Critical Appreciation of "Kubla Khan"
1. One of the Best Poems of Coleridge
"Kubla Khan" is one of those three poems which have kept the name of Coleridge in the forefront of the greatest English poets -- the other two being "The Ancient Mariner" and "Christabel", and all of the three having been written in 1797 and 1798 dealing with "persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic.". All these three poems were composed when intimate friendship existed between Coleridge and Wordsworth. "Kubla Khan" is considered one of the most famous examples of Romanticism in English poetry. A copy of the manuscript is a permanent exhibit at the British Museum in London.
2. The Origin of the Poem
One night in 1797, Coleridge was not feeling all that great. To dull the pain, he took a dose of laudanum. Soon he fell asleep and had a strange dream about Kubla Khan, because before falling asleep, he had been reading a story from "Purchas' Pilgrims" in which Kubla Khan commanded the building of a new palace. Coleridge dreamt that he was writing a poem in his sleep, and when he woke up after two hours, he sat down to record the poem. He meant to write two to three hundred lines, but he was interrupted by a tailor from Porlock, who had come to see him on business. When he came back to the poem, he had forgotten the rest. The 54 lines he did manage to scribble out turned into one of the most famous and enduring poems in English literary history.
3. Title of the Poem
The main title of the poem is just plain "Kubla Khan". It is a pretty great name. Kubla Khan was the fifth Khangan of the Mongol Empire, reigning from 1260 to 1294. He founded the Yuan Dynasty in China in 1271. He was the fourth son of Tolui and a grandson of Genghis Khan. Thus the title sets a tone for the poem. It transports us to another place and time before we even get started. However, there is another piece. The full title is: "Kubla Khan: Or A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment". "A Vision is a Dream" signifies that the poem is an edifice of a charmed sleep. This is "A Fragment" because Coleridge intended to write two to three hundred lines but could only write 54 due to the interruption of a person.
4. Themes of the Poem
The major themes of the poem are; creative power of imagination, man and the natural world, and time. The power of imagination is the ultimate creative power. In the last part of the poem, the imagination of Coleridge constructs "pleasure-dome in air". The interaction between man and nature is also a major theme for Coleridge. It is painted all over "Kubla Khan", as we go from the dome to the river, and then from the garden to the sea. Sometimes he has focused on human characters, sometimes on natural forces. Finally, different understandings of time is a major theme of the poem. Is Coleridge recalling the Kubla Khan of the past, or someone who transcends our linear notion of time?
5. Poetic Structure of the Poem
"Kubla Khan" is a fifty-four line lyric. It has two parts and four stanzas. It is written in iambic tetrameter and pentameter. Iambic just means that the poem is made up of lots of two-syllable units, in which the stress is placed on the second syllable. It has an alternating rhyme scheme in each stanza. Stanza one has a rhyme scheme of ABAABCCDEDE, stanza two has a rhyme scheme of ABAABCCDDFFGGHIIHJ, stanza three has a rhyme scheme of ABABCC, and stanza four has a rhyme scheme of ABCCBDEDEFGFFFGHHG. In short, the poem has a disorganized structure and different in structure from other poems composed by Coleridge.
6. Symbolism in the Poem
The pleasure-dome, the river Alph, mighty fountain, mazy motion, tumult, ancestral voices and mingled measure are the major symbols in the poem. The pleasure-dome symbolizes immortality and majesty. The river Alph is a symbol of life and force. The ceaseless turmoil of the earth, the fountain forced out with half intermittent burst, the fragments rebounding like hail and the dancing rocks represent agony and power. The mazy motion suggests uncertain and blind progress of the human soul and the complexities of human life. The tumult is associated with war. The ancestral voices stand for that dark compulsion that binds the race to its habitual conflicts. The mingled measure suggests the blend of fundamental opposites, creation and destruction.
7. The Supernatural in the Poem
Supernatural elements are peppered throughout the poem. The sacred river, the caverns measureless to man, the sunless sea, the deep romantic chasm, the woman wailing for her demon lover, the half-intermittent burst of water from the mighty fountain, the ancestral voices prophesying war, the shadow of the dome floating midway on the waves and the Abyssinian maid -- they all create a world of magic, wonder and enchantment. The frenzy in which the poet is in the last part of the poem also contributes to its supernatural vein.
For he on honey-dew hath fed,8. Imagery in the Poem
And drunk the milk of paradise.
And drunk the milk of paradise.
The whole poem is a succession of visual, auditory, thermal, kinesthetic and gustatory images. Visual imagery include; the pleasure dome, the sacred river, the measureless caverns, the deep romantic chasm, the woman wailing for her demon lover, the Abyssinian maid, and the poet himself. The prophecies of war, the song of Abyssinian maid and the warning of the people listening the story of the poet are auditory images. Sun and ice are thermal images. Kinesthetic images include; fragments tossing like hail, chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail, the floating shadow of dome on the waves, and the magic circles drawn by people around the poet. Feeding on honey-dew and drinking the milk of paradise are examples of gustatory images.
9. The Romantic Elements in the Poem
Imagination, supernaturalism, sensuousness, exploration of nature and magical spell are the major romantic elements in "Kubla Khan". The entire poem is based on a vision Coleridge had during an opium trance. The woman wailing for her demon lover and the ancestral voices prophesying war; are obviously supernatural occurrences. The bright gardens, the incense bearing trees, the sunny spots of greenery, the half intermittent burst of the mighty fountain and the rocks vaulting like rebounding hail - are highly sensuous images and explore nature. The poet's eyes and his floating hair are connected with magic. In short, like a true romantic poem, it is a product of pure fancy, a work of sheer imagination and is, therefore, a wholly romantic composition.
10. Sounds in the Poem
The poem is a perfect piece of music. It has all kinds of sounds, movements and tones. When the river is crashing through the caves, we imagine the pounding of kettledrums. The word "rebounding" in "Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail" has a hollow, open sound. Then, when we travel through the gardens, we hear the soft sounds of the woodwinds. The scary, flashing-eyed figure that appears at the end reminds us of the horns, sharp and brassy and starling. The words "Beware! Beware!" are blurted out, quick and loud, like the sound of a trumpet blaring out a warning. Thus the poem is a journey of sounds. It tries to use the effects of language as if they were different parts of an orchestra.
Notes Prepared By: Prof. Shahbaz Asghar