Kubla Khan and the Major Arcana

I’ve been having a lot of fun lately trying to marry popular song titles and lyrics to the images of the tarot by creating metaphorical links between them. I realized this morning that something similar should be do-able with the mystical poetry that forms part of the “Great Works” of traditional literature. I already used the “bloody but unbowed” line from William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus for the Waite-Smith 9 of Wands, and I’ve been sniffing around the edges of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (all that stuff about the Seventh Gate and the Throne of Saturn clearly fits the mold) but have yet to seriously tackle it. One of my favorite poems of that type is Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; I’ve long recognized the obvious occult references in it and set myself the task of seeing if (and if so, how well) it lines up with tarot symbolism. Here are a few possibilities, some more tenuous than others:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

The connection of the term “Alph” with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, has been noted in critiques I’ve read in the past, and Aleph is associated with the Fool in esoteric systems of interpretation. The caverns and the sunless sea have me thinking about the landing place of the Fool if he goes over the cliff’s edge.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

This can only refer to the Empress and her harmonious connection to Nature. (There is an echo of the 9 of Pentacles in it as well.)

A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!

Crowley’s treacherous “waning Moon” comes to mind here,  and also the visual tableau shared by the Devil and its “numerological counterpart,” the Lovers, in the Waite-Smith deck.

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:

This sounds like the Tower to me, especially Crowley’s version with what looks like the Gates of Hades spewing fire. The “fountain” in that case would probably be a plume of steam.

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Limiting myself to just the Major Arcana, this is a tough one. I get the feeling of “suspension,” which invokes comparisons to the Hanged Man with his head in the caves “where the Sun don’t shine” and his feet sticking out, catching its warm rays. However, the crystalline nature of the “caves of ice” also implies the Star, and the “mingling” brings to mind Temperance. There is a suggestion of both hope and fear in this passage.

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.

The only musical instrument I can think of in the Major Arcana is Gabriel’s horn in Judgement; Mount Abora is “a mythical place of our collective imagination,” although there is academic opinion that Coleridge actually meant “Mount Amara,” a real location in Ethiopia where an “Abyssinian maid” could actually have lived. As an imaginary place, it squares well with the idea of leaving the old ways behind and embarking on a new path, the essence of the regeneration implied by Judgement.

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The “flashing eyes and floating hair” and the  mentions of “holy dread” and “the milk of Paradise” again summon visions of the angel in Judgement. He is opening a bridge between worlds by which the worthy can pass over to a better life. Coleridge seems to have had something more dire in mind, but certainly Gabriel isn’t Mr. Nice Guy by any stretch.

So what do we have? A story-line that contains the Fool, the Empress, a triptych of the Moon, the Devil and the Lovers, the Tower, the Hanged Man (with subtle intimations of the Star and Temperance) and Judgement. The Fool falls in love (or at least lust), succumbs to irresistible but ill-considered temptation at some point, suffers a hard fall, feels “hung out to dry” but doesn’t lose all hope, and is eventually vindicated by starting a new life. Like I said earlier, fun stuff!


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