“Kubla Khan” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The following entry presents criticism of Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan” (1816). See also, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Criticism" and Lyrical Ballads Criticism.
Along with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and “Christabel” (1816), “Kubla Khan” (1816) has been widely acclaimed as one of Coleridge's most significant works. While Coleridge himself referred to “Kubla Khan” as a fragment, the vivid images contained in the work have garnered extensive critical attention through the years, and it has long been acknowledged as a poetic representation of Coleridge's theories of the imagination and creation. Although it was not published until 1816, scholars agree that the work was composed between 1797 and 1800. At the time of its publication, Coleridge subtitled it “A Vision in A Dream: A Fragment,” and added a prefatory note explaining the unusual origin of the work. The poet explained that after taking some opium for medication, he grew drowsy while reading a passage about the court of Kubla Khan from Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage. In this dreamlike state, Coleridge related, he composed a few hundred lines of poetry and when he awoke, immediately began writing the verses down. Unfortunately, a visitor interrupted him, and when the poet had a chance to return to his writing, the images had fled, leaving him with only vague recollections and the remaining 54 lines of this fragmentary poem. Although many critics have since challenged Coleridge's version of the poem's composition, critical scholarship on the work has focused equally on its fragmentary nature and on its place in Romantic writing as a representative work of poetic theory.
Plot and Major Characters
The poem begins with a description of a magnificent palace built by Mongolian ruler Kubla Khan during the thirteenth century. The “pleasure dome” described in the first few lines of the poem is reflective of Kubla's power, and the description of the palace and its surroundings also help convey the character and nature of Kubla, the poem's main character. In contrast to the palace and its planned gardens, the space outside Kubla's domain is characterized by ancient forests and rivers, providing a majestic backdrop to Kubla's creation. It initially appears that there is harmony between the two worlds, but the narrator then describes a deep crack in the earth, hidden under a grove of dense trees. The tenor of the poem then changes from the sense of calm and balance described in the first few lines, to an uneasy sense of the pagan and the supernatural. There is a vast distance between the ordered world of Kubla's palace and this wild, untamed place, the source of the fountain that feeds the river flowing through the rocks, forests, and ultimately, the stately garden of Kubla Khan. As the river moves from the deep, uncontrolled chasm described in earlier lines back to Kubla's world, the narrative shifts from third person to first person; the poet then describes his own vision and his own sense of power that comes from successful poetic creation.
Despite the controversy surrounding the origin of “Kubla Khan,” most critics acknowledge that the images, motifs and ideas explored in the work are representative of Romantic poetry. The emphasis on the Oriental setting of “Kubla Khan” in contrast to the description of the sacred world of the river is interpreted by critics as commonplace understanding of orthodox Christianity at the turn of the century, when the Orient was seen as the initial step towards Western Christianity. Also typical of other Romantic poems is Coleridge's lyrical representation of the landscape, which is both the source and keeper of the poetic imagination. Detailed readings of “Kubla Khan” indicate the use of intricate metric and poetic devices in the work. Coleridge himself explained that while any work with rhyme and rhythm may be described as a poem, for the work to be “legitimate” each part must mutually support and enhance the other, coming together as a harmonious whole. In “Kubla Khan” he uses this complex rhyming structure to guide the reader through its themes—the ordered rhymes of the first half describe the ordered world of Kubla Khan, while the abrupt change in meter and rhyme immediately following, describe the nature around Kubla Khan—the world that he cannot control. This pattern and contrast between worlds continues through the poem, and the conflict is reflected in the way Coleridge uses rhythm and order in his poem. Critics agree that “Kubla Khan” is a complex work with purpose and structure, and that it is representative of Coleridge's poetic ideal of a harmonious blend of meaning and form, resulting in a “graceful and intelligent whole.”
When Coleridge first issued “Kubla Khan” in 1816, it is believed that he did so for financial reasons and as an appendage to the more substantial “Christabel.” The work had previously been excluded by Wordsworth from the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads and there is little evidence that Coleridge himself claimed it as one of his more significant works. In fact, when first published, many contemporary reviewers regarded the poem as “nonsense,” especially because of its fragmentary nature. In the years since, the poem, as well as the story of its creation, has been widely analyzed by critics, and much critical scholarship has focused on the sources for this work as well as the images included in it. Recent studies of the poem have explored the fragmentary nature of the poem versus the harmonious vision of poetic theory it proposes. For example, in an essay analyzing the fragmentary nature of “Kubla Khan,” Timothy Bahti proposes that the poet uses the symbol of the chasm to represent the act of creation, and that the struggle between the fragment and division that generates the sacred river is representative of the act of creative continuity. Other critics have focused on “Kubla Khan” as a poem that relates the account of its own creation, thus stressing its importance as a work that defines Coleridge's theories of poetic creation. It is now widely acknowledged that “Kubla Khan” is a technically complex poem that reflects many of its creator's poetic and creative philosophies and that the thematic repetition, the intricate rhymes, and carefully juxtaposed images in the work come together as a harmonious whole that is representative of Coleridge's ideas of poetic creation.