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“Kubla Khan” in Finnegans Wake

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 47, Number 4, Summer 2010
pp. 643-645 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0020

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In the eighth chapter of Finnegans Wake—the one featuring Anna Livia—Joyce incorporates into the text portmanteau words for seemingly every river on the planet. Literally thousands of river names insinuate themselves, from the description of Anna’s “damazon cheeks” (the Amazon) to a servant who sends “respecks from his missus, seepy and sewery” (the Mississippi and Missouri) to a discussion of how “Nieman . . . found the Nihil” (the Niemen and Nile rivers, but also how no one found nothing—FW 199.13, 207.13, 202.19).1 Moreover, fictional and mythological rivers, including the Lethe and the Styx, also appear in the lines “[s]he swore on croststyx nyne” and “husheth the lethest zswound” (FW 206.04, 214.10). It is particularly strange, then, that one of the most obvious choices of a river is absent from the chapter, and, seemingly, from the entire text: Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s river Alph from his poem “Kubla Khan.”2 This river would seem almost too good to be true for Joyce’s purposes in the Wake: its name begins with the letters ALP and thus embodies twice over the riverine femininity of Anna Livia Plurabelle. It is, moreover, a “sacred river” (55), which is in accord with the idea of the Sacred Feminine represented by the Delta symbol that stands for ALP.

Joyce did not, however, overlook this perfect opportunity for allusion. While it is impossible to know definitively what he had in mind as he created the enormously complex universe of the Wake, it seems likely that the river Alph was actually one of the primary inspirations for the letters ALP. The “sacred river” was, in other words, too important for Joyce’s purposes to be relegated to the status of one portmanteau pun among thousands of other rivers. This becomes clear when one examines the first sentence of Coleridge’s poem:

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 keys to unraveling the importance of these lines are the words “river, ran.” When isolated in this way, it becomes obvious that the first word of Finnegans Wake, “riverrun” (FW 3.01), is, among many other things, a slightly distorted quotation from “Kubla Khan.”3 Part of Joyce’s genius in this book is that each word has numerous meanings, and the Wake’s opening lines are more charged with import than most. Given the fact that the book begins in mid-sentence, however, one possible version of the opening would be to insert the first two-and-a-half lines of “Kubla Khan” before the first word of the book: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree: where Alph the sacred riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs” (FW 3.01-03). ALP, in other words, becomes the sacred river Alph, even as she embodies the Liffey running through Dublin.

This sets up an interesting triple parallelism among the characters ALP and HCE, the geography of Dublin, and the geography and characters of “Kubla Khan.” In this light, HCE, as we learn in the first sentence, is more than just Howth Head but is rather “Howth Castle and Environs” (my italics); he becomes also the “stately pleasure-dome.” The dome mirrors the shape of the mountain but also connotes the home, albeit a palatial one, implying HCE’s status as the pater familias. In this latter capacity, the overseeing male, his character also takes on aspects of Kubla Khan himself, as is obvious when HCE brags about his success in building and ruling the city of Dublin, stating that he “raised a dome on the wherewithouts of Michan” (FW 541.05). Dublin, meanwhile, becomes the mystical city of Xanadu, the fantastical land in which anything can happen. Indeed, anything can happen in the Dublin of Finnegans Wake, because the city, like everything else in the book, exists in a kind of dream state, where desires become reality. The Wake has been called a “night-book...

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