“Kubla Khan” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The following entry presents criticism of Coleridge's poem “Kubla Khan” (1816). See also, Samuel Taylor Coleridge Criticism.
An image-laden lyric that evokes romanticized Oriental landscapes, “Kubla Khan” is—along with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and “Christabel” (1816)—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 poem have garnered extensive critical attention through the years, and it has long been acknowledged as a verse 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 its unusual origin. The poet remarked that after taking some opium for medication, he grew drowsy while reading a passage from Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage. concerning the court of Kubla Khan. In his semi-conscious state, Coleridge 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 his unfinished poem. While a number of critics have since challenged Coleridge's version of the poem's composition, critical scholarship on “Kubla Khan” has frequently focused on the fragmentary nature and dreamlike imagery of the work, which is considered demonstrative of Romantic poetic theory.
Plot and Major Characters
The poem begins with a description of a magnificent palace built by the Mongolian ruler Kubla Khan during the thirteenth century. The enormous “pleasure-dome” of the poem's first few lines reflects the Khan's sovereign power, and the description of the palace and its surroundings convey the grandiosity and imperiousness of his character. In contrast to the structured dome and its gardens, the landscape surrounding Kubla's domain is wild and untamed, covered by ancient forests and cut by a majestic river. While it initially appears that harmony and cohesion exist between these two worlds, the narrator then describes a deep crack in the earth, hidden under a grove of dense trees. In the second stanza, the tenor of the poem shifts from the balance and tranquility in the first few lines to an uneasy suggestion of the preternatural. A woman calls to her daemonic lover and the Khan hearkens to “Ancestral voices prophesying war.” Soon, the vast distance between the ordered domain of Kubla's palace and the savagery of nature—the source of the fountain that feeds the river flowing through the rocks, forests, and ultimately, the stately garden of Kubla Khan—becomes apparent. As the river moves from the deep, uncontrolled chasm of the earlier lines back into Kubla's world, the narrative shifts from third to first person. Afterwards, the poet relates his vision of a dulcimer-playing Abyssinian maiden and recounts the sense of power that exudes from successful poetic creation.
Despite the plentiful criticism it has elicited, most assessments of “Kubla Khan” remain unable to answer with any degree of certainty the question of the poem's ultimate meaning. In part due to its status as a verse fragment and the continued controversy surrounding its origins, “Kubla Khan” has tended to discourage final interpretation. Nevertheless, most critics acknowledge that the juxtaposed images, motifs, and ideas explored in the poem are strongly representative of Romantic poetry. As such, critics have found numerous indications of a thematic reconciliation of opposites in the poem. Similarly, “Kubla Khan” is thought to be principally concerned with the nature and dialectical process of poetic creation. The work is dominated by a lyrical representation of landscape—a common feature of Romantic poetry, in which landscape is typically viewed as the symbolic source and keeper of the poetic imagination. Guided by Coleridge's complex rhyming and metrical structure, “Kubla Khan” first describes the ordered world of Kubla's palace and then—with an abrupt change in meter and rhyme immediately following—depicts the surrounding natural world that the Khan cannot control, even as it provides the foundation of his power. This pattern of contrast between worlds continues throughout the poem, lending it both a purpose and structure that, critics suggest, represents Coleridge's ideal of a harmonious blend of meaning and form in poetic art.
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 William 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 compositions. When first published, many contemporary reviewers regarded the apparent poetic fragment as “nonsense” or “below criticism.” In the years since, the poem and the story of its creation have been widely analyzed, and much critical scholarship has concentrated on the sources of the work's evocative images. Pivotal among these works of criticism is John Livingston Lowes's pioneering The Road to Xanadu. The 1927 book-length study—devoted solely to “Kubla Khan”—details the poem's symbolic imagery based upon Coleridge's own readings of travelogues and other works. Although the limitations of this critical method have since been widely acknowledged, The Road to Xanadu continues to be a watershed in criticism of the poem and has done much to elevate the work's reputation as a subject for scholarly inquiry. More recent interpretations of the poem have explored both its fragmentary nature and the harmonious vision of poetic theory it proposes. Other estimations have focused on “Kubla Khan” as a poem that relates the account of its own creation, thus stressing its tendency to foreground itself as a work of Romantic art. Overall, “Kubla Khan” is widely acknowledged as a technically complex poem that reflects many of its author's poetic and creative philosophies. Despite its ostensible incompleteness, the work's thematic texture, intricate rhymes, and carefully juxtaposed images are thought to coalesce into a harmonious whole that encapsulates Coleridge's subsequently expressed ideas of poetic composition.