“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.