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The Mystery of Xanadu: An Analysis of Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge

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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…This lyrical introduction, as well as the seemingly incomprehensible body that follows, has perplexed critics and readers for centuries.  To fully understand this poem, or at least be able to provide a meaningful interpretation, it is imperative that one reads this poem over and over again.  With repeated reading, the words seems to fall away and all that is the left are emotions. History has recorded numerous attempts to unravel the mysteries of those 54 lines and with this written piece, I wish to do the same.

         When attempting to deconstruct this poem, it is most enlightening to use Coleridge’s own preface as a springboard for one’s interpretation of the poem.  By bearing in mind the author’s own personal conditions, we are afforded a rare opportunity to see behind the scenes of a poet, thereby making this interpretation one rooted in a circumstantial analysis.  According to Coleridge and repeated by countless writers, he had taken anodyne (a pain – relieving drug) one afternoon.  As a result, he summarily fell asleep while reading Purchas’ Pilgrimage, a book on Kubla Khan.

Coleridge was reading the following passage of Pilgrimage when he fell asleep: In Xamdu did Cublai Can build a stately Palace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meadowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull Streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game and in the middest thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure. (Book IV, chap. XIII)

Gibbs (80) writes that

“[a]ll images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent emotions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort…recollection of the entire vision was distinct, on awakening, and he began immediately to write it down…he had written only the fifty-four lines that comprise the existing fragment, when he was interrupted by a “person from Porlock” who kept him in business conversation for an hour or more. When Coleridge was able to return to his writing, only a few scattered verses and dim images remained in his memory.”

         This was the usual explanation offered by Coleridge himself why he had dubbed this particular piece a ‘fragment.’  However, I submit that the term ‘fragment’ is silently appropriate; this naming of the piece is perfect in a two-fold manner: firstly, it connotes that the poem itself is a mere portion of the intended work because the writing was interrupted and secondly, and perhaps more indicative of the poem’s tone and emotion, is that it gave an all-too fleeting glimpse of an unknown paradise, beautiful in its chaos.

         At first pass, the ideas and visuals presented seem to be a reflection of a muddled mind.  Lines like

But oh!  That deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place!  As holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

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

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail

And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

portay a heightened perception.  Natural objects like hills, fountains, rocks, and rivers come alive with tumultuous and contrasting emotions.  Coleridge’s use of onomatopoeic words, like thresher’s flail and chaffy grain, brings the poem to an almost 3-dimensional place.

         Kubla Khan is a lyrical depiction of extremes.  It is as if we are ushered into a strange land, fearful yet excited of where the next steps will lead.  We travel through the voice of an almost disoriented guide that speaks his emotions without thinking.  It would be pointless to try and analyze this poem on merely a logical level.  In order to feel the full force of emotions, one must let go and find meaning even in the most (seemingly) meaningless of phrases.  One moment, lines like

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree:

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

lull us into a (perhaps) false sense of serenity.  But even through the incoherence, one actually feels the pull of something powerful.  And although we do not understand where the pull will lead us, we are compelled to follow blindly.  Almost abruptly, this peace is shattered by a sense of danger:

But oh!  That deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place!  As holy and enchanted

And we suddenly become fearful.  Of what, we are not sure.  There is truth, yet no logic, to our emotions.

         Given that an interpretation, no matter what the object-stimulus is, will always have an element of subjectivity, there is a myriad of meanings one can inject into this enigmatic piece.  Although the interpretation of this poem has been somewhat grounded to the personal circumstances of the author, I will submit that there are universal emotions woven into this poem’s complex fabric: excitement, pleasure, fear and pain.

         One could argue that this piece is nothing but the ramblings of a drugged man. But I will not. To do so would cheapen the experience of reading this centuries-old poem.  It seems to me that this poem is an exorcism of some unfulfilled and unfathomable desires, where subconscious taboo yearnings are recycled to become palatable in the conscious world.  Coleridge’s constant use of phrases like caverns measureless to man, deep romantic chasm, ceaseless turmoil seething portray a fearful yet violent longing of something.

         Personally, the poem strikes me as a very sensual and sexual piece.  Even the poem itself has a natural rhythm that starts at slow, calm pace, gradually rising in a frenzy of sensations until the reader feels its own painful crash.  However, I do not believe that the poem is necessarily about sex or lust.  Rather, the poem’s tone merely mimics, or attempts to encapsulate into a series of words, the same pleasure and pain of intimate acts.  I interpret the poem to mean anything from the excitement of a first love, an initial foray into drug use, the first sexual experience or any other personal event that offer a rich spectrum of highs and lows.

The poem is a masterful work of lyrics and emotions.  The author chose words that are very difficult to understand on a logical plain but are perfects fits in that they lyrically convey the emotions that he himself felt; emotions that he wants his readers to feel as well.

I feel like reading the poem is akin to listening to a person recount a magical tale about his journey into a wild unknown; an adventurous journey wherein he encountered both pleasure and pain.  The beauty of this poem is that it does not lose its emotion regardless of whatever meaning the reader injects. It seems that as long as the interpretation mirrors the same emotions of fear, excitement, pleasure and pain, then this poem will speak to everyone.

         The poem’s end is also of great interest to me.  The tone employed in the last stanza rings as somewhat cautionary to my ears.  After bringing us to the depths of an emotional cavern and up to the heights of the pleasure dome, Coleridge ends with something like a warning.

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

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.

His use of holy dread in the third line automatically makes me cautious.  I interpret this to mean that after a pleasure-filled adventure, there is a disappointing emptiness that can fill you once the excitement has passed. In sum, I believe this poem is about an irresistible paradise, cruel in its beauty.  Even through the years, this poem still has social relevance because at any given epoch, each individual always has a cruel paradise to call his own.

Annotated Bibliography

Gibbs, L. “Selections from Coleridge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan.”

Ginn and Co., Boston. 1916. 80. This book reproduced the passage of the book that Coleridge was reading when he fell asleep and wrote that this particular passage has clearly influenced the way the poem was written.

Gibbs & Coburn Inquiring Spirit: A New Presentation of Coleridge from His Published and Unpublished

Prose Writings. Pantheon Books, New York. 1951.  These writers suggest that the usual preface story given by Coleridge himself is a euphemism for drug use and hallucination.  Anodyne, they say, replaced opium.

Purchas. “Pilgrimage” Book IV, Chapter XIII. London, 1614. It is clear that even from the choice of words

at the beginning, the poem would not be poem were it not for this passage.

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