August 13, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas
Kubla Khan
By: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1816)
Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.[1]

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan[2]
A stately pleasure-dome[3] decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran[4]
Through caverns measureless to man[5]
     Down to a sunless sea.[6] 5
So twice five miles[7] 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, 10
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.[8]

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted[9]
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted 15
By woman wailing for her demon-lover![10]
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 20
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.[11]
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion 25
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! 30
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, 35
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer[12]
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
     And on her dulcimer she played, 40
Singing of Mount Abora.[13]
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long, 45
I would build[14] 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! 50
Weave a circle round him thrice,[15]
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.[16]

Notes and Commentary

  1. Written in the summer of 1797 but not published until 1816, Coleridge claims to have had a laudanum-inspired dream inspired by his reading of Purchas, His Pilgrimes. In Purchas, clergyman Samuel Purchas discusses Xanadu an idyllic palace built by none other than Kubla Khan for a summer residence. Upon awaking, Coleridge wrote the following fragment. There would have been more, Coleridge explains in his preface, had he not been interrupted. He was later only able to recall “some vague and dim recollection” of the vision (Abrams 1986, p. 353).
  2. Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, was the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty of China which stretched from the Pacific Ocean to modern-day Afghanistan. Here, Coleridge’s Kubla Khan seems to represent the a heroic aspect of humanity, like poetic genius or imagination—one who can reconcile opposites and is all powerful in his realm. Like his namesake, Kubla Khan has built an impressive kingdom, but in verse. Additionally, the use of Kubla Khan as the poem’s focus also implies a despotism: a genius, but ruthless leader that perhaps, like Machiavelli’s prince, has his dark side. This duality is developed throughout the poem.
  3. Perhaps a reference to the opium that inspired this dream/poem.
  4. Perhaps poetic inspiration. The river is an archetypal image; here, Alph could be connected to the Greek Alpha—the first or original.
  5. Symbolizing, perhaps, the poet’s imagination. The whole poem has a dream-like quality, and this kingdom of Kubla Khan’s is born first in his imagination before being created, or written in verse. It could also suggest that place where inspiration goes if its not harnessed by the poet, as it is an ambiguous, even pejorative, image. Or, most simply, these are areas of the world not yet discovered, explored, or experienced by man.
  6. “Sunless sea” here contrasts with “sunny spots of greenery” in line 11 below, showing this dream-like land is both bright and dark, perhaps wonderful and terrifying (the “savage place” of line 14). The sun, too, is archetypal, standing for both heat and light, or passion and understanding. If a place is sunless, it lacks both, maybe like the world outside of Xanadu.
  7. This specific measurement of ten miles contrasts with the “caverns measureless to man” of line 4 above.
  8. These last line evoke a pastoral garden, which likely should elicit images of Eden that is sequestered behind “walls and towers” far from the chaos of the outside world. Yet, this garden is not tranquil for long.
  9. Here, the poem turns to more sinister imagery, beginning with the “deep romantic chasm”—perhaps separating Xanadu from the outside world of chaos. This chasm of the imagination could be a continuation of the “caverns measureless to man” from line 4. Notice that these darker images, too, seem to be the ones that are part of infinity seeming to reach up to disrupt the more exact dimensions of the more tranquil aspects of the pleasure dome—even maybe threatening its very existence (Perry 2015).
  10. Again, both pastoral and nightmarish, the poem brings together these extremes in its vision, like multiple facets of the human imagination. Here, mention of the “demon-lover” is followed by the ambiguous sexual energy of the fountain.
  11. This fountain seems charged with sexual energy that disrupts the river threatening chaos, yet at the same time engendering a creativity that seems to be a major thrust of the poem. In essence, Coleridge seems to suggest that creativity might also be destructive.
  12. The damsel suggests Kubla Khan’s earlier “decree” or creative act, and Coleridge links the two though subsequent repeated imagery.
  13. See Milton’s Paradise Lost (4.280–282): “where Abassin kings their issue guard / Mount Amara (though by this name some supposed / True Paradise) under the Ethiop line” (Abrams 1986, p. 355).
  14. Perhaps literally as this poem does figuratively.
  15. This is an image of worship, perhaps carrying more weight with those of us familiar with cults of personality and celebrity culture—maybe one of the negative effects of genius. Along the same lines, Bloom suggests that a “hidden theme” of the poem is Coleridge’s fear of his own poetic powers—that he both longed for and feared to be the poet of the closing lines (Bloom 2001, pp. 9–10). The youth in the last lines has rediscovered paradise, one who can perhaps repair the sins of man humanity (Bloom (2011, p. 5)).
  16. These last five lines imagine a figure, Kubla Khan maybe, who is potentially mad in his creative reverie. The figure of the creative genius is simultaneously beautiful and dreadful, a slightly unhinged figure who can travel where most fear to go. These lines seem to echo Plato’s Ion (ll. 533–534) that describe poets under the influence of the Muse: “like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind” (Abrams 1986, p. 355).

Works Cited

  • Abrams, M. H., ed. (1986). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 2 (Fifth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Bloom, Harold (2011). "Introduction". In Bloom, Harold. The Romantic Poets. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism.
  • — (2001). Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bloom’s Major Poets. New York: Chelsea House.
  • "Manuscript of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'". British Library. n.d. Retrieved 2021-08-14.
  • Perry, Seamus (May 15, 2014). "An introduction to Kubla Khan: or A Vision in a Dream". British Library. Retrieved 2021-08-14.