Kubla Khan Summary

Kubla Khan” is an 1816 poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that describes the palace of the famed Mongol emperor Kubla Khan.

  • The first two stanzas depict the beautiful but mysterious pleasure-dome that Kubla Khan built in Xanadu. The palace grounds include the river Alph, which surges powerfully before plunging down below the earth.
  • In the final stanza, the speaker remembers the lovely music of an Abyssinian maid. He states that if he could recreate that music within himself, then he would build a pleasure-dome like Kubla Khan’s.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The speaker begins in the third-person voice with the tale of the lavish palace and grounds built by famed emperor Kubla Khan. In the land of Xanadu, the Mongolian ruler Kubla Khan decrees that a magnificent “pleasure dome” be built on the shores of the sacred river Alph. The Alph flows into deep caves “measureless to man” and drains into an underground sea. Carrying out the emperor’s bidding, his workers cleared out ten square miles of fertile land and surrounded it with walls and towers. In this space are gardens sparkling with “sinuous rills,” or curving streams, and trees lush with scented flowers. Here patches of green forests old as the hills hold sunny lawns in their midst.

But the most beautiful and awe-inspiring place in these wonderful grounds is a steep gorge that cuts through a green hill covered with cedar trees. So “savage” or wild is this spot that the speaker imagines it could well be haunted by a bereft woman crying out for her demon-lover under the faint light of a waning or crescent moon. From the chasm of the gorge, the seething underground river Alph periodically bursts into a fountain so violent that it seems the earth itself is panting with exertion. The spring sends bursts of rock into the air like hailstones or grain being scattered when it is threshed by farmers. The Alph, too, rises up among these stone fragments. Before its underground turn, the sacred river runs a slow, winding course of five miles in a “mazy motion” through woods and valleys. Then it picks up speed and turns into the great “measureless” caves. Through the caves it flows with great turmoil into the still, “lifeless” underground ocean. It is among the “tumult” of the river flowing through the caves that the ruler Kubla Khan hears the voices of his ancestors predicting the onset of war. What is miraculous about the pleasure dome is that the reflection of the sun-filled dome floats on the waves of the waters, while the mingled sound of the river rushing underground and the fountain erupting upwards pierces the air. Thus, Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome is truly a miracle of invention, containing both light and underground sound, both sunny spots and deep icy caverns.

In the third and final stanza of the poem, the speaker switches to the first-person voice, describing a vision or dream he once had. In this vision was an Abyssinian (Abyssinia is analogous to contemporary Ethiopia) maiden playing a “dulcimer,” or harp, and singing of Mount Abora, a famous, mysterious mountain. The speaker can remember the dream only in shadowy fragments. If the speaker could precisely recall the sound of the lady’s instrument and her song, he would be filled with such inspiration and delight so as to build Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome in the sky. The speaker would be able to create the sunny palace and the icy caves of that dome. Everyone who heard the song the speaker had recreated would see the great palace in the air. They would be struck with wonder and terror and point to the speaker, considering him a genius or a madman. The people would remark on his gleaming eyes and disheveled hair, shield themselves from his power, and worship him. He imagines they would not stare him in the eye because his creative strength would be too great, as if he has eaten manna, or the very food of the gods, and drunk the milk of Paradise itself.

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