Borges, “The Dream of Coleridge”

“The Dream of Coleridge”

The lyrical fragment “Kubla Khan” (fifty-odd rhymed and irregular verses of exquisite prosody) was dreamed by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge on a summer day in 1797. Coleridge writes that he had retired to a farm near Exmoor; an indisposition obliged him to take a sedative; sleep overcame him a few moments after he had read a passage from Purchas describing the construction of a palace by Kubla Khan, the emperor who was made famous in the West by Marco Polo. In the dream the lines that had been read casually germinated and grew; the sleeping man perceived by intuition a series of visual images and, simultaneously, the words that expressed them. After a few hours he awoke with the certainty that he had composed, or received, a poem of about three hundred verses. He remembered them with singular clarity and was able to write down the fragment that is now part of his work. An unexpected visitor interrupted him and afterward he was unable to remember any more. To his no small surprise and mortification, although he still retained “some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest 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!” Coleridge wrote.

Swinburne felt that what he had been able to salvage was the supreme example of music in the English language, and that to try to analyse it would be like trying to unravel a rainbow (the metaphor belongs to John Keats). Summaries or descriptions of poetry whose principal virtue is music are useless and would only defeat our purpose; so then let us merely remember that Coleridge was given a page of undisputed splendor in a dream.

Although the case is quite extraordinary, it is not unique. In the psychological study The World of Dreams Havelock Ellis has compared it to the case of the violinist and composer, Giuseppe Tartini, who dreamed that the Devil (his slave) was playing a prodigious sonata on the violin; when the dreamer awoke he played Tritio del Diavolo from memory. Another classic example of unconscious cerebration is that of Robert Louis Stevenson; as he himself has related in his “Chapter on Dreams,” one dream gave him the plot of Olalla and another, in 1884, the plot of Jekyll and Hyde. Tartini undertook to imitate the music he had heard in a dream. Stevenson received outlines of plots from his dreams. More akin to Coleridge’s verbal inspiration is the inspiration attributed by the Venerable Bede to Caedmon {Historia ecclesiastica genlis Anglorum, IV, 24}. The case occurred at the end of the seventh century in the missionary and warring England of the Saxon kingdoms. Caedmon was an uneducated herdsman and was no longer young; one night he slipped away from a festive gathering because he knew that they would pass the harp to him and he knew also that he could not sing. He fell asleep in the stable near the horses, and in a dream someone called him by name and told him to sing. Caedmon replied that he did not know how to sing, but the voice said, “Sing about the origin of created things.” Then Caedmon recited verses he had never heard before. He did not forget them when he awoke, and was able to repeat them to the monks at the nearby monastery of Hild. Although he did not know how to read, the monks explained passages of sacred history to him and he ruminated on them like a clean animal and converted them into delightful verses. He sang about the creation of the world and man and the story of Genesis; the Exodus of the children of Israel and their entrance into the Promised Land; the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Lord; the coming of the Holy Spirit; the teaching of the Apostles; and also the terror of the Last Judgment, the horror of Infernal Punishments, the delights of Heaven, and the graces and punishments of God. He was the first sacred poet of the English nation. Bede wrote that no one equaled him because be did not learn from men, but from God. Years later he foretold the hour of his death and awaited it in sleep. Let us hope that he met his angel again.

At first glance the dream of Coleridge may appear to be less astonishing than his precursor’s. “Kubla Khan” is an admirable composition, and the principal merit of the nine-line hymn dreamed by Caedmon is that its origin was in a dream; but Coleridge was already a poet while Caedmon’s vocation was revealed to him. Nevertheless, a later event makes the marvel of the dream in which “Kubla Khan” was engendered even more mysterious. If it is true, the story of Coleridge’s dream began many centuries before Coleridge and has not yet ended.

The poet’s dream occurred in 1797 (some say 1798), and he published his account of the dream in 1816 as a gloss or a justification of the unfinished poem. Twenty years later the first western version of one of those universal histories that are so abundant in Persian literature appeared in Paris, in fragmentary form—the General History of the World by Rashid al-Din, which dates from the fourteenth century. One line reads as follows; “East of Shang-tu, Kubla Khan built a palace according to a plan that he had seen in a dream and retained in his memory.” Rashid al-Din was the Vizir of Ghazan Mahmud, a descendant of Kubla.

A thirteenth-century Mongolian emperor dreams a palace and then builds it according to his dream; an eighteenth-century English poet (who could not have known that the structure was derived from a dream) dreams a poem about the palace. In comparison with this symmetry, which operates on the souls of sleeping men and spans continents and centuries, the levitations, resurrections, and apparitions in the sacred books are not so extraordinary.

But how shall we explain it? Those who automatically reject the supernatural (I try, always, to belong to this group) will claim that the story of the two dreams is merely a coincidence, a chance delineation, like the outlines of lions or horses we sometimes see in clouds. Others will argue that the poet somehow found out that the Emperor had dreamed the palace, and then said he had dreamed the poem in order to create a splendid fiction that would also palliate or justify the truncated and rhapsodic quality of the verses. {At the beginning of the nineteenth century or at the end of the eighteenth, judged by readers of classical taste, “Kubla Khan” was much more outrageous than it is now. In 1881 Coleridge’s Erst biographer, Traill, could still write: “The extravagant dream poem ‘Kubla Khan’ is little more than a psychological curiosity.”} That conjecture seems reasonable, but it obliges us to postulate, arbitrarily, a text not identified by Sinologists in which Coleridge was able to read, before 1816, about Kubla’s dream. {See John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (1927), pp. 358, 585.} Hypotheses that transcend reason are more appealing. One such theory is that the Emperor’s soul penetrated Coleridge’s, enabling Coleridge to rebuild the destroyed palace in words that would be more lasting than marble and metal.

The first dream added a palace to reality; the second, which occurred five centuries later, a poem (or the beginning of a poem) suggested by the palace. The similarity of the dreams reveals a plan; the enormous length of time involved reveals a superhuman performer. To inquire the purpose of that immemorial or long-lived being would perhaps be as foolhardy as futile, but it seems likely that he has not yet achieved it. In 1691 Father Gerbillon of the Society of Jesus confirmed that ruins were all that was left of the palace of Kubla Khan; we know that scarcely fifty lines of the poem were salvaged. Those facts give rise to the conjecture that the series of dreams and labors has not yet ended. The first dreamer was given the vision of the palace and he built it; the second, who did not know of the other’s dream, was given the poem about the palace. If the plan does not fail, some reader of “Kubla Khan” will dream, on a night centuries removed from us, of marble or of music. This man will not know that two others also dreamed. Perhaps the series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last one who dreams will have the key.

After writing all this, I perceive—or think that I perceive—another explanation. Perhaps an archetype not yet revealed to men, an eternal object (to use Whitehead’s term), is gradually entering the world; its first manifestation was the palace; its second was the poem. Whoever compared them would have seen that they were essentially the same.

– Jorge Luis Borges

2 thoughts on “Borges, “The Dream of Coleridge”

  1. Thank you for making this available on line, as it is my absolute favorite of Borges’s essays and I no longer know where my print copy is. It is simply stunning – stunningly conceived and stunningly composed; in fact it makes me gasp every time I read the last paragraph, no matter how well I know it.

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