Poem Analysis – “Kubla Khan” Samuel Coleridge
Or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
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.
There’s a story, almost legend, about this poem that may be too good to be true. Coleridge, the Romantic poet, took some opium (think heroin) and had a fantastic dream. He dreamt he visited the magnificent palace of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. In the dream, he saw a huge epic poem hundreds of lines long describing this palace. But after he woke up, someone came to his door and in the meantime, he forgot most of the dream. This poem, then, is but a fragment of the original dreamed poem.
The content of the poem is fairly straightforward. Coleridge takes the reader on a tour of a grand palace, complete with gardens, towers, fine food, and pleasant music. It is significant that the garden belongs to Kublai Khan. Europeans of this time tended to see the East as pleasure-seeking and indulgent. Even the Muslim world, which today is seen by many Westerners as hateful and barbaric, was associated mostly with the fragrant spices and elegant silk that traders brought from their lands.
The dream story, whether true or false, does color readings of this poem. The poem suggests that dreams can be wonderful, yet disappointingly fleeting. When a dream ends, we are left with disappointment and even, at times, fear. The cries of war running through the poem may indicate a price for the dreamer. Perhaps Coleridge is hinting at the turmoil that comes from trying to create a utopia or paradise on earth.
Notice Coleridge’s repetition of vowel and consonant sounds, assonance and consonance, respectively. The opening verse, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan” has the pattern a,u,u,a. The phrase “damsel with a dulcimer” does something similar, but with the consonants: d,m,s,l,d,l,c,m.