In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan," how regular and appropriate are the rhyme scheme and the meter?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The rhyme scheme of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” is highly irregular and unpredictable and follows no obvious pattern.  Consider, for example, the first thirty-six lines of the poem, which rhyme as follows:



Couplets are sometimes used (for example: CC), alternating pairs are sometimes used (for example: EBEB), and other patterns are sometimes employed, but one never senses that the rhyme scheme is at all conventional or traditional.  In fact, things become even more unpredictable in lines 37-54.  The highly inventive and unpredictable rhyme scheme of this poem seems perfectly appropriate to a work about freedom, creativity, and strange powers.

The poem opens with a line of regular iambic rhythm, in which the odd syllables are unaccented and the even syllables are accented: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan.” This four-foot iambic pattern is followed again in lines 2-4.  However, the iambic tetrameter pattern is suddenly, and appropriately, disrupted in line 5: “Down to a sunless sea.” Here there is an abrupt shift from eight syllables per line to only six, and the first syllable is accented, rather than the second.  It is almost as if the verse itself also plunges “down.” In any case, the word “Down” gets maximum emphasis because of the sudden switch, as does the entire line.

In lines 6 and 7, the pattern of eight syllables per line resumes. Then, in lines 8 and 9, eleven syllables appear per line, and in lines 10-11, ten syllables appear per line.  In other words, in the first major section of the poem, Coleridge uses greatly unpredictable shifts in line lengths. He also occasionally uses emphatic variations from regular iambic meter.  Thus, in the phrase “twice five miles” each syllable seems to have the same strong accent – an unusual metrical pattern that emphasizes the great size of the ground the poet is discussing.

Other examples of unusual uses of meter that emphasize key words are “Down” (13) and “Huge” (21).  Line 25 is especially interesting in its rhythms and might be scanned as follows:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

The pattern used here thoroughly disrupts the basically predictable iambic rhythms used elsewhere in the poem.

All these examples (and many more that might be cited) suggest the extreme attention Coleridge paid to sound effects in this text, which is one of the most musical poems in the English language.