Category Archives: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Kubla Confusion: On Dreaming, In Parts

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1835)


I sometimes wonder what my dreams are working out.

I’d like to know why my nocturnal brain wants to lead me through writing a eulogy for someone I’ve never met… without a computer or pen, on the inside surface of a rusty bucket.

I’d like to know what part of my life creates a dream visitor to announce: 1. I have a hidden wing of my home to clean; 2. I haven’t been teaching the three classes I didn’t know I’d been assigned; and 3. my most pressing need is to remove the kids playing Yahtzee in my living room and sort the piles of mixed beans they’re lounging on or—more accurately—in.


I wish I could dream like Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  The poem “Kubla Khan” came to him when he fell asleep after reading a book about the Tartar king.  The opium he took might have helped, but Coleridge dreamt a mighty dream and got up to begin reeling off verses that became a renowned work of Romantic Poetry.  He reached 54 lines of the 200-300 he pictured before a visitor’s insistent knocking interrupted him. When he returned, he couldn’t find the thread of his thinking.

This interruption made the visitor, “a person from Porlock,” one of the most mysterious and famous killjoys in history.  He has his own Wikipedia page and has reappeared in novels by Vladimir Nabokov and Orhan Pamuk and poems by Stevie Smith and Kay Ryan.  In Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Gently goes back in time to play the visitor because the poem, if completed, would help aliens destroy the planet.

Much less matters in my dreams.  Many feature tedium so profound the only relief is pronouncing my desire to escape.

I play my own Porlockian.  I want to wake up… I’d rather resume the tedium of my life.


My theories about dreaming swing between extremes. I try to imagine dreams at the center of my well-being.  An old-timey telephone operator arrives for the graveyard shift.  Her job is to unplug, untangle, and replug all the day’s connections.  Then she leaves without notice.

But sometimes dreams seem a horrible side effect, the struggling sounds of a factory.  The machinery’s slapping belts, persistent rattles, and wheezing breath labor to perpetuate some product that never slides from the assembly line.


Coleridge never wrote the treatise on dreaming he intended—perhaps someone else from Porlock interrupted him—but his notebooks offer some interesting theories.  Like thinkers before him, Coleridge believed reason and desire slept when the dreamer did, but imagination didn’t, and a sleeper might translate sensory input into dream imagery.  He didn’t assign psychological meaning to this transmutation—as either compensation or sublimation—the way Freud later would, but he did recognize the sleeping mind’s search for causes.  It looks to explain its situation.  The drip of ice melting outside the window becomes a ticking clock, the grandfather clock’s hourly toll becomes the bell of a boat leaving port again and again.

Okay… but how can I retro-engineer “Kubla Khan” from that?


It was after cross country but the weather was pre-season.  I couldn’t find my running shorts and shirts because they were in two identical locations, one storage for stained, ruined, and discarded clothes and one for the real thing.  But when I finally succeeded getting dressed, I thought we might arrive on time.  My wife offered to drive the three of us (me, my daughter, and the exchange student staying with us) to practice.  Soon, however, we were hopelessly lost.  We were in rural Pennsylvania, stuck behind an Amish father and son in a horse-drawn buggy.

When a busy intersection appeared, I jumped from the car for directions.  That was the last of my wife.  I flagged a cab—apparently it was lost in rural Pennsylvania too.  The cabby talked repetitively and incessantly about subjects I don’t remember, but we never approached the mysterious practice.  The backseat window was a television of flashing scenes, a new-wave movie insisting it was art and bored with the triviality of arrival.

I realized my running clothes had no pockets, and I had no money or phone.  I told the cab driver, and he said I’d have to work out a way to pay him.  Then it occurred to me, I’m dreaming.

I said, “No, this is a dream.  I’d rather wake up.”

“Okay, you’re right,” he answered, turning back to me for the first time, “but that doesn’t change much.  You’re here for a reason.  You need closure or the dream won’t work and was all for nothing.”

He could drive me to a bank where I could call my wife (but I didn’t know her cell number) or drop me off at home (but I didn’t know where that was, plus the place I’d come from wasn’t any home I recognized) or he could let me write a beautifully worded promissory note in lovely calligraphy worth the cost of the ride (fat chance).

“No, I can’t think of anything.  I’m going to wake up.” It was 3 a.m.


Some of my artist friends swear by dreams.  They start each day copying their Kubla Khans into journals that later become beds of flowering imagery and narrative.

I go through long stretches when I awake recalling nothing.  On those mornings, I feel as though I’ve somehow again eluded a scary visitor.

I’m grateful.


Coleridge expressed some wacky ideas about dream imagery associated with sensations in particular organs.  He describes drawing up his legs to relieve a pain in his stomach and thus altering the course of his dreams. However he also seems to revel in imagination’s inexhaustible powers.  All day long, imagination sows sensations and assembles quilts of impressions and ideas, and, at night, it continues the same work arationally.  In his journal, he describes dreams as being like a flower within a flower, “Some fairer Blossom-life in the centre of the Flower-polypus, a life within Life.”

He believes, as many people do—as my artist friends do—that dreams offer another sort of fecundity.  The day-planters and the night-planters go about their jobs differently, but each looks out for the other, undoing the harm of each.

His insistence on regeneration is interesting and inspiring and makes me wish I could believe, but his thinking slides over my brain as over Teflon.  I feel inadequate in a novel way.


Every day, in my last moments of consciousness, my thoughts descend into confusion, and sleep reaches up to pull me down.  Sometimes, I give up will and fall, blissful in the ignorant blindness of depth and happy that some other current will take me some other place.  Then the joy of the journey is not remembering where.

But sometimes, some part of me struggles.  And then I dream.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anxiety, Art, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, Genius, Home Life, Insomnia, Laments, life, Memory, Modern Life, Poetry, Recollection, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sturm und Drang, Tributes, Worry