Exercise: Kubla Khan interpreted through imagery (page 60)

The brief is to chose a poem and then to interpret it through photographs. I have chosen a poem from the English Romantic movement; Kubla Khan, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published in 1816.

Kubla Khan

Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1816

Kubla Khan was composed one evening after Coleridge had fallen asleep after taking opium and dreamed the entire poem. He used opium regularly and Kubla Khan was written while he was under its influence. Coleridge liked to consider himself a dreamer whose work was drug induced. After waking from his dream, Coleridge immediately started to write down the poem as he had dreamed it word for word. Unfortunately he was disturbed for an hour and when he retuned to his writing he found that he had forgotten the remainder of the poem.

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.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With 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,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

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,
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,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
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!
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.

Read the poem a few times and make a note of the feelings and ideas it promotes and the mental images it raises in your mind.

Where to start with Kubla Khan? I have always ‘felt’ this poem more than I have understood the words. It conjures up images of nature, cultivated gardens, opposites (sunny domes and caves of ice) streams, shadows, light and dark, dreams, fantasies, and unreal landscapes all ‘contained’ within the expanse of palace walls. It is a bit exotic and actually a bit ‘post modern’ in its fragmentary and experimental vibe. And another thing, it is without doubt, green.

How I wanted to interpret the poem visually

The poem relies very much on imagery. We learn of fertile ground, walls and towers, gardens bright, trees and greenery, sunny spots and shadows. I therefore wanted my photographs to include some of these motifs. I knew that taking photographs in my own garden was not suitable because this did not reflect the stately, walled and manicured garden that the poem’s imagery suggests. I needed a background that was more in keeping with the splendour and opulence that I had in mind. I also wanted a sunny day to capture the light and shadows specifically mentioned in the poem.

I cannot divorce the poem from the circumstances that led to its composition. I always think of rich fertile gardens, vivid colours alongside dreamy and hazy hues as a result of sleepiness and images distorted by the effects of opium. I imagine tenuous glimpses of reality, fading away to nothing to signify the lines and stanzas that were forgotten after Coleridge was interrupted.

I knew of a garden nearby; one belonging to a stately home and thought it would be perfect to capture images that I could use for this brief. In contrast to my own garden, there had to be fountains, statues, gates and formal planting. I spent an afternoon taking images with the intention that I would ‘double expose’ them post camera. I wanted a juxtaposition of different element within the garden and a sense of disorientation with a chaotic and disordered feel. I wanted to create dreamy, out of focus images juxtaposing different scenes to portray Coleridge’s thoughts while not being fully conscious and aware of reality. I wanted the final image to represent the fading of the memory. It had to have no visibly recognisable subject but be in keeping with the previous images in style, colour and mood.


Overall  am delighted with how these images represent my interpretation of the feeling generated by Kubla Khan. I thoroughly enjoyed the project and have learned about using images as way of interpreting subjects in ways other than obvious and literal.


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