Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Poetry Criticism)
“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.
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.
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.
*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
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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 liberality of Mr. Coleridge's muse, who, in the short space of three hours, brought, not a train of poetical ideas, to be afterwards embodied in appropriate verse, but a corps of well-appointed able-bodied lines, ready, without further training or discipline, for the service of Messrs. Bulmer and Co., Cleveland-Row. Mr. C. tells us, that the few lines (about fifty) which the intrusions of the man of business left him, “are published rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.” But it was poetry, and not psychology, which the public were likely to expect from him; and his vision, with all its concomitants and consequences, might have been suppressed without any public detriment. There seems to be...
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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 conceived, arranged, and finished in his sleep. He informs us that in the summer of the year 1797, being then in ill health, he had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair, at the moment when he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas's Pilgrimage. “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were enclosed with a wall.” Mr. Coleridge continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which...
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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 published, ‘not upon the ground of any poetic merits', but ‘as a Psychological Curiosity’! In these opinions of the candid author, we entirely concur; but for this reason we hardly think it was necessary to give the minute detail which the Preface contains, of the circumstances attending its composition. Had the question regarded Paradise Lost, or Dryden's ‘Ode', we could not have had a more particular account of the circumstances in which it was composed. It was in the year 1797, and in the summer season. Mr. Coleridge was in bad health; the particular disease is not given; but the careful reader will form his own conjectures. He had retired very prudently to a lonely farm house; and whoever would see the place which...
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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 consciousness could he distinguish between such composition and such reminiscence? Impressed as his mind was with his interesting dream, and habituated as he is (notwithstanding his accidental cessation from versifying) to the momentary production of verse, will he venture to assert that he did not compose, and that he did remember, the lines before us? Were they dreamt, or were they spontaneously poured forth instantly after the dream,
Without stop or stay, Down the rocky way That leads, &c. &c.?
His ‘psychological curiosity', as he terms it, depends in no slight degree on the establishment of the previous fact which we have mentioned: but the poem itself is below criticism....
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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]
In the summer of 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in ‘Purchas's Pilgrimage’: ‘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.’ The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not...
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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 Collins himself, the young Chatterton, Smart, and the other doomed bards of sensibility. These are the rich-haired youths of Morn, Apollo sacrifices who precede Coleridge in his appearance with flashing eyes and floating hair in the last lines of ‘Kubla Khan.’ In Blake's myth such a youth is a form of the rising Orc, the fiery dawn of a new Beulah or increase in sensual fulfilment, but an Adonis as well as an Apollo, a dawn that is merely cyclic in nature, an outburst of energy in which the organic and the creative are uneasily allied. The young poets of ‘Alastor’ and ‘Endymion', with their dark and glorious destinies, and their sense of both embodying nature and yet being imprisoned by it, are later forms of Coleridge's myth. The old...
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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; And here were forests ancient as the hills, Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
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,...
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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 note,2 the tendency has been to dismiss the later version and the elaborate story it tells as one more example of Coleridge's “self-justifying memory” in the face of accumulating unfinished projects.3 This may be as great a critical error, however, as the earlier, unquestioning acceptance of the 1816 note. It was by the expansion of his original comment and the addition of a title and a subtitle that Coleridge in effect made his chief revisions in “Kubla Khan” between the time of the Crewe MS. and eventual publication; changes in the verse text were negligible. And despite the defensive self-portrait that may emerge from them, his best-known notes and prefaces, along with other pseudo-editorial material, are most...
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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 apprentice in many styles, and already a master of some, as ‘The Ancient Mariner', ‘Christabel', and ‘Frost at Midnight’ all variously show. He was perhaps the first European poet to set himself the task of achieving a wide diversity of styles based upon models other than classical ones; the undertaking, after all, would have seemed barbarous nonsense to an Augustan, and unthinkable to a Renaissance poet. ‘Kubla Khan’ is … difficult … to interpret … but then by the late 1790s Coleridge might be said to have earned some right to be difficult. He was ready for ingenious solutions. Perhaps ingenuity is too pale a word to describe his poetic strength at this moment, at the height of his talent; but some of his solutions, like...
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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 principle” finished (and here is a “problem,” inasmuch as Coleridge himself refers to “Kubla Khan” as a “fragment”).
Conceivably, details could be added, to amplify one or another of the three movements. And some readers (I am not among them) might especially feel the need of transitional lines to bridge the ellipsis between the middle and final stanzas. But as regards the relationship among the three stages of the poem's development, its unfolding seems to me no less trimly demarcated than the strophes of a Greek chorus, or (more relevantly) the Hegelian pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Whatever may have got lost, the three stanzas in their overall progression tick off a perfect form, with...
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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 views of its meaning. Coleridge designated it a fragment in his prefatory statement, but critics differ just as frequently on whether or not it is a fragment as they do concerning its interpretation. Psychological analyses of it have often ranged far afield from what the text will adequately support; and psychiatrists, who have taken up the poem as the basis for psychoanalyzing its author, have added further to the conflicting views of its import. In recent years, however, interpretations have revealed tendencies toward unanimity on the symbolical significance of some of the elements within the poem. It is rather widely accepted now that the fountain, chasm, and river in some way suggest the human consciousness, especially that of a...
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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 continued solvency of the “Kubla Khan” industry. My researches had confirmed my suspicion that it is one of the most discussed poems in our literature and, as Charles Patterson, the writer of the PMLA article, began, “Perhaps no other poem of the time … has evoked more widely diverging views of its meaning.”1 The fact that the poem has evoked so many divergent and sometimes irreconcilable interpretations made me worry. Instead of celebrating the poem's malleability, as I had been taught to do in graduate school, I wondered if perhaps (1) the poet had not concerned himself thoroughly enough with efficient communication (believing as I do, and as I shall try to explain later, that a poem should be, in F. R....
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SOURCE: Bahti, Timothy. “Coleridge's ‘Kubla Khan’ and the Fragment of Romanticism.” Modern Language Notes 96, no. 5 (December 1981): 1035-50.
[In the following essay, Bahti evaluates “Kubla Khan” as it encapsulates the self-fragmenting quality of Romanticism.]
I wrote reflections that, in many ways, were even stronger than their origin.
[Der] negative Sinn … entsteht, wenn einer bloß den Geist hat, ohne den Buchstaben; oder umgekehrt. …
When Coleridge's “Kubla Khan” appeared in 1816, the contemporary reviewers spoke of the poem's “nonsense.” This “nonsense” was immediately related to the ostensibly partial character of the poem: it was not wholly a meaningful poem, but only meaningless music; or else, Coleridge had dared too much, and therefore succeeded at only little, or even nothing at all, that was meaningful.2 Even when the poem was soon judged very positively, the discussion remained within the confines of the question of partiality and meaning: “Kubla Khan” was so perfect because it was purely sensual music and imagery, and did not at all need to be more, or whole.3 In both cases the poem was considered as a fragment, while the possibility of...
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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 bring in a lightness and variation which is regularly superseded by a powerful and strong iambic movement. The effect of inevitability becomes stronger each time, until the final lines of the last stanza, which have the quality of a charm.
There is, however, a contrast of effect between the rhythmic movement of the verse, impressive in the subtlety of its patterning, and the visual imagery of the poem, which is not only hard to fix into a landscape pattern but is constantly contracting and expanding in the mind, moving between pictures of an objectively visible scene and suggestions of vast unseizable subterranean spaces and forces.
As a result, the reception of the poem will vary according to the degree of...
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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 context, soliloquy retains mimetic pretensions as part of a represented world, while the written conversation poem tends to draw attention to its own representational illusion. The poetic monologist is typically less concerned to describe the world than to reflect on the experiences that constitute it.
Coleridge, whose finest lyrics are representative of the Romantic monologue, writes most enthusiastically of Shakespeare's genius in connection with the great soliloquist, Hamlet. Perhaps because Coleridge identifies with Hamlet, monological forms characterize his strongest poems. Although the conversation poem does not inherently carry abnormal associations, the solitude it implies creates an opening for the aberrations of...
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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 importance was at first in some doubt. The Monthly Review of January 1817 is typical—its review felt the poem was ‘below criticism'—and the opinion of the Critical Review of May 1816, in its entirety, was that it was ‘one of those pieces that can only speak for itself.’ As for the British Lady's Magazine of October 1816, it rounded off five and a half columns on “Christabel” with the words. ‘“Kubla Khan, or a Vision in a Dream,” Mr. Coleridge describes as the real production of sleep: it is wild and fanciful.’
Most of the reviews adopted the same strategy as the British Lady's Magazine, and concentrated on “Christabel” to the near-exclusion of “Kubla Khan” and “The...
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Adair, Patricia A. “‘Kubla Khan’ and the Underworld.” In The Waking Dream: A Study of Coleridge's Poetry, pp. 108-43. London: Edward Arnold, 1967.
Explicates the imagery of “Kubla Khan” with particular emphasis on references to the underworld of Greek mythology.
Beer, J. B. “The River and the Caverns.” In Coleridge the Visionary, pp. 199-229. London: Chatto & Windus, 1959.
Provides an analysis of the symbolic imagery of “Kubla Khan,” in which the river and cavern images in the poem are viewed as representative of “dialectic creativity … in a fallen world” and Kubla is seen as a emblem of the “commanding genius.”
Beer, John. “Remapping the Roads to Xanadu and Highgate: Another Look at Coleridge's Reading.” The Wordsworth Circle 29, no. 1 (winter 1998): 25-30.
Comments on several different types of reading—ranging from “submissive” to “imperious”—and on the limitations of John Livingston Lowes's method of interpreting Coleridge's reading in his 1927 study of “Kubla Khan” entitled The Road to Xanadu.
Drew, John. “‘Kubla Khan’ and Orientalism.” In Coleridge's Visionary Languages: Essays in Honor of J. B. Beer, edited by Tim Fulton and Morton D. Paley, pp. 41-47. Rochester, NY: D. S. Brewer, 1993....
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