It is far too easy to dismiss S.T. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” as a simple opium-induced pipe dream, though it certainly was. He imagines a fairy tale world of rulers and pleasure-domes, which even then is haunted by shrieking maidens and ice caves where no man may tread. In it, the author explores his own alienation from his body by flamboyantly demanding liberation from reality and claustrophobic imperialism.
Meanwhile, Coleridge’s highly experimental masterpiece “Rhyme of the Mariner” is rife with the same sort of alienation as “Kubla Khan,” though not nearly in such a Utopian setting. The burning question of the poem, addressed by so many scholars and academics since it was written, must be stated—why did the narrator shoot the albatross? It is an action that is given no explanation, that seems completely unnecessary and arbitrary. The shooting has more significance than it seems at first, being born out of the “modernism” of 19th century England—a world where people were first beginning to question established religious institutions, a world where pure chance creates reality, where meanings become pointless. This story gravitates towards a radically pessimistic vision of nihilistic subjectivity, and uses the albatross around the neck of our dear mariner as a metaphor for the crushing weight of man’s own alienation from himself and the works he produces, just as “Kubla Khan” uses it’s entire existence as a fantasy as an example of that same estrangement.