Kubla Khan Summary

The Poem (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Kubla Khan,” one of the most famous and most analyzed English poems, is a fifty-four-line lyric in three verse paragraphs. In the opening paragraph, the title character decrees that a “stately pleasure-dome” be built in Xanadu. Although numerous commentators have striven to find sources for the place names used here by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, there is no critical consensus about the origins or meanings of these names. The real-life Kubla Khan, a thirteenth century Mongolian general and statesman who conquered and unified China, lived in an elaborate residence known as K’ai-p’ing, or Shang-tu, in southeastern Mongolia. Coleridge’s Kubla has his palace constructed where Alph, “the sacred river,” begins its journey to the sea. The construction of the palace on “twice five miles of fertile ground” is described. It is surrounded by walls and towers within which are ancient forests and ornate gardens “bright with sinuous rills.”

Xanadu is described more romantically in the second stanza. It becomes “A savage place! as holy and enchanted/ As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/ By woman wailing for her demon-lover!” It is inhabited not by Kubla’s family and followers, but by images from Coleridge’s imagination. His Xanadu is a magical place where the unusual is to be expected, as when a “mighty fountain” bursts from the earth, sending “dancing rocks” into the air, followed by the sacred river itself. The poem has thus progressed from the creations of Kubla Khan to the even more magical actions of nature. The river meanders for five miles until it reaches “caverns measureless to man” and sinks “in tumult to a lifeless ocean.”

This intricate description is interrupted briefly when Kubla hears “from far/ Ancestral voices prophesying war!” This may be an allusion to the opposition of the real Khan by his younger brother, Arigböge, which led eventually to a military victory for Kubla. Coleridge then shifts the focus back to the pleasure-dome, with its shadow floating on the waves of the river: “It was a miracle of rare device,/ A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”

The final paragraph presents a first-person narrator who recounts a vision he once had of an Abyssinian maid playing a dulcimer and singing of Mount Abora. The narrator says that if he could revive her music within himself, he would build a pleasure-dome, and all who would see it would be frightened of “his flashing eyes, his floating hair!” His observers would close their eyes “with holy dread,/ For he on honey-dew hath fed,/ And drunk the milk of Paradise.”

Coleridge prefaces the poem with an explanation of how what he calls a “psychological curiosity” came to be published. According to Coleridge, he was living in ill health during the summer of 1797 in a “lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire.” Having taken an “anodyne,” he fell asleep immediately upon reading in a seventeenth century travel book by 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.” He claims that while sleeping for three hours he composed two-hundred to three-hundred lines, “if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.”

When Coleridge awoke, he remembered the entire poem and set about copying it down, only to be interrupted for an hour “by a person on business from Porlock.” Returning to the poem, Coleridge could recall only “some eight or ten scattered lines and images.” He claims he has since intended to finish “Kubla Khan” but has not yet been able to.

Kubla Khan Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Kubla Khan,” tagged as a fragment, has two parts. The first is a mostly prose introduction in which Coleridge recounts the circumstances under which he composed the following lines of verse. He confesses to having fallen asleep after taking medication for a minor complaint while meditating upon a voluminous travelogue. Asleep, he dreams the images that, upon waking, he dashes down as the poem. Unfortunately, he is interrupted by a man from Porlock, a nearby town, and when he is again able to write, he recalls little more. Additionally, Coleridge announces that he is publishing this fragment, written years before, only at the behest of the deservedly famous (as he ingenuously notes) Lord Byron. Thus, in short order, Coleridge blames a book, sleep and dreams, drugs, a visitor, and Byron for this curious and cryptic poem rather than bravely taking responsibility for it himself.

Coleridge’s insecurities prevented his claiming a masterpiece. The poem proper is also bipartite. Its first section describes how, godlike, Kubla Khan creates an entire world, a kind of Eden, merely by utterance. His decree animates a world of fountains and rivers, caves and gardens, energy and peace, an enchanted and hallowed place that seems to represent the origins of life, consciousness, and art. Within this Eden, conflict, a fall, is predicted, for the emperor hears ancient war prophecies.

Abruptly, the poem switches to a dream of an Abyssinian dulcimer-playing maiden singing of a holy mountain. The poet declares that, were he able to recall her song, which in a way he has just done with lines that evoke her, he would also be able to duplicate Kubla Khan’s invention, which he has actually also just done in writing the foregoing, and his witnesses would attest to his inspiration, his art, and his prophecy.

What Coleridge has done is to celebrate his poetic artistry and its kinship with the creative and prophetic powers of religion and humanity’s deepest desires.