Xanadu, a Real Realm that Became Fantasy
This fantastic land is torn between the real and the reverie, and inspired by a hyper-poetic hallucination.
Within the category of fantastic realms, Xanadu is one of the most exuberant. It belongs to both the historic world and to the opium fuelled reverie of Samuel Coleridge, who infused it with the fantasy quality it now withholds. As Borges observed once, there is a clear liaison between English poets and the Oneiric Universe.
Xanadu was the summer capital of the Mongol Empire of Kublai Kahn, the last great Khan and emperor of the first Chinese Dynasty of the XIII century. It is an established belief that the palace was half the size of the Forbidden City of Peking, and its beauty and opulence surpassed what the world had seen until then. It was due to Marco Polo’s tales that the city became synonymous with magnificence and luxury and so it was that the legend arrived in the poet’s hands.
According to Coleridge, his poem “Kubla Khan”, or “A vision in a dream, a fragment”, was composed during a laudanum-induced dream. Upon awakening he grabbed his pen, ink and paper and wrote 54 lines of the poem. He retells that at that moment he was interrupted by someone knocking on his door, and when he returned to his writing he couldn’t recall with clarity the lines that followed. “All the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! Without the after restoration of the latter!”, he wrote.
But the depiction of Xanadu is one of the most alchemical of constructions:
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.
Xanadu’s dome, as the archetype for the most lucid of dreams, is made of music and witchcraft. Its alchemical character (“It was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”) makes it a realm both immaculate and obscure at once. It belongs to two worlds: that pertaining to the history of the world, of which only its walls remain (declared by UNESCO as World Heritage), and to the history of imagination, from which Xanadu rises as a pleasure dome made out of words and music; ice and fire; darkness and light.
Whoever listens to its melody –– or reads the poem out loud-will –– will see erected before him the pleasure dome that the magnanimous and insane Kubla Khan conjured.
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