The Myth of Fragmentation - The Composition and Publication History of Samuel T. Coleridge's Kubla Khan
Although the exact date remains unknown, it is believed that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his poem Kubla Khan sometime in the fall of 1797 and began revisions of it in the early spring of 1798. Interestingly, although no original manuscript has been found, the Crewe Manuscript of Kubla Khan was discovered in 1934. Currently, the Crewe Manuscript is the earliest know version of Kubla Khan and is believed to have been written around 1810. After Lord Byron’s zealous response to Kubla Khan, Coleridge published the poem for the first time in May of 1816 under Byron’s publisher John Murray. While the poem was initially bound with two of his other poems: Christabel and Pains of Sleep, Kubla Khan was then published in 1828 within Coleridge’s collection Poetical Works. The final publication of Kubla Khan during Coleridge’s lifetime came in 1834, when a cumulative version of Poetical Works was introduced, which included some of Coleridge’s early, unpublished works.
When Kubla Khan was first published in 1816, contemporary reviewers noted the poem’s fragmentary nature and spoke of its nonsensical style, imagery, and content. The poem was, in a sense, viewed as not a “wholly meaningful poem, but only meaningless music.” More recent studies by scholar E. S. Shaffer asserted that Coleridge intended for Kubla Khan to be a part of his project to create “a new kind of epic poem” that was to be called The Fall of Jerusalem. Shaffer believes that Coleridge was unable to complete this epic project, and consequently, left Kubla Khan as “an epic fragment” that has bred a myth of fragmentation that has followed the poem since its initial publication.
Much as the poem itself is stylistically fragmented in both its imagery, syntax, and overall structure, its composition and publication history shares this fragmented appearance. Coleridge firmly believed that Kubla Khan was an incomplete poem, and therefore, spent his entire life continually revising and republishing it.
During the time that Coleridge composed Kubla Khan, biographer Richard Holmes documents that Coleridge “must have been producing something like fifty lines of blank verse a day, and a tremendous sense of liberation cam over him.” In the late 1790s, Coleridge resided in the Quantock Hills of Somerset near his close friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth. Holmes argues that,
it was some time during this first fortnight in October 1797 that he probably went for a long solitary walk along the coast to Lynton, exhausted from his labours, and, taken ill on his return journey, stopped off at Ash Farm above Culborne Church, where he wrote Kubla Khan.
After writing his first draft of Kubla Khan, Coleridge was unable to finish the poem to his liking, and consequently, dismissed it as an incomplete fragment. On October 14th, 1797, Coleridge wrote a letter to his friend John Thelwall,...