Forms and Devices

The most striking of the many poetic devices in “Kubla Khan” are its sounds and images. One of the most musical of poems, it is full of assonance and alliteration, as can be seen in the opening five lines:

In Xanadu did Kubla KhanA stately pleasure-dome decree:Where Alph, the sacred river, ranThrough caverns measureless to man   Down to a sunless sea.

This repetition of a, e, and u sounds continues throughout the poem with the a sounds dominating, creating a vivid yet mournful song appropriate for one intended to inspire its listeners to cry “Beware! Beware!” in their awe of the poet. The halting assonance in the line “As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing” creates the effect of breathing.

The alliteration is especially prevalent in the opening lines, as each line closes with it: “Kubla Khan,” “pleasure-dome decree,” “river, ran,” “measureless to man,” and “sunless sea.” The effect is almost to hypnotize the reader or listener into being receptive to the marvelous visions about to appear. Other notable uses of alliteration include the juxtaposition of “waning” and “woman wailing” to create a wailing sound. “Five miles meandering with a mazy motion” sounds like the movement it describes. The repetition of the initial h and d sounds in the closing lines creates an image of the narrator as haunted and doomed:

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!Weave a circle round him thrice,And close your eyes with holy dread,For he on honey-dew hath fed,And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The assonance and alliteration soften the impact of the terminal rhyme and establish a sensation of movement to reinforce the image of the flowing river with the shadow of the pleasure dome floating upon it.

The imagery of “Kubla Khan” is evocative without being so specific that it negates the magical, dreamlike effect for which Coleridge is striving. The “gardens bright with sinuous rills,” “incense-bearing tree,” “forests ancient as the hills,” and “sunny spots of greenery” are deliberately vague, as if recalled from a dream. Such images stimulate a vision of Xanadu bound only by the reader’s imagination.

Kubla Khan

Coleridge has described how as a young man in poor health he took a prescribed drug. While reading a popular travel book, he fell into a deep slumber and “dreamed” the poem in which a Mongol emperor orders a “stately pleasure dome” near a sacred river that has cut a deep chasm into the earth on its way to the sea.

Two thirds of the poem’s 54 lines describe this strange setting. Then follows a vision of “an Abyssinian maid” whose song would serve the speaker--if only he could revive it--to reconstruct the exotic scene.

One theme of the poem is the nature of poetic inspiration. Coleridge makes use of the ancient tradition that poets are literally not themselves when composing but are possessed by a daemon or guiding spirit. The poet cannot control the daemon, only try to take advantage of it when it comes. This poem paradoxically voices the frustration of a poet whose daemon has departed.

“KUBLA KHAN” has attracted much criticism, including a classic study by John Livingston Lowes, THE ROAD TO XANADU. Some critics have accepted Coleridge’s explanation of an unconscious or semiconscious origin, while others have pointed to the poet’s extraordinary command of meter and other sound patterns and even have discerned a logical structure that only a conscious and disciplined artist could achieve. To such critics, Coleridge is providing a carefully crafted picture of a wild creator with “flashing eyes” and “floating hair.”

Whether the poem displays or only simulates wild inspiration, whether the poet is out of his mind or fully in control, “KUBLA KHAN” is a magical poem with a verbal richness approached only a few times by Coleridge and not often by any poet.