David James Lamb

Insomnia is a literary disease. Those who have the best command of language seem least able to lay their head on a pillow and join the collective slumber. “The night is always a giant” said Nabakov, who could scarcely snatch more than an hour or two of rest back from each interminable night’s oppression. Ray Bradbury said of insomnia: “Sleep is a patch of death, but three in the morn, full wide-eyed staring, is living death! You dream with your eyes open.” Honoré de Balzac practiced a kind of self-imposed insomnia; he would write prodigiously from 1 am to 8 am each morning, invigorated by countless cups of black coffee and often literally chained to his desk, with keys tossed out of reach. Creativity and madness are conjoined twins, and sleep is their mother.

For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, prince of romantic poets, this literary insomnia was doubly oppressive – a lack of sleep would sadden and stun the coming day but sleep itself often proved more monstrous. From his letters¹ we learn that night terrors accompanied Coleridge through adolescence. Of a typical night he writes: “Sleep a pandemonium of all the shames and miseries of the past Life from early childhood all huddled together, & bronzed with one stormy Light of Terror and Self-torture/ O this is hard, hard, hard. . .” Here the poet’s usual grandiloquence is lost in the face of unending dread. In The Pains of Sleep², Coleridge recounts in vivid detail such horrors:

Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me

Distemper’s worst calamity.

The third night, when my own loud scream

Had waked me from the fiendish dream,

O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,

I wept as I had been a child

The image of Coleridge weeping like a child is haunting, carrying all the weight and fury of the Bible’s shortest and most evocative verse: Jesus wept. Elsewhere, Coleridge intimates his night terrors are what led to him to embrace opium, leading to a lifelong and painful addiction: “fear of horrors in Sleep, driving me to dreadful remedies & stimuli, when awake, not for the present Sensation, but to purchase daily a wretched Reprieve from the torments of each night’s Daemons/ selling myself to the Devil to avoid the Devil’s own visitations & thereby becoming his Subject.” Opium was a blessing and curse for Coleridge; it aided sleep but also reproduced the shame and terror that kept him from it.

This addiction, however, proved fateful. Coleridge has the dubious honor of having originated the most celebrated fever dream in literary history. His poem entitled Kubla Khan, subtitled A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment, is one of his most celebrated works. It was famously composed in an opium-fueled, semi-conscious reverie somewhere in the English countryside³.  During this feverish dream, Coleridge claims to have composed upwards of 300 lines detailing his magisterial and preternatural visions of the summer palace of Kubla Khan, a Mongolian warlord who  descended from Genghis. However, before Coleridge could pen his dream-epic, he was interrupted by the now infamous “person on business from Porlock.” The person from Porlock delayed Coleridge in some idle conversation for a while, and to the poet’s horror, he subsequently found he could only recall some 50 lines. This became the poetic fragment we know now as the poem Kubla Khan, which regularly tops surveys of most beloved or favorite verses across the English-speaking world.

According to Freud, dreams are borne of impulses and desires that would be inadmissible to our waking minds. These impulses, cloaked in the residue of recent memory, become distorted and warped in order to smuggle them across the borders of consciousness undetected. Dreams are a rebus to be decoded in order to understand our unconscious desires:  a “hallucinatory wish” or even “the royal road to the unconscious”4. Following the Great War, Freud adapted his theories – dreams were no longer purely a product of wish fulfilment, as this could not account for the traumatic dreams and nightmares of so many returning soldiers. Why would they continue to relive their nightmares each night when they were safely home? In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud expanded his views, and posited the repetition compulsion. This compulsion is the unconscious desire to repeat and recapitulate past trauma, both in sleeping and waking, in an (often futile) attempt to retroactively master it. Coleridge sketches the repetitive aspect of trauma in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner5, writing:

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched

With a woeful agony,

Which forced me to begin my tale;

And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,

That agony returns:

And till my ghastly tale is told,

This heart within me burns.

Trauma repeats on the subject with its own grim volcanic force, ready to erupt in the conscious mind at any moment like magma. Coleridge seems to know this first-hand, as the repetitive dread of his dream-life demonstrates.

Kubla Khan then was a slight departure from the usual abject terror of Coleridge’s dream life, but no less fantastical. It can even be read as a meditation on dreaming itself. Coleridge was a German speaker, a translator of Schiller into English, and would have been acutely aware that the German word for nightmare was Alptruck, literally ‘elf-oppression’; Alp is a German folkloric incubus – a demon that squats on one’s chest, bringing the feeling dread and paralysis that accompanies night terrors. What, then, are we to make of ‘alph’ the sacred river that courses through the poem’s scenery? Through the “caverns measureless to man,” the boundless confines of the unconscious, through which dreams course?

The dream-river is not an uncommon metaphor for Coleridge. In The Picture6, he again gives us the image of the river as a dream:

The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon

The visions will return! And lo, he stays,

And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms

Come trembling back, unite, and now once more

The pool becomes a mirror.

Note the curious use of the word fragment. Coleridge seems to imply that dreams are always fragments: their beginnings and ends always blur out into oblivion, or they are stopped dead by a sharp caesura. The person from Porlock, on his solemn business, always arrives in one form or another.

In Henri Bergson’s thin volume On Dreams7, he posits that the dreaming mind is simply the absence of the waking will. This is not altogether dissimilar to the Freudian view, that the conscious ego represents some sort of censor, which becomes relaxed during sleep, allowing deeper desires and images to present themselves. Bergson writes:

“As for the dream, have you really any need that I should explain it? It is the state into which you naturally fall when you let yourself go, when you no longer have the power to concentrate yourself upon a single point, when you have ceased to will. What needs much more to be explained is the marvellous mechanism by which at any moment your will obtains instantly, and almost unconsciously, the concentration of all that you have within you upon one and the same point, the point that interests you. But to explain this is the task of normal psychology, of the psychology of waking, for willing and waking are one and the same thing.”

For Bergson then, dreaming is the act of relinquishing one’s will. To be awake is to exert oneself, and when this exertion ceases in sleep, the river of unconscious images and associations is less impeded. This is not confined to sleep however – we can imagine the same process happening during a high-fever, blurring the line between consciousness and unconsciousness, or a drug-induced high.

Bergson then cites Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Chapter on Dreams8. A curious text in which Stevenson describes his own changing relationship with dreaming in third person, pretending at first to be describing his student’s problematic relationship with sleep, before finally admitting that he has, in fact, been describing himself all along. Like Coleridge, Stevenson suffered from night terrors and fever dreams, he writes of himself:

“When he had a touch of fever at night, and the room swelled and shrank, […] sooner or later the night–hag would have him by the throat, and pluck him strangling and screaming, from his sleep.”

Stevenson goes on to tell us how he made peace with his night terrors, and where once he dreaded the dreaming world, he came to embrace it to such a degree that it would eventually produce great works of literature, just as Coleridge composed Kubla Khan in a dream. We know not whether Stevenson really does intend us to believe that he received the text to Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde wholesale from the so-called “Brownies,” or dream folk. Just as we know not whether Coleridge really did in fact have a fever dream of a palace in Xanadu or whether this poetic fragment is simply itself a conscious meditation on dreams, just as The Pains of Sleep and The Picture are. But assuming the form of a dream itself with the necessary preamble about the person of Porlock to give the fragment its appropriate framing.

Before you decide, Jorge Luis Borges adds a strange footnote to the riddle of dreaming Coleridge. In The Dream of Coleridge9 he notes, with the benefit of contemporaneous history, that Khan’s chief architect received his plans for the summer palace through a dream himself. Coleridge would have been unaware of this fact, as scholars would not uncover this detail for another century. Thus, both Coleridge and the architect dreamed separately of the same palace, with no knowledge of each other, both now fragmented. Borges writes:

“The first dream added a palace to reality; the second, which occurred five centuries later, a poem (or the beginning of a poem) suggested by the palace. The similarity of the dreams hints of a plan…. In 1691 Father Gerbillon of the Society of Jesus confirmed that ruins were all that was left of the palace of Kubla Khan; we know that scarcely fifty lines of the poem were salvaged. These facts give rise to the conjecture that this series of dreams and labors has not yet ended. The first dreamer was given the vision of the palace, and he built it; the second, who did not know of the other’s dream, was given the poem about the palace. If the plan does not fail, some reader of ‘Kubla Khan’ will dream, on a night centuries removed from us, of marble or of music. This man will not know that two others also dreamed. Perhaps the series of dreams has no end, or perhaps the last one who dreams will have the key….”

Borges concludes:

“After writing all this, I perceive—or think that I perceive—another explanation. Perhaps an archetype not yet revealed to men, an eternal object (to use Whitehead’s term), is gradually entering the world; its first manifestation was the palace; its second was the poem. Whoever compared them would have seen that they were essentially the same.”

For Borges, the palace at Xanadu is what we might call a hyperobject, an object whose dogged persistence seems to flagrantly disregard any consideration of time or decay, and whose sheer scale dwarfs the subject. Perhaps these feverish dreams are the birthing pains of a new Jungian archetype borne to the collective unconscious. Whatever Khan’s palace may be or have been, Coleridge managed to catch sight of it, if only for a half-forgotten moment as he walked the tightrope between dream and nightmare.

Dreaming then is a creative process, a skillful relaxation of the will that can produce both horror and beauty in equal fervor. There is a summer palace inside all of us, it seems, terrible in all its grandeur, and oppressive in splendor, waiting to be uncovered and explored in some distant dream yet to be had. Next time you find yourself tossing turning through a feverish or sleepless night, picture a palace in your mind and, as Jung said, dream the myth onwards.


1 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Preface to Kubla Khan.,1816. Available at: http://www.victorianweb.org/previctorian/stc/kktext.html

2 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Pains of Sleep. Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43995/the-pains-of-sleep

3 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge’s Writings: Volume 2: On Humanity, page 25/ 26.

4 Sigmund Freud and James Strachey. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Avon Books, 1965.

5 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Picture, or The Lover’s Resolution. Available online at: https://allpoetry.com/The-Picture,-Or-The-Lover%27s-Resolution

6  Henri Bergson, On Dreams, 1914 Available online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/20842/20842-h/20842-h.htm

7 Robert Louis Stevenson, A Chapter on Dreams, 1892. Available online at: https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/110/selected-essays-of-robert-louis-stevenson/5111/a-chapter-on-dreams/

8 Jorge Luis Borges ,“The Dream of Coleridge” in Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952 by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Ruth Simms (University of Texas Press, 1964, reprint forthcoming November 2007)

About the Author

David Lamb is a writer from Essex, UK. He received his undergraduate degree in molecular biology from Royal Holloway, University of London, and a masters in psychoanalytic theory from University College London. He is now a graduate student at New York University’s Experimental Humanities department.