What do “Kubla Khan” and The Great Gatsby have in common?
Did you ever think of drawing a straight thematic line from a passage in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to the poem “Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge? As every reader of Coleridge knows, his poem is a fragment of the several hundred lines he had composed in his head during a drug-induced dream. When he awoke, he began writing down the surreal lines of vivid imagery until he was interrupted. What he composed after that point is actually a metaphor for his struggle to recapture the lost vision.
One could argue strongly that “Kubla Khan” is the fragment Nick Carroway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, refers to when he states:
Through all [Gatsby] said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something — an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.” (Fitzgerald 74)
Not convinced? Let us explore this premise a bit further.
In the very last paragraph of Chapter 6 in Gatsby, the narrator Nick Carroway likens Gatsby’s quest for Daisy to a mythological journey to climb “to a secret place above the trees…and suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” (Fitzgerald 74) Jay “knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” (Fitzgerald 74)
In Bryce Christensen’s article “The Mystery of Ungodliness,” he states, “At a key point in the novel, Fitzgerald extends to Gatsby the title denoting Jesus’ divine parentage, calling Gatsby “a son of God,” and he compares Gatsby’s pursuit of “his Platonic conception of himself
“ to Jesus’ dedication to “His Father’s business.” (https://www.questia.com/read/98116551/gatsby)
“Fitzgerald was probably influenced in drawing this parallel by a nineteenth-century book by Ernest Renan entitled The Life of Jesus. Renan describes a Jesus who is “faithful to his self-created dream but scornful of the factual truth that finally crushes him and his dream….” (https://www.coursehero.com/file/p2he3u1/Close-3-The-truth-was-that-Jay-Gatsby-of-West-Egg-Long-Island-sprang-from-his/)
Coleridge also uses religious imagery in the last section of “Kubla Khan” when “the Abyssinian maid sings of Mount Abora, an allusion to Book IV of Paradise Lost.” (Bloom, Harold. Samuel T. Coleridge. Chelsea House Publishers, 2001 p.100)
The narrator of the poem (Coleridge himself) knows that were he to recapture his lost dream, he would be God-like: “For he on honey-dew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise.” (Coleridge 53–54) (http://www.poetryoutloud.org/poems-and-performance/poems/detail/43991)
The Muse, the Holy Grail
Although Daisy Buchanan served as Gatsby’s muse, she is a “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.” (Coleridge. “Kubla Khan,” line 36) “Daisy … has no substance… Fitzgerald’s illustration of the emptiness of Daisy’s character — an emptiness that we see curdling into the viciousness of a monstrous moral indifference as the story unfolds — is drawn with a fineness and depth of critical understanding, and communicated with…force.”
The following lines from Gatsby reveal Daisy as a “sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”:
· “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened — then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” (Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925)
· “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….” (Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925)
The reader is also disappointed in Coleridge’s muse, the “damsel with a dulcimer,” whom he invokes to revive not her “symphony and song,” (Coleridge 43) but the rest of his lost vision.
According to Joseph Campbell, the mythological hero views the “woman” as “the image of his destiny which he is to release from the prison of enveloping circumstances. But where he is ignorant of his destiny, or deluded by false considerations, no effort on his part will overcome the obstacles.” (Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company,1970)
Both Coleridge and Gatsby are deluded by these “false considerations” and will never overcome the obstacles that impede their quests. They both place their fate in the hands of muses who will disappoint them and crush them. Daisy is a less worthy muse than the damsel, but they both leave their heroes forlorn, and in the case of the romantically naïve, Jay Gatsby, far worse.
Yet we must consider that Daisy and the “damsel with a dulcimer” are both given impossible tasks. “Daisy becomes the unwitting “grail” in Gatsby’s adolescent quest to remain ever-faithful to his seventeen-year-old cenception (sic) of self, and even Nick admits that Daisy “tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.”
— Leland S. Person, Jr., “Herstory and Daisy Buchanan” in American Literature Vol. 50, 1978.
As John Livingston Lowes states in The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, “the Abyssinian damsel with a dulcimer is …a tantalizing phantom of a dream-remembered dream….,” (p. 409) but “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, accordingly, cannot put together again the scattered fragments into the enthralling pictures which Coleridge actually saw.” (p. 406)
The linking of the end of chapter 6 in The Great Gatsby to Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” offers an unexplored dimension to the study of the novel and challenges bright students to draw the parallels themselves once they are provided with the poem and some framework for discussion..