers’ private residences. “Xanadu” was the name that Orson Welles used for the obscenely excessive Kane estate in Citizen Kane. Michael Jackson had Neverland, Elvis had Graceland, Nixon had San Clemente, William Randolph Hearst (the model for Kane) had San Simeon.
And every such “pleasure dome,” it goes without saying, is built on a “romantic chasm” which is quite its opposite. You cannot have the greatest artificial pleasure except by contrast with the greatest natural dark energy. Opposites clash in “Kubla Khan” in a style reached only by great movie epics and apocalyptic graphic novels.
And the whole is done in mellifluous language at a breakneck pace. One of the things I admire greatly in the best poetry, and that I think is indispensable from artistic greatness, is energy (what Coleridge’s friend William Hazlitt called “Gusto”). “Kubla Khan” has energy to spare, and that energy has fueled any number of later compositions in language and in stone.