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Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: An Analysis

The Poem

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.

Starting with the Poem

First published in 1816, in a collection entitled, “Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep,” Kubla Khan is universally recognized as a masterpiece of the Romantic Movement that triumphantly celebrates Coleridge’s mastery in dexterously exploring the realms of the impossible and the unknown.

Background

Kubla Khan is a visionary poem that according to the poet was composed in his opium-induced dream. Coleridge maintained that after reading about Marco Polo’s journey to Xanadu, he had gone off to sleep, had dreamt about the Mongol emperor, Kubla Khan, and astoundingly composed a 200 300 line poem, on getting up. However, an unexpected interruption by someone on business had broken that hallucinating state, with the result that the poem remains as a fragment. Now, if you want to know more, you may read the section wise summary of the poem.

Critical Analysis

The Themes

 The Conflicting Nature of Things

A striking contradiction between light and dark is apparent from the very beginning. The “garden” is picturesque, but the course of the river “Alph” is through dark caverns. The pleasure dome itself epitomizes this dichotomy; it has both caves of ice and “sunny” domes.

Perfection of Art

All the three visions, the “pleasure dome,” the “Abyssinian maid” and lastly the revolutionary poet, highlight the poet’s attempt to find perfection of art. The dome embodies an art that is a reflection of life with all its contradictions, the maid represents an art that transcends life, and the last image is a portrayal of an art that seeks to bring about a change in man through new ideas and hopes.

Man as both Imposing and Inspiring

Though Kubla Khan’s initial order to get a gigantic dome constructed and that of his ancestor’s prophesying war may be a reflection of man’s perennial attempt to dominate nature; in the last image, he is delineated as someone motivating, akin to heavenly beings and inclined to perform a noble mission.

Literary Devices

The Supernatural Element

In Kubla Khan, Coleridge makes an extensive use of supernaturalism to vividly depict his mysterious sojourn into unimaginable territories. Right from the descriptions of “measureless” caverns, the construction of the elaborate dome, the deep chasm suggesting the haunt of a bereaved woman awaiting her demon lover, the intense “turmoil” gushing out boulders, the “sunless” sea – everything seems unreal and forbidding. Thus, nature and manmade architecture, both assume unrealistic stature with the skillful fusion of supernaturalism.

Inversion

There are various instances of inversion that are employed by Coleridge to achieve a musical effect such as, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure-dome decree:” (lines 1-2) or “A damsel with a dulcimer/In a vision once I saw:” (lines 37-38)

Symbols

  • The “sunless sea” symbolizes a scary limit perhaps death.
  • The ageless “forests” may signify the universal validity of art.
  • The “romantic chasm” seems to denote the inexplicable depths of the human mind, the perpetual source of one’s dreams.
  • The “Ancestral voices prophesying war!” points at the voice of human experience and the message that wars are inevitable.
  • The conflicting features of the dome, the brightly lit top, and the icy caves, apart from strengthening the poet’s fantastic vision, may indicate the contradictory nature of life.

Structure

There are three parts in the poem of varying lengths and meters such as, the first four lines are in iambic tetrameter, line ten is in iambic pentameter, and line forty-three is in an iambic trimester. The poem has an irregular rhyme scheme.

Diction and Tone

Since the poem is an outcome of a dream, the diction and tone keep on changing. Initially the poet, by using words and phrases such as “pleasure-dome,” “gardens bright with sinuous rills,” “sunny spots of greenery,” establishes a calm and realistic environment and the tone though somber, is not overpowering. But in the second part, as the poet goes on to describe the “chasm” using words as, “savage place,” “turmoil,” the tone becomes intensely ominous. The pleasant tone returns again with the vision of the “Abyssinian maid,” and the narration of the diametric features of the dome.  Finally the last part ends on a note of emergency, with the invocation of an enlivening figure by words such as “flashing eyes,” and “Beware!”

Mood

The poem has an underlying serious mood that at times becomes mild and less intimidating.

Figures of Speech

Allusion

  • Kubla Khan alludes to the Mongol emperor of the same name, who was in reality Chingiz Khan’s grandson
  • Xanadu alludes to a city called “Xaindu” in ancient China
  • The river Alph alludes to the Greek river, Alpheus
  • Mount Abora alludes to Mount Amara in “Paradise Lost.”
  • Milk of Paradise alludes to the “nectar” that Adam and Eve lived on before being banished from heaven

Simile

  • In line 21, the upward movement of the “Huge fragments” is compared to “rebounding hail” and “chaffy grain.”
  • In line 18, the “turmoil” that goes on deep inside the chasm creates the impression as if the earth is breathing fast.
  • In line 10, the “forests” are said to be as old as “hills.”
  • In line 14, the “chasm” is said to be as “holy and enchanted” as the haunt of a grief-stricken woman in love with a demon.

Alliteration

There are many examples of alliteration such as line 4, “Through caverns measureless to man,” where the “m” sound gets repeated or line 53, “For he on honey-dew hath fed,” where the “h” sound is repeated.

Meanings of Some Words

  • Rills: Small streams
  • Girdle: Encircle
  • Dale: Valley
  • Waning: Decreasing size of the moon
  • Dulcimer: Musical instrument with strings
  • Honey-dew: Divine honey that turns one immortal
  • Holy dread: Frightful of something that is holy

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