Themes in Kubla Khan
The Imperfection of Creativity: In the subtitle, Coleridge announces that the poem is but “a Fragment.” The poem is thus, as a work of art, destined to be limited and flawed from the start, downsized or splintered in its actuality when compared to the perfection of its initial vision. This theme of creative endeavors degrading from inception to actuality plays out in two arenas: the poem itself is acknowledged from the start to be “a Fragment” and the imagery within the poem—namely that of the river running through the palace—symbolizes the process of creative imperfection.
The Artistic Imagination: The poem is interested in the source of artistic inspiration as much as it is interested in the inevitable imperfections of art. In the poem, Coleridge offers multiple images of inspiration. There is “the deep romantic chasm,” the wellspring of the sacred river which runs through Xanadu. There is, in the final stanza, the “Abyssinian maid” who sings to the dreaming speaker of distant Mount Abora. Finally, there is Coleridge’s testimony as to the inspiration of the poem itself, a combination of Samuel Purchas’s geographical accounts of Khan’s kingdom, the opiates with which the poet had treated himself, and, finally, the poet’s dreaming mind.
Themes Examples in Kubla Khan:
"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.
"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!”
"A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
The image of the “sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice,” with its dualities of hot and cold, dome and cave, pleasure and discomfort, underscores the fantastical nature of Xanadu. Only in a dream can such opposites be brought together.
"chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
One of the steps in harvesting grain is known as “threshing,” which is a process of separating pure grain from the husk, or “chaff,” using a flail. This process is the origin of the idiom “separating the wheat from the chaff,” which refers to any process of discerning valuable things from worthless things. The thunderous river of the poetic imagination produces “chaffy grain”: plenty of waste along with the occasional gem. The imperfection of the artistic process is one of the poem’s central themes.
"woman wailing for her demon-lover!..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
These lines draw on a classic metaphor of artistic creation as sexual union and procreation—the “romantic chasm” becomes a womb-like image. The character of the “woman wailing for her demon-lover” gives the poem’s theme of the struggle of artistic creation a tone of sexual longing. The description of the river’s source as “a savage place” and the mention of the demonic lover mark a departure from paradise. The creative act is never ideal.
"deep romantic chasm..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
In the geography of Xanadu, the “deep romantic chasm” is the source of the river. Metaphorically, it is the source of poetic creation. In the poem’s imagery, it is clear that the act of creation immediately mars the ideal garden.
"A stately pleasure-dome decree:..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
In his 1816 introduction to the poem, Coleridge describes the episode of its creation. One evening in 1797, the poet fell asleep while reading Samuel Purchas’s description of Kublai Khan’s extravagant summer palace in Xanadu. Having ingested opium as a treatment for his poor health, Coleridge awoke to an upwelling of poetic inspiration. Lines of verse began to pour from his pen. Though he was interrupted by an unexpected visitor, a “person from Porlock,” Coleridge ended up shaping “Kubla Khan” from the opium-induced outpouring. Given the backstory, many critics read the poem as a meditation on the frustrations of the creative act.
"Kubla Khan..." See in text (Kubla Khan)
Kubla Khan—often written in English as “Kublai Khan”—was a Mongolian emperor who reigned during second half of the 13th century. His Yuan Dynasty was the dominant kingdom in East Asia in its time. Kublai was the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Mongol king whose hordes of horsemen swept across the Eurasian continent from the Pacific shores of China to the rivers and plains of central Europe. Kublai and his kingdom have captured the imaginations of Western artists and writers for centuries largely in part due to the writings of Marco Polo, the Venetian trader who travelled to China and befriended Kublai Khan.
"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.