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Analysis of Poem 'Kubla Khan' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke, 1795

Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Peter Vandyke, 1795

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a Summary of 'Kubla Khan'

'Kubla Khan' is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's celebrated visionary poem which explores the creative imagination by contrasting two worlds: an exotic idea of paradise initiated by the historic figure of Kubla Khan and a more personal poetic ideal sparked by the muse.

Different though these two worlds are they become interlinked through the pleasure-dome, the caves and warning voices. It seems there is a thin line between pleasures gained in paradise and the price to be paid for such creative energy.

  • The main theme is imaginative potential, realising the strength of dreams through poetic ambition.
  • Secondly, Nature contrasted with the creative impulse.
  • Thirdly, reconciliation of the opposites within the human psyche, for example, striving for pleasure, reaching ideals.

What strikes the reader as the poem progresses is the unorthodox rhyme scheme, which starts off in tight fashion but gradually loosens and weakens, only punctuated here and there with binding couplets and one tercet within the formal syntax.

The metre varies too, from tetrameter (4 beats per line) to pentameter (5 beats per line) with the odd trimeter (3 beats) and hexameter (6 beats). Feminine endings are frequent, where the extra beat falls away at the end of a line.

This inconsistent rhyme and metre, together with the complex narrative, has led to deeper study of the poem's structure. Some find seven distinct sections within, based on subject matter; others focus on the definite contrast between the first section (lines 1–36) and the second (lines 37–54).

There are several different forms of this poem. Coleridge's hand-written version in the British Library (1797–1804) has two sections or stanzas, written before the eventual publication in 1816. He was known to read it out to friends from time to time, but:

He did not print the poem for years, and when finally he did publish it, in 1816, he added a preface which described it as a mere ‘psychological curiosity’ and told an elaborate story about its composition. The poem, he says, was inspired by a sentence from the Renaissance historian Samuel Purchas: ‘Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall’. (What Purchas actually wrote was closer to the poem: ‘In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately palace, encompassing sixteene Miles of Plaine ground with a wall…’

-An introduction to Kubla Khan: or A Vision in a Dream, Seamus Perry, 2014

There is much uncertainty over why Coleridge waited so long before publishing this unusual poem. Did he think it unworthy of publication? Perhaps he only committed after none other than Byron suggested he do so, having read and admired it.

The poem was composed while Coleridge was resting in a farmhouse after a long walk near Linton in Somerset, England, in late summer 1797, although some put the date at roughly a year later. He had stopped to alleviate discomfort and put the poem together 'in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium, taken to check a dysentery.'

This reverie or dreamstate produced a long verse of 200–300 lines but Coleridge could only recall 54 lines of it, having been interrupted by a 'man from Porlock', a nearby village. The visit has gone down in literary history—anyone who interrupts the creative flow (of a genius) is said to be that person from Porlock.

Coleridge published 'Kubla Khan' along with 'Christabel' and 'The Pains of Sleep' in a small booklet form in 1816. Overall, it wasn't that well received, some critics thinking it incomplete, others saying it didn't really mean anything.

Over time, criticism waned. Although it is still thought of as strange, poets, writers and commentators from the Victorian age up to the present mostly warm to its descriptive magic and enigmatic tone.

There seems little doubt that Coleridge was directly influenced by Samuel Purchas's book Purchas his Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions (London 1613), when writing 'Kubla Khan'.

Other influences include Milton's Paradise Lost, Book IV, (see below) and the Bible's Old Testament, various books mentioning the God-given land flowing with milk and honey.

Coleridge wove all these elements into his poem, adding various exotic images and female characters, blending history and fiction, the impersonal and personal, past narrative, memory and would-be imaginary scenarios.

The overall tone is dream-like, fantastical, which reflects the poet's deep interest in dreamworlds:

The poet does not require us to be awake and believe; he solicits us only to yield ourselves to a dream; and this too with our eyes open, and our judgment perdue behind the curtain, ready to awaken us at the first motion of our will: and meantime, only, not to disbelieve.

-Biographia Literaria II 217–18

Kubla Khan

analysis-of-poem-kubla-khan-by-samuel-taylor-coleridge
analysis-of-poem-kubla-khan-by-samuel-taylor-coleridge

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Kubla Khan'

First Stanza

The well-known opening line brings an immediate exotic flavour to the mind of the reader. Xanadu is the real name of a now-ruined site in China, on the Mongolian Plateau, which encompasses the once capital city built by Kubla Khan (Kublai Khan), 13th century Mongol leader.

Coleridge as he sat and thought, inspired by the book of Samuel Purchas, used his opium-fueled imagination to invent other names and ideas as the poem progresses.

Kubla Khan certainly built an impressive city but was there actually a pleasure-dome constructed in Xanadu? The poet most certainly read of a similar type of building described by Purchas, made out of stone, reeds and held up by silken ropes. But no mention of a dome.

And the sacred river Alph is likewise fictitious as it runs through the caverns to the sunless sea. In these opening five lines the imagery and the regular beat ease the reader into the speaker's mind, into this imagined landscape.

Yet the picture beginning to form as we are led hypnotically into the foreground is anything but straightforward. A mysterious building, the pleasure-dome, has been built close to the sacred waters which run down to a darkened sea.

Although the initial creating of this landscape allows the reader scope for visual imagining, the words pleasure, measureless and sunless add an extra dimension that is both romantic and intriguing.

In contrast, as the stanza progresses, the reader is given an exact measurement, twice five miles, ten, girdled round (enclosed) by walls and towers. There are gardens, snaky channels of water (sinuous rills) running through. Exotic trees grow here, bearing incense (aromatic fragrances). Ancient forests are present too, with sunlit clearings.

This highly descriptive first stanza outlines a rich, mythical landscape created by a historical figure, Kubla Khan. Coleridge has used elements of fact and combined them with his own imaginings to paint what is a pastoral picture.

The rhyme and metre, together with initial enjambment, encourage movement and flow. As the lines expand into pentameters, so too does the description.

Second Stanza

The next 25 lines continue with more detailed description of the landscape, split into five main subjects:

  • the chasm and the woman's demon-lover
  • the fountain, personified
  • the river and Kubla Khan's ancestral voices of war
  • the ocean, lifeless
  • the pleasure-dome, a rare device.

The chasm represents that which is unattainable yet longed for. It is a dangerous place, covered from side to side (athwart) with cedar trees (cedarn), religiously symbolic.

Here is the wild feminine spirit (psychosexual?), Nature dressed in gothic style, expressing desire under the gaze of an emotionally depleted moon.

Then a fountain is forced out of this same chasm—the hidden, purifying power within a personified earth, quickly breathing (fast thick pants), dynamic and the source of the sacred river.

Coleridge's diction in the first 19 lines of this stanza reflects the violence and chaos inherent in Nature:

savage/turmoil/seething/forced/burst/flail/flung up/tumult

This is raw language, full of movement and energy and it all ends up in the sacred river which runs through those caverns beyond measurement before entering the strange sea in tumult.

This watery noise gives rise to the voices Kubla Khan hears, those of his ancestors prophesying war. There's an emotional journey being taken here, the element of water carrying the potential, releasing it into the sea, ready for recycling.

It's a journey of opposites—reality and fantasy, unknown distance and the measured, movement and stasis, pleasure and violence.

Third Stanza

The speaker, in first person, I, introduces us to the muse, a damsel playing a dulcimer (an ancient stringed instrument), a dreamlike memory. This female was Abyssinian—Ethiopian—and the subject of her song is a mountain, the imagined Abora.

Is this inspired by Milton's Mount Amara, as seen in Paradise Lost, home of the Abyssinian kings? It could well be. The difference is that Mount Amara really does exist. Again, Coleridge creates a new name.

If only the speaker could reproduce the song of the muse, it would inspire him to create a dome, the pleasure-dome, and everyone capable of hearing that song might see the dome - witnessing poetic expression at its height. Out of the speaker's heart, soul, mind, comes music so potent it could form an ideal.

There are potential dangers, for this poetic power could be awesome. There might have to be precautions taken, of a magical kind. Thrice (three times) suggests a Shakespearean influence, from the witch scene in Macbeth.

Is the speaker saying that the human face of poetic pleasure, the creator who has tasted the milk and honey of paradise, needs to have a spell cast on him?

Imaginative powers can get out of hand, but the dream persists in the wishful thinking of the speaker who seeks to create the harmony of the muse's song, the ideal structure that Nature so beautifully builds from and on.

What Is the Rhyme Scheme of 'Kubla Khan'?

The rhyme scheme of 'Kubla Khan' is unusual in the fact that there is no regular, consistent pattern of rhyme. The initial stanza of 11 lines starts off with four different full end rhymes:

abaabccdbdb

The prominent rhyme here is decree/sea/tree/greenery (b) but to work as a full rhyme it has phonetic challenges from two couplets (ran/man)(ground/round). For the reader, this brings both tightness and looseness, intense sound then an echo effect.

The rhyme scheme becomes more complex as the poem progresses, the second stanza of 25 lines for example:

efeefgghhjjffkaakllmnmnoo

Note that the opening five line rhyme scheme is repeated but following this is a sequence of four couplets which for the reader brings a rich intensity, which reflects the fountain's dynamic power. One of these couplets, (hh) has slant rhyme (forced/burst).

The next twelve lines roughly follow the loose and tight feel of the first stanza, the initial ran/man repeated before new rhymes are introduced in both couplet and alternated form.

Coleridge is being creative—stretching the limits of full rhyme, using echo and slant rhyme to produce twists and quirks into the poem.

As for the final stanza, here is the rhyme scheme:

ffppfbqbqfoffoeeo

Although there is much full rhyme in the poem, slant rhyme is used to brilliant effect by Coleridge—this is rhyme that doesn't quite fit fully, so the reader's ear, naturally attuned to full rhyme, is having to work a little bit harder. The effect is one of dissonance, mild but telling.

Note this sequence of:

cover/lover/ever/river/far/war/pleasure/measure/dulcimer/saw/Abora/air/there/Beware/hair

Throughout 'Kubla Khan', the full rhyme couplet plays a strong role in concentrating the reader's mind on certain sections.

What Is the Metre of 'Kubla Khan'?

First Stanza

1. In Xan / adu / did Ku / bla Khan

2. A sta / tely plea / sure-dome / decree:

3. Where Alph, / the sa / cred riv / er, ran

4. Through cav / erns meas / ureless / to man

5. Down to / a sun / less sea.

6. So twice / five miles / of fert / ile ground

7. With walls / and towers / were gird / led round;

8. And there /were gar / dens bright / with sin / uous rills,

9. Where bloss / omed man / y an / incense- / bearing tree;

10. And here / were for / ests anc / ient as / the hills,

11. Enfold / ing sun / ny spots / of green / ery.

This is a rhythmic start, regular iambic. The four beat sequence cuts off at line 7 then expands into five beats. Nothing outrageous here, just lines 5, 8 and 9 to note. The first four lines are iambic tetrameter. First syllable unstressed, second stressed. Classic iambic. The fifth line is iambic trimeter, shortened. Lines 6 and 7 form a couplet, tetrameter again. Lines 8 and 9 have 11 syllables, extra beat at the end. Or, the last foot in line 8 is an anapaest, dadaDUM, rising. Line 9 has the last foot as an amphimacer DUMdaDUM. Lines 10 and 11 are iambic pentameter.

Second Stanza

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 mi / racle / of rare / device,

A sun / ny pleas / ure-dome / with caves / of ice!

Lines 12–30 are mostly iambic pentameter with an extra (feminine) beat. These extra beats per line lengthen the reader's experience of this middle section and contrast with lines 31–34 which are the shortened tetrameter. An end pentamic couplet binds together with mostly iambic feet.

Third Stanza

A dam / sel with / a dul / cimer

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 Pa / radise.

The final stanza, lines 37–54, is basic iambic tetrameter, with a single trimeter at line 43 and the odd nine-syllable line. These lines form a chant-like consistency.

Titlepage of 'Kubla Khan', 1816.

Titlepage of 'Kubla Khan', 1816.

Milton's 'Paradise Lost' Book IV lines 221–238, an Influence on 'Kubla Khan'

Southward through Eden went a river large,

Nor changed his course, but through the shaggy hill

Passed underneath ingulfed; for God had thrown

That mountain, as his garden-mould, high raised

Upon the rapid current, which, through veins

Of porous earth with kindly thirst updrawn,

Rose a fresh fountain, and with many a rill

Watered the garden; thence united fell

Down the steep glade, and met the nether flood,

Which from his darksome passage now appears,

And now, divided into four main streams,

Runs diverse, wandering many a famous realm

And country whereof here needs no account;

But rather to tell how, if Art could tell

How, from that sapphire fount the crisped brooks,

Rowling on orient pearl and sands of gold,

With mazy error under pendant shades

Ran nectar,

'Kubla Khan' Influenced by 'Purchas his Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions' (London 1613)

A marvellous and artificial Palace of Marble and other stones … He included sixteen miles within the circuit of the wall … In this inclosure or Parke are goodly Meadowes, springs, rivers, red and fallow Deere, Fawnes carried thither for the Hawkes … In the middest in a faire Wood hee hath built a royall House on pillars gilded and varnished, on every of which is a Dragon all gilt, which windeth his tayle about the pillar, with his head bearing up the loft, as also with his wings displayed on both sides; the cover also is of Reeds gilt and varnished … The house itself may be sundred, and taken downe like a Tent and erected again. For it is sustained, when it is set up, with two hundred silken cords.

-Samuel Purchas, Purchas his Pilgrimage; or, Relations of the World and the Religions (London 1613)

Sources

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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