Upon the completion of this unit, the learners will be able to:
As you probably know, romanticism occurred as a revolt against traditional and conventional ideas, whether in the field of politics, religion and literature. The ideals of the French Revolution and ideas of Rousseau played an instrumental role in the progress of romanticism as a movement. Some of the key features of romanticism are simplicity of content, primacy of feelings, inclination for beauty and lyricism, worship of nature and interest in the lives and thoughts of ordinary people.
Some of the important romantic poets are William Wordsworth, John Keats, P.B. Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth along with S.T. Coleridge published a poetry collection titled Lyrical Ballads in 1798 which set a new trend and taste in the world of poetry. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge says that when Wordsworth deals with natural contents, Coleridge takes up supernatural aspects. ‘Kubla Khan’ is a typical Coleridge poem that synthesises both natural and supernatural components. To get more ideas about the poem, you can go through the following deliberations on the poem.
Dream vision, Super naturalism, Poetic inspiration
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’ poem “Kubla Khan”, though written in 1797, was published only in 1816. In a discussion of the poem, Coleridge says that he had gone asleep consuming opium. Before his sleep, he was reading the story of Kubla Khan who commands to build his pleasure palace. In his drowsy mood, the poet was blessed with an intuitive vision which led him to compose hundreds of poetic lines. Though he had written some of the lines in the paper, he was interrupted by a man which made him forget the remaining lines of the poem. So the title of the poem “Kubla Khan Or, A Vision in a Dream. A Fragment” is an appropriate one.
5.2.1 Summary of the poem
The Mongolian emperor Kubla Khan ordered the construction of a pleasure palace on the bank of Alph, a sacred river. The river runs through a series of caves which finally reaches into a ‘sunless sea’. On the sides of the river, miles of fertile lands could be seen surrounded by walls and towers. There are gardens and flowing streams in serpentine or wavy patterns. Trees in the gardens have blossomed, so the place is filled with a fragrant smell. The place is also blessed with forests which seem as old as hills themselves which encircle the sunny greenery of the place.
Dome – A mansion or stately building Decree – Order or command
Cavern – A large cave
Girdle – A belt
Sinuous – Having many caves and turns Rill – A small stream
Incense – Fragrance or scent
Allusion: In poetry, allusions are references to historical figures, places, events etc. The title and the poem allude to the great Mongolian King Kubla Khan.
There is a deep abyss which appears highly romantic for the poet as it stretches across green hills and cedar trees. For the poet, it is ‘a savage place’ and its wildness is enriched by an image of a weeping woman obsessed by her demon lover under a fading moon. Out of this chasm, there gushes out a fountain with endless turmoil which is compared to a dying man who struggles for breath. From this flow of water, fragments of rocks are thrown and tossed up just like hailstones and flying chaffs when they are crushed with a flail. With its zigzag and labyrinthine movement, the sacred river runs many miles through forest and valley which finally reaches at measureless caves. From this tumultuous rushing water, Kubla Khan listens to the ancestral prophecy of the war. Amid the flow of the water, the floating shadow of the pleasure palace could be seen. There the merging sound of fountains and echoes from the cave are heard. Referring to this enchanting natural setting, the poet says that it is a miraculous phenomenon as the sunny palace and icy caves are visible at the same time
Chasm – Abyss
Athwart – Across
Cedarn – From a cedar tree
Enchanted – Under a magical spell
Waning – Diminishing
Wailing – Crying with pain
Demon – An evil spirit or devil
Turmoil – A state of confusion and disturbance
Seething – Intense unexpressed anger
Fountain – A natural spring of water
Thresher – A person or machine that
separates grain from corn
Flail -Beat or flog
Mazy -Full of confusing turns
Dale – A Valley
Mingle – Mix together
Metaphor: In the poem ‘deep romantic chasm’ stands for the creativity and imagination of the poet
In his dream, the poet gets a vision of a virgin with a musical instrument. The lady plays the tune of Mount Abora on it. The speaker says that if he could bring back her music and symphony to his mind, he would turn ecstatic. In such a mood he would be able to recreate the pleasure palace of Kubla Khan with the sunny dome and icy caves. His flashing eyes and floating hairs would mystify the onlookers. They would suggest making circles three times around him. They closed their eyes out of respect and fear because he consumed honey dew and the milk of paradise.
Damsel – A young unmarried woman
Dulcimer – A musical instrument
Symphony -Harmony of sounds
Beware – Be cautious and alert
Dread – Anticipate with great fear
Apostrophe -It is a device where the poet addresses the absent ones. Here, in the poem “beware! beware!” is such an address.
Like Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “Kubla Khan” is one of his most celebrated poems. The poem published in 1816 is a dream vision as it is composed in a semi – conscious state under the effect of opium. It is inspired by the book Purchas, his Pilgrimage. Apart from its intellectual content, the poem is distinguished for its artistic beauty and serene natural setting.
The poem begins with Kubla Khan’s order of constructing a pleasure palace at Xanadu. As part of giving the background of landscape, the speaker provides a description of the river Alph, a sacred river. The movement of the river provides an insight into the inner flow of the river where sunlight never reaches. Simultaneously, the poem describes the two sides of the river with towers and buildings on one side and there are ancient-looking hills, fertile lands and fragrance of gardens on the other side.
The poem shifts its focus from the Alph to the ‘romantic chasm’. The discourse in the second stanza is developed on the image of this romantic chasm. The shades of both beauty and savagery are added to this romantic chasm. As an addition to exotic notion, the poem introduces a lonely woman waiting and crying for her demon-lover in the darkness of the night. Then the poem provides a fresh image of water gushing out and rocks scattering like hailstones. This natural image is connected with the political image when this sound warns him of impending war to happen.
Most of the contents dealt with in the former stanzas are brought back in the final stanza of the poem to connect them with the poetic inspiration. The speaker believes that if he is able to revive the song and dream vision of the Abyssinian girl, ‘a damsel with dulcimer, who sings of Mount Abora, he can poetically recreate the complex pleasure palace of Kubla Khan. This poetic inspiration turns the poet ecstatic and elated. His eyes begin flashing and his hairs floating. In this ecstasy, he appears as if he had consumed the milk of paradise. People looking at him call out ‘beware! beware!’out of respect and dread.
The elements of romantic poetry are numerous in “Kubla Khan”. There are romantic features of lyrical rendition, description of nature, eye for beauty and lonely characters. Capturing the zigzag movement of the river, green surroundings of gardens, fertile lands, hills and caves are typical of the romantic touch of the poem. Lonely images of a wailing woman and singing maid of Abyssinia add to the romantic appeal of the poem. The virgin with a dulcimer and her song of Mount Abora showcase its lyrical nature as a romantic poem.
‘Kubla Khan’, the title of the poem, alludes to the great emperor of Mongol who was the successor of Genghis Khan. He continued the invasion of China following the path of his forefathers. The poem captures the majestic palace of Kubla Khan and its captivating surroundings.
As in some of his other poems, Coleridge’s admiration for nature is visible in “Kubla Khan.” But the specialty of this poem is the synthesis of both savage and beautiful aspects of nature. It is noteworthy that the major portion of the poem elaborates on enormous natural imagery. Along with its natural brilliance, the poem is also distinguished for its supernatural ambience. Coleridge’s approach in “Kubla Khan,” is seemingly in accordance with his agreement with William Wordsworth who deals with natural themes whereas Coleridge deals with supernatural themes. In “Kubla Khan”, even though Coleridge mostly deals with natural descriptions, most of them have a tinge of supernatural overtone. Coleridge, as a poet who believes in the idea of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, takes up supernatural content and presents it in a natural way.
The poem could be considered as a meta-poem, a poem written about a poem, as it deals with the process of poetic inspiration, creativity and composition. Beginning with the magnificent palace and its natural setting, the second part of the poem deals with the process of poetic composition and its power. In the last part of the poem, shifting the focus from the description of pleasure palace and the river Alph, the speaker tries to present his ideas on poetic inspiration where he poetically re-creates the pleasure dome. Shifting from the objective descriptions in the initial stanzas of the poem, the poem adopts a first person singular perspective to present the personal and imaginative state of a poet while he composes a poem. If he could recollect the mysterious song sung by the Absynian girl, he would turn poetically powerful and reconstruct the visionary palace through his poetically imaginative mind. If rulers like Kubla Khan are powerful creators of their palace and kingdom, poets like Coleridge are absolute creators of their interior and visionary poetic world.
Dream and imagination are recurring thematic preoccupations throughout Coleridge’s poems. In ‘Kubla Khan’, Coleridge visualises a Utopian and imaginary world. The poem is not a finished piece but a fragment of a dream vision. As the poem is about poetic insperation, it is also renowned for the vicious interruption. The poem introduces a supernatural setting and events as the poet provides his reader an enchanting romantic place.
“Kubla Khan” is distinctive for its imaginary and dreamy rendition of the landscape and content. From the tumultuous sound of water gushing from the chasm, Kubla Khan listens to the foretelling of his forefathers of the impending war. Both the natural scenery and politics are juxtaposed in the same verses of the poem. Even at the outset of the poem, this synthesis is visible where Coleridge speaks of Kubla Khan’s construction of the pleasure dome and depiction of the bewitching Alph. In the latter part of the poem, the poet witnesses an Abyssinian damsel with a dulcimer who sings of Mount Abora. This bewitching sight evokes a strong poetic inspiration in the poet which enables him to re-create the complex architectural design of Kubla Khan’s pleasure palace in his imaginary canvas.
From a postcolonial perspective, “Kubla Khan”is a product of eighteenth century colonial discourse and his approach in the poem is mostly orientalist in attitude. In the poem, Coleridge attaches exotic and remote features with the East. Even his dream vision of the very image of the Abyssinian maid with her musical instrument exposes his exotic imagination of the Orient. And this “damsel with a dulcimer” is singing of Mount Abora, an African hilly landscape. Kubla Khan, the supreme figure in the poem, is an Oriental King who is associated with Xanadu, an oriental place. Along with the landscape, the waterbody, the Alph, the sacred river, as elaborated in the poem, is also oriental in nature. The romantic images that the poem offer, such as ‘the plea-sure palace’ surrounded by the sacred river, the ‘deep romantic chasm’, and the image of the ‘wailing woman’ showcase the orientalist imaginations of the poet.
The poem does not follow any strict and consistent rhyme scheme as each stanza adopts a different rhyme scheme. The poem employs many personifications, which mean attributing human qualities to inanimate objects. Earth struggling for breath is a personification as breathing is a human quality which is attributed to earth. Similarly, the expression of ‘dancing rocks’ is also a personification where dancing is a human quality which is attributed to rocks.
The poem makes use of allusion to the historical figure Kubla Khan, a successful Mongolian emperor. The poem also uses apostrophe as a poetic device in which the speaker addresses an absent one. In “Kubla Khan”, the speaker addresses readers with “beware! beware” to alert them of the poetically elated mood of the poet.
Many alliterations, such as “measureless to man”, “woman wailing”, “mazy motion”, “mingled measure” and “deep delight,” add to the appeal of the poem. Alliteration is the repetition of the consonant sounds at the beginning of words. The poem is distinguished for its visual quality and clarity of its imagery. Some such striking images are that of a damsel with dulcimer, crying woman for her demon lover, the inspired poet with flashing eyes and floating hair and the image of the romantic chasm from where stones fall like hailstones. Cleanth Brooks observes “language of poetry is the language of paradox”. The poem is replete with many paradoxical statements like “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” where the sunny palace and icy cave are juxtaposed. The ambiguities and paradoxes add to the depth of the poem.