More than two centuries after Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from a drug-addled reverie – if the story is to be totally believed – to pen his great poem Kubla Khan, the only version of the work in the writer’s own hand has returned to the corner of south-west 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 at the end of the 18th century.
Experts hailed it as a chance to re-examine the story behind the poem, which has become almost as famous as the piece 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, a lead curator at the British Library who is supervising the loan of the manuscript, said she was excited to see it on display in Somerset.
“It’s so amazing,” she said. “This is the only known manuscript of Kubla Khan written in Coleridge’s hand, but it does so much more than that. It raises as many questions as it answers. Bringing it to Somerset makes us think about Coleridge again and ask questions about him and the poem.”
At the end of the 18th century, Coleridge lived for three years at in a draughty, mouse-infested cottage in Nether Stowey, north of Taunton, where he wrote some of his most renowned 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 in a farmhouse 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 rambles when he suffered an upset stomach.
Resting in a farmhouse, he said he took two grains of opium and fell into a reverie during which the fantastical world of Xanadu – the “stately pleasure dome”, the “caverns measureless to man” – emerged.
He woke up and began writing the poem down but was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock” [a town on the Somerset coast]which broke his flow, leaving him with only a “fragment” of the world that had appeared to him.
Ault said the Taunton exhibition was a chance to revisit this story. “Did he really fall asleep and was he really woken up by someone from Porlock or did he cook this up when the poem was published later [in 1816] on to make it all seem more fantastical?
“We don’t really know when Coleridge first penned Kubla Khan. We don’t have the first drafts. What we have is this fair copy. Let’s not accept Coleridge’s story, let’s look again.”
Ault said this manuscript – written in iron gall ink on blue notepaper – may have been written several years later for a Gloucestershire collector who had it in her possession by about 1804. The manuscript was sold after her death and was acquired by the British Library in 1962.
Tom Mayberry, the chief executive of the South West Heritage Trust, said it was a vivid reminder of an extraordinary time 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 foundation stones of English Romantic literature and Kubla Khan stands out as the strangest and most marvelous of all the poems that emerged from that time in Somerset.”
Other treasures on display in Taunton include a mahogany writing table used by Coleridge, a bible he preached from at the local Unitarian chapel and a rare edition of Lyrical Ballads.
“Somerset can be forgotten in that story of the Romantic poets,” said Mayberry. “Clearly for Wordsworth the Lake District was profound but what he and Coleridge achieved in Somerset was a turning point in their lives and in literature.”
It is the last chance to see the Kubla Khan manuscript for a while. Blue paper loses its color so after its sojourn in Somerset it will be returned to the British Library and rested away from the public gaze.