Dreams of the emperor’s palace

One day in October 1797, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge took a few grains of laudanum an opium-based extract used as medicine – and sat down to read Purchas His Pilgrimage, a classical collection of travelers’ tales. One of the most famous entries in the book was Marco Polo’s description of the palace of Kublai Khan at Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. In Xanadu,” Polo remembered, “did Cublai Can build a stately palace, encompassing sixteen miles of plain ground with a wall, wherein are fertile meadows, pleasant springs, delightful streams, and all sorts of beast and chase and game, and in the middle thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place.” Soon Coleridge fell asleep, and in his sleep he had a vision of Kublai Khan’s palace. It was a sublime apparition, Coleridge explained, which inspired both longing and dread:

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. …

A savage place! As holy and enchanted
as a’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
by woman wailing for her demon lover. …

A story missing from the collection which Purchas compiled is the account of Kublai Khan’s palace written by the Persian fourteenth-century historian Rashid-al-Din Hamadani. The emperor of China, Rashid-al-Din explained in his version of the story, had laid down to sleep and when he woke up the following morning he told his courtiers about a magnificent palace he had seen in his dream. He promptly instructed his architects to set to work and before long the palace at Shangdu was completed.

Curiously, the palace first appeared in a dream, both to Coleridge and to Kublai Khan himself, and even more curiously, Coleridge could not have read Rashid-al-Din’s account since it was translated into European languages long after he wrote his poem. The Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges has written about this strange coincidence. It is the palace we see in our dreams which is real and eternal, Borges concluded, whereas the palaces which from time to time are created here on earth only are its ephemeral copies.

External links:

Librivox, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”

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