Kubla Khan is one of the best poems written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It is, in fact, one of those three poems that have kept Coleridge’s name in the forefront of the greatest Romantic poets—the other two poems are The Ancient Mariner and Christabel. Coleridge wrote all the three famous poems in 1797 and 1798. His poems deal with supernatural characters wrought with the color and glamour of the Middle Ages. Coleridge’s kubla khan belongs to the dream territory of art and which is much more colorful and sensuous than the humdrum of real life.
1. Origin Of the Poem ‘Kubla Khan’ by Coleridge
The supreme strength of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a Romantic poet lay in his marvelous dream faculty. His famous poem, Kubla khan, had its origin in a dream which he had dreamt in a sleep induced by opium. In 1797, while reading a passage related to Kubla Khan and the palace that he commanded to be built in Purchas’s Pilgrimage, a book of travels, Coleridge fell asleep in his chair. He then dreamt that he was writing a poem about Kubla Khan and his palace. Upon awakening, he had a distinct recollection of the dream. He hastily took his pen and instantly and eagerly wrote down a poem. When he had written only 54 lines of Kubla Khan, he was interrupted by a visitor. As a result, the rest of the poem slipped out of his mind, and the existing one has remained a fragment.
2. The Title of the Poem “Kubla Khan”
The title of the poem at once brings in our mind the picture of a very famous, powerful, and dictatorial Mongol emperor, Kubla Khan. Kubla khan was one of the famous rulers of what is now China. He was the successor of Genghis Khan and completed the conquest of China begun by forefather. After his success, Kubla Khan became the first Yuan ruler of all of China.
The title ‘Kubla Khan‘, no doubt, creates interest in the poem and the reader wants to know about what Coleridge has written about this great man. As the reader reads the poem, he feels how much the poet himself was fond of Kubla Khan’s impressive personality, and his adventurous and inventive nature. In the poem, Samuel Taylor Coleridge has described the most wonderful creation of the Mongol emperor Kubla Khan—a highly majestic and magical palace and its mesmerizing surroundings.
3. Kubla Khan: Poem Summary
The poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is in the form of a dream or vision about a grand palace of a famous ruler of China and its magical surroundings. Coleridge has constructed the poem into two parts. The first part describes Kubla Khan’s pleasure-dome and its beautiful and mesmerizing setting. While the second part describes the creative power of a poet and his poetry.
3.1 The First Part of ‘Kubla Khan’ by Coleridge
Kubla Khan, one of the greatest oriental kings, once ordered a magnificent luxury palace to be built for him in Xanadu on the bank of the sacred river, Alph. This sacred river flowed through deep and immeasurable caves in the hill and then, at last, fell into a dark, subterranean sea. Xanadu was surrounded up to ten square miles by walls and towers. It had beautiful gardens, winding streams, and trees bearing sweet-smelling flowers.
There was also a deep mysterious chasm that ran down the slope of a green hill across a wood of cedar trees. It was an awe-inspiring place. In fact, it was as holy and bewitched as the one haunted by a woman wailing for her demon-lover in the dim light of a waning moon. From this chasm, a mighty fountain gushed forth at short intervals producing an incessant roaring sound. The powerful outburst of water threw up huge fragments of rocks here and there on the earth. They sounded like the hailstones striking the earth or the grains spreading when separated from the chaff by a farmer’s flail.
The sacred river Alph flowed across a five miles long winding course through woods and valleys. Then, it entered the immeasurable deep caves and finally sank in the dead sea producing a loud noise. In this tumult of the river, Kubla Khan seemed to hear the voices of his ancestors foretelling him of the impending wars. The palace was built somewhere midway between mighty spring and the caves measureless to men. Its shadow seemed floating in the middle of the river. From the palace could be heard the mixed sounds of the water gushing forth from the spring and the water noisily flowing through the caves. The palace had sunny domes and caves of ice and its architecture displayed a rare skill or a miracle.
3.2 The Second Part of ‘Kubla Khan’ by Coleridge
Once in a vision, the speaker saw an Abyssinian girl who was playing on a dulcimer and singing a sweet song in praise of Mount Abora. If it were possible for the speaker to revive the sweet melody and music of her song, it would fill him with divine inspiration and he would feel enraptured and poetically inspired. With such divine inspiration, he would write powerful poetry to give a vivid description of Kubla Khan’s marvelous palace.
The speaker says that his imaginative palace would be so vivid that all the people who would listen to his songs would see it clearly before their eyes. They would then think of him as a mighty magician and would ask others to be cautious of his flashing eyes and floating hair. They would weave a circle around him three times and close their eyes with holy dread. Furthermore, they would say that he had been fed on honey-dew and the Milk of Paradise and warn one another to keep away from him.
4. Critical Analysis: ‘Kubla Khan’ by Coleridge
Kubla Khan is an edifice of the dream or vision of the poet about a grand palace of a famous ruler of China and its magical surroundings. It is an examination from a dream-soaked imagination, and at first sight doesn’t seem to possess any rational viewpoint and logical consistency. It looks like a procession of images, images colored in rainbow tints and expressed in the language of hunting melody. The poem also seems to have no story, no moral, no allegory, and nor even any logical consistency of ideas.
However, Kubla Khan is rational as well as logical. Both of its parts are connected to each other in a logical way. The poem is rich in symbolism, imagery, pictorial quality, and romantic elements. It is, in fact, a poem of pure romance, in which all the romantic associations—ancient forests, hills, measureless caverns, music of dulcimer, Milk of Paradise, demon-lover—are concentrated within a short compass to create a sense of mystery and awe. Besides, the poem also stands by the sheer beauty of its shadowy vision, and by the power of its wonderful music.
4.1 Kubla Khan: A Poem About Life and Its Complexities
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a poem about life and its complexities. The pleasure dome, indeed, dominates the poem. Besides, the setting of the poem is also carefully and vividly described by the poet. There is a description of a sacred river Alph that runs through ‘caverns measureless to man’ down to a sunless sea. The area through which it flows is, however, full of beautiful gardens, aromatic trees, winding streams, and ancient forests.
4.2 River: A Metaphor of Life
In the poem, the river symbolizes life. It runs, through Nature, towards a ‘lifeless sea’—death—which in some sense corresponds to life. In the background there is a hill, down the slope of which there is a ‘deep romantic chasm’. The poet has called this ‘romantic chasm’ a ‘savage place’, as holy and enchanted as the one where a woman cries for her demon-lover under a waning moon. Here the poem evokes supernatural elements. The river in its origin so beautifully blends the sacred, romantic, and demonic suggestions. This part of the poem evokes mystery and awe by blending romance with savage and demonic with sacred. Whereas, the pleasure-dome is a symbol of the materialistic nature of man around which his life (symbolized by a river) revolves before falling down into a sunless sea.
The following lines describe the ‘ceaseless turmoil’ as if the earth-mother breathing in ‘fast, thick pants,’ the fountain ‘forced’ out at short intervals, the fragments of hail striking on the earth, and the ‘chaffy grain beneath the flail.’ This description creates an impression of power, anguish, and tumult, the dynamics of birth and creation. Then, the river flows in a zigzag manner which refers to the complexities of human life. It finally reaches the ‘caverns measureless to man’—infinity and nothingness—and sinks with a great tumult which is death agony. So, the river is a metaphor of life, the birth-death time stream.
The tumult can also be such principles and forces that drive man to his end. Thus, through the description of an oriental monarch’s architectural exploits, the poet finds its way to create a symbolic and universal panorama of human existence. The dome of the palace rises high up to the glare of the sun. Its top is warm in sunshine, while its ground-floors are like caves of ice. It creates a sharp contrast between a person’s physical and spiritual life. Though, human beings are physically gleaming, but inside they are spiritually dead and cold hearted. This cold-heartedness gives rise to destructive forces such as war.
4.3 ‘Kubla Khan’ by Coleridge: A Poem About Poetic Potentialities
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is also a poem about poetic potentialities. The first part of the poem is a transcript of the vision so far as the waking mind retained it. The poet presents the pleasure-dome and the river with all its mesmerizing setting. While the second part of the poem is an attempt to realize the vision to give it a concrete form. It describes the act of poetic creation and the ecstasy of imaginative fulfilment. The poet talks about the creative power and potentialities of poetry which can build such a dome in the air. He imagines that if he could revive the damsel’s celestial symphony he would erect with his song an aerial fabric similar to Kubla Khan’s pleasure-dome. His hearers would be wonderstruck at his inspired appearance.
The poem shows that when inspiration comes to the poet’s heart from above and he becomes wild with joy. His hair starts streaming to the wind, and his eyes become rolling in a fine frenzy. A composer of lyrical poetry composes his admirable songs in a state of divine insanity like the Korybantes, who lose all control over their reason in the enthusiasm of the sacred dance. And during this supernatural possession, the composer is excited by the rhythm and harmony which he communicates to men. A poet can’t compose anything worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired. Thus, the poem is about the possibilities and potentialities of the creative power of a poet.
The two parts of the poem thus reflect life and its representation through an act of poetic creation. They also represent respectively the experience of the dreaming mind and its reaction in the waking mind. Kubla Khan in spite of its fragmentary character seems to be complete in itself.
5. The Pictorial or Descriptive Quality of ‘Kubla Khan’
Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Colreigde contains a striking pictorial and descriptive quality. Some of the poem’s images are highly sensuous and suggestive. These images include:
5.1 The Image of River in ‘Kubla Khan’ by Cloeridge
Among the pictorial or descriptive images of the poem include the image of the river. The river Alph flows in a zigzag course of five miles through ancient forests and valleys. Then it flows through the caverns and sinks in tumult into the sunless sea which represents the infinity of death. This image of the river and sea is highly pictorial and bizarre.
5.2 The Image of Fertile Ground and Chasm
The second image is of the fertile ground of ten miles surrounded by walls, towers, and with brightly lit gardens, winding streams and flowery trees. The third image is that of the chasm on the slope of hills covered with cedar trees. The poet describes this scene to be fit for a woman crying for a demon-lover. This simile gives the first supernatural touch to a dreamy situation. It associates an unusual worldly scene with supernatural elements.
5.3 The Image of Fountain and River
The fourth pictorial image is that of the fountain-and-river. It brings motion into stillness of the precious descriptions. The slow, falling rhythm of the earlier lines changes into a fast or rising rhythm. We are made to hear and feel the movement of a mighty fountain gushing forcefully out of the chasm on the slope. The sound of the words is aptly in agreement with the picture described (that is, the words are onomatopoeic). Seething (bubbling out), in fast thick pants (gasps), half-intermitted bursts—are the words whose sound is suggestive of the shaky and noisy movement of the water.
The use of the breathing image when the disturbed earth looked like a person breathing heavily. His chest rising up and coming down, makes us imagine the scene quite clearly. Another image is of the flinging up of the rocky stones by the rushing water which is like rebounding hail or the grains thrown up by the thresher. These two similes have made the violent movement of the water strikingly vivid.
5.4 The Image of the Movement of River
The fifth image is one of the mazy, zigzag movement of the sacred river falling into a ‘lifeless’ or still ocean. The poet calls the river ‘holy’ because traditionally they are the source of life. In the noise of the fountain and the river, Kubla Khan hears the voices of his forefathers prophesying war. Hearing mysterious and unexplainable voices is the second strong supernatural element of the poem. Then there is a pictorial presentation of Kubla Khan’s palace in the sea waves, shaking with the waves.
5.5 The Image of ‘A Damsel with a Dulcimer’ and Poet’s Frenzy
The sixth image is of the poet’s vision of the ‘damsel with a dulcimer’ within his dream. Now it is a compound image, with a multi-dimensional quality. We can visualize the picture of the poet on the one side and the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) girl with the dulcimer on the other. Then, along with the poet, we can also enjoy the music of the dulcimer and the song of the girl without even hearing them.
The poet presents himself as frenzied with joy, with flashing eyes and floating hair in the act of listening to the girl’s song. People are afraid of him and say that he has had heavenly food. He can see Kubla Khan’s palace as he listens to the Abyssinian girl’s song. All this description has a supernatural significance in the poem. The girl is from an African country and symbolizes the poet’s inward desire to be in touch with the exotic (the foreign and the unusual).
6. Theme, Style and Atmosphere of ‘Kubla Khan’ by Coleridge
The major theme of Kubla Khan is the effects of the dream of the romantic and mysterious on the poet’s mind or the whole being. Then, there is the theme of man’s interaction with nature and the power of the poet’s imagination. The imagery and symbolism of the poem, as discussed above, strongly bring out these themes. The poem belongs to the dream territory of art; it is a dream and conforms to the laws of dream-logic, producing a sense of satisfaction by its delicate suggestiveness. Its precision and clarity, use of highly emotive and suggestive words, and musical effect present the conjunction of pleasure and sacredness.
The alliteration of ‘k’, ‘d’, ‘n’, ‘s’, ‘c’, ‘f’, ‘m’ etc. throughout the poem impresses the meanings of words in our minds. The rhyming words like ‘ran’ and ‘man’, ‘ground’ and ‘round’, ‘hail’ and ‘flail’ also contribute a lot to the reinforcement of meanings.
The poem possesses a dreamlike atmosphere, with dim light or brightness. The river flows through caves and enters a ‘sunless sea’, a ‘lifeless ocean.’ Moreover, the ‘shadow’ of Kubla Khan’s palace in the waves is dim, in outline. The icy caverns are at the center of the poem with their flashy appearance not allowing the eyes to see anything clearly. In the poem, we do have the ‘sunny’ spots of greenery’ and the ‘green hill,’ but nowhere does the sun shine brightly.
In a nutshell, Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge leaves a magical and mesmerizing effect on the readers which they keep on enjoying for long in their ideas and feelings.