Introduction of Kubla Khan

Written in 1797, ‘Kubla Khan’ was first published in 1816 at the request of Lord Byron. The book contained an ‘introduction’ which sheds light on the circumstances that led the poet to write a poem: ‘In the summer of 1797, the Author, then ill-healthy, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the outskirts of Somerset and Devonshire. As a result of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the time he read the following sentence, or the words of the same substance, in ‘Purchase’ Pilgrimage: ‘Here the Khan Kubla ordered the building of a palace and a stately garden. And thus ten miles of fertile ground was enclosed with a wall:

The author continued for about three hours in a deep sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he had the most vivid faith that he could not have written less than two to three hundred lines: if that could indeed be called a composition in which all the images stood before him as objects, with the corresponding expressions being created in parallel, without any sensation or the consciousness of effort.

Upon waking, he seemed to have a clear memory of the whole and taking his pen, ink, and paper, I wrote down the lines that are preserved here instantly and enthusiastically. At this moment he was unfortunately summoned by a person in Porlock’s business and detained by him for more than an hour and when he returned to his house, he discovered, to his no small surprise and mortification, that while he still had some vague and dim memory of the general purpose of the picture, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines or pictures, all the rest had gone awfully like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas, without the after the restoration of the latter!’

SO, Coleridge says the poem is a ‘fragment’ of a dream and that too. We seem to be apologizing for it as though the readers shouldn’t take it too seriously, shouldn’t try some deeper meaning or broader suggestion. An amoral blessing of heightened creativity in its maker may trigger such embarrassment. This is not a poem of declaration or transmission of an idea but one of creative exploration, of the discovery of the basic elements of artistic production and the interaction between the human and the supernatural. It is a poem equally strong on its physical and symbolic level, erasing the distinction between the common and the unusual, the immediate and the distant, the earthly and the otherworldly with absolute ease.

Structure of Kubla Khan

Obviously, there are three parts in the poem. In the 36- line first part the poet
describes the pleasure palace of Kubla Khan, an emperor in ancient China. It has three stanzas of 10, 20 and 6 lines respectively. It is on the nature and quality of that art which reflects the life and its strange, unintelligible complexities.

The second and the third parts are in one stanza, the second covering 5 lines and the third part the remaining 13 lines, In the second part, the poet is referring to an Abyssinian singing girl whom he had seen in a ‘vision’. It is about art that transcends life. The third and final part creates the picture of an inspired poet who can bring about a revolution in the world, a yogi who can change the meaning of life. Here is the art that can change life and the world.

Summary of Kubla Khan

Kubla Khan, the ancient mighty King of China, once ordered the building of a majestic pleasure house in Xanadu. The holy river Alph flowed through Xanadu and made it a fertile land. The river’s course was across deep and unrivalled caverns. And then, it plummeted into a deep sea. The ground, ten miles in length, was fertile, and its walls and towers were well fenced. It had luminous parks, flowing streams and fragrant trees bearing sweet flowers. There were trees, as old as hills, in the middle of which green grassy patches of land were sparkling with sunshine.

The most remarkable thing here was a deep, mysterious chasm that came down. The hill is covered with cedar trees. It was a wild and desolate place like one that we would have imagined to be the haunt of a woman in mad love with a demon, coming here in the light of the waning moon, waiting for him, even though he left her after he had made love with her.

A powerful spring of water gushed out of this gorge. Deep down, there was an incessant turmoil, as if the earth were breathing fast, and this turmoil of the earth resulted in a great stream of water carrying along with it large and small pieces of stone like a rebounding hail or a scattered grain when it was beaten by a thresher. The fountain that came out with these rocks and stones took the form of the sacred river Alph, which followed a meandering path through the woody arid valley and reached deep and dark caverns, and then fell into the ‘lifeless’ ocean. And in this tumult, Kubla Khan heard the voices of the ancestors who were prophesying war (i.e. the destruction of this idyllic place and palace).

The shadow of the dome of this pleasure house fell upon the waves in the middle of the river. Mailly notes from the fountain and the caves were resounding and mixed. The orchestral effect was miraculous, and no less miraculous was the sight of pleasure – the dome that stood on the ice caves with domes flooded with sunshine. The poet is reminded of the vision he had once had; it was the Abyssinian maid who had a vision. She played on her dulcimer and sang Mount Abora. Her symphony and song were so excellent that if the poet could revive, he would enjoy the heavenly bliss in his poetry and create art as charming as Kubla Khan’s palace.

His music would, then, create the embodiment of the mystery in God’s universe, the mystery of contraries woven together, the dichotomy of light and darkness, life and death, the ‘sunny dome’ and ‘caves of ice’. Such great poetry brings about a great change in man’s thought and attitude. Great poets are true revolutionaries. In their poetry lies the message of change and rebirth. Ordinary people are usually conservative. They dread changes. So they are afraid of great poets.

They want to imprison them or to make them ineffectual. They try to fan up popular sentiments against them. They know that the great poets are nourished by heavenly bliss and benediction.

The Supernatural Element

Influenced by German poetry of the 18th century, Coleridge made extensive use of the supernatural in his poetry. His most successful poems are excellent poetry, some say, despite their supernatural element, and some say, because of their supernatural element.

Supernaturalism is such a powerful element in his poetry. And he treated the supernatural in such a way as to make the reader feel that it is so natural, very much part of the total scheme of nature. Supernaturalism is most powerful in ‘Christabel’ and ‘The Rime’ of the ‘Ancient Mariner.’ Not so much in ‘Kubla Khan, and yet it seems to be hovering over the whole poem: right from the mention of Xanadu to the magic weaving of a circle around the ‘troubadour,’ in order to limit it from its own. The role of leading the world to a new profile and awareness.

The description of the palace makes it an other-worldly construction; the Abyssinian maid singing of Mount Abora is a dream vision: and the poet with exuberant wildness seems to be someone who visits one in dreams and cannot be found in the world of man and nature.

But the very specific mention of something supernatural comes when the ‘savage place’ is described as ‘holy and enchanted’:

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted. By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

Supernaturalism is not an embellishment in Coleridge’s poetry; it is an organic part of the total texture. The natural and the supernatural are fused into one entity, and it is his power of imagination that does this miracle.


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