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Literary Devices in Kubla Khan
Coleridge’s Introduction and Subtitle: When he published “Kubla Khan” in 1816, Coleridge chose to add a new introduction and subtitle to the 1797 poem. In the introduction, Coleridge describes an evening spent reading Samuel Purchas’s account of Xanadu. Coleridge eventually drifted off into an opium-induced slumber, in which he dreamed up a resplendent vision of Xanadu. He awoke and, bursting with inspiration, began furiously writing down his vision in lines of poetry. His efforts were interrupted, however, by a knocking at the door, a “person from Porlock.” Thus, the final poem represents Coleridge’s subsequent attempts to reconstruct his “vision in a dream,” resulting, as the subtitle warns us, in a mere “fragment.” Or so Coleridge claims. The poet’s backstory to the poem emphasizes one of its main themes: the imperfection of art. Coleridge writes of having experienced a vision of perfection, an aesthetic ideal that—due to external circumstances—he was unable to reproduce through poetry. The truth is that, no matter the circumstances, artistic endeavors are flawed in some way or another.
Form, Structure, Meter & Rhyme: Coleridge did not adhere to any preexisting poetic form in his writing of Kubla Khan. The structure consists of three stanzas of 11, 25, and 18 lines, respectively. The meter fluctuates several times between tetrameter and pentameter, with occasional bursts of trimeter. The result is a loosely flowing poem, whose metrical shifts signal thematic shifts. This phenomenon is most apparent in the transition from the second to the third stanza, where the jump from pentameter to tetrameter accompanies a self-reflexive leap in the poem’s perspective. As with the metrical scheme, the rhyme scheme is loose and varied. Rhyme schemes that appear in the poem include ABAAB, ABAB, ABBA, ABBBA, as well as rhymed couplets, all of which interlace without reason or pattern. Coleridge’s largely scattered approach to meter and rhyme reflect the poem’s theme of the imperfection of art.
Literary Devices Examples in Kubla Khan:
"In a vision once I saw:..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
At this stanza break, the subject shifts from the imagined Xanadu to the speaker, a poet who brings himself into the poem. This shift thus represents a move to a separate, deeper layer of reality within the poem. In the first two first stanzas, we encounter the speaker’s imagination. In this final stanza, we encounter the speaker himself.
"And drunk the milk of Paradise...." See in text (Kubla Khan)
The poem arrives at a significant expression of its theme: Paradise, in the end, exists only in the imagination. The Xanadu we encounter in the poem is itself a fantasy of the speaker, who turns out to be a crazed man with “flashing eyes” and “floating hair.” Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is thus a poem aware of its own limitations as a poem, a quality that perhaps paradoxically adds to the poem’s richness and value.
"And all should cry, Beware! Beware!..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
In a surprising twist, the speaker imagines how he might look to those around him as he talks of Xanadu. The last several lines of the poem constitute the imagined exclamations of “all who heard,” an audience which can be said to include us, the readers.
"I would build that dome in air, That sunny dome! those caves of ice!..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
This final stanza is self-referential. The building of “that dome in air,/That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!” is precisely what Coleridge has done in the first two stanzas. In a sense, those first two stanzas become a poem within the poem, a dream the speaker awakens from. Coleridge structures the poem in this way in order to express the theme of the struggles of artistic creation. Just as Coleridge, according to his account, struggled to craft “Kubla Khan” from a dream-inspired outpouring, the speaker drives himself into a frenzy trying to “revive… That sunny dome! those caves of ice!”
"Or, a vision in a dream. A fragment...." See in text (Kubla Khan)
The poem’s subtitle foreshadows the theme of art as an endless pursuit of perfect expression. Coleridge calls the poem “a fragment” in a recognition of its limits. The reference to the “vision in a dream” refers both the the circumstances of Coleridge’s composition of the poem as well as the structure of the poem’s narrative: a dreamlike description of Xanadu is followed by a wakeful reflection.