Study Guide

Kubla Khan

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Kubla Khan Essay - Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Poetry Criticism)

Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Poetry Criticism)

Introduction

“Kubla Khan” Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The following entry presents criticism of Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan” (1816). See also, Samuel Taylor Coleridge Criticism.

An image-laden lyric that evokes romanticized Oriental landscapes, “Kubla Khan” is—along with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and “Christabel” (1816)—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 poem have garnered extensive critical attention through the years, and it has long been acknowledged as a verse 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 its unusual origin. The poet remarked that after taking some opium for medication, he grew drowsy while reading a passage from Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage. concerning the court of Kubla Khan. In his semi-conscious state, Coleridge 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 his unfinished poem. While a number of critics have since challenged Coleridge's version of the poem's composition, critical scholarship on “Kubla Khan” has frequently focused on the fragmentary nature and dreamlike imagery of the work, which is considered demonstrative of Romantic poetic theory.

Plot and Major Characters

The poem begins with a description of a magnificent palace built by the Mongolian ruler Kubla Khan during the thirteenth century. The enormous “pleasure-dome” of the poem's first few lines reflects the Khan's sovereign power, and the description of the palace and its surroundings convey the grandiosity and imperiousness of his character. In contrast to the structured dome and its gardens, the landscape surrounding Kubla's domain is wild and untamed, covered by ancient forests and cut by a majestic river. While it initially appears that harmony and cohesion exist between these two worlds, the narrator then describes a deep crack in the earth, hidden under a grove of dense trees. In the second stanza, the tenor of the poem shifts from the balance and tranquility in the first few lines to an uneasy suggestion of the preternatural. A woman calls to her daemonic lover and the Khan hearkens to “Ancestral voices prophesying war.” Soon, the vast distance between the ordered domain of Kubla's palace and the savagery of nature—the source of the fountain that feeds the river flowing through the rocks, forests, and ultimately, the stately garden of Kubla Khan—becomes apparent. As the river moves from the deep, uncontrolled chasm of the earlier lines back into Kubla's world, the narrative shifts from third to first person. Afterwards, the poet relates his vision of a dulcimer-playing Abyssinian maiden and recounts the sense of power that exudes from successful poetic creation.

Major Themes

Despite the plentiful criticism it has elicited, most assessments of “Kubla Khan” remain unable to answer with any degree of certainty the question of the poem's ultimate meaning. In part due to its status as a verse fragment and the continued controversy surrounding its origins, “Kubla Khan” has tended to discourage final interpretation. Nevertheless, most critics acknowledge that the juxtaposed images, motifs, and ideas explored in the poem are strongly representative of Romantic poetry. As such, critics have found numerous indications of a thematic reconciliation of opposites in the poem. Similarly, “Kubla Khan” is thought to be principally concerned with the nature and dialectical process of poetic creation. The work is dominated by a lyrical representation of landscape—a common feature of Romantic poetry, in which landscape is typically viewed as the symbolic source and keeper of the poetic imagination. Guided by Coleridge's complex rhyming and metrical structure, “Kubla Khan” first describes the ordered world of Kubla's palace and then—with an abrupt change in meter and rhyme immediately following—depicts the surrounding natural world that the Khan cannot control, even as it provides the foundation of his power. This pattern of contrast between worlds continues throughout the poem, lending it both a purpose and structure that, critics suggest, represents Coleridge's ideal of a harmonious blend of meaning and form in poetic art.

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 William 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 compositions. When first published, many contemporary reviewers regarded the apparent poetic fragment as “nonsense” or “below criticism.” In the years since, the poem and the story of its creation have been widely analyzed, and much critical scholarship has concentrated on the sources of the work's evocative images. Pivotal among these works of criticism is John Livingston Lowes's pioneering The Road to Xanadu. The 1927 book-length study—devoted solely to “Kubla Khan”—details the poem's symbolic imagery based upon Coleridge's own readings of travelogues and other works. Although the limitations of this critical method have since been widely acknowledged, The Road to Xanadu continues to be a watershed in criticism of the poem and has done much to elevate the work's reputation as a subject for scholarly inquiry. More recent interpretations of the poem have explored both its fragmentary nature and the harmonious vision of poetic theory it proposes. Other estimations have focused on “Kubla Khan” as a poem that relates the account of its own creation, thus stressing its tendency to foreground itself as a work of Romantic art. Overall, “Kubla Khan” is widely acknowledged as a technically complex poem that reflects many of its author's poetic and creative philosophies. Despite its ostensible incompleteness, the work's thematic texture, intricate rhymes, and carefully juxtaposed images are thought to coalesce into a harmonious whole that encapsulates Coleridge's subsequently expressed ideas of poetic composition.

Principal Works

*Poems on Various Subjects [with Robert Southey and Charles Lamb] 1796

Ode on the Departing Year 1797

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

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

Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep 1816

Sibylline Leaves: A Collection of Poems 1817

The Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 3 vols. 1828

The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols. 1912

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

Osorio [revised as Remorse. A Tragedy, in Five Acts in 1813] (play) 1797

Wallenstein [translator; from the plays Die piccolomini and Wallensteins Tod by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller] (play) 1800

The Statesman's Manual; or, The Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight: A Lay Sermon (essays) 1816

Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (essays) 1817

Zapolya: A Christmas Tale in Two Parts (play) 1817

Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality, and Religion: Illustrated by Select Passages from Our Elder Divines, Especially from Archbishop Leighton (essays) 1825

On the Constitution of Church and State, according to the Idea of Each: with Aids toward a Right Judgment on the late Catholic Bill (essays) 1830

Specimens of the Table Talk of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 2 vols. (conversations) 1835

The Literary Remains in Prose and Verse of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 4 vols. (poetry, plays, and essays) 1836-39

Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare and Some of the Old Poets and Dramatists With Other Literary Remains (lectures) 1849

The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 7 vols. (poetry, plays, essays, and translations) 1853

Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 6 vols. (letters) 1956-71

The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 4 vols. (notebooks) 1957-73

The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 13 vols. (poetry, plays, essays, translations, and lectures) 1969-

*This work was revised and enlarged as Poems in 1797 and revised again in 1803.

Criticism

Augustan Review (review date 1816)

SOURCE: Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, edited by J. R. de J. Jackson, p. 226. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1970.

[In the following excerpt orginally published in the Augustan Review in 1816, the unsigned reviewer remarks on Coleridge's ostensible dream composition of “Kubla Khan” and decries the lack of poetic merit in this “psychological curiosity.”]

It is said of Milton, that often when he awoke from a night's repose, he would write down to the amount of twenty or thirty verses, inspired during the night. But, this, it seems, is nothing to the...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Scourge and Satirist (review date 1816)

SOURCE: Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, edited by J. R. de J. Jackson, pp. 273–77. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1970.

[In the following excerpted review originally published in Scourge and Satirist in 1816, the unsigned critic launches a diatribe against Coleridge's eccentric literary sensibility occasioned by the poet's offering of “Kubla Khan” as a fragmentary dream vision.]

If [the poetic lines of “Christabel”] be the effusions of Mr. Coleridge's waking faculties, what must be expected from the fragment of “Kubla Khan,” a production...

(The entire section is 1594 words.)

Thomas Moore (review date 1816)

SOURCE: Moore, Thomas. Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, A Vision; The Pains of Sleep, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Edinburgh Review, 27 (September 1816): 58–67.

[In the following review of “Kubla Khan,” originally published in the Edinburgh Review, Moore notes the circumstances of the poem's composition and describes its soporific quality.]

‘Kubla Khan’ is given to the public, it seems, ‘at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity’; but whether Lord Byron the praiser of ‘the Christabel’, or the Laureate, the praiser of Princes,1 we are not informed. As far as Mr. Coleridge's ‘own opinions are concerned', it is...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Monthly Review (review date 1817)

SOURCE: Review of Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Monthly Review 82 (January 1817): 22-25.

[In the following excerpted review, the unsigned reviewer describes “Kubla Khan” as “below criticism.”]

The fragment of ‘Kubla Khan’ is declared to have been composed in a dream, and is published as the author wrote it. Allowing every possible accuracy to the statement of Mr. Coleridge, we would yet ask him whether this extraordinary fragment was not rather the effect of rapid and instant composition after he was awake, than of memory immediately recording that which he dreamt when asleep? By what process of...

(The entire section is 329 words.)

John Livingston Lowes (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: Lowes, John Livingston. “The Sleeping Images.” In The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, pp. 356-402. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1927.

[In the following excerpt from his book-length study of “Kubla Khan,” Lowes accepts Coleridge's contention that the poem was the product of an unconscious vision, and explicates the work's dreamlike imagery using evidence of the poet's reading.]

Coleridge's own account of the genesis of ‘Kubla Khan’ is as follows. It was first published in 1816, with the poem. [Coleridge later dreamed another poem—this time a quatrain. For his account of it see the Notes.1]

...

(The entire section is 24432 words.)

Harold Bloom (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. “‘Kubla Khan.’” In Coleridge: The Ancient Mariner and Other Poems, A Casebook, edited by Alun R. Jones and William Tydeman, pp. 217-20. London, England: Macmillan, 1973.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1961, Bloom views “Kubla Khan” as a work of romantic self-recognition, and of the reconciliation of opposites within the poetic imagination.]

‘Kubla Khan’ is a poem of self-recognition, in which the figure of the youth as virile poet is finally identified with the poem's speaker. Behind Coleridge's poem is Collins' masterpiece of a poet's incarnation, the ‘Ode on the Poetical Character', and the dark fates of...

(The entire section is 1305 words.)

Richard Gerber (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Gerber, Richard. “Keys to ‘Kubla Khan.’” English Studies 44, no. 5 (October 1963): 321-41.

[In the following essay, Gerber traces a “fundamental dialectic principle” in “Kubla Khan,” featured in a coalescence of references to Kubla and the Roman mother-goddess Cybele, as well as in the structure of the poem itself.]

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;...

(The entire section is 9232 words.)

Irene H. Chayes (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Chayes, Irene H. “‘Kubla Khan’ and the Creative Process.” Studies in Romanticism 6, no. 1 (autumn 1966): 1-21.

[In the following essay, Chayes interprets “Kubla Khan” as one of Coleridge's most significant early statements on the process of poetic creation.]

In the evolution of “Kubla Khan” criticism over the past two generations,1 the most noteworthy change has been the quiet downgrading of the famous prefatory note in prose which since 1816 has accompanied the standard published text and has enormously influenced the way the poem has been understood. Since the discovery of the Crewe MS. and a much simpler, factual version of the...

(The entire section is 9057 words.)

George G. Watson (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Watson, George G. “‘Kubla Khan.’” In Coleridge: The Ancient Mariner and Other Poems, A Casebook, edited by Alun R. Jones and William Tydeman, pp. 221-34. London: Macmillan, 1973.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1966, Watson sees “Kubla Khan” as “a poem about poetry” and a premonition of Coleridge's subsequent critical statements concerning the transformative qualities of the imagination and his definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”]

Before he was twenty-six years old, and before the first edition of Lyrical Ballads appeared, Coleridge had made himself a poet of many languages: an...

(The entire section is 5036 words.)

Kenneth Burke (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: Burke, Kenneth. “‘Kubla Khan’: Proto-Surrealist Poem.” In Modern Critical Views: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 33-52. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1966, Burke analyzes “Kubla Khan” in the context of Coleridge's other “mystery poems”—including “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Christabel”—explaining its linguistic references, mythic patterns of death and rebirth, and underlying unity.]

Let's begin at the heart of the matter, and take up the “problems” afterwards. Count me among those who would view this poem both as a marvel, and as “in...

(The entire section is 8842 words.)

Charles I. Patterson Jr. (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Patterson, Charles I., Jr. “The Daemonic in ‘Kubla Khan’: Toward Interpretation.” PMLA 89, no. 5 (October 1974): 1033-42.

[In the following essay, Patterson concentrates on the “daemonic” element in “Kubla Khan,” linking the work with a Platonic view of the inspired or “possessed” poet, which the critic contends is central to an interpretation of the poem.]

As is well known, there are strong differences of opinion concerning both what Coleridge's “Kubla Khan” expresses as a whole and the symbolic import of major elements within the poem. Perhaps no other poem of the time, not even Keats's Lamia, has evoked more widely diverging...

(The entire section is 8108 words.)

Richard Hoffpauir (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Hoffpauir, Richard. “‘Kubla Khan’ and the Critics: Romantic Madness as Poetic Theme and Critical Response.” English Studies in Canada 2, no. 4 (winter 1976): 402-22.

[In the following essay, Hoffpauir surveys critical estimates of “Kubla Khan” since its first publication, arguing that the poem is “imagistically incoherent,” formally “imprecise,” and fails to live up to the designation of great poetry by which generations of scholars have regarded it.]

When the October 1974 issue of PMLA contained yet another article on “Kubla Khan” with the all too familiar subtitle, “Toward Interpretation,” I was reminded of and impressed by...

(The entire section is 10039 words.)

John Beer (essay date 1985)

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

[In the following excerpt, Beer offers perspectives on “Kubla Khan” as a work about poetic genius.]

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 fourth stanzas...

(The entire section is 11687 words.)

Ken Frieden (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Frieden, Ken. “Conversational Pretense in ‘Kubla Khan.’” In Modern Critical Views: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 209-16. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Frieden presents a rhetorical analysis of “Kubla Khan” as it both demonstrates and undercuts Coleridge's conversational poetic mode.]

Coleridge's conversation poems extend the conventions of dramatic soliloquy to an apparently autonomous lyrical form. Dramatic soliloquy and poetic monologue both generate illusions of individual speech, yet the difference in genre has decisive implications. In the dramatic...

(The entire section is 3289 words.)

Stefan Ball (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Ball, Stefan. “Coleridge's Ancestral Voices.” Contemporary Review 278, no. 1624 (May 2001): 298-300.

[In the following essay, Ball comments on the ensuing debate over the meaning of “Kubla Khan,” particularly as it reflects on the past, present, and future of literary scholarship and textual interpretation.]

We all know now that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan” is a masterpiece. But how do we know this? And has it always been known?

“Kubla Khan” was first published in 1816 in a booklet that also contained “Christabel” and “The Pains of Sleep.” Looking back at the first reviews, it is clear that the poem's...

(The entire section is 1464 words.)