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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Coleridge uses contrast and juxtaposition to create poetic tension in “Kubla Khan.” The poet uses real historical figures alongside invented places and people, sets up mysterious descriptions against precise measurements, and mars tranquil scenes with violent imagery. Further, the narrative voice switches to the first person late in the poem, and the speaker digresses from the description of the pleasure palace of Kubla Khan to a dream he once had. All these contradictions and diversions create an aura of wonder and mystery around the poem itself, much like the wonder the speaker feels around the poem’s subject: Kubla Khan and his pleasure dome.

The poem contains many elements specific to Romanticism, the early-nineteenth-century literary movement that celebrated nature, the individual, and the creative imagination—all of which are woven into “Kubla Khan.” Additionally, the poem contains strains of orientalism, the practice of mystifying and stereotyping Asian cultures and civilizations. The poet does this by using place names such as Xanadu and Abyssinia to create an aura of mystery around the poem, but Coleridge offers no context for these allusions. Coleridge likely did not intend to disrespect any culture in the poem; his usage of names such as Xanadu is intended to create a sense of wonder. Xanadu itself may have been based on a real place, which is in the landlocked country of Mongolia. Kubla Khan was a historical figure, a thirteenth-century Mongolian leader. While Kubla Khan is a historical person, the River Alph is fictional. Thus, Coleridge juxtaposes the real and the fictive to imbue the poem with tension and mystery. Descriptors such as “sacred” deepen the riddle around the Alph, because what is sacred is too secret and holy to be ever fully known.

Continuing the motif of contrasting the unknown with the specific, the River Alph runs through caverns “measureless to man,” but the area of the palace grounds is exactly “twice five miles of fertile ground.” The tone of the descriptions switches suddenly too, as can be seen from the first five lines of the poem. A “stately” or grand pleasure-dome invokes the image of a soaring, sun-bathed domed building. This is juxtaposed in the next few lines with the River Alph running underground to sink in a “sunless sea,” a mysterious and dark place. Thus, pleasure and violence, wonder and terror, life and death form a continuum in the poem. This strain runs through the descriptions of the gardens around the pleasure dome. They are bright and sunny, but threaded with “sinuous” rills, sinuous implying a mysterious and snake-like quality. Paradoxically, the ancient patches of dark forest contain sudden lit-up clearings. The image of the pleasure-dome that emerges at the end of the first stanza is clear yet intriguing: a beautiful palace built at the shores of a river that plunges underground to sink into a lifeless ocean.

The second stanza heightens this mood of intrigue with the vivid description of the gorge and the geyser. The violence of the gorge, with its showers of stone and exhalations of churning water, is a dramatically different image from the mysterious peace of the palace grounds. Here, “huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, / Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail.” After having set up the image of the panting spring and the rushing underground river, the speaker takes a turn, focusing on the river’s movement on the surface. Now the river meanders calmly through “wood and dale.” Again, the poet takes the reader underground with the dip of the river; but now the river is described as something that “sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean.” The words “tumult,” “sank,” and “lifeless ocean” are all contradictory and odd in succession, cementing the idea that the pleasure dome and the river, though being thoroughly described here, are fundamentally unknowable, like any object of perfect beauty.

This section also includes the description of the woman wailing for her “demon-lover,” introducing the supernatural in the poem. The supernatural was a frequent motif in Romanticism, and Coleridge in particular made use of it, as can be seen in poems such as “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The woman crying for her missing demon-lover under a crescent moon is a striking image that adds to the otherworldly beauty of the gorge at the pleasure-dome. The supernatural motif is repeated in stanza three, with the images of the Abyssinian maid and the prophet-poet. As these images show, “Kubla Khan” is particularly rich in visual imagery, vividly evoking the poem’s various scenes for the reader.

In the third and final stanza, the closely-linked motifs of dreams and the supernatural recur to suggest the power of the creative imagination. The speaker deliberately switches to the first-person voice, drawing attention to his creative desire and powers. Such power is almost otherworldly, because it can transport the reader, listener, or beholder. Just as the maiden and her song transformed the poet, the poet wishes he too could create a song that moved the listener to awe and fear. Multiple symbols of imagination and ingenuity overlap in this section, from the song of the maiden to the pleasure-dome of Kubla Khan, to the poet’s work—all metaphors for the creative act. Mount Abora, of which the maiden sings, is a fictional mountain, perhaps inspired by the Mount Amara mentioned in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is supposed to be the home of the Abyssinian kings. The maiden playing the harp is also symbolic of a Greek muse, or patron-goddess of the arts—in this case specifically music and poetry. Again, the poem juxtaposes the beautiful with the fearsome. Note that the poet’s eyes are “flashing” and his hair “floating,” evoking a trance-like, wild state. He is in a creative ecstasy. People don’t just admire him; they fear him because he has touched knowledge they cannot imagine. The poet here is similar to the erupting fountain of the second stanza, equal parts violent and beautiful. The last stanza gives an additional subtext to the imagery of the poem, with the River Alph now symbolizing the spirit of creativity that feeds humans. When the creative spirit erupts and emerges above ground, the act can be both transformative and destructive.

In terms of structure, form, and meter, the poem is rhymed, but with a varying rhyme scheme. Thus, it retains musicality without losing its freshness and variability. The meter is largely iambic, as can be seen in the opening line (stressed syllables are bolded): “In Xanadu Did Kubla Khan.” Throughout the poem, Coleridge employs both tetrameter, a four-beat line, and pentameter, a five-beat line. The second stanza brings a marked shift towards pentameter; thus, the opening up of the poem’s structure reflects an expansion of the pleasure-dome’s description and the poem’s themes.

In addition to the aforementioned use of imagery, significant poetic devices include simile (rock fragments compared to “rebounding hail”) and metaphor (the panting earth). Alliteration can be found in phrases such as “measureless to man,” “sunless sea,” and “five miles meandering with a mazy motion” and serves as a mnemonic device and also adds sonic richness to the poem. Refrains and repeated phrases such as “Beware! Beware!” and “his flashing eyes, his floating hair” function as incantations and add to the poem’s theme of the creative act as sacred and holy.

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