Critics have commented on Coleridge's poetry throughout the past 200 years. You do not have to accept any one of these versions of the symbolic depths of his poems, but an awareness of them will give an added depth to the pleasure you get from reading them.
H. House: Kubla Khan is about the act of poetic creation, the “ecstasy in imaginative fulfillment”.
B. Schneider: I sometimes think we overlook Coleridge’s idea of the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities ... Yet the reconciliation does not occur. It is in fact avoided. What we have instead is the very spirit of “oscillation’ itself. ... The poem is the soul of ambivalence, oscillation’s very self; and that is probably its deepest meaning.
L.Lowes: Kubla Khan is a glorious but irresponsible fabric of free associative links elaborate but loose in texture, and wholly meaningless.
P.M. Adair: Surely Kubla Khan means that the poet, when divinely inspired, remembers the inscrutable secrets of the world below, ringing of a mystery and terror which seems to men like the gift of prophecy. The poem, which begins with the river plunging into the underworld and ends with the divine madness of the poet, is, also, I believe, about the mysterious unconscious sources of creative inspiration and the poet’s brief singing of this memory on his return to the sunlit conscious world.
A. Grant: ... harmony and reconciliation are the essential features of the dome.
C. Yarlott: In this miracle of sunny dome with caves of ice a synthesis is achieved between seemingly discordant opposites — heat and cold, life and death (fountain and departing river) convex and concave (dome and caverns).
V.L. Radley In the fragmentary Kubla Khan the poet (the narrator of the poem) sets before the reader two worlds, that of the Imagination and that of the Understanding. The latter is the world in which all men are more or less at home. The former world, however, the world in which the poet enters Eden , so to speak, on the “viewless wings of poesy”. Coleridge attempts in Kubla Khan to portray the world of Imagination pictorially in terms of sunlit caverns and floating pleasure—domes or, in effect, he tries to re—create creativity in action. This interest in the process of poetic creation is nowhere more evident than in this attempt.
W. Knight ... the very names in the poem are so lettered as to suggest first and last things — aiph, Abyssinian, Abora, and Xanadu, with Kubla Khan in the middle. The poem is a complete and perfect whole.
Natalie Romanov: The poem is heavily symbolic, but there is no general agreement on the purpose of the symbolism.
David Daiches in A Critical History of English Literature, Vol IV does not subscribe to the version I have given, but maintains that the poem is about poetic or artistic creation. The building of a palace dedicated to pleasure in a place which is “sacred” directly symbolises the combination of pleasure and sacredness which, for Coleridge, was the sign of true art. The second stanza, he says, explores the kind of passionate and marvelous experience with which poetry deals. He goes on to suggest the way. in which the creative imagination operates, and the end, where Kubla Khan hears ancestral voices prophesying war, indicates that Art is always under threat from the violence of the external world. The third stanza, which begins: The shadow of the dome of pleasure”, brings together images of pleasure and the sacred river and of coldness, of sun and of ice, which again symbolises Art or Poetry. The final stanza recollects and describes a moment of poetic inspiration and expresses the wish that the poet could revive and. prolong the moment so that he could build the palace of Art and dweli there in continued poetic ecstasy.
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