One night in October, 1797, the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from an opium-influenced dream. Before he nodded off, he’d been reading a description of Shangdu–aka Xanadu–a city built by Mongol Emporer Kubla Khan as the his summer residence. Coleridge’s dream was so vivid that he immediately set quill to parchment to transform his inspiration into a poem.
Entitled, “Kubla Khan,” it’s only 54 lines long. Dense, but delightful, it is deservedly famous. Read it here.
The first five lines are among the most well-known in English-language poetry:
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.
From there, he describes the landscape and its wonders, including a chasm, a fountain, and the river–“five miles meandering with a mazy motion”–that flows to the sea. The imagery is fantastic, the language sensational, and the impression otherwordly, yet lucid.
The tension builds, and we are warned of imminent disaster:
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
Soon after, the second stanza ends, returning to the poem’s initial image, the pleasure dome:
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
And there, just as we are presented with this fanciful place of opposites in intriguing coexistence, there is a break in the poem, in tone and content. It was here that a knock came at Coleridge’s door and, against his better judgment, he left his writing desk to answer. It was nobody important and nothing he couldn’t have lived without, but when he returned to the poem, the images were gone, the next lines forgotten. The spell had been shattered, and he never recovered it.
Hence, the final stanza begins:
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
Whereas up til now the poem had been immersing us in the incredible features of an outlandish place, now it yanks us out, and has us regard it–and the poem itself–from without. Nowadays, we describe such self-reference as “meta.” Indeed, this feature lends the piece a very modern flavor.
Coleridge’s regret is palpable as he complains, “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and song,” but alas, it is not to be, and he concludes with:
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
It’s easy to read the “honey-dew” or “milk of Paradise” as a cipher for opium, but I’m pretty sure scholars would disagree. Anyway, I’ve always taken the piece, and the embedded drama of its composition, as a cautionary tale. Coleridge describes a close encounter with the divine, the transcendent, or the mystical, which is then derailed by the mundane due to a poor personal choice. Expressed as a rule: prioritize your own enrapturement over social expectations. After all, society will always be there, waiting for you, when you come down. No need to kill the buzz; it’ll wear off on its own.
My writing process is all about getting into a zone, where thoughts and words just flow. It can be tricky to get there, and sometimes days will go by where I try as hard as I can but never arrive. Once in it, I can be shaken out in an instant by, well, a knock on the door. Or the phone ringing, or someone talking to me. Too often, when I turn back to the screen or the notebook, it’s gone. The zone has evaporated, and I’m suddenly tongue-tied, with whatever picture was in my head, poof! gone.
Since 2015–during which time I’ve churned out six books, over 100 essays, and a bunch of social media posts–I did my best writing at a cabin in northern California. The key: I was alone there, except for a cat, which is optimum. When I sat down to compose, I had no concerns about being interrupted. I was on twenty half-wooded acres off of an unpaved road. There, I could go into the zone for hours and hours, and after several days, the cumulative effect was of real depth.
That property was hit by a fire in 2020, and the cat was blinded and injured and had to be put down. There’s no cabin to go back to. The last time I got to write there was 2019, and I haven’t had such a productive experience since. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a spot that good again. As far as my writing life goes, I might now be on the other side of an unwanted break in flow, unable to return to a particularly rich reverie.
Only time will tell.