Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Summary and Critical AnalysisKubla Khan was written in 1798 but not published until 1816. It was then issued in a pamphlet containing Christabel and The Pains of Sleep. It is one of those three poems which have made Coleridge, one of the greatest poets of England, the other two being The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge himself describes this poem as the fragment of a dream, a vision seen perhaps under the influence of opium—which he saw when he had fallen asleep after reading the account of Kubla Khan in an old book of travels written by Purchas. Kubla Khan is a brilliant achievement in the field of supernatural poetry.
Coleridge beautifully imagined and skillfully described what he had imagined about a palace about which he had read. He has achieved remarkable success in making the description lively and complete. He writes as if he has seen it before him.
The poem begins with the description of the kingdom of Kubla Khan. The action takes place in the unknown Xanadu (a mythical city). Kubla Khan was the powerful ruler who could create his pleasure dome by a mere order. Alpha was the sacred river that passed through Xanadu. It followed through the measureless caverns (caves) to the sunless sea. There were gardens in which streams were following in a zigzag manner. The gardens had many flowers with sweet smells and the forests had many spots of greenery. The poet gives a beautiful description of the remote and distant land cape of Xanadu.
There was a wonderful chasm sloping down the green hill. The cedar trees were growing on both sides of the chasm. The place was visited by fairies and demons. Coleridge then gives a medieval tale of love and romance. When the moon declined in the night it was visited by a woman. She was sad for her lover. Form the chasm shot up a fountain violently. It threw up stones. They were falling down in every direction. The sacred river Alpha ran through the woods and dales. Then it reached the unfathomable caverns and sank noisily into a lifeless ocean with a tumult. In that tumult Kubla Khan heard the voices of his ancestors. They warned him of approaching war and danger.
In the second part of the poem Coleridge describes the pleasure dome of Kubla Khan. Its shadow floated midway on the waves. There was mixed music of the fountains as well as of the caves. It was bright with sunlight and also had caves of ice. Then the poet tells the reader about his vision. In his vision he saw an Abyssinian maid playing upon her dulcimer. The poet desires to revive their symphony and song. Her music world inspires with divine frenzy. With the divine frenzy he would recreate all the charm of Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome. The poet would be divinely inspired so people would draw a circle around him, and close their eyes with divine fear. The poet must have fed on honeydew and drunk the milk of paradise.
The supreme strength of Coleridge as a poet lay in his marvelous dream faculty; one might say that the dream faculty lay at the root of his greatness as a poet and his weakness as a man." It is this dream element which makes Kubla Khan a thing of wonder in English poetry. Actually the poem had its origin in a dream. One morning Coleridge fell asleep in his chair after taking a dose of opium when he was reading about Kubla Khan in Purchas' Pilgrimage. In his dream he composed, as he himself believes, about two to three hundred lines. On awakening, he appeared to have a distinct recollection of the whole and instantly and eagerly started writing down the lines. When he had written fifty lines he was unfortunately interrupted by a man who had come to him on some business, and detained by him above an hour. On his return to his room, he found that the rest of the dream had passed away from his memory and therefore he could never finish the poem. So the poem is only a dream fragment. In itself the poem possesses the qualities of a dream. It has no logical consistency of ideas. It is a procession of images expressed in language of haunting melody. It contains no story, no thought, no moral, no allegory or symbolism. It is appreciated for its shadowy vision and haunting music.
Kubla Khan is a poem of pure romance. All the romantic associations are concentrated in this short poem. It contains many sensuous phrases and pictures like bright gardens, incense bearing trees laden with blossoms, sunny spots of greenery etc. Then again the description of the Abyssinian maid is very romantic in character:
''A damsel with dulcimer In a vision once I saw: It was an Abyssinian maid, And on her dulcimec she played, Singing of Mount Agora."
Supernaturalism is also a romantic quality. Kubla Khan is a supernatural poem, based on a dream. There are images and expressions in it which are supernatural in character and create an atmosphere of mystery and awe: for example 'caverns measure-less to man', 'a sunless sea', 'that deep romantic chasm' etc. Kubla Khan is a triumph of supernaturalism. It transports us out of the world of everyday life into a world of wonder and romance.
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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. 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 are 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 symbolizing all things good and the ice symbolizing 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 recall 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. 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 All.
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 symbolizes 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 Gods warning to go near the tree, as Eve fell for the snakes treacherous charm. 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.
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