Culture Magazine

“Kubla Khan” – A Brief Anatomy

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I don’t know how many times I’ve mentioned my work on “Kubla Khan” in one context or another and then gone on to cite either of both of my 1985 paper in Language and Style or my 2003 paper in PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. And when I do that I always think to myself, but they’re so long and detailed, no one is ever going to read the and if they do, they’re just going to skip the detail and miss the point. So, I’ve decided to write a relatively brief paper in which I pick which details to skip in hopes of making the point more accessible.
This paper is thus without argument. It is pure assertion. If you want argument you’ll have to go to those earlier papers, preferably “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind, long though it is. Not only is this paper pure assertion, but I do much of the assertion with diagrams (taken from the 2003 paper). The diagrams aren’t simply illustrations of points made in prose. They are my primary mode of thought and description.
This has an interesting and, I believe, very important consequence. It makes it easy to distinguish my object language, to borrow a term from mathematical logic, and my metalanguage. The object language is the language used to characterize the domain of interest, in this case, the poem “Kubla Khan.” The metalanguage is the language used to manipulate the object language. Those diagrams are the core of my object language. As such they are readily distinguishable from the metalanguage I use to manipulate them.
When your object language is dominated by ordinary language there is a danger of confusing object – in this case the poem “Kubla Khan” – and metalanguage. When that happens it is impossible to know what you’re talking about.
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I begin with the text of “Kubla Khan.” Then I take two passes through the poem, each using a different set of diagrammatic conventions to get at different aspects of the poem. Out of homage to the structuralists, Roman Jakobson in particular, one might think of that first pass as an examination of the poem’s (global) syntagmatic structure while the second pass looks at its (global) paradigmatic structure. Then I move outside the poem to consider Coleridge’s preface as a narrative embodying an abstract account of Paradise in the Proustian vein. I conclude with some remarks on the importance of description and the role of descriptive literary criticism in the human sciences.
“Kubla Khan” – The Text
In Xanadu did Kubla KhanA stately pleasure-dome decree:Where Alph, the sacred river, ranThrough caverns meaureless to man     Down to a sunless sea. (5)So twice five miles of fertile groundWith 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, (10)Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slantedDown the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!A savage place! as holy and enchantedAs e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted (15)By woman wailing for her demon lover!And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seethingAs if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,A mighty fountain momently was forced:Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst (20)Huge fragements vaulted like rebounding hail,Of chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and everIt flung up momently the sacred river.Five miles meandering with a mazy motion (25)Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,Then reached the caverns endless to man,And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from farAncestral voices prophesying war! (30)
     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, (35)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, (40)     Singing of Mount Abora.     Could I revive within me     Her symphony and song,     To such a deep delight ‘twould win meThat with music loud and long, (45)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! (50)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. (54)
Three in Three
While the poem has been published with two (as above), three, and four stanzas, a cursory examination reveals it to consist of two movements. The first consists of 36 lines; is set in an exotic Orientalist landscape and has only four personal pronouns. The second, which has only eighteen lines; has no clear physical locus, but consists of a sequence of mental acts (remembering, hypothecating, imagining) and has sixteen personal pronouns. Despite these differences, both movements have the same overall structure.
While discovering these structure trees took care and attention to detail, it wasn’t rocket science. Much of the structure falls out of line-end punctuation, where periods dominate a colon (where present), colons (where present) dominate semicolons, and semicolons dominate commas. That will get you most of the tree structure, especially in the first movement.
Here’s the first movement:
1 tree
Note first of all the red-colored tree branches. The movement consists of three components (which are sometimes printed as separate stanzas); the middle of those in turn consists of three components; and the middle of those, again, has three components. Kubla Khan is introduced into the poem in the first line and his decree dominants the first 12 lines of the poem. The fountain appears in the middle (ll. 17-24) of the middle of the middle of first movement; it provides the agency that dominates that section of the poem. Neither Kubla nor the fountain is directly present in the last six lines of the first movement, which ends with the emblematic line: “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”
Now, a cautionary note. The great virtue of such diagrams is that you can grasp them in a single glance and, by scanning the lines and points, examine the structure as though it were outside of time. But that is not how language works. We encounter words one after another. The nested triples that are so obvious in diagrammatic view are invisible word after word, with no word proclaiming, “we have reached the middle now, time to go back.” The green arrow in the following diagram marks the course of actual reading:
by STC4blues, on Flickr"> by STC4blues, on Flickr"> by STC4blues, on Flickr">1 tree alt=" />" />" height="500" src="" />
As the second movement is only half as long as the first, the tree structure is not so richly developed. But the same nested triples are evident:
2 tree
This movement opens with an imaginary damsel, ends in Paradise and smack in the middle of the middle of the middle we have a single line: “That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!” That is a repetition of the line that ended the first movement, albeit in a different emotional register.
Even the most casual reader will notice that that emblem – the dome and the caves – is repeated from the end of the first movement into the middle of the second movement. What this structural analysis and description reveals is that it is not just more or less in the middle, but that it is in the exact structural middle. Thus we have the propositions about the formal “envelope” of the poem:
1). The first movement ends with an emblem conjoining the pleasure dome and the caves of ice; this emblem reappears in the second movement at its structural center.
2). Structurally, as the fountain is to the first movement, so the emblem is to the second.
3). Structurally, as the emblem is to the first movement, so “drunk the milk of Paradise” is to the second movement.
These are descriptive statements about the formal structure of “Kubla Khan”, but they by no means exhaust that formal structure. They characterize something that is objectively true of the poem. As such, they must be explained. What is the nature of the mental mechanisms at work?
Composing Mental Spaces
Let us return to the beginning of the poem. It opens with Kubla’s decree, which results in the construction of a pleasure dome, whatever that is. This is a visuo-spatial world dominated by Kubla’s act of will. With line 13 we have an abrupt change of tone and physical setting. We are now in an auditory world – the woman’s wail, the sound of the fountain, ancestral voices – that is dominated by emotional expression and by temporal motion. Let us adopt the term “mental space” (from cognitive linguistics) for these two components of the poem’s imaginary world.
It is important to remember that, unlike the diagrams, the mental spaces themselves are dynamic objects. The diagrams are static, one can run one’s eyes over all points in a diagram in any convenient order; one can grasp its shape in a glance. Don’t be fooled into thinking that mental spaces have the same physical characteristics as these diagrams depicting them.
The two mental spaces for the first two components are the first movement are depicted at the top of the figure below, one in yellow-orange and the other in light blue:
At the bottom we have a third mental space in gray. It depicts the mental space of the third of the three main components of the first movement. Lines 31 and 32 are: “The shadow of the dome of pleasure / floated midway on the waves.” Objects from the two dominant spaces are now being brought into relation with one another in some third space. If you wish, you can think of this as a kind of blending, but I don’t see that that tells us anything in this context.
Lines 33 and 34 continue the conjunction: “Where was heard the mingled measure / From the fountain and the caves.”
mingled measure
Coleridge has thus identified an imaginary point in this imaginary landscape, namely a point that is (conceptually) equidistant from the paraphernalia appropriate to these two mental spaces:
He draws the conjunction tighter in the final two lines, where line 35 characterizes the nature of the two agencies – miracle vs. device – and line 36, the emblem, characterizes the product of those two agencies – pleasure-dome vs. caves of ice:
emblemIt is perhaps a bit odd that ice caves end up as the emblem of that mental space dominated by that roiling, boiling fountain, but there is are two obvious semantic threads linking them. The fountain comes from beneath the ground, that is, from caves; and the fountain consists of water, of which ice is a form.
In a different world one could almost imagine the poem ending at this point. With the opposites reconciled – if that’s what you want to call it – what else has the poem to do? But in this, the real world, the poem has another movement, albeit in a different semantic register, a different set of mental spaces. The following diagram depicts the mental space structure for the whole poem. I have condensed the movement we’ve just been through into the top of the diagram:
Let us skip the damsel with a dulcimer (ll. 27-41) and pick up the second movement at the hypothetical: “Could I revive within me….” When we get to the middle of the middle, to line 47, Coleridge introduces the emblem into the poem and thus weaves those two mental spaces – visual/voluntary, auditory/expressive – into the poem from that point on. The (hypothetically) flashing eyes of the inspired poet pick up the imagery of the sunny dome while his floating hair picks up the imagery of the waters flowing from the fountain. The poem concludes with the honey dew melon becoming a vessel of the powers formerly lodged in the sunny dome and the mild of Paradise standing in for the floating waters. The two movements are now complete.
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There is much more to my analytic and descriptive treatment of the poem. In particular, I have quite a bit to say about sound structure, which IS NOT a matter of mere ornamentation hung on the “outside” of the poem. You can find those details in “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind. I now want to switch gears and move outside the poem proper, to the preface and to a brief jotting.
Paradise Lost
“Kubla Khan” ends with the word “Paradise” – which, incidentally, rhymes with “ice”, the word that concludes the first movement. What sort of concept is “paradise”?
Considered as an ordinary designation for a place it would be concrete. Places have identifying features and landmarks, which may change from one season to another, and are located at some specific place in the world; there are paths that will take you from one place to another. Timbuktu is such a place, as is Central Park (in New York City), Death Valley, and even “Paradise Bar & Grill.” But Paradise, for a Christian man, such as Coleridge was, is no ordinary place; nor would it be an ordinary place for a man well schooled in the literatures of travel, exploration, and ancient and exotic worlds, which Coleridge was as well. For such a man Paradise would, I submit, have an abstract quality.
The Christian Paradise is abstract, as is its close kin, the Coleridgean Paradise. Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) theory of cognitive metaphor is perhaps the best-known theory of abstract meanings. But it is not obvious to me just how it could be employed to account for the abstractness of this Paradise. Another mechanism, that of narrative, seems more plausible to me. Paradise is abstract because it plays a certain role in a story that has certain characteristics. Mark Turner (1996) has stressed the importance of story in what he calls parable, but my own views on this come from the late David Hays (1973, 1976, 1981) who propounded his view more than two decades before Turner.
Hays proposed metalingual definition as a mechanism linking a story to a concept defined by that story. Thus we might define charity, the definiendum, as being when someone does something nice for someone else without thought of reward, the definiens. The definiens is a story whose pattern gives meaning to the definiendum. Charity is not any one element in the story, but rather inheres in the set of relationships between all the elements in that story. Any story which matches the pattern of the definiens qualifies as an example of charity. It is in this sense, I submit, that Coleridge’s use of “Paradise” at the end of “Kubla Khan” is abstract. But what is the story that encompasses the abstract meaning?
Let us consider a well known fragment from Coleridge’s Anima Poetae, one in which Coleridge talks of journeying to Paradise in a dream:
If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke—Ay! and what then?
Coleridge’s poignant closing remark aside, it is the flower that is the remarkable element in this story. We are told that the flower has been given in pledge that one’s soul really had been to Paradise. That would be no less so if, upon awakening, there were no flower in one’s hand. One could still remember the dream, the sign proclaiming “Paradise Acres: Retire in Grace,” and the flower was one that was a gift from the sales agent. But this paradise is a rather poor imitation of the real thing and would not likely inspire regret for no longer being there. It is the materialization of the flower that proclaims Coleridge’s Paradise to be the Real Thing. Physical things do not enter the world through dream portals.
Coleridge’s little vignette, with its magical flower, is itself a story that exemplifies the abstract aspect of Paradise. This is a Proustian paradise known to be true precisely because one is no longer there. The specification of this paradise lies in the relationships between the elements in the story, not in any one element in the story.
This little tale has five components:
1. Person falls asleep.2. Person has a dream in which he goes to Paradise and is given a flower.3. Person awakens from sleep.4. Person finds that self-same flower in his pillow.5. Person mutters, “Aye, and what then?”
Now let us consider a second story. In this story a man becomes intoxicated with opium and falls into a reverie. In this reverie images start appearing before him in great profusion and wonder, one after the other. It is a vision of Paradise. Alas, the man is interrupted on some mundane matter and the vision dissipates. He remembers a few images and scribbles them down as he can. Concerning the other images and ideas, he observed that they “had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!” This story, of course, is a much-truncated version of the story Coleridge used as a preface for “Kubla Khan.” But it does exhibit the same general pattern as the fragment and “Kubla Khan” itself:
1. Person takes opium and falls into a reverie.2. Person has a vision of an exotic paradisiacal place.3. Person is interrupted and the vision dissipates.4. Person scribbles a handful of lines of poetry about that paradisiacal place.5. Person says “alas!”
What do we make of this correspondence? Though I rejected cognitive metaphor at the outset, this set of parallels might prompt some to reconsider it. I do not believe, however, that these parallel stories constitute a proper metaphor mapping. Metaphor mappings are conventionalized correspondences that are called on routinely by many speakers of the language. We have no reason to assert such a conventionalized correspondence between these two stories. Do we routinely talk of flowers and Paradise in the manner of the fragment? However obvious these correspondences are when pointed out, they have not been conventionalized. Cognitive metaphor theory does not account for them.
In “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind I argue that the poem itself exhibits this same pattern. I find that argument a bit strained, interesting, but strained; and so I have omitted it from this brief anatomy. Yet if that argument holds, then we have three cases where Coleridge exhibited the same movement of mind, albeit in different dress: “Kubla Khan”, its preface, and a brief jotting.
Description and Explanation
As I’ve said, this account of “Kubla Khan” is descriptive. It doesn’t tell you or even attempt to tell you want the poem means. But it doesn’t neglect meaning, not at all. My remarks about mental spaces are all about meaning, about how meanings are deployed in the poem. But, beyond the use of general characterizations – visual vs. auditory, space vs. time, will vs. expression – there is no search form things “hidden” beneath the “surface” of them.
It’s not that I don’t believe such things exist. I do. But I don’t know what they are or how they work. I speculate about these matters in the latter third of the embodied mind paper, for they are important. In fact, they are ultimately why I have undertaken the descriptive work.
The poem, “Kubla Khan” is the product of mental mechanisms, of a mind in motion. That is what I want to understand, that mind and its motions. Given that the text of the poem is a product of that machine, it seems plausible that we can discern something of the workings of that machine by studying that text, with care, and in detail. If, in our hunger for meaning, we rush beneath the surface in search of hidden meanings, then we’ve tossed away our best clues to the nature of the mechanism. As John Barth has said, the key to the treasure is the treasure. Treat it with care.
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Let me close with the final paragraphs from the 2003 embodiment paper:
My analytic techniques were inspired by classical structuralism – specifically, the linguistics and poetics of Roman Jakobson and the symbolic anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss – and by more recent developments in cognitive linguistics. While classical structuralism did have a moment of play in literary studies, it was quickly passed over or subsumed and in various semiotic, deconstructive and post-structural systems of fantastic conformations in dizzying profusion. But those older methods, in all their naiveté, have more to tell us – as, for example, they have told Mary Douglas in her examination of Leviticus as Literature. By combining that old structuralism with cognitive science and neurobiology we should have a rich set of analytic tools at our disposal.
The analyses we produce by these methods will, however, provide cognitive and neural theorists with problems they must address, just as my analysis of “Kubla Khan” pointed to issues that I have addressed in a provisional way. Those analyses may well play a critical role in helping this new psychology to develop in a coherent and comprehensive way. For literary texts – and other art forms as well – call on the full range of human capacities for perception, thought, feeling, desire, and even action. One cannot understand literary texts by focusing on just this or that component of human experience and capacity.
But that is how our intellectual disciplines are organized, in bits and pieces. And for good reason. Human life is extraordinarily complex. Intellectual specialization is necessary to cope with the manifold details that must be observed, ordered, and interpreted if our understanding is to deepen. Specialization cannot be avoided. Yet for much of my career I have listened to people bemoan the deleterious effects of specialization, the production of more and more knowledge about less and less. Our libraries are thus replete with earnest essays and books storming the breech between the sciences and the arts and humanities. These sorties generate much sound and fury, but have left few passable bridges behind. I acknowledge that specialization has grave dangers, that science needs a richer account of human life, and that these dangers threaten to turn our intellectual progress into a series of unsatisfying side-trips. But good intentions and hard work will not fix this problem, for it is not primarily one of professional perversion, whether willful or inadvertent
The problem is that we do not have a way of bringing these disparate specialties to bear on one another. The study of literature and the arts is one way to provide a focal point for such integration. But literary analysis can serve in this way only if it is conducted in terms commensurate with these other disciplines. We must learn enough from these new psychologies so that we can ensure that will happen. Thus informed we can create a body of detailed textual analysis that others can use in formulating their research agenda. Any model of the human mind, or some aspect of it, must be consistent with literary analysis. A linguistics of sentences that cannot account for the sentences of “Kubla Khan,” and for the entire discourse as well, is not an adequate linguistics. A neuroscience of feeling that cannot account for our wonder and joy in “Kubla Khan” is not an adequate neuroscience. If we do our work well, investigators in neighboring disciplines will be more fruitful in theirs.
We need to know: What is the nature of the human mind such that it continually inquires into its own nature, into its place in the world? What is the nature of a poem such that it stills, for the moment, such questioning? A science that fails to address such questions may indeed be a science, but it will not be profoundly of man. As humanists it is our responsibility to see that the new sciences of man are adequate to these questions.

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Hays, D. G. (1973). "The Meaning of a Term is a Function of the Theory in Which It Occurs." SIGLASH Newsletter 6: 8-11.Hays, D. G. (1976). On Alienation: An Essay in the Psycholinguistics of Science. Theories of Alienation. R. R. Geyer and D. R. Scheitzer. Leiden, Martinus Nijhoff: 169-187.Hays, D. G. (1981). Cognitive Structures. New Haven, HRAF Press.Turner, M. (1996). The Literary Mind. New York, Oxford University Press.Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press.

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