Please explain these oxymoronic expressions used in "Kubla Khan": "sunless sea" and "lifeless ocean."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The numerous oxymorons that Samuel Taylor Coleridge employs in "Kubla Khan" emphasize the distinction between the terrestrial or mundane realms and the sacred realms (both heavenly and infernal). The poem moves along with a description of Kubla Khan’s “pleasure dome” and the natural landscape in which he built it, juxtaposing the human creation with the divine characteristics with which it coexists: the “sacred river” and the “savage place” that was “holy and enchanted.” The sacred river running into the “chasm” implies the classical Greek River Styx of Hades. The narrative includes the sudden upheaval that forces the river up into “a mighty fountain.” The oxymorons build toward the description of this temporary phenomenon, which subsides into the “lifeless ocean”; the speaker sums it up:

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Near the end, however, the poem abruptly changes course, as a first-person narrator enters and declares their ardent desire to match a vision they once had, of a beautiful damsel playing music:

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

Thus the poem switches to a lament on the simultaneous passion and impossibility of a truly creative act, which results from divine inspiration—drinking “the milk of Paradise”—but also brings danger, as the observers cry “Beware!” out of their “holy dread.” Overall, the incongruous juxtapositions, such as movement and stillness, sun and ice, convey the Romantic obsession with the inadequacy of mortal life and the perilous quest for immortality through creativity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial