Analysis of The Poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Colerigde

The Poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Colerigde

Kubla Khan
Or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment

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.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
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.
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!

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!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
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.

Summary of The Poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Colerigde

This poem describes Xanadu, the palace of Kubla Khan, a Mongol emperor and the grandson of Genghis Khan. The poem’s speaker starts by describing the setting of Emperor’s palace, which he calls a “pleasure dome.” He tells us about a river that runs across the land and then flows through some underground caves and into the sea. He also tells us about the fertile land that surrounds the palace. The nearby area is covered in streams, sweet-smelling trees, and beautiful forests.nThen the speaker gets excited about the river again and tells us about the canyon through which it flows. Henmakes it into a spooky, haunted place, where you might find a “woman wailing for her demon lover.” He describes how the river leaps and smashes through the canyon, first exploding up into a noisy fountain and then finally sinking down and flowing through those underground caves into the ocean far away.

The speaker then goes on to describe Kubla Khan himself, who is listening to this noisy river and thinkingnabout war. All of a sudden, the speaker moves away from this landscape and tells us about another vision he had, where he saw a woman playing an instrumentnand singing. The memory of her song fills him with longing, and he imagines himself singing his own song, using it to create a vision of Xanadu.
Toward the end, the poem becomes more personal and mysterious, as the speaker describes past visions he has had. This brings him to a final image of a terrifying figure with flashing eyes. This person, Kubla Khan, is a powerful being who seems almost godlike: “For he on honey-dew hath fed/And drunk the milk of paradise” (53-54).

Synopsis of The Poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Colerigde

A recurring motif throughout Coleridge’s poetry is the power of dreams and of the imagination, such as in “Frost at Midnight,” “Dejection: An Ode,” and “Christabel.” In “Discovery and the Domestic Affections in Coleridge and Shelley,” Michelle Levy explains that Coleridge’s “fascination with the unknown reflects a larger cultural obsession of the Romantic period” (694).

Perhaps the most fantastical world created by Coleridge lies in “Kubla Khan.” The legendary story behind the poem is that Coleridge wrote the poem following an opium-influenced dream. In this particular poem, Coleridge seems to explore the depths of dreams and creates landscapes that could not exist in reality. The “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice” exemplifies the extreme fantasy of the world in which Kubla Khan lives.

Similar to several of Coleridge’s other poems, the speaker’s admiration of the wonders of nature is present in “Kubla Khan.” Yet what is striking and somewhat different about the portrayal of nature in this particular poem is the depiction of the dangerous and threatening aspects of nature. For example, consider the following passage:

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

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 (lines 12-24)

In “Secret(ing) Conversations: Coleridge and Wordsworth,” Bruce Lawder highlights the significance of Coleridge’s use of a feminine rhyme scheme in the above stanza, in which the last two syllables of the lines rhyme (such as “seething” and “breathing”). Lawder notes that “the male force of the ‘sacred river’ literally interrupts, and puts an end to, the seven successive feminine endings that begin the second verse paragraph” (80). This juxtaposition of female forces versus male forces parallels the juxtaposition of Coleridge’s typical pleasant descriptions of nature versus this poem’s unpleasant descriptions. In most of Coleridge’s works, nature represents a nurturing presence. However, in “Kubla Khan,” nature is characterized by a rough, dangerous terrain that can only be tamed by a male explorer such as Kubla Khan.

The last stanza of the poem was added later, and is not a direct product of Coleridge’s opium-dream. In it the speaker longs to re-create the pleasured-dome of Kubla Khan “in air,” perhaps either in poetry, or in a way surpassing the miraculous work of Kubla Khan himself. The speaker’s identity melds with that of Kubla Khan, as he envisions himself being spoken of by everyone around, warning one another to “Beware! Beware!/His flashing eyes, his floating hair!” Kubla Khan/the speaker becomes a figure of superstition, around whom those who would remain safe should “Weave a circle[…] thrice” to ward off his power. Coleridge conflates the near-mythic figure of Kubla Khan manipulating the natural world physically, with the figure of the poet manipulating the world “in air” through the power of his words. In either case, the creative figure becomes a source of awe, wonder, and terror combined.

Themes of The Poen Kubla Khan by Samuel Colerigde

Kubla Khan Theme of Versions of Reality

Versions of Reality

Coleridge makes this one easy for us since the subtitle of the poem is “a Vision in a Dream.” This poem is meant to make us feel like we are in an alternate reality. We recognize all the objects he describes, but the images he creates move in ways we don’t expect. People appear and disappear strangely, just like in a dream or a hallucination. Think of it as a scary Alice in Wonderland.

Kubla Khan Theme of The Transformative Power of the Imagination

The Transformative Power of the Imagination

Coleridge believed that a strong, active imagination could become a vehicle for transcending unpleasant circumstances. Many of his poems are powered exclusively by imaginative flights, wherein the speaker temporarily abandons his immediate surroundings, exchanging them for an entirely new and completely fabricated experience. Using the imagination in this way is both empowering and surprising because it encourages a total and complete disrespect for the confines of time and place. These mental and emotional jumps are often well rewarded. Perhaps Coleridge’s most famous use of imagination occurs in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” (1797), in which the speaker employs a keen poetic mind that allows him to take part in a journey that he cannot physically make. When he “returns” to the bower, after having imagined himself on a fantastic stroll through the countryside, the speaker discovers, as a reward, plenty of things to enjoy from inside the bower itself, including the leaves, the trees, and the shadows. The power of imagination transforms the prison into a perfectly pleasant spot.


Kubla Khan Theme of Man and the Natural World

Man and the Natural World

The interaction between man and nature is a major theme for Coleridge. It’s painted all over “Kubla Khan,” as we go from the dome to the river, and then from the gardens to the sea. Sometimes he’s focused on human characters, sometimes on natural forces. In fact, it’s difficult to get away from this theme in this poem. Think of this tension as a tug-of war between humans and their temporary constructions (buildings) and the seeming permanence of nature.

Kubla Khan Theme of The Interplay of Philosophy, Piety, and Poetry

The Interplay of Philosophy, Piety, and Poetry

Coleridge used his poetry to explore conflicting issues in philosophy and religious piety. Some critics argue that Coleridge’s interest in philosophy was simply his attempt to understand the imaginative and intellectual impulses that fueled his poetry. To support the claim that his imaginative and intellectual forces were, in fact, organic and derived from the natural world, Coleridge linked them to God, spirituality, and worship. In his work, however, poetry, philosophy, and piety clashed, creating friction and disorder for Coleridge, both on and off the page. In “The Eolian Harp” (1795), Coleridge struggles to reconcile the three forces. Here, the speaker’s philosophical tendencies, particularly the belief that an “intellectual breeze” (47) brushes by and inhabits all living things with consciousness, collide with those of his orthodox wife, who disapproves of his unconventional ideas and urges him to Christ. While his wife lies untroubled, the speaker agonizes over his spiritual conflict, caught between Christianity and a unique, individual spirituality that equates nature with God. The poem ends by discounting the pantheist spirit, and the speaker concludes by privileging God and Christ over nature and praising them for having healed him from the spiritual wounds inflicted by these unorthodox views.

Kubla Khan Theme of Time


There’s some strange stuff going on with time in “Kubla Khan.” When exactly does this poem take place? The Kubla Khan who actually lived belongs to the past, but is Coleridge recalling the Kubla Khan of the past, or someone who transcends our linear notion of time? If you are having a vision, are you looking backward or forward? Are you outside time? Whether or not these questions have answers, it’s evident that different understandings of time is a major theme of the poem.

Kubla Khan Theme of Nature and the Development of the Individual

Nature and the Development of the Individual

Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other romantic poets praised the unencumbered, imaginative soul of youth, finding images in nature with which to describe it. According to their formulation, experiencing nature was an integral part of the development of a complete soul and sense of personhood. The death of his father forced Coleridge to attend school in London, far away from the rural idylls of his youth, and he lamented the missed opportunities of his sheltered, city-bound adolescence in many poems, including “Frost at Midnight” (1798). Here, the speaker sits quietly by a fire, musing on his life, while his infant son sleeps nearby. He recalls his boarding school days, during which he would both daydream and lull himself to sleep by remembering his home far away from the city, and he tells his son that he shall never be removed from nature, the way the speaker once was. Unlike the speaker, the son shall experience the seasons and shall learn about God by discovering the beauty and bounty of the natural world. The son shall be given the opportunity to develop a relationship with God and with nature, an opportunity denied to both the speaker and Coleridge himself. For Coleridge, nature had the capacity to teach joy, love, freedom, and piety, crucial characteristics for a worthy, developed individual.

Kubla Khan Theme of Art and Culture

Art and Culture

Coleridge helps orient the reader by specifically mentioning music in a few places in “Kubla Khan.” Even when he explicitly reference music, we think it’s underscoring every line. Do you hear music in this poem? We definitely do, and we think he wanted his readers to as well. Whether the sound you hear is monks chanting in a cave, or the swelling of a symphony, we think music is all over this poem in the sounds it makes and in the way it moves.

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