Kane: Sunny Pleasure Dome, Caves of Ice

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

Film Friday

I’m teaching Citizen Kane currently in my American Film class and am struck, once again, by the influence that Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” had on the movie. My father and I tried to make this case in an article that we wrote on Citizen Kane a number of years back (described here), and while the editors liked the piece and printed it, they didn’t buy our notion that the poem helped shaped the film. We therefore cut it.

Since I’m the editor of this website, I’ve decided to indulge myself and share the idea with you.

One can’t, of course, dispute that the opening lines of the poem get quoted in the film: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree.” But there’s more of a connection, we think, than just the name that Kane gives to his gigantic mansion and extensive grounds. Kane and Khan travel through similar trajectories.

The poem is about an emperor who tries to put a wall around nature. (You can read it in its entirety here.) Kane too is a control freak who tries to box things in.  (Look at what he does to Susan Alexander.) Also, like Khan, Kane starts off strong but is ultimately is shown to be weak and helpless.

The poem begins with images of fertility and orgasmic potency:

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:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

At the core of both Kane and Kahn, however, there is an unholy hunger, a “woman wailing for her demon lover.”  Once showing immense promise, both men end up sterile, just as the river culminates in a lifeless ocean.  The newsreel of Kane’s life parallels the poem.  We see images of a pouring river of wealth–“the Colorado lode”–but the end result is shrinking rings on a map as his newspaper empire contracts. The bombast of the newsreel–NEWS, ON THE MARCH!–is followed by the sound of the film dribbling out of the projector. Here’s the poem’s version of this diminution:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

About these predictions of war: Kane confidently and smugly predicts (in the newsreel) that there will be no war with Germany. Kane and Khan may believe they’ve mastered their worlds, but the reality is far different.

And what about the “caves of ice” that underlie the sunny pleasure dome?

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!

Kane may seem to be shimmering in the limelight. But as we are taken into his life, we see one cold cave after another, beginning with the room where he dies, moving on to the library where his guardian Thatcher’s memoirs are kept, and culminating in Xanadu, with its immense but cold spaces. (There’s no fire in the fireplace, unlike in the final scene where there’s a fiery furnace that he has buried so deep that no one can see it.) In fact, other than the scene where young Kane is sledding and a couple of brief city scenes, the entire film is shot indoors. The ceilinged sets, unheard of in the Hollywood of the time, press down on him.

Maybe the main influence of the poem, however, is on Welles’ conception of himself as artist. In the 1930’s, “Kubla Khan” was seen as the quintessential Romantic poem, and I think that Welles fancied himself as the wild prophet, with “flashing eyes and floating hair.”  Playing this role to the hilt, he self-destructively thumbed his nose at Hollywood and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, to the ultimate detriment of his career. Citizen Kane is his “Kubla Khan,” a virtuoso work that struts its brilliance but is very, very cold:

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.

Bad boy Welles danced a dangerous dance, creating a masterpiece (actually two or three) before being destroyed by this same dance. The mazy meandering film is not only about Charles Foster Kane. It also forecasts the demise of Orson Welles, who lived a long but, after an early spurt, fruitless life–just as Coleridge’s mazy meandering poem forecast his own future creative impotence.

Close your eyes in holy dread indeed.

Addendum – My father reminds me of one of our ideas that I left out.  In the haunting opening scene where Kane dies, we see the “shadow of the dome of pleasure float[ing] midway on the waves.”  In a brilliant sequence of dissolves, we see the light of the room in which Kane lies dying, then the same lighted room reflected in a pool on the estate, and then back to the room itself.  We are moving into the realm of the subconscious here, which then gets buried by the loud boisterous language of he newsreel.

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  • You know, Robin, you will shake your head in exasperation. This happens to be one of my favorite if not my favorite poem and yet, I guess I’d never really understood what it was really about. I had built another vision of it most especially because I love the way that Coleridge uses words. I get taken in by the surface tone of it, I suppose. I took it as a kind of love-stricken fairy tale, a guy musing, spining words in space to give himself some comfort. I most especially love the last three lines which remind me of a line or two in something Blake wrote about the ‘the winged life’. Do you know which poem I mean? I can’t quite pin it down.

    I’m willing to go along with your theory re: Citizen Kane. Why not? Welles must have had a reason for naming the mansion Xanadu. And by the way, didn’t Hearst use the same name?

  • Carl Rosin

    I like your thesis. My interdisciplinary Viewpoints on Modern America class will be starting to view CK in a few days, so I’ll be testing out your ideas!

    We (my co-teacher Paul and I) have always used CK in the wake of our extended unit on the imperialist impulse as it proceeds into the Modernist age. Your comment about how “Kane and Khan may believe they’ve mastered their worlds, but the reality is far different” evokes a position similar to the way we view Modernism as the 20th century’s response to the fin-de-siecle belief that the West was near total command of science and human nature. Relativity, quantum physics, total war, cubism, Duchamp, stream-of-consciousness, Jay Gatsby, Hemingway — the first quarter of the 20th century shows many dramatic come-downs from the hubris of the 1890s, the days when Kane could do no wrong.

    Our students have just finished essays about literary bildungsroman — not every growning-up is a maturation, they conclude, choosing affirmative examples like Janie Woods and Nick Carraway and even Jake Barnes but also counterexamples like Gatsby and Tom & Daisy Buchanan and Robert Cohn and Brett Ashley…and soon Charles Foster Kane.

    I’m curious about your (and other readers’) thoughts on the differences between the Romantic and the Modernist impulses, which the Bates thesis and this film seem to examine.

  • Robin Bates

    No exasperation here, Yvette. I’m in love with the language just like you are. The Blake quotation, “He who binds himself to joy/Doth the winged life destroy?But he who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in eternity’s sunrise”–is absolutely appropriate and I’m impressed that you made the connection. Kahn and Kane both want to pin the joy down, and certainly Kane (and maybe Kahn) destroy that which they touch. What Blake tells us to do is love joy and let it go. Maybe that is the wild vision that Coleridge’s poet has as well: when you have a vision of a damsel with a dulcimer, kiss it and let it go. Supposedly Coleridge received the poem in a vision (maybe an opium trance) and then had it disperse when he was interrupted by “a visitor on business from Porlock.” But the fragment is enough.

    Hearst, by the way, called his mansion San Simeon. Originally scriptwriter Mankiewicz wanted to call it El Hambra (after his Freudian rest home) but Welles got him to change it to Xanadu.

    Carl, I once thought that my father had a modernist reading of CK while I had a post-modernist reading, and the differing readings were generational. I think I would now use your distinction–his is more Romantic, mine is more modernist. I read the rosesbud symbol ironically whereas, for him, it summed up the tragic death of the American dream. Small detail (I’d be glad to talk about this more): young child Kane lives in New Salem and in the purity of the American new world. Then the dream, like Gatsby’s, was shattered–by wealth, by betrayal, by (when the film was made) world war. More to come.


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