How can Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” be read as an allegory for imagination?

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Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's uses of diction and imagery transforms his poem "Kubla Khan" into an allegory for imagination. The first stanza introduces the setting of the poem and concept of the "pleasure dome" (2). Like the reader's imagination, the possibilities of the pleasure dome are limitless, and Coleridge uses the imagery of "caverns measureless to man" as a metaphor for the untapped potential of man's imagination (4). 

The next stanza of "Kubla Khan" speaks of "fertile ground" and "gardens bright with sinuous rills" (6,7). Coleridge's use of lush garden imagery within the pleasure dome suggests that man's imagination is not only fertile, but capable of creating great beauty. This stanza reveals the power of imagination to create, nourish, and sustain wondrous creations.

In keeping with the analysis of "Kubla Khan" as an allegory for imagination, Coleridge uses the third stanza as a warning that imagination unchecked can be destructive. Here, Coleridge's diction turns from fanciful to using words and phrases with darker connotation, revealing that imagination can also take man to "a savage place" (14). The human mind with its power to create wonderful ideas and places can also have a darker side; Coleridge uses the imagery of the "woman wailing for her Demon Lover" and the "chasm with ceaseless turmoil seething" to reveal the unsettling dangers of imagination, that the power to create can also be used to destroy. Coleridge ends this stanza by showing the reader that Kubla hears "ancestral voices prophesying for war;" and this too can be read as a product of man's imagination.

Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" was originally created from a fragment of a dream that Coleridge could remember. Even though his purpose in creating the poem may not have been allegorical, his careful construction of the poem through his use of diction and imagery reinforces the inspirational power of imagination.