By Dennis Mellersh
The creative process in poetry is often associated (perhaps more than other creative disciplines) with the factors of mood, setting, and inspiration, as being key ingredients in originality and the poetic imagination
Break the spell cast by any of these creative stimulants to the imagination, and further efforts at poetic creation will be fruitless.
Or so it is thought.
The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834), one of the founders of the Romantic Movement in English poetry, shares an anecdote about the poetic imagination and poetic creation in the prefatory note to his famous poem, Kubla Khan.
Coleridge relates that due to not feeling well, he took an anodyne (likely laudanum)* which had been prescribed for him, and was reading a book about “the Khan Kubla” when he fell into a profound sleep “at least of the external senses” of about three hours.
He said that “during which time he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines…”
He then woke up, and it appearing “to himself, to have a distinct recollection of the whole” began to transcribe these lines. Unfortunately, Coleridge says, someone came to his door and then visited with for more than an hour.
Then, “upon his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise, and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet with the exception of some eight or ten 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…”
What Coleridge did manage to write down are the 54 lines of the poem as we know it today.
It might not be the original vision he had, but the poem is nevertheless considered one of the great achievements in poetic imagination.
You might remember the poem from school – following are the first five lines of Kubla Khan:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns, measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea…”
And two lines further along:
“It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice!”
*Coleridge suffered from a variety of physical health issues and also anxiety and depression. He was known to be addicted to Laudanum (a tincture of opium) which was frequently prescribed by physicians in his time