.
.
Kubla Khan
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) 
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
.
Type of Work
Background, Point of View
Complete Title
Summary
Text and Notes
Theme
Rhyme
Meter
Inversion
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Coleridge Biography
.
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2011
.
Type of Work and Publication Year

.......Samuel Taylor Coleridge's u0093Kubla Khanu0094 is a lyric poem centering on the author's response to a dream. According to the author's introduction to the poem, he had the dream in the summer of 1797 and composed the poem after waking up. (The author's grandson, Ernest Harley Coleridge, maintained that his grandfather wrote the poem in 1798 but mistakenly recorded 1797 as the year of composition.) Coleridge published the poem in 1816.

Background and Point of View

.......In the introduction to "Kubla Khan," Samuel Taylor Coleridge says he received inspiration for the poem while sojourning at a farmhouse in southwestern England in the summer of 1797. Here is what happened. Feeling a u0093slight indisposition,u0094 he says, he took a prescribed medicine containing opium and fell asleep at the very moment that he was reading a passage about Kubla Khan (1215-1294) from a travel book by Samuel Purchas (1577-1626). The passage says, in part, u0093Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.u0094 Coleridge then dreamed about the abode of the Mongol leader, usually referred to in history books as Kublai Khan. 
.......Kublai became emperor of China in 1260 and proclaimed the establishment of his own Yuan dynasty in 1271. His capital was Ta-tu (present-day Beijing), but he maintained a summer residence in southeastern Mongolia at K'ai P'ing, also known as Shang-tu or Shangdu and, in Coleridge's poem, as Xanadu.
.......After Marco Polo visited Xanadu in 1275, he wrote, 

There is at this place a very fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.
.......Round this Palace a wall is built, inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured and placed there to supply food for his gerfalcons and hawks, which he keeps there in mew.
.......The Lord abides at this Park of his, dwelling sometimes in the Marble Palace and sometimes in the Cane Palace for three months of the year, to wit, June, July, and August; preferring this residence because it is by no means hot; in fact it is a very cool place. (translated from Italian by Henry Yule)
.......After waking up, Coleridge began writing in third-person point of view what was to be a long poem about the dream. However, a visitor interrupted him at line thirty-six and occupied his time for about an hour. When Coleridge resumed writing, he forgot the rest of the details of the dream. As all of us are well aware, dream images are elusive. When we awake from a dream, its images often fade away unless we immediately write down what we experienced. 
.......Line 37 of the poem shifts from third-person to first-person point of view and expresses Coleridge's wish that he could recall the rest of the dream. 
.......The poem, therefore, centers in part on the dream itself and then on the author's response to the disappearance of its images.

Complete Title

.......The complete title of the poem is u0093Kubla Khan, or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment.u0094 Fragment here indicates that the poem presents a description of only part of the images in the dream, as explained under Background.

Summary

.......Coleridge dreams about the great Mongolian ruler Kubla (Kublai) Khan's construction of a stately palace in Xanadu. Upon awakening, he begins writing a poem about the dream. He says walls and towers enclose the Khan's palace and grounds, made up of "twice five miles" (line 6) of land abounding with gardens and winding streams, as well as trees with fragrant blossoms. Down from Xanadu the sacred river Alph runs through caverns on its way to the sea.
.......A ravine that opens into these caverns cuts a path through cedar trees on a green hill. The ravine reveals a dark and foreboding underworld, like a place where a woman wails "for her demon-lover" (line 16). From this chasm a fountain bursts intermittently, sending up huge rock fragments. Through the chasm runs the sacred river, Alph, down to the "lifeless ocean" (line 28).
.......In his palace, Kubla hears--through the din of the tumbling waters and the spewing fountain--the voices of ancestors foretelling war. (One may conclude from the historical background that this part of the poem refers to the time when the Kubla begins to prepare for the battles that would make him emperor of China and the founder of its Yuan dynasty.)
.......The shadow of the palace casts itself down upon the waves, a shadow that will soon cast itself figuratively over all of China as Kubla Khan extends his sovereignty. How strange it is that the sun bathes the palace while ice encrusts the caves below. 
.......At this point in writing his dream poem, Coleridge receives a visitor, who occupies him for an hour. By the time Coleridge returns to his writing, he has forgotten the rest of his dream. Consequently, he ends the poem by comparing his dream to a song he heard a woman sing, a song which he has also forgotten. This much he does remember: She was singing about Mount Abora to the accompaniment of music she played on a dulcimer. If he could remember her song and her dulcimer sounds, he would build--to their accompaniment--his own Xanadu and pleasure palace in the air. All who heard the song would shout, "Beware! Beware!" Then they would say of him that he is a redoubtable personage who, unlike other men, has "drunk the milk of paradise" (line 54),
.

Text of the Poem

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
....Down to a sunless sea....................................................5
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,1
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,.........................10
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn2 cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As eu0092er beneath a waning3 moon was haunted.....................15
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst...............................20
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresheru0092s flail:
And u0092mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion..........................25
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And u0092mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!.......................................30
   The shadow of the dome of pleasure
   Floated midway on the waves;
   Where was heard the mingled measure
   From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,.............................................35
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
   A damsel with a dulcimer4
   In a vision once I saw:
   It was an Abyssinian5 maid,
   And on her dulcimer she played,........................................40
   Singing of Mount Abora.6
   Could I revive within me
   Her symphony and song,
   To such a deep delight u0092twould win me,
That with music loud and long,..............................................45
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!.........................................50
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


.
.
Notes

1....rills: Small streams, rivulets. 
2....cedarn: Having to do with cedar trees.
3....waning: Said of the moon when the size of its lighted face gradually decreases after a full moon. 
4....dulcimer: Musical instrument with strings that the player strikes with two small hammers.
5....Abyssinian: Having to do with Abyssinia, a former name of Ethiopia.
6....Mount Abora: Coleridge may have been referring to Amba Geshen, a mountain in northern Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Theme

.......The theme of the poem is the author's fascination with a dream vision and with its rendering into poetry. The poem describes the dream, a vision of Kubla Khan's summer residence and its environs, and then centers on the poet's desire to remember all the details of the dream. 

End Rhyme

.......End rhyme occurs throughout the poem. Sometimes successive lines rhyme, as lines 6 and 7. Sometimes alternating lines rhyme, as lines 8 and 10. Notice, too, that more than two lines may occur between rhymes. For example, line 2 rhymes with lines 5 and 9. The highlighted words in the first eleven lines demonstrate the irregular rhyme scheme of the poem. 

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
 Down to a sunless sea....................................................5
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,.........................10
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
Internal Rhyme

.......Internal rhyme also occurs in the poem, as in the following lines.

So twice five miles of fertile ground (line 6)
With walls and towers were girdled round (line 7)
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted (line 12)
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! (line 13)
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething (line 17)
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing (line 18)
Floated midway on the waves (line 32)
.......Sometimes a syllable within one line echoes the sound of a syllable (or syllables) within a previous line. Note, for example, the following:
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless.sea. (line 4-5)

So twice five miles of fertile.ground
With walls and towers were girdled round (lines 6-7)

Meter

.......The poem opens with four lines in iambic iambic tetrameter. The first line demonstrates the pattern. 

...1..............2...............3............4
In XAN..|..a DU.|..did KUB..|..la KHAN
The poem then shifts to lines of varying length, usually with iambic feet. For example, line 10 is in iambic pentameter.
.......1..................2................3...............4................5
And HERE..|..were FOR..|..ests AN..|..cient AS..|..the HILLS
Line 43 is in iambic trimeter.
......1..............2...............3
Her SYM..|..phon Y..|..and SONG
Inversion

.......Like other poets, Coleridge frequently uses inversion to fashion rhymes and achieve musicality. The following lines are examples:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree (lines 1-2)
Normal prose wording: Kubla Khan decreed a stately pleasure dome in Xanadu.

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw: (lines 37-38)
Normal prose wording: In a vision, I once saw a damsel with a dulcimer.

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree

Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea

Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves. (lines 33-34)

And all who heard should see them there (line 48)

For he on honey-dew hath fed (line 53

Anaphora
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And u0092mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair! (line 50)

Simile
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail (line 21)
Comparison of upward thrust of the fragments to that of rebounding hail

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing
Comparison of the the earth to a living, breathing thing

Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write an informative essay about writers who based literary works on dreams. You may wish to begin with Robert Louis Stevenson, who is said to have based The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on a dream.
  • Write a short poem based on a dream of your own.
  • Write an informative essay about Xanadu (also known as K'ai P'ing, Shang-tu, and Shangdu).
  • Define the following words from the poem: girdled, sinuous, chasm, athwart, and thresher

.