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.


Footnotes

  1. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. 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!”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Samuel Purchas’s Purchas, His Pilgrimes includes, along with descriptions of Xanadu, an account of Mount Abora in Ethiopia, once the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia. According to Purchas, Mount Abora was a place of overwhelming natural beauty—another Xanadu, one might say. The Abyssinian tradition held that all the king’s sons save for the heir would be sent to the royal prison atop Mount Abora to live out their days. The king feared the prospect of revolt by the non-heirs. This notion of infighting in Paradise brings to mind again the conflict between Kubla and Ariq.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. The “Abyssinian maid” is generally interpreted as a representation of the poetic muse, and not a reference to a specific figure. The “dulcimer she played” is a variety of stringed instrument. Considering the Abyssinian woman’s role as poetic muse, the dulcimer may serve as an allusion to the lyre, a stringed instrument strongly associated with the poetic traditions of ancient Greece.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. In this image, we see the palace casting its shadow on the sea below, a representation of how paradise and perfection loom over the results of artistic creation. The shadow of the palace is a haunting figure of what could be.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. The “ancestral voices prophesying war” is likely a reference to Ariq Böke, a Mongol general who was Kublai Khan’s brother and enemy in war. The intended feeling in these lines is that of trouble brewing outside of paradise. It is a reminder of the real world.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Coleridge uses abundant alliteration in this line. Four of the seven words begin with “m,” creating a continuity of sound through the line that conveys the flow of the river.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. These lines display Coleridge’s control of rhyme. The poem uses several rhyme patterns throughout: most notably ABAB, ABBA, and AABB. To keep a broad linguistic palette, Coleridge often uses subtle slant rhymes such as “ever” and “river,” as well as “forced” and “burst.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. Notice how the diction, tone, and syntax in the following passage serve to express the subject of the stanza. Just as the river bursts forth and flows with a powerful energy, the poem’s language contains a similar burst of energy. The stanza begins with a sudden “But oh!” and includes numerous such exclamatory phrases, as well as long sentences which run across many lines.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. The phrase “sinuous rills” means “winding streams.” The word “sinuous” comes from the Latin “sinus,” meaning “curve,” which comes from the same root as the mathematical term “sine wave.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. In Western mythology, the garden is the classic symbol for paradise and perfection. The “gardens” here suggest the idealized fruit of creativity, or, symbolically, the poem in its perfect, unattainable state.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. Coleridge subtly maintains the allusion to the myth of Alpheus and Arethusa. Just as Arethusa’s underground escape surfaces in the form of a bountiful fountain, the Alph of Coleridge’s Xanadu rises from the “sunless sea” to feed “five miles of fertile ground” and bounteous gardens.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. The metaphorical material of the river continues here. Light and water are the two ancient metaphors for human thought. Water in the form of the sea is our fundamental metaphor for the unconscious mind—the soul, if you will—in all its depths. Light is our fundamental metaphor for conscious knowledge: hence, the “Age of Enlightenment.” Coleridge’s “sunless sea” is a perfect amalgam of the two, a representation of the inscrutable unconscious depths within each person.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  20. The image of the “caverns measureless to man” connects the Alphean myth to one of the poem’s central themes. If the river is the flow of consciousness—a classic poetic trope—the river’s underground flow becomes a metaphor for the unconscious, the source of the creative imagination.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  21. “Alph” is a shortening of Alpheus, or Alfeios, the longest-running river in the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece. As the Roman poet Ovid tells it, Alpheus was a river god who pursued the nymph Arethusa, who fled to the island of Ortygia in Sicily and turned into a fountain. The myth holds that the Alpheus river goes underground in the Peloponnese and resurfaces in Sicily.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  22. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  23. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  24. Xanadu, also known as Shangdu, was the capital of the Khan empire in China during the 13th century. When emperor Kubla Khan moved his administration south to Beijing, Xanadu became the “summer capital.” Because of its cooler climes, Khan would conduct his affairs from Xanadu during the hot summer months.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  25. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  26. It is interesting that the ocean is "lifeless." Since this is a fragment of a poem intended to be 200 to 300 words, it may be supposed that "lifeless ocean" foreshadows what is to come from the events seen by "voices prophesying war!"

    — Kay Morse
  27. This expression of just emotion due to Kubla Khan, "holy dread," confirms his powerful and god-like status as supreme ruler.

    — Kay Morse
  28. In symbology, three is considered to be sacred and to signify unity. This alludes to Kubla Khan's status as supreme ruler.

    — Kay Morse
  29. This may be an allusion to Kubla Khan's status as supreme ruler, who is just below the gods and who thus sups on "honey-dew melon," an allusion to the ambrosial food of Greek and Roman gods.

    — Kay Morse
  30. The implication is that this refers to Kubla Khan whom those hearing the recreated dulcimer music would see ("them").

    — Kay Morse
  31. Since this is a fragment poem of an original planned to have 200 to 300 lines, some references can only be inferred from what is implied. Here it is implied that "them" would be Kubla Khan and the "[a]ncestral voices."

    — Kay Morse
  32. It is implied that those who heard the recreated music would then also see the "dome in air" that the narrator would build.

    — Kay Morse
  33. He wouldn't build it in reality as Kubla Khan did but in "air," as music is heard upon air.

    — Kay Morse
  34. Caves that were so deep down, do deeply inward, so vast in all ways that man could not explore and measure their boundaries.

    — Kay Morse
  35. After the eruption of the "mighty fountain" of "sacred river" waters, a river course of five "meandering" miles was immediately developed.

    — Kay Morse
  36. Again indicating the slight, the momentary delay in the eruption of the waters.

    — Kay Morse
  37. Not immediately forced up but almost immediately. The next line explains that rocks, "fragments," were quite logically erupted ahead of the waters of the river "fountain."

    — Kay Morse
  38. The gushing waters of the river erupted right behind the "[h]uge fragments" of rock and earth that "vaulted."

    — Kay Morse
  39. Refers to the erupting "fountain."

    Paraphrase: Amid the fountain's swift half-intermitted burst ....

    — Kay Morse
  40. No woman here: Coleridge uses "woman"  only as a metaphor to illustrate or illuminate the "ceaseless turmoil seething" that in the next line leads to the "mighty fountain" erupting.

    — Kay Morse