In a moment of rash optimism a notable scholar once began an essay by declaring that "We now know almost everything about Coleridge's Kubla Khan except what the poem is about". The truth of the matter, however, is that we know almost nothing conclusive about Kubla Khan, including what it is about. This flower plucked in Paradise (or on Parnassus) and handed down to us by Coleridge is, indeed, a miracle of rare device; but like all miracles it is largely elusive.
Perhaps the strangest fact connected with this strange poem is the dearth of early references to it. Coleridge mentions Kubla Khan on only three occasions: (1) in the endnote of the Crewe Manuscript (1810?) he gives a brief account of the poem's origin; (2) in the long Preface added to the poem in 1816 he provides a much fuller story of the composition of Kubla Khan, but the account in the 1816 Preface differs significantly from that in the Crewe endnote; and (3) in September 1830 he told Henry Nelson Coleridge that "I wrote Kubla Khan in Brimstone Farm between Porlock and Ilfracombe -- near Culbone".3 The rest is silence. Neither in his published works nor in his voluminous correspondence and notebooks (where he often quotes from his own poetry to illustrate some point) is there any reference to or quotation from Kubla Khan. This frustrating silence, moreover, extends from Coleridge himself to his friends and acquaintances. Prior to its publication in 1816, there are (to my knowledge) only six references to Kubla Khan4 -- and this is surely surprising when we remember that the poem was written at least sixteen years before it was eventually published.
Scholarship and historical criticism, then, have little evidence (solid or otherwise) on which to deploy their talents. Aye! and what then?