“Kubla Khan” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The following entry presents criticism of Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan” (1816). See also, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Criticism" and Lyrical Ballads Criticism.
Along with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and “Christabel” (1816), “Kubla Khan” (1816) has been widely acclaimed as one of Coleridge's most significant works. While Coleridge himself referred to “Kubla Khan” as a fragment, the vivid images contained in the work have garnered extensive critical attention through the years, and it has long been acknowledged as a poetic representation of Coleridge's theories of the imagination and creation. Although it was not published until 1816, scholars agree that the work was composed between 1797 and 1800. At the time of its publication, Coleridge subtitled it “A Vision in A Dream: A Fragment,” and added a prefatory note explaining the unusual origin of the work. The poet explained that after taking some opium for medication, he grew drowsy while reading a passage about the court of Kubla Khan from Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage. In this dreamlike state, Coleridge related, he composed a few hundred lines of poetry and when he awoke, immediately began writing the verses down. Unfortunately, a visitor interrupted him, and when the poet had a chance to return to his writing, the images had fled, leaving him with only vague recollections and the remaining 54 lines of this fragmentary poem. Although many critics have since challenged Coleridge's version of the poem's composition, critical scholarship on the work has focused equally on its fragmentary nature and on its place in Romantic writing as a representative work of poetic theory.
Plot and Major Characters
The poem begins with a description of a magnificent palace built by Mongolian ruler Kubla Khan during the thirteenth century. The “pleasure dome” described in the first few lines of the poem is reflective of Kubla's power, and the description of the palace and its surroundings also help convey the character and nature of Kubla, the poem's main character. In contrast to the palace and its planned gardens, the space outside Kubla's domain is characterized by ancient forests and rivers, providing a majestic backdrop to Kubla's creation. It initially appears that there is harmony between the two worlds, but the narrator then describes a deep crack in the earth, hidden under a grove of dense trees. The tenor of the poem then changes from the sense of calm and balance described in the first few lines, to an uneasy sense of the pagan and the supernatural. There is a vast distance between the ordered world of Kubla's palace and this wild, untamed place, the source of the fountain that feeds the river flowing through the rocks, forests, and ultimately, the stately garden of Kubla Khan. As the river moves from the deep, uncontrolled chasm described in earlier lines back to Kubla's world, the narrative shifts from third person to first person; the poet then describes his own vision and his own sense of power that comes from successful poetic creation.
Despite the controversy surrounding the origin of “Kubla Khan,” most critics acknowledge that the images, motifs and ideas explored in the work are representative of Romantic poetry. The emphasis on the Oriental setting of “Kubla Khan” in contrast to the description of the sacred world of the river is interpreted by critics as commonplace understanding of orthodox Christianity at the turn of the century, when the Orient was seen as the initial step towards Western Christianity. Also typical of other Romantic poems is Coleridge's lyrical representation of the landscape, which is both the source and keeper of the poetic imagination. Detailed readings of “Kubla Khan” indicate the use of intricate metric and poetic devices in the work. Coleridge himself explained that while any work with rhyme and rhythm may be described as a poem, for the work to be “legitimate” each part must mutually support and enhance the other, coming together as a harmonious whole. In “Kubla Khan” he uses this complex rhyming structure to guide the reader through its themes—the ordered rhymes of the first half describe the ordered world of Kubla Khan, while the abrupt change in meter and rhyme immediately following, describe the nature around Kubla Khan—the world that he cannot control. This pattern and contrast between worlds continues through the poem, and the conflict is reflected in the way Coleridge uses rhythm and order in his poem. Critics agree that “Kubla Khan” is a complex work with purpose and structure, and that it is representative of Coleridge's poetic ideal of a harmonious blend of meaning and form, resulting in a “graceful and intelligent whole.”
When Coleridge first issued “Kubla Khan” in 1816, it is believed that he did so for financial reasons and as an appendage to the more substantial “Christabel.” The work had previously been excluded by Wordsworth from the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads and there is little evidence that Coleridge himself claimed it as one of his more significant works. In fact, when first published, many contemporary reviewers regarded the poem as “nonsense,” especially because of its fragmentary nature. In the years since, the poem, as well as the story of its creation, has been widely analyzed by critics, and much critical scholarship has focused on the sources for this work as well as the images included in it. Recent studies of the poem have explored the fragmentary nature of the poem versus the harmonious vision of poetic theory it proposes. For example, in an essay analyzing the fragmentary nature of “Kubla Khan,” Timothy Bahti proposes that the poet uses the symbol of the chasm to represent the act of creation, and that the struggle between the fragment and division that generates the sacred river is representative of the act of creative continuity. Other critics have focused on “Kubla Khan” as a poem that relates the account of its own creation, thus stressing its importance as a work that defines Coleridge's theories of poetic creation. It is now widely acknowledged that “Kubla Khan” is a technically complex poem that reflects many of its creator's poetic and creative philosophies and that the thematic repetition, the intricate rhymes, and carefully juxtaposed images in the work come together as a harmonious whole that is representative of Coleridge's ideas of poetic creation.
In the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge, language is used to convey images from Coleridge’s imagination. This is done with the use of vocabulary, imagery, structure, use of contrasts, rhythm and sound devices such as alliteration and assonance.
By conveying his imagination by using language, the vocabulary used by Coleridge is of great importance. The five lines of the poem Kubla Khan sound like a chant or incantation, and help suggest mystery and supernatural themes of the poem. Another important theme of the poem is that of good versus evil. The vocabulary used throughout the poem helps convey these themes in images to the reader. In the first two lines, Coleridge describes the ‘pleasure dome’ in Xanadu. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree Kubla Khan did not merely order, but decree that a ‘stately pleasure dome’ be built. This dome is evidence of how unnatural the place of Xanadu is, it has a ruler who ignores the unpleasantness that can be found in life.
The use of vocabulary challenges and teases the imagination into seeing what he, Coleridge saw in his dream. In Xanadu, there are not small streams, but ‘sinuous rills’ and wall and towers do not enclose the gardens but are ‘girdled round’. Coleridge’s use of language and vocabulary helps to convey the extent of his imagination.
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In the poem Kubla Khan, imagery is also important for Coleridge to convey his imagination to the reader. There are images of paradise throughout the poem that are combined with references to darker, more evil places. On example of this is the ‘demon lover’ that has bewitched the woman. Coleridge’s image of the ‘dome of pleasure’ is mystical, contradicting the restrictions of realism. Xanadu is also a savage and ancient place where pure good and pure evil are much more apparent than in the monotony of everyday living. By using images, Coleridge conveys the extent of his imagination to readers.
The structure of Kubla Khan is really in two parts. The first, which contains three stanzas, describes Xanadu as if Coleridge is actually there, experiencing the place first hand. The second part of the poem is filled with longing to be in Xanadu, but Coleridge is unable to capture the experience again.
The first stanza has a definite rhythm and beat and describes the beauty and sacredness of Xanadu with rich, sensual and exotic images. The second stanza depicts the savage and untamed violence of life outside of the pleasure dome. The disorder and primitive cycles of nature are mixed with images of evil and the threat of war is also introduced in the second stanza. In the third stanza, the life forces are entwined together to prove that beauty and danger cannot be separated from each other, despite what the ruler Kubla Khan wants. Kubla Khan is a self-portrayal by Coleridge who believes that it is he who controls the land of Xanadu. A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice.
The dome itself is a contrast with sun and ice, the sun symbolising all things good and the ice symbolising death and destruction.
There is a definite change of tone between the third and fourth stanzas. The fourth stanza no longer describes Xanadu, but Coleridge’s desire for control over his imagination, to be able to re-conjure the feelings and ideas of Xanadu. The two parts may initially seem unconnected, but the ideas in both parts of the poem link these sections together by showing that even the ruler cannot have control over the forces of nature, and the writer over his imagination.
Both parts of the poem deal with the attempt to create: Kubla Khan has built a pleasure dome and Coleridge is trying to use language to recreate the perfection of his dream with words. The poem is conveyed to the reader with the use of language and the structuring of the poem plays an important part in this.
In the poem Kubla Khan, Coleridge uses contrasts in the images he presents to his audience. Xanadu is idyllic, but also ‘savage’. This “savage place” refers to the creative state of mind, or even the sub-conscious state, which helps the writer become inspired. Coleridge mentions that it is a “holy and enchanted” spot where everything seems to fall into place for the author. However, in this poem, the inspiration hasn’t quite hit Coleridge yet, that is until the images of the moon and the women come into his mind. Soon after they are mentioned, “a mighty fountain” emerges and Coleridge’s imagination process seems to have been triggered. These images in the second stanza speak high volumes in the creative process.
By just panning his own made-up land, Coleridge had a vision of something that automatically set off his mind to help it write that much easier. Now the imagination can flow endlessly to wherever the writer wants to go. And it is now clear that art is made up of several fragments that are expressed easier by having numerous visions described through out the poem. Coleridge uses images such as a waning moon was haunted by a woman wailing for her demon lover
This image of a woman bound to evil brings the dark side of the supposed utopia to light. The peace and serenity is contrasted by the violent disorder of the river and the threat of war. The use of language in the contrasting images helps convey to the reader the extent of Coleridge’s imagination.
There are images of two women in the poem and they are a direct contrast to each other, one representing evil, and the Abyssinian maid exotic and beautiful. Yet the poem is a good example of appearances being deceptive. The ‘pleasure dome’ may be beautiful with its bright ‘sunny’ gardens and ‘blossoming incense trees’, but it is an enchanted eye of the storm. The garden is surrounded by savage destruction caused by the ‘ceaseless turmoil seething’. Xanadu is not ruled by what Coleridge wants, but by the raw, ancient corners of his mind, which are continuously struggling in their search for utopia. The ideal paradise is threatened by the darkness and disorder caused by the river Alpha. All these images are examples of the extent that Coleridge conveys his imagination to the reader.
Coleridge was a deeply religious man and the poem is filled with references to god and related ideas. Xanadu symbolises the fabled Garden of Eden, it is lovely and innocent, surrounded by evil and the constant threat of destruction. ‘Ancestral voices prophesying war’ could be likened to God’s warning to go near the tree, as Eve fell for the snake’s treacherous charm.
Through out this first stanza, Coleridge uses several apparent biblical references in “Alph,” “gardens,” “tree,” and even “river.” The word Alph refers to Alpha, or the beginning. The garden can be related to the Garden of Eden, and the tree could be the apple tree from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. He writes about a “sacred river” which could also be tied to several stories throughout the Bible including various events with water. The true reasons he used these words might go unknown, however I believe Coleridge included them in his work to enhance the significance of using one’s imagination. For example, by noting that these words have to do with the creation of man, one could assume that this poem’s paradise is in fact a more important place than it really is. He is adding his own power by making it whatever he wants, and he does it very cleverly with his own imagination and common Bible knowledge.
By describing these caverns shaped like domes with plenty of greenery to brighten up on one’s day, Coleridge sort of scans the area and gives us his train of thought.
Coleridge describes the river as ‘sacred’ on numerous occasions throughout the poem, and to Xanadu as ‘holy and enchanted’. This is yet another contrast, how can something holy be enchanted at the same time? Coleridge talks too of ‘miracles’ but mingled with the holiness, Coleridge refers to hell with his choice of language to depict what is outside the pleasure dome. The demons described are closely related to witchcraft and the closing lines of Kubla Khan describe pagan rituals that attempt to protect not only the reader, but also Coleridge himself from the forces of evil and the extent of his imagination.
Coleridge, having ‘drunk the milk of paradise’ desired and sought after the beautiful image of Xanadu and Utopia and his final stanza is his way to describe to the reader how badly he wants to go back there. By using his wide vocabulary to depict images and contrasts with the help of some literary techniques such as imagery and contrasts, Coleridge easily conveys
to the reader the extent of his imagination.
Even though this dome is Coleridge’s dreaming interpretation of paradise, the poem is visionary as it taps into the power of creativity and imagination. The fact that this poem was inspired by a drug-induced dream is one thing, but the dream aspect is more important. Coleridge is relentless in his attempt to recreate his hallucination in order to produce his form of art for others to enjoy. If you actually think about living in the world today without imagination or art, one would have to be a machine due to not be affected by all of the depressing events that go on in the world. This poem goes to show that true artists crave for readers to open up their minds a little more, even if it’s for only a couple of minutes. Coleridge also proves that by adding a little imagination, you are not only able to recreate anything, but you can fine tune things to however you want them.