More than two centuries after Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from a drug-induced daydream – if the story is to be believed completely – to write his great poem Kubla Khan, the only version of the work by the hand of the writer came back around the corner. southwest England that inspired him.
The unique manuscript is the centerpiece of a new exhibition on Coleridge at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton, close to the hills and valleys he and William Wordsworth roamed in the late 18th century.
Pundits hailed it as a chance to re-examine the story behind the poem, which has become almost as famous as the play itself, and a reminder of the fundamental role Somerset played in the Romantic movement, which is overshadowed by the impact of the Lake District. had on Wordsworth.
Alexandra Ault, senior curator at the British Library who oversees the loan of the manuscript, said she was delighted to see it on display in Somerset.
“It’s so amazing,” she said. “It is the only known Kubla Khan manuscript written in Coleridge’s hand, but it does much more than that. It raises as many questions as it answers. Bringing it to Somerset makes us think of Coleridge and ask questions about him and the poem.
In the late 18th century, Coleridge lived for three years in a mouse- and draft-infested cottage at Nether Stowey, north of Taunton, where he wrote some of his most famous poems, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and worked with Wordsworth. on their collection of poetry Lyrical Ballads.
According to Coleridge, Kubla Khan was created on a farm in the Somerset hamlet of Culbone on the seaward slopes of Exmoor in the autumn of 1797. He claimed he was on one of his long treks when he had stomach ache.
Resting on a farm, he says he took two grains of opium and fell into a reverie in which the fantastic world of Xanadu – the “majestic dome of pleasure”, the “caverns without measure for man” – has emerged.
He woke up and started writing the poem but was interrupted by “someone on business from Porlock” [a town on the Somerset coast]which broke his flow, leaving him only a “fragment” of the world that had appeared to him.
Ault said the Taunton exhibit was a chance to revisit that history. “Did he really fall asleep and was he really woken up by someone from Porlock or was he planning this when the poem was later published [in 1816] to make it all more fantastic?
“We don’t really know when Coleridge first wrote Kubla Khan. We don’t have the first drafts. What we have is this clean copy. Let’s not accept Coleridge’s story, let’s look again.
Ault said this manuscript – written in iron gall ink on blue stationery – may have been written many years later for a collector in Gloucestershire who had it in his possession around 1804. The manuscript has was sold after his death and was acquired by the British Library in 1962.
Tom Mayberry, chief executive of the South West Heritage Trust, said it was a vivid reminder of an extraordinary era in English literature.
“This was the moment when Coleridge and Wordsworth gave a new voice to English poetry. In Lyrical Ballads they created one of the cornerstones of English Romantic literature, and Kubla Khan stands out as the strangest and most wonderful of all the poems to emerge from this era in Somerset.
Other treasures on display in Taunton include a mahogany writing table used by Coleridge, a Bible from which he preached at the local Unitarian Chapel and a rare edition of Lyrical Ballads.
“Somerset may be forgotten in this history of romantic poets,” Mayberry said. “Clearly for Wordsworth the Lake District was deep, but what he and Coleridge achieved in Somerset was a turning point in their lives and in literature.”
This is the last chance to see Kubla Khan’s manuscript for a while. The blue paper loses its color so after its stay in Somerset it will be returned to the British Library and rested away from public view.