The Opium Eater and the Khan
by Heather Pringle
July 10, 2009
Sometime in the autumn of 1797 or the spring of 1798, a troubled young English poet awoke from a dream in his Somerset cottage and began composing some of the most sublime lines of poetry in the English language. Samuel Coleridge was plagued by periods of intense depression and anxiety, a malady treated in the late 18th century with a potent narcotic –laudanum. Sadly, Coleridge became addicted to the stuff—a blend of alcohol and opium—chugging down as much as two quarts a day.
Scholars have long speculated that laudanum inspired 57 lines of one of Coleridge’s greatest masterpieces, Kubla Khan. As Coleridge himself told the story, he awoke from a dream with “a distinct recollection of the whole,” and eagerly reached for his pen. The words flowed wonderfully: “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….”
Just as Coleridge was settling in, however, he was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock,” and “detained by him above an hour.” By the time the poet was finally able to shoo his unwanted visitor away, the original vision had vanished, “like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast.” Some critics have suggested that Coleridge invented this story as an excuse for failing to finish Kubla Khan, but I tend to believe the poet. Writers are constantly faced with maddening interruptions –Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door, telephone solicitors, buskers playing Stairway to Heaven repeatedly—and it’s sometimes impossible to pick up what was left off.
But I digress. I was reminded of Coleridge this week, when I read that Chinese archaeologists are now unearthing the great city of Kublai Khan—Shangdu, or as it is better known in the West, Xanadu. The news report is frustratingly short on details, as is so often the case with Chinese newspapers. But history tells us that the great Mongol leader and Chinese emperor, Kublai Khan, ordered the construction of Shangdu as a summer resort and that it was built in 1256. And it was at Shangdu that the Chinese emperor met and entertained a renowned traveler, Marco Polo—a wonderfully historic moment. The young Venetian and his party, with their fluency in foreign languages and their great knowledge of the world, impressed the canny emperor, so much so that Kublai Khan apparently made Polo his emissary.
Chinese officials plan to excavate Shangdu over a three-year period. And they have applied to UNESCO to declare Shangdu a World Heritage Site. This should be a shoe-in— Kublai Khan, Marco Polo, and Samuel Coleridge—all part of the great history of a famous city.
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