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Coleridge - Title: Kubla Khan

I. Subject Matter and Context

The poem was written in 1798 when Coleridge was 25, at the peak of his poetic powers and published in 1816. The fact that the poem is carefully and logically constructed makes the claim that he merely transposed the words verbatim from his dream rather suspect.

Alpha males compete to impose order over nature by building gardens or monumental structures to illustrate  their importance and immortality; think Ancient Gardens of Italy,  about the Pyramids of the Pharoahs, the temples surrounding Angkor Wat in Cambodia was constructed by Suryavaram II of the Khmer civilization from the 12 century, The Taj Mahal built by a Muslim, Emperor Shah Jahan (died 1666 C.E.) in the memory of his dear wife and queen Mumtaz Mahal at Agra, India. While many of these were mausoleums to foster immortality, later tycoons built “pleasure domes” to ostentatiously display their wealth and power, - Louis XIV, the Sun King’s Palace at Versailles,  or Hearst Castle built from 1919 to 1947 for newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who died in 1951.  In Australia David  Walsh used the obscene amount of money he made by buying and selling  stocks on the internet to built a massive underground private Art Gallery, the MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) near Hobart in Tasmania.

The Khans were a dynasty who ruled Northeastern Asia for centuries from about 1100 AD and Coleridge imagines one of their erotic excesses.

“Anyone who knows anything about literature, remembers the note at the start of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” It explains how the work is a “fragment of a poem, from a vision during a dream”; the poet had fallen asleep after taking medicine for an illness (actually, he’d taken opium for fun???) and had seen, in his deepest sleep, sentences from the book he’d been reading just before losing consciousness, except that now each sentence and each object had taken on a life of its own in a magnificent dreamscape to become a poem. Imagine, a magnificent poem that had created itself without the poet’s having exerted any mental energy! Even more amazing when Coleridge woke up he could remember this splendid poem word for word. He got out his pen and ink and some paper and carefully began to write it down, one line after the other, as if he were taking dictation. He had just written the last line of the poem as we know it when there came a knock at the door. He rose to answer it, and it was a man from the nearby city of Porlock, come to collect a debt. As soon as he’d dealt with this man, he rushed back to his table, only to discover that he’d forgotten the rest of the poem, except for a few scattered words and the general atmosphere.”

From Snow by Orhan Pamuk

II Themes

Coleridge explores the possibilities of imagination and our potential to create perfection –“in that dome in air” -  fantasies.   Similar to Keat’s later assertion that “heard melodies are sweet but unheard melodies sweeter still” .    Fantasies can be better that reality.

Imagination induced by drugs can be distorted and visions become hallucinatory and cause delusions.

This poem evokes an escape through art/drugs to a trance-like state of euphoria or spiritual ecstasy.

Man feels an instinctive need to improve on Nature – throughout history we have built gardens and towns to impose order but Nature is irrepressible – Kubla can shut out the world with walls but cannot control the river and neither can he compete with natural beauty. 

Coleridge suggests the failure and frustration of creative powers; the birth and death of inspiration.

Art is threatened by forces of darkness, destruction – evil – war.

Beauty is often only a veneer – appearance – pleasure dome of ice.

This poem reveals an attempt to attain (create) the unattainable.  Despite all our efforts, Nature trumps all our best efforts.

III. Sound Effects

Regular rhyme pattern as well as assonance indicate Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.

a more formal form.

Early drum-like beat emphasizes the imperious pomp of Kubla Khan, later giving way to magic rhythmic beat that can have a hypnotic, haunting effect on us.

The alliterative effect can also enchant us: “miles meandering with a mazy motion” later “mingled measure”.

Coleridge is adept at changing pace, from breathless urgency to meditative poise in an instant. The breathless urgency of:

“Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the threshers’ flail:

And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river” (KK) ll 21 – 24

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran..” ll. 25-26

Is contrasted with the abrupt slowing down of “meandering”.

The last stanza has a musically euphonious fluency, in keeping with its surrealistic characteristics.

IV. TECHNIQUE

Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic. Images: (visual, auditory, o1factory, tactile, ,gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc

Form: Ode - impersonal expression on a worthy dignified subject and manner

Structure: Two discrete distinct sections: first part written in third person impersonal, second in first personal and expresses poet’s inner longing.

Contrasts:

Creativity / destructiveness

Harmony, peace / War, destruction

Sacred, holy / savage, primitive

Paradise (holy, enchanted) / Hell (underworld, demon-lover)

Birth / death

Reality / imagination, dream, appearance

Natural, untamable, primitive / artificial, man made, cultivated

Lightness (sunny) / dark (sunless)

Measurable / measureless

Sunny pleasure dome / caves of ice

Convex (dome) / Concave (caverns)

Symbols: The poem is rich in sensual, exotic, archetypal and enigmatic images and symbols. The rich mixture has a kaleidoscopic effect.

Dome - unity, harmony, perfection, reconciliation – yet it is a “pleasure” Dome – not Adam and Eve’s paradise.

River – source of energy, imaginative, creative process – but plunges into underworld – mysterious subconscious. The river is superficially calm but has undertows with deep turbulence. The River’s journey corresponds to ours; “A mighty fountain was forced” the traumas of childhood, adolescence and life, the “mazy motion” of old age leading to death in the underworld of the “sunless sea”.

Music – enchanting, mesmerizing, hypnotizing – both sacred and seductive.

Sun and moon

Ritual of “weave a circle round him thrice…” magic - hocus pocus.

Images: Visual - domes, gardens, ancient forests, spots of greenery, chasms, a waning moon, shadows floating on water……

Auditory - woman wailing, earth’s pants were breathing, tumult of raging water, Ancestral voices, mingled measure from the fountain and the caves, damsel on a dulcimer, music he would use to build his dome, cry ……..

Olfactory - incense-bearing trees

Gustatory - honey-dew and milk of Paradise.

Personification:As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing” The mother earth is in a state of passion.

V. LANGUAGE:

Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.

Immediately striking is the inversion of

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:

And its imperious tone of “decree” modulates to one of a trance like surrealism, wistfulness and longing of: “I would build that dome in air”

Diction: Wilson Knight sees the names suggesting the beginning: “Alph,” to the end: “Xanadu” with Kubla Khan representing the middle

Much of the language is exotic and archaic: “athwart, (against) cedarn, momently, (largely) dulcimer (primitive piano).

The place names are remote so we do not associate familiar places such as non-existent Mount Abora. Originally Coleridge used Mt Amara which was the site of the Garden of Eden.

This is not a conversational poem instead using rhetorical devices with lots of exclamation marks, change of pace with crescendo and repetition.

The discrete parts of the poem are unified by the sounds of the demon lover and the music of the Abyssinian maid as well as the image of the dome.

Evaluation: What the Critics have said:

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.

The division of Kubla Khan into its two parts seems fatal to the unity of the poem if it must be regarded as a complete whole. The first part is given over entirely to Kubla’s pleasure grounds, the demon—lover lines being not a new scene but only a comparison. In the last eighteen lines time, place, and speaker all are changed. The first part is wholly impersonal; the last written wholly in the first person.

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.

You do not have to accept any one of these versions of the symbolic depths of the poem, but an awareness of them will give an added depth to the pleasure you get from reading it.




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