Hallucinations: In Xanadu did LLMs vainly fancify

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Bill Benzon has been our most prolific humanistic commentator about GPTs, almost as prolific as GPTs themselves.  Here he introduces his latest creation in / on the genre:

"From 'Kubla Khan' through GPT and beyond", 3 Quarks Daily (3/27/23)

In a covering note to me, Bill writes:

A story about how I came to be interested in GPTs. It’s also implicitly a critique of the large language model business. You have a bunch of very smart and clever people creating engines that pump out language by the bucketful, but who seem to have little interest in or knowledge about language itself, much less linguistics, psycholinguistics, or the various cognitive sciences. It’s crazy. But the machines they’re producing are marvelous and fascinating.

I won't begin to summarize or encapsulate Benzon's idiosyncratic piece.  It is far too protean and elusive for that.  Instead, I will quote his opening two paragraphs and his caption for the portrait of Kublai Khan that graces the beginning of the long essay, then provide a few choice selections and references, ending with some vexing, perplexing reflections.

I became hooked on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” in the Spring of 1969, my last semester as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. Three years later “Kubla Khan” had become the standard against which I measured my understanding of the human mind. That is why I am about to tell a story about how my interest in the mind has evolved through “Kubla Khan” to include, most recently, ChatGPT. Strange as it may seem, that poem is the vehicle through which I am coming to terms with this new technology and arriving at a sense of its potential.

There is a sense in which the story of that great poem can be traced back to the 11th century invasion of Britain by the Norman French, for that’s what gave rise to the English language. Some centuries later that story encountered a tale born of an encounter between an Italian merchant, Marco Polo, and a Mongolian warlord, Kubla Khan, which, when enlivened by the East India Company’s trade in opium, set fire to the mind of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. We need not trace that trajectory in any detail. I mention it only to give a sense of the scope of this 54-line poem, which is one of the best-known poems in the English language, and is perhaps unique in the annals of Western literature. It has made its mark on popular culture, from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, where it names Kane’s estate, Xanadu, thereby establishing the matrix for the whole film, to a hit song and film by Olivia Newton-John, Xanadu, and even provided that most vulgar of real-estate barons, Donald Trump, with the name for the nightclub, Xanadu, in his now defunct Atlantic City casino.


Portrait Caption

Portrait of Kublai Khan by artist Araniko, drawn shortly after Kublai’s death in 1294. His white robes reflect his desired symbolic role as a religious Mongol shaman.


Topics, Themes, References

Romantic states of consciousness

Matryoshka dolls in Xanadu

Semantic networks and a Shakespeare sonnet

Computational LInguistics (CL) from the get-go

The wandering years (computation, cognitive science, neuroscience, comparative psychology and developmental psychology; cognitive / neural underpinnings of cultural evolution)

Through GPT to the future


Notes, Annotation, Analyses, Diagrams (with arrows, multiple colors of ink [red, black, green, and blue], and tree branching and inosculation)

Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process

The Visual Mind and the Macintosh

Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution

Vector semantics and the (in-context) construction of meaning in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”

(From these works [many others are cited in the post], you can get an idea of what BB and his collaborators were into.)


“Kubla Khan” – The Text

1-54 (read it now if you have not yet had the chance — it's a magical, captivating experience you'll never forget)



Speaking for myself (VHM), I have four basic questions to gnaw on after reading BB's post, and I invite others to think about them too:

1. What can LLMs do for us [humans] that we can't do for ourselves?

2. What can LLMs do better than us?

3. What can LLMs do worse than us?

4. What can LLMs do that we don't want them to do?

Bottom line:  Keep the LLMs in their place:  we are their masters, not the other way around.



Poplar culture ramifications:  recitations, videos, films, music…



Quantum mechanics, German romantics, "language at the level of poetry"


Selected readings



  1. Gene Anderson said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 11:07 am

    Commenting on GPT and LLM is beyond my pay grade, but I'll be glad to comment on Kubla Khan. I discovered that poem when I was about 14, and promptly memorized most of it–I quote it all the time to myself or my wife. Had fun in food book on Kubla (Khubilai)'s empire quoting the line about "honeydew…and…milk of paradise" and going on "mostly he ate sheep." Much more substance to sheep than to honeydew and milk of paradise.

  2. MattF said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 11:33 am

    And too bad about that Person From Porlock:

  3. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 11:56 am

    I seem to recall reading, many years ago, a science fiction story in which a time traveler stakes out Coleridge's cottage with the intention of intercepting the Person from Porlock and preventing the interruption, but (as often happens in such stories) ends up becoming the interruption.

    Unfortunately I can't remember who wrote this story, where I read it, or what it was called.

  4. Cervantes said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 12:07 pm

    Sorry to be pedantic and a bit off-topic, but Kublai Khan was not just a Mongolian warlord, he was the emperor of China. Xanadu was his summer capital. Come to think of it that's not really off-topic, much of the poem is about the magnificence of his estate.

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 1:35 pm

    @ Gregory Kusnick
    I don't recall that one, but in the webcomic (and later book) The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua, the mysterious visitor is Ada, Countess of Lovelace in disguise (she really did have a manor house near Porlock), who (in the comic) has a love-hate relationship with poetry and wants to prevent Coleridge writing more of it.

  6. Kenny said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 2:19 pm

    @ Gregory Kusnick

    I think that Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) had a second book series starting with Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and I think either that book or one of its sequels had this time travel story focused on the Coleridge poem (though I think in this one it turned out to be important to prevent the poem from being written because it ended up being a guide for some alien species that attacked Earth, if I recall).

  7. cameron said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 2:30 pm

    @ Gregory Kusnick

    Kenny is correct, that "person from "Porlock" time travel story is from Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams.

    the plot is somewhat more convoluted than you remember

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 2:52 pm

    I have not in fact read Dirk Gently. I have seen the TV adaptation with Samuel Barnett and Elijah Wood, but don't recall a Coleridge subplot in that version.

    There was also apparently a 1947 story by Raymond F. Jones involving an alien conspiracy to prevent Coleridge from completing the poem (and thereby exposing their invasion plans), but that doesn't quite match my recollection either.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 3:25 pm

    Somebody should just out and ask ChatGPT to finish the poem. It already has a good start, and much is known about what happens subsequently.

    The problem, of course, is to make the sequel poetic, but I'd be more than satisfied with a prose completion. I just want to know how it ends.

    War is in the offing, mind you!

    Total length limit not to exceed two hundred words.

  10. Bill Benzon said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 3:30 pm

    Gregory Kusnick & Terry Hunt: "Kubla Khan" has had a broad influence on popular culture. Some years ago I did a web search on "Xanadu" and was surprised that I got millions of hits. I did some digging around and quickly discovered that few of them were directly related to the poem. But many were indirectly related to it through Olivia Newton-John's hit song, "Xanadu," the movie of the same name (and later a Broadway play), Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu (which was inspired by Coleridge's apparent memory loss), and Orson Welles's movie, "Citizen Kane." I wrote this up in a paper: One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: The Xanadu Meme, https://www.academia.edu/8378900/One_Candle_a_Thousand_Points_of_Light_The_Xanadu_Meme

  11. Bill Benzon said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 3:40 pm

    Victor: Adam Roberts, who is an all-around man of letters – a Coleridge scholar, science fiction scholar, writer of science fiction, literary biographer of H.G. Welles – has written a continuation of the poem:



    FWIW, he's also used Google Translate to translate Finnegans Wake into Latin: https://www.amazon.com/Pervigilium-Finneganis-Finnegans-translated-Latin-ebook/dp/B07NKNB1B5

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 6:30 pm

    From Peter Golden:

    The Borg may soon be with us.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 6:55 pm

    Various applications of the name Xanadu:

    = Shangdu, the ancient summer capital of Kublai Khan's empire in China

    a metaphor for opulence or an idyllic place, based upon Samuel Taylor Coleridge's description of Shangdu in his poem Kubla Khan

    numerous other place names

    title of films, television show, theater plays

    title of songs, record albums, soundtracks, musical,

    video games

    comic character or the home of a comic character

    name of a hypertext project

    species name for a philodendron in the family Araceae

    name of a photonic quantum computing company

    callsign of an airline

    former name of American Dream Meadowlands, a retail and entertainment complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey

    hundreds of other applications, including Shanadoo, a Japanese dance and pop girl group


  14. RandomAmateur said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 7:38 pm

    You have a bunch of very smart and clever people creating engines that pump out language by the bucketful, but who seem to have little interest in or knowledge about language itself, much less linguistics…


    "every time I fire a linguist, recognition accuracy goes up" – Fred Jelinek, founder and manager of IBM's speech recognition R&D team


  15. Alan Wachtel said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 11:12 pm

    Victor wrote, "Somebody should just out and ask ChatGPT to finish the poem."

    That happens to be my favorite way to interrogate chatbots. Here are excerpts from three of ChatGPT's responses to my prompt "Write a continuation of 'Kubla Khan' in Coleridge's style" (they're entirely different every time):

    But alas, the vision fades away
    As the dawn breaks through the morn
    Leaving me with naught but empty words
    To try and capture what was born

    And as the Khan stood there in awe,
    A voice whispered a melody of love and wonder;
    An ode to beauty, a song without a flaw,
    That spoke of life's mysteries, like rolling thunder.

    Entranced, he saw a vision clear
    Of gardens bright with vibrant hues
    And in the midst, a palace dear
    A home for kings and queens to muse
    And all around, a maze of views

    There's much more in that vein–the occasional apt phrase surrounded by cliché. But by far the best pastiche of "Kubla Khan" I've found comes by way of the writer Stephen Marche, who explained in a 2021 New Yorker article how he used a program called Sudowrite, which is based on the now downrev GPT-3, to continue the poem. This was the result:

    The old Moon shook her silver tresses
    The new Moon bow’d her golden horns:
    While all the stars that round her burn’d,
    Bow’d to the ground and based their fires.
      To the one ever-branching cloud
      That blew and drifted—blow and drift;
      To the one moon that alone swung,
      Colossal, glimmering, through the sky;
      I bowed my head and half-believed
    A dizzy spell had made me dream.
    The tumult ceased, the clouds were torn,
    The moon resumed her solemn course,
    The stars were faint, the dawn was near,
    And faintly from the distant sea
    What seemed a misty-white and slender rod,
    A phantom-wand, a beam of light,
      It grew and grew to a towering spire,
      A seraph-wand, a sun-bright sail.

    (The indents are Sudowrite's.) I find that a very creditable effort, and like Marche, I could almost believe (perhaps after a little editing) that Coleridge wrote it.

  16. maidhc said,

    April 3, 2023 @ 11:30 pm

    I well remember the short story that Gregory Kusnick refers to. It didn't have any aliens in it–just a standard time travel story. Unfortunately I don't remember the author, and I don't believe I have a copy of it. It's been years since I read it, but obviously it left an impression.

    I think that it was probably published in the 1950s or early 1960s.

  17. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 4, 2023 @ 12:22 am

    That time frame sounds about right. Perhaps in one of Judith Merril's "Year's Best" collections?

  18. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2023 @ 4:52 am

    @Alan Wachtel


    It gets into the language and spirit of Coleridge, is good with rhythm, and even knows how to produce credible rhyme.

  19. Terry Hunt said,

    April 4, 2023 @ 12:18 pm

    @ Various
    The Porlock story might be 'The Person from Porlock' by Raymond F. Jones, first published in Astounding Science Fiction, August 1947. Unfortunately I don't have either of the anthologies in which it was later appeared, in 1948 (plus reprints) and 1994 (ditto; search on the title in ISFDB to find out what they are.)
    (Nor do I have any Astoundings earlier than 1958.)

  20. sphex said,

    April 4, 2023 @ 2:42 pm

    Bill Benson is quoted at the beginning of the piece as saying, of the LLM business: "It's crazy."

    I'd invite folks- particularly folks with a special sensitivity to language and its uses and misuses- to be mindful of using "crazy" as an intensifier or to indicate something unusual, unexpected, spectacular, astonishing, unsettling, or extraordinary. In our culture there is unfortunately a lot of negative stigma associated with mental health issues. The richness of the English language affords us many alternatives that don't exacerbate the problem. ;)

  21. Alan Wachtel said,

    April 4, 2023 @ 4:03 pm

    An anthology that contains "The Person from Porlock," by Raymond F. Jones, mentioned here several times, has been digitized at:


    Just search for Porlock to find the story. Gregory Kusnick's recollection that it involves "an alien conspiracy to prevent Coleridge from completing the poem (and thereby exposing their invasion plans)" is largely correct, though Coleridge's interruption by the Person from Porlock is only alluded to, not portrayed, and Coleridge is more of a MacGuffin than anything else.

  22. AntC said,

    April 6, 2023 @ 2:32 am

    Seems ChatGPT has taken to just making up fake citations/getting a hold of the wrong end of the stick entirely. Next it'll be claiming the Person from Porlock was the author of 'Kubla Khan', and it was Coleridge who interrupted them.

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