Kubla Khan Essay - Critical Essays

Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Introduction

“Kubla Khan” Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The following entry presents criticism of Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan” (1816). See also, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Criticism" and Lyrical Ballads Criticism.

Along with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and “Christabel” (1816), “Kubla Khan” (1816) has been widely acclaimed as one of Coleridge's most significant works. While Coleridge himself referred to “Kubla Khan” as a fragment, the vivid images contained in the work have garnered extensive critical attention through the years, and it has long been acknowledged as a poetic representation of Coleridge's theories of the imagination and creation. Although it was not published until 1816, scholars agree that the work was composed between 1797 and 1800. At the time of its publication, Coleridge subtitled it “A Vision in A Dream: A Fragment,” and added a prefatory note explaining the unusual origin of the work. The poet explained that after taking some opium for medication, he grew drowsy while reading a passage about the court of Kubla Khan from Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage. In this dreamlike state, Coleridge related, he composed a few hundred lines of poetry and when he awoke, immediately began writing the verses down. Unfortunately, a visitor interrupted him, and when the poet had a chance to return to his writing, the images had fled, leaving him with only vague recollections and the remaining 54 lines of this fragmentary poem. Although many critics have since challenged Coleridge's version of the poem's composition, critical scholarship on the work has focused equally on its fragmentary nature and on its place in Romantic writing as a representative work of poetic theory.

Plot and Major Characters

The poem begins with a description of a magnificent palace built by Mongolian ruler Kubla Khan during the thirteenth century. The “pleasure dome” described in the first few lines of the poem is reflective of Kubla's power, and the description of the palace and its surroundings also help convey the character and nature of Kubla, the poem's main character. In contrast to the palace and its planned gardens, the space outside Kubla's domain is characterized by ancient forests and rivers, providing a majestic backdrop to Kubla's creation. It initially appears that there is harmony between the two worlds, but the narrator then describes a deep crack in the earth, hidden under a grove of dense trees. The tenor of the poem then changes from the sense of calm and balance described in the first few lines, to an uneasy sense of the pagan and the supernatural. There is a vast distance between the ordered world of Kubla's palace and this wild, untamed place, the source of the fountain that feeds the river flowing through the rocks, forests, and ultimately, the stately garden of Kubla Khan. As the river moves from the deep, uncontrolled chasm described in earlier lines back to Kubla's world, the narrative shifts from third person to first person; the poet then describes his own vision and his own sense of power that comes from successful poetic creation.

Major Themes

Despite the controversy surrounding the origin of “Kubla Khan,” most critics acknowledge that the images, motifs and ideas explored in the work are representative of Romantic poetry. The emphasis on the Oriental setting of “Kubla Khan” in contrast to the description of the sacred world of the river is interpreted by critics as commonplace understanding of orthodox Christianity at the turn of the century, when the Orient was seen as the initial step towards Western Christianity. Also typical of other Romantic poems is Coleridge's lyrical representation of the landscape, which is both the source and keeper of the poetic imagination. Detailed readings of “Kubla Khan” indicate the use of intricate metric and poetic devices in the work. Coleridge himself explained that while any work with rhyme and rhythm may be described as a poem, for the work to be “legitimate” each part must mutually support and enhance the other, coming together as a harmonious whole. In “Kubla Khan” he uses this complex rhyming structure to guide the reader through its themes—the ordered rhymes of the first half describe the ordered world of Kubla Khan, while the abrupt change in meter and rhyme immediately following, describe the nature around Kubla Khan—the world that he cannot control. This pattern and contrast between worlds continues through the poem, and the conflict is reflected in the way Coleridge uses rhythm and order in his poem. Critics agree that “Kubla Khan” is a complex work with purpose and structure, and that it is representative of Coleridge's poetic ideal of a harmonious blend of meaning and form, resulting in a “graceful and intelligent whole.”

Critical Reception

When Coleridge first issued “Kubla Khan” in 1816, it is believed that he did so for financial reasons and as an appendage to the more substantial “Christabel.” The work had previously been excluded by Wordsworth from the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads and there is little evidence that Coleridge himself claimed it as one of his more significant works. In fact, when first published, many contemporary reviewers regarded the poem as “nonsense,” especially because of its fragmentary nature. In the years since, the poem, as well as the story of its creation, has been widely analyzed by critics, and much critical scholarship has focused on the sources for this work as well as the images included in it. Recent studies of the poem have explored the fragmentary nature of the poem versus the harmonious vision of poetic theory it proposes. For example, in an essay analyzing the fragmentary nature of “Kubla Khan,” Timothy Bahti proposes that the poet uses the symbol of the chasm to represent the act of creation, and that the struggle between the fragment and division that generates the sacred river is representative of the act of creative continuity. Other critics have focused on “Kubla Khan” as a poem that relates the account of its own creation, thus stressing its importance as a work that defines Coleridge's theories of poetic creation. It is now widely acknowledged that “Kubla Khan” is a technically complex poem that reflects many of its creator's poetic and creative philosophies and that the thematic repetition, the intricate rhymes, and carefully juxtaposed images in the work come together as a harmonious whole that is representative of Coleridge's ideas of poetic creation.

Principal Works

The Fall of Robespierre. An Historic Drama [act 1 by Coleridge, acts 2 and 3 by Robert Southey] (play) 1794

A Moral and Political Lecture, Delivered at Bristol (essay) 1795

Conciones ad Populum. Or Addresses to the People (lectures) 1795

Poems on Various Subjects [with Charles Lamb and Robert Southey] (poetry) 1796

Fears in Solitude, Written in 1798, During the Alarm of an Invasion. To Which are Added, France, an Ode; and Frost at Midnight (poetry) 1798

Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems [with William Wordsworth] (poetry) 1798

Remorse. A Tragedy, In Five Acts...

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Criticism

Paul Magnuson (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “‘Kubla Khan’: That Phantom-World So Fair” in Critical Essays on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Leonard Orr, G. K. Hall, 1994, pp. 71-80.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Magnuson theorizes that “Kubla Khan” shares many themes and images with Coleridge's “conversation poems.”]

Coleridge's Fame as a poet rests on the achievement of the mystery poems, “Kubla Khan,” “The Ancient Mariner,” and “Christabel.” The Conversation Poems, if they are known to a general audience, are regarded uncritically as minor efforts in a mode more properly Wordsworthian, even though they precede “Tintern Abbey” and clearly...

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Timothy Bahti (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Coleridge's “Kubla Khan” and the Fragment of Romanticism,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 96, No. 5, December, 1981, pp. 1035-50.

[In the following essay, Bahti examines the language and structure of “Kubla Khan” and notes that it is both a fragment and a whole.]

I wrote reflections that, in many ways, were even stronger than their origin.

—Derek Walcott

[Der] negative Sinn … entsteht, wenn einer bloß den Geist hat, ohne den Buchstaben; oder umgekehrt. …

—Friedrich Schlegel1

When...

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Billie Burnett King (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Coleridge's Mandala,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, pp. 404-10.

[In the following essay, King analyzes “Kubla Khan” in the context of Carl Jung's theory of the structure of the human psyche.]

The Age of Enlightenment was one of those recurring periods in the history of Western man during which Reason attempts to swallow all the affective states of personality and is, for a time, apparently successful. During this particular era, the intellectually elite firmly believed that Reason and his elder son, Science, would not only solve all of man's problems but also make possible the full realization of his potential. When the great god...

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Donald Pearce (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “‘Kubla Khan’ in Context,” in Studies in English Literature, Vol. 21, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, pp. 565-83.

[In the following essay, Pearce proposes that Coleridge's notebooks, letters, and early poetry all contain details that are strongly reminiscent of the landscape in “Kubla Khan.”]

In the Paradise Lost—indeed in every one of his poems—it is Milton himself whom you see; his Satan, his Adam, his Raphael, almost his Eve—are all John Milton; and it is a sense of this intense egotism that gives me the greatest pleasure in reading Milton's works.

—S. T. Coleridge1

...

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Edward Strickland (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “The Topography of Initiation in ‘Kubla Khan,’” Ball State University Forum, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter, 1981, pp. 69-78.

[In the following essay, Strickland builds upon the thesis that “Kubla Khan” is a mythographic account of its own creation.]

I

If it has become a critical commonplace that the subject of “Kubla Khan” is poetry, more specific questions of intentionality in Coleridge's symbolism remain open to debate. Does the poem speak of poetry in general or of itself in particular? Among recent interpretations, those of Suther, Shelton, Purves and Patterson suggest variations of the first alternative, while Chayes and...

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Stephen Tapscott (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “Pandemonium in Xanadu,” Romanticism Past and Present, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1981, pp. 23-40.

[In the following essay, Tapscott proposes that Coleridge's vision of Xanadu in “Kubla Khan” closely parallels Milton's Eden before the Fall, both in its description of the physical detail and in its moral ambiguity.]

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.

Kubla Khan decrees his dome in an Edenic setting. Mythic, exotic, and remarkably tangible for a visionary landscape, the first representation of Xanadu...

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Anthony John Harding (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Inspiration and the Historical Sense in ‘Kubla Khan,’” Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 3-8.

[In the following essay, Harding discusses the impact of the Old Testament on Romantic poetry, focusing specifically on “Kubla Khan” as an example.]

Coleridge's admiration for the poetry of the Old Testament is well-known. To Coleridge, the Hebrew poets possessed in exemplary form the power of Imagination, the “modifying, and co-adunating Faculty,”1 which long before the writing of Biographia Literaria took a central place in his critical thought. Their poetry, in contrast to that of the Greeks,...

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Michael Bright (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “‘Most Capital Enemies of the Muses’: War, Art, and ‘Kubla Khan,’” Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter, 1984, pp. 396-408.

[In the following essay, Bright surveys three ideas as the thematic sources of “Kubla Khan”—that art is spontaneous and unexpected, that art can only flourish in peacetime, and that great rulers create the peace that is essential for the creation of great art.]

Like some Victorian explorer intent upon discovering the source of the Nile, John Livingston Lowes pursued the manifold streams of Coleridge's reading to reveal the literary origins of “Kubla Khan,” and in The Road to Xanadu Lowes...

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John Beer (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Languages of Kubla Khan” in Coleridge's Imagination: Essays in Memory of Pete Laver, edited by Richard Gravil, Lucy Newlyn, and Nicholas Roe, Cambridge University Press, 1985, pp. 220-62.

[In the following essay, Beer interprets “Kubla Khan” as a ferment of competing languages that dramatize the conflicts the author felt.]

A close reading of Kubla Khan makes one aware of an irresolution in the imagery which stands in marked contrast to the homogeneity of the verse. Throughout the poem there runs a strong incantatory strain, within which we become aware of an ingenious poetic language. The feminine rhymes in the second, third and...

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Cyrus Hamlin (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Faults of Vision: Identity and Poetry (A Dialogue of Voices, with an essay on Kubla Khan)” in Identity of the Literary Text, edited by Mario J. Valdes and Owen Miller, University of Toronto Press, 1985, pp. 119-45.

[In the following excerpt, Hamlin notes that “Kubla Khan” remains a challenge for critics because of its visionary and inspired text, and that while it is a poem that displays the Romantic power of imagination it is also a text that stands on its own as a poetic statement.]

‘MINGLED MEASURE’ IN KUBLA KHAN1

Sameron adion asō: but the to-morrow is yet to come.

Kubla...

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Fred L. Milne (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Coleridge's ‘Kubla Khan’: A Metaphor for the Creative Process,” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, November, 1986, pp. 17-29.

[In the following essay, Milne explores the idea that “Kubla Khan” is a poem about the creative process, focusing on the landscape, the figure of Kubla Khan, and the vision of Xanadu presented in the work.]

I

Although debate continues over whether or not the headnote Coleridge published with “Kubla Khan” in 1816 should be regarded as a factual account of the poem's origin, recent studies have suggested that regardless of its basis in fact the headnote serves most importantly as what Warren...

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H. R. Rookmaaker (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “‘Kubla Khan’ in the Context of Coleridge's Writings Around 1802,” English Studies, Vol. 68, No. 3, June, 1987, pp. 228-35.

[In the following essay, Rookmaaker proposes that the key to understanding “Kubla Khan” may lie as much in Coleridge's other writing at the time he composed the poem as it does in its sources.]

Although most critics regard ‘Kubla Khan’ as one of the seminal poems of romanticism, there is sharp critical disagreement about its significance and meaning. While the general outlines of the landscape described in the poem are relatively clear, it offers only little indication concerning the significance of its imagery. The...

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Regina Hewitt (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: “The False Poets in ‘Kubla Khan,’” English Language Notes, Vol. 26, No. 2, December, 1988, pp. 48-55.

[In the following essay, Hewitt suggests that “Kubla Khan” was Coleridge's attempt at evaluating established ideas of poetic creation and ultimately finding them wanting.]

Readers choosing to understand “Kubla Khan” as a comment on poetry may deem most concomitant interpretive issues settled some time ago by George Watson:

“Kubla Khan,” then, is not just about poetry: it is about two kinds of poem. We have one of them in the first thirty-six lines of the poem; and though we do not have the other, we are...

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David Perkins (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The Imaginative Vision of Kubla Khan On Coleridge's Introductory Note” in Coleridge, Keats, and the Imagination: Romanticism and Adam's Dream, edited by J. Robert Barth and John L. Mahoney, University of Missouri Press, 1990, pp. 97-108.

[In the following essay, Perkins discusses the importance of the introductory note to “Kubla Khan,” noting that it guides the reader's interpretation of the work from start to finish.]

Coleridge's introductory note to Kubla Khan weaves together two myths with potent imaginative appeal. The myth of the lost poem tells how an inspired work was mysteriously given to the poet and then dispelled irrecoverably....

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Kathleen Wheeler (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “‘Kubla Khan’ and Eighteenth Century Aesthetic Theories,” Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 15-24.

[In the following essay, Wheeler identifies “Kubla Khan” as a poem that reflected the concerns and interests of its age. The critic contends that by the time Coleridge wrote his poem, many of the ideas, imagery, symbols, and references to Orientalism had, in fact, already been assimilated into the English literary tradition.]

Few poems of classic status in the English literary corpus seem more exotic to the modern reader than “Kubla Khan.” Coleridge's tantalising account of its origins combines with the Oriental imagery to tend...

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L. R. Kennard (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Kubla Can: Wordplay in Coleridge's Poetry,” Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 26, No. 1, Winter, 1995, pp. 8-12.

[In the following essay, Kennard focuses on Coleridge's use of puns in “Kubla Khan.”]

Summarizing Coleridge's attitude towards the pun, Sylvan Barnet notes three separate strains: “As a man in social situations he enjoyed puns and punning; as a philosopher he detested distortions of language; as a student of Shakespeare he found explanations for some puns and ignored others” (“Coleridge on Puns,” JEGP [Journal of English and Germanic Philology] 56 [1957] 602-609). Published more than thirty years ago, Barnet's article and...

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David Chandler (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Two Notes on ‘Kubla Khan,’” in Charles Lamb Bulletin, No. 102, April, 1998, pp. 64-5.

[In the following essay, Chandler discusses various sources that may have inspired Coleridge to write a particular line in “Kubla Khan.”]

‘I WOULD BUILD THAT DOME IN AIR’

In an important article of 1985, ‘“Kubla Khan” and Michelangelo's Glorious Boast’,1 Jack Stillinger made a significant contribution to our understanding of Coleridge's most enigmatic poem by demonstrating that the key line, ‘I would build that dome in air’, almost certainly derives from a ‘boast’, at one time attributed to Michelangelo, that...

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Douglas Hedley (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Coleridge's Intellectual Intuition, the Vision of God, and the Walled Garden of ‘Kubla Khan,’” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 59, No. 1, January, 1998, pp. 115-34.

[In the following essay, Hedley discusses “Kubla Khan” as a poem written within the visionary mystical tradition that draws upon the central Christian image of the walled garden.]

In his seminal work of 1917 Das Heilige Rudolph Otto quotes a number of passages as instances of the “Numinose.” Alongside those quotations from more conventional mystics, Plotinus, and Augustine, Otto refers to Coleridge's “savage place” in “Kubla Khan,”1 It is also...

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