Willing suspension of disbelief

Kubla Khan
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kublai 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 was 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 the 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 ‘midst these dancing rocks at once and ever,
It flung up momently the sacred river!
Five miles meandering with ever 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, Kublai 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 deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome within the 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 in holy dread:
For he on honeydew hath fed,

The poem seems a loosely structured composition, the first part being an opium-induced dream . The second part deals with his regret about forgetting the dream, like what we all experience after a dream. The poet lapses into an opium-induced dream while reading about Kubla Khan’s Xanadu. He composes the first three stanzas describing the dream and in the last stanza he suddenly shifts gears to talk about a vision he had earlier about a damsel with a dulcimer singing a melodious composition.The reader is free to piece together all this in an effort to make sense out of it or is free to leave it at that .Coleridge says willing suspension of disbelief for the moment is what constitutes the poetic faith.

The term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817 with the publication of his Biographia literaria or biographical sketches of my literary life and opinions:

“In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

The abrupt switch in the poem occurs after a distraction takes place in the poet’s thoughts about the dream trying to remember its contents. The distraction comes in the form of an hour’s interruption by the visit of a certain Porlack. Who is Porlack? A visitor who interrupts his efforts to remember the opium dream bringing him back to the workaday world and robs him of the completeness of the dream .

Two extended metaphors work in the poem ,loosely connected with each other. The first metaphor is about a pleasure dome commanded to be built by Kublai Khan.The metaphor is a self-contained piece of fiction maintaining a semblance of a workaday world’s logic. But it is loosely structured, created in the haze of an opium-induced dream . The pleasure dome has all the elements of mystery and exoticism.

Alph , the sacred river runs through caverns measureles to man
down to a sunless sea
gardens bright with sinuous rills
incense-bearing tree
romantic chasm
savage place
woman waiting for her demon lover
huge fountains etc.

We have to stretch our suspension of disbelief a little more when we come to the bit about how Kubla Khan starts hearing prophesies of war from ancient voices. Amid all this tumult,says the poet, almost with the tongue in cheek. The internal consistency of the dream need not be questioned . Dreams have no logic like what we have in real life and it is our memory of a dream that imposes a logical framework linking the individual elements to the total meaning. Unfortunately Porlack comes and interrupts the poet’s recollection of the dream and what is resumed after an hour is bound to be incoherent and out of piece with the earlier account of the dream.

But in the last stanza the poet makes a brave attempt to link the post-Porlack thoughts with the earlier recollections of the dream. Hence a damsel with a dulcimer rises up to the surface and what had happened earlier in the dream is linked to these thoughts.Her music is such as to enable a creation of a xanadu and if only he could hear her melody ! The poet finds it difficult to suspend his own disbelief.

Some memorable usages :

“incense-bearing tree”- ( frankincense and myrrh , referred to in the Bible)

“romantic chasm” that slanted down the green hill
(romantic chasm sounds sarcastic in the sense of a chasm between lovers that increases their passion but here romantic does not mean loverly distance but something like what we mean by romantic poetry)

“as if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing”(earth in thick fast pants sounds hip! but pants mean not trousers but only long measured breaths)

“huge fragments vaulted like resounding hall”
chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail…

“For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise!”

Indeed the poet hath fed on honey-dew and drunk the milk of Paradise.

The second extended metaphor is a self-contained vision of a damsel with her dulcimer singing symphony and song . The only connection with the first metaphor( of the Xanadu dream) is the poet’s wish to create a similar paradise in the air if only he could hear her song. Both the extended metaphors have a running logic within them, the logic of a dream in the first metaphor and that of a vision in the second one.But when we see the dreamer hath fed on honeydew and drunk the milk of paradise , our disbelief is easily suspended and poetic faith restored.