Kubla Khan is a supernatural poem, based on a dream. It is an excellent example of pure poetry removed from any intellectual content. Nineteenth-century critics tended to dismiss it as a rather inconsequential or meaningless triviality. In large part, this was due to Coleridge’s own introduction to the poem. When it was first published in 1816, he subtitled it “A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment.” Those poets and critics who admired Kubla Khan such as Algernon Charles Swinburne and Leigh Hunt, did so for its marvelous melodic quality. Arthur Symons called “Kubla Khan”:
“One of the finest examples of lyric poetry. It has just enough meaning to give it bodily existence; otherwise it would be disembodied music.”
We can see the music of the poem in the following lines:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea’
The opening lines of Kubla Khan immediately thrust us into a strange world where the remarkable is commonplace. Kubla Khan orders a “pleasure-dome” to be built next to a sacred river that erupts from a chasm, flows in “sinuous rills” through gardens, then descends “in tumult” into “caverns measureless to man.” Encircling the centrally placed dome, walls and towers inscribe a defining limit around
“forests ancient as the hills.”
These elegant and civilized structures actually enclose a
“deep romantic chasm … A savage place”
that spurts life-giving waters to the gardens like a spouting heart or a birthing mother. In other words, despite human artifice, nature vivifies the whole and gives it meaning. So Kubla Khan, the prototypical Romantic artist, in order to create his masterpiece, merely defines a limit with his art around the uncontrollable magic of untrammeled nature and allows it to feed and inform his art work. And this, in fact, was the aesthetic Coleridge and other Romantic poets practiced. For them, poetry, as an “imitation of nature,” merely delimits in image and form the divine beauty of raw nature. But in “Kubla Khan,” as Coleridge informs us in the preface to the 1816 edition of the poem, the wild nature of the gardens, the fountain “with ceaseless turmoil seething,” and “Alph, the sacred river,” actually emerge from the poet’s dream consciousness. The Romantics believed that, at its core, the self is one with nature. Childhood and dreams fascinated them thematically in their poetry because both, like nature, were simple, raw, and unrestrainable. They recognized that in all of its forms, nature yearns with omnidirected desire. Just like a
woman wailing for her demon-lover,
nature is, in William Blake’s words, “Energy.” And what Blake says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell of this “Energy” also applies here in “Kubla Khan”: “Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy…. Energy is Eternal Delight.” The “outward circumference” of the Khan’s towers and walls circumscribes the “Eternal Delight” of untamed nature, which is both “holy and enchanted” and certainly beyond human control.
In a vision once I saw:/ It was an Abyssinian maid’
Read as the beginning of a longer poem, Coleridge’s poetic “fragment” sets forth a fantastic world, set both in the “mysterious” Orient and in the “magical” Middle Ages. But read as a whole complete unto itself, Kubla Khan evokes the fleeting images of a waking dream that speak not in words but in symbols. And although many critics point to the Crewe manuscript version of Kubla Khan found in 1934 as proof that Coleridge “consciously” revised the text, the poem as it stands successfully replicates the dream state and unveils a genuine glimpse into an archetypal world, a world Carl Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst, called the “collective unconscious.” The first thirty-six lines of the poem imagistically present a symbolic diagram of the “self,” in which consciousness strives to find integration with the incalculably greater depth of the unconscious mind, while the last eighteen lines reflect upon the power of the unconscious mind when Coleridge finally realized that the full recollection of his dream work was impossible. By demarcating a circular space from the “forests ancient as the hills” with protective walls and towers, Kubla Khan creates a kind of “mandala” whose circumference is described by the “stately pleasure-dome” at its center. A Sanskrit technical term from Tantric Buddhism for a circular “cosmogram” used for “centering” and meditation, the mandala is a map of the inner world (the microcosm) that mirrors the outer world (the macrocosm). According to Jung, the mandala serves to define and protect the self as it seeks to integrate with the unruly forces of the unconscious mind. But in “Kubla Khan,” the “sunny spots of greenery” and the bright “sinuous rills” within the conscious world of the self appear tenuous, fragile, and minuscule in comparison to the cavernous deeps of the “sunless sea.” In fact, all of the paired opposites that appear within the poem (sun and moon, light and dark, male and female, movement and rest, and good and evil) struggle without success to find balance within this delicate world fed by the waters of the collective unconscious.
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
As mentioned previously, “Alph, the sacred river,” suffuses consciousness with creative “Energy.” This overwhelming creativity fecundates the conscious mind (“twice five miles of fertile ground”) via the spouting chasm that flings up water and “dancing rocks” from the underworld. This birth-giving chasm, clearly associated with the “woman wailing for her demon-lover,” charges the visionary with almost frenzied inspiration. In the last eighteen lines, the speaker recalls yet another female figure he had once seen in vision, the “damsel with a dulcimer.” Her strange song, if he could but “revive [it] within” himself, would so permeate him with numinous powers that he would be able to recreate the Khan’s dome and the “caves of ice” in the air itself. Such magical powers, the fruit of a kind of possession, would then make the speaker into an object of taboo, both holy and dangerous to the common sort of humanity. Like the chasm, both “holy and enchanted,” the inspired poet becomes an ambivalent figure “beyond good and evil,” for
he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Not surprisingly, many critics have commented that this “milk of Paradise” might be nothing more than laudanum, a solution of opium in alcohol, to which Coleridge was addicted most of his life. Unfortunately, Coleridge’s dependence on drugs cut short his poetically most productive period.
This complexity makes it difficult to fully believe that Kubla Khan is nothing more than the remnant of a half-remembered dream. The thematic repetition, intricacy of rhyme and metrical schemes, as well as the carefully juxtaposed images beautifully “harmonize and support” the poem’s purpose and theme. In Kubla Khan, Coleridge has created more than simple lyric poetry. He has fulfilled his poetic ideal of a harmonious blend of meaning and form, which results in a
graceful and intelligent whole.