What is the role of the imagination in “Kubla Khan”?

Imagination is important in "Kubla Khan," because the writer is trying to get the reader to form a mental picture of the world that pure reason alone is not equipped to understand. Coleridge was a Romantic poet, and this genre of literature used evocative imagery and scenery in order to inspire human beings at the level of the heart. His descriptions of the river and dome of Xanadu are not straightforward, but this is intentional.

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As other educators have pointed out, Coleridge’s poem is an example of Romatic poetry. As such, its primary function is to evoke an emotional response from its reader, which Coleridge accomplishes with his lush and effective use of imagery and adjectives. Because the author does not merely spell it out...

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As other educators have pointed out, Coleridge’s poem is an example of Romatic poetry. As such, its primary function is to evoke an emotional response from its reader, which Coleridge accomplishes with his lush and effective use of imagery and adjectives. Because the author does not merely spell it out for us, the reader is required to use their imagination in order to create a mental image of what the boundless and magnificent landscape of Xanadu looks like. For example, in all three stanzas of the poem, Coleridge makes reference to a mystical dome that he bore witness to. He says,

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree

and

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

and

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

This “stately,” “sunny” pleasure-dome is intersected by a mighty river, which Coleridge refers to as “sacred.” The river meanders for five or more miles, until it reaches the caverns which are “measureless to man.”

The Romantic movement in literature, which really began to flourish in the beginning of the nineteenth century, was less focused on the logic or sound reason that a piece of literature would embody than on the experience of reading itself. Romanticists, like Coleridge, used grandiose imagery taken from natural landscapes and religious iconography in the attempt to help their readers transcend the boundaries of knowledge and come to some greater understanding of the abstract world that reason alone was not capable of expressing. The evocative language used by Coleridge in this poem is an example of this kind of effort. In many ways, his writing is not straightforward, but this is done intentionally. He is trying to get the reader to imagine (hence, the importance of imagination) a world that transcends the physical laws and realities that make up his or her own.

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The role of imagination is both expressed with the poem “Kubla Khan” and plays a strong role in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s explanation of the writing process.

The unity of vision is extraordinary, from the first mention of Xanadu—a word that comes to stand for any kind of vast (“measureless to man”), magical territory. The “sacred,” “holy” nature of the place is contrasted with the sensuous purpose of the “pleasure dome” and the earthy, fecund qualities that the poet emphasizes. Parallel to the Orientalist, fantastic descriptions, however, is the impression of creativity as its central theme. The Khan’s decree can be likened to the poet’s written words, as a work of imagination crops up out of nothing.

From its original publication, the story of the poem’s composition has been part of its appeal. While Coleridge mentions having taken an “anodyne,” or laudanum, an opiate, he claims this was medicinal rather than recreational. Before falling asleep, he was reading a book about Kubla Khan; he was awakened a few hours later by “a person on business from Porlock,” and could never get back into the poetic dream. The travel account referred to the Khan’s command to build a palace with ten miles of walled garden. While asleep, some 300 lines of poetry came to him, not exactly as composition; rather “all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.” When he woke up, he had only written down 50 of those lines when the interruption came.

The identity of the interrupter, perhaps a bill collector, has been debated but never proved. In later years, the “person from Porlock” made their way into the popular, literary imagination, less as an individual but more as an excuse for procrastination.

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The role of the imagination is crucial in "Kubla Khan." It is a fine example of Romantic poetry and embodies all the various themes one associates with that literary movement. It is a work of heightened imagination, its vision dreamy and radically subjective, its setting exotic and strange, far removed from the rational, logical world of the European Enlightenment. It shows a reverence and passion for the force of nature, a sublime power in its own right.

All of these elements are there right from the start. One doesn't have to look too hard to find them. In line 3, we're introduced to "Alph, the sacred river." A river is not just a body of water to a Romantic like Coleridge; it is invested with almost supernatural properties. Nature is not something to be exploited by man; it is sacred and alive and must be treated with respect and awe. It is a fertile source for the Romantics and fuses with the poet's imagination to create a work of art.

Coleridge provides us with examples of great natural beauty:

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 nature is much more than this for the Romantics. It is also a place of darkness sublime and mystery unfathomable:
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
I've highlighted some key words to illustrate the point. For the Romantics, the enchanted world of nature can be dangerous and terrifying. Yet at the same time, it still retains for us a powerful, almost hypnotic attraction which incites us to explore its unfathomable depths while pushing back the boundaries of our own imaginations.

"Kubla Khan" is a prime illustration of what Coleridge called the "secondary imagination" at work. According to Coleridge, this is the faculty of the human mind, the poetic faculty, that not only gives shape to the world around us, but in doing so creates new worlds. We can see how the secondary imagination operates in the above excerpts from the poem with regard to nature. It acts upon the natural world around us, transforming both it and the poet in the process of creative production.

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