Give an explanation of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan."

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This poem was actually the result of an opium-inspired vision of Coleridge that he experienced, then tried to write down, but was interrupted half way through, and forgot the rest. The poem is all that remains of this obviously very vivid hallucination he experienced. However, it is clear that there is a thematic unity to this work that has made this poem one of Coleridge's most famous works, and the strong rhythm and rhyme made it very popular as a poem to learn by heart in schools.

The poem begins by presenting the "pleasure-dome" that was built by order of Kubla Khan in Xanadu, which compares artifice with nature, as the surface appearance of this pleasure dome is compared to the "caverns measureless to man" that lie beneath. The resulting impression of this construction is very impressive, as the speaker describes it as a "miracle of rare device." He then experiences a vision of an Abyssian maid who is playing a dulcimer. The speaker says that if he could recapture that music he would be able to build again that pleasure-dome in all of its beauty and awe-inspiring ingenuity. As a result, people would treat him with fear and trembling:

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The way in which the speaker imagines others treating him explores the position of the poet in society, and also the act of creation. The "pleasure-dome" becomes a metaphor for artistic creation, and the way in which the poet is treated by others indicates the strange status that such inventive creators occupy in society. They are both respected but also feared, and just as the damsel and Kubla Khan are praised for their acts of creation, the speaker also recognises that to be a creator is to occupy a rather ambiguous position that brings both fame and respect but also hardship in the way that others relate to the creator.

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