In the case of Kubla Khan, I believe the story is Coleridge was called away on that errand by a man from Porlock, wherever that is. That man from Porlock has gone down in the history of writing, and other creation, as whatever calls us away in the middle of it.

As for the myriad of drugs Coleridge used, the main one seems to have been laudanum, a tincture of opium--a solution in alcohol. Opium, as all opiates, I believe, have the effect of slowing down the bowel, and relieving various complaints.

Unlike today, there were no limitations on what could be prescibed to people. There were occasional tragedies.

There are many interpretations of this poem. One of them is that this poem is complete utter nonsense and is very similar to the bizarre quality of dreams. Another interpretation is that the Khan represents Coleridge's impotence as a poet and a writer. The Khan has flashing eyes and floating hair and has built himself a pleasure dome but not much else. Another strange interpretation is that the chasm and domes represent sexual symbols and that the entire poem is about sex (A really strange interpretation).

I first read this poem (or the first stanza, anyway) in an Uncle Scrooge comic book. The story was called "Return to Xanadu" (by the amazing Don Rosa) and Huey, Dewey, and Louie flipped open the Junior Woodchucks Guidebook (that ever handy reincarnation of the lost Library of Alexandria) and promptly recited "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure dome decree...” Those words, and the rest of Coleridge's poem, have stuck with me ever since. Upon reading the entire poem in 11th grade English, I found that I could recite most of the first half from memory.

And why did I feel the need to node this? Because you really can learn from comic books, kids... and because you should recite those first lines to yourself. Hear the lyrical tilt to them? This is the joy of poetry. The words stick inside your brain and reverberate. They dance around and refuse to leave, even if you ask politely, and years later they will pop up, fanciful and beautiful as they always were, to remind you of your own Xanadu.

A Visit to Xanadu

     “Kubla Khan” is quite possibly one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's most famous poems of his career. Aside from captivating readers for several years, it has both stunned and astounded scholars and critics alike. It is an unfinished poem, like most of Coleridge's   poems, and a poem that seems to have no literal meaning on first glance, yet many theoretical meanings can be perceived from repeated readings. This writeup will attempt to highlight just what exactly has cause so much time and effort to go into deciphering what, upon first glance, sounds like the ridiculous ravings of a madman.

    The first logical place to start would be to examine the layered symbolism within the poem itself. As one critic states, “Coleridge was 'thinking of himself in terms of the serene and powerful Kubla.' The pleasure-dome is the bower into which Coleridge retired by means of opium. But this retreat is not perfectly secure, for there were the prophecies of war. These Mr. Graves suggests may have been, on one plane of symbolism, Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd prophesying an evil fate for the drug taker; on another they were 'probably' the actual threat to England from the war with France, under which 'it was hardly the duty of an Englishman, even a genius, to bury himself far off in the West Country and weaken his spirit with opium”(Coleridge, Opium, and Kubla Khan, page 239). Coleridge, waking from an opium induced dream, awoke a began writing the poem from what he could still retain in his memory. It is strange to think that any intentional literal meaning could have stemmed from such an accidental meeting of pen and paper. Another critical opinion of the poem says that “The poem shows us that 'Coleridge has determined to shun the mazy complications of life by retreating to a bower of poetry, solitude, and opium.' The Abyssinian maid is an unidentified beloved who usually lay beside him in his opium dream. The caves of ice may represent the purely intellectual character of the poet's attachment to Dorothy Wordsworth”(Coleridge, Opium, and Kubla Khan, page 239). Some theories state that the meaning behind the symbolism in Kubla Khan is much more personal than it may at first seem. This is not the first of Coleridge's poems to contain mention of the “Abyssinian maid”. Finally, one more example of Coleridge's imagery being examined is when the critic says “The figure with 'flashing eyes' and 'floating hair' in the final lines Lowes traced to a confluence of Bruce's king of Abyssinia, whose hair on one occasion floated, and the 'youths' who were followers of Aloadin—an impersonal mysterious figure beheld by Coleridge in his dreams”(Coleridge, Opium, and Kubla Khan, page 245). The symbolism Coleridge uses in this poem is incredibly deep, and seems to be, for the most part, pulled directly from is opium dreams.

    The second factor about this poem that has attracted so much attention is the fact that it forever remains uncompleted, as the idea was lost by Coleridge. One critic states “However much of little of a plan Coleridge may have had, the fragment as it stands perhaps carries within itself the seeds of its own early collapse. The author could hardly sustain it, one feels, and if he could the reader could not”(Coleridge, Opium, and Kubla Khan, page 252). The very beginning of this poem is so detailed and in depth that if it had been the staggering work that Coleridge claimed it would have been in its finished form, if he did manage to write such a poem, the reader would almost certainly be lost in the details. Another opinion of the poem in its unfinished form is when a critic states “A narrative poet almost of necessity lets the reader into his tale more thinly, with his matter spaced more widely; or if the opening texture is extremely rich the pace will be slower, more leisurely or more dignified, as in Paradise Lost and Lycidas. The movement of Kubla Khan is rather swift, yet its texture is fully as elaborate as that of Lycidas, without the retarding gravity and the uncrowded, fully explored imagery with which the poem opens”(Coleridge, Opium, and Kubla Khan, page 252). To have a longer poem the author must reveal the details slowly, so that the poem can continue. If Coleridge could have finished this poem, it may have destroyed itself by complicating the story line with an overexertion of imagery. Finally, the critic states “I question whether Coleridge or any poet could have continued it without producing either anticlimax or surfeit. It is impertinent, however, to suggest what a poet could or could not do; and it is idle anyhow to worry the question of whether Kubla Khan is unfinishable or merely unfinished”(Coleridge, Opium, and Kubla Khan, page 252). The poem, whether it is possible that it could have been completed or not, in reality is not. It should be looked at and examined as a fragment, though not necessarily a bad thing as Coleridge's career revolved around many unfinished poems.

    A final characteristic of “Kubla Khan” is the musical tone that the poem follows. For example, one critic points out that “The pattern of Kubla Khan, however, is not confined to the æ-sounds. The rhyme, with all its freedom, its shiftings and Lycidas-like “oscillations,” has elaborate hidden correspondences. The rhyme scheme of the opening seven lines, for example, is exactly repeated in the first seven lines of the second paragraph. The extraordinary elaboration, also, of the assonance keeps the music of this poem fresh through many re-readings”(Kubla Khan, page 88). The poetic style that Coleridge uses throughout “Kubla Khan” keeps the reader from getting bored and the poem becoming redundant. Also, the critic continues, “The most obvious of the patterns in the opening lines, apart from the ubiquity of the æ-sounds, is the alliteration that closes each of the first five lines: “Kubla Khan,” “dome decree,” “river ran,” “measureless to man,” “sunless sea”---a revival of the device Coleridge had practiced so conspicuously in his Spenserian-Miltonic verse of 1795”(Kubla Khan, page 89). “Kubla Khan” signified the recurrence of a writing style that Coleridge had practiced well. A writing style that also helped to, in a sense, characterize “Kubla Khan.” A final critical analysis of Coleridge's writing style is stated “This device, used skillfully as it is here and partly concealed by the interlacing of other patterns, contributes to something to the floating effect of the whole, for the assonance softens the impact of the rhyme and so lessens its tendency to bring the line to earth at the close: the terminal rhyme does not settle so heavily upon the mind when its emphasis has been partly stolen by its preceding shadow”(Kubla Khan, page 90). The musical attributes found within the poem, creatively mixed with other types of interlacing patterns, help to give “Kubla Khan” a little bit of its longevity.

    Many attributes have made “Kubla Khan” a long time favorite among scholars and poetry enthusiasts alike. The fact that it remains unfinished seems little more than another alley to explore, and has led to many speculations about what Coleridge was trying to convey and what direction he could have been heading with the poem. Both the musical style and the layered imagery also help with it's popularity, and have led to many speculations of the true meaning of the poem, and what the illustrations represent. Although criticized by many as nothing more than the incomprehensible ramblings of an opium addict, it is hard to deny that Coleridge knew what he was doing when he began writing “Kubla Khan”, and did it very well.

  • "Opium, Coleridge, and Kubla Khan": Published in Textbook Binding by Octagon
    Books (May, 1983). Author: Elisabeth Schneider 


Coleridge's reputation as a poet rests on eight poems written between 1797 to 1802, and most of all on three poems of imaginative power: 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', 'Kubla Khan', and 'Christabel'. These poems deal with supernatural events. Coleridge's poems are considered to be perfect Romantic poems in the sense of growing according to an inner organic law, not something that is composed according to some predetermined scheme. Such poems with supernatural topics are made believable by truth to human nature and feeling of a different kind, by "that willing suspension of disblief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith". John Livingston Lows in his scholarly book 'The Road to Xanadu' has traced the images in The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan in Coleridge's notebook. He has traced the process in which the images have passed from the poet's conscious to his unconscious mind. Lows concludes that Coleridge's intentions are neither philosophical nor Christian but superstitious and legendary. Coleridge calls Kubla Khan a 'fragment' and 'a vision in a dream' and connects it with opium. But modern scholarship has proved that it is neither 'a fragment', nor the result of taking opium nor 'a vision in a dream'. The poem might have been written after reading 'Purchase's Pilgrimage', but, except for the first few lines, Coleridge's poem cannot be traced to a source. In fact, the poem has no source and Coleridge's remarks do nothing but mislead the reader. Kubla Khan is actually a perfect poem describing the "Poetic Creation"

Kubla Khan begins with exotic names suggesting the quality of 'enchantment'. In fact the Romantic poet looks like an enchanter. Kubla himself looks like a figure of power, mystery and enchantment, though the whole poem makes it clear that Kubla is not a real Romantic poet; he is more Classical than Romantic. Great art in general is a miracle, whether classical or Romantic. 'Dome', in the 2nd line, is the most artistic building; it stands for the palace of art. Kubla did 'decree' the dome. True art does not depend on a premeditated plan and it is not mechanical. Through the power of imagination the poet partakes in the creative act of God. God creates the universe and the poet creates the work of art. The difference between Kubla and Colerige is that Kubla has created a conscious and secure world of art on earth while Colerideg can 'build that dome in air'.

The palace of art is sacred because it is the product of imagination. The 2nd line calls it a 'pleasure dome'. Romantic poetry gives delight with no emphasis on the educational side of literature. Coleridge believes that the combination of pleasure and sacredness is the sign of true art.

The opening lines of Kubla Khan describe an ideal and paradisal landscape watered by a sacred river called Alph. The name of the river is reminiscent of alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet. It is the first, the beginning, suggesting the beginning of the world, the creation. It is also the river of the Muses, the river of imagination. The sacred river of imagination originates from the poet's unconscious mind and runs "Through caverns measureless to man" or the creative process, and falls "Down to a sunless sea." The 'sunless sea' of line 5 or the 'lifeless ocean' of line 28 is the symbol of everyday material existance. Thus the river of imagination loses its motion and is always threatened by the society with conflict and extinction.

Lines 6 to 12 of 'Kubla Khan' describe the palace: the 'fertil ground' refers to the productive mind of the poet. 'Walls and towers' that designate the poet's mind stand for the senses of which the eyes and ears are the towers. 'Bright gardens' watered by 'sinuous rills' are the creative mind of the poet inspired by the water of inspiration. The 'incense-bearing' trees that blossom suggest the creation of poems. The 'forests ancient as the hills' imply that poetry is as old as creation because The Book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament (1050 B.C.) that talks about the creation of the world, is itself a great work of art, a great poem.

With line 13 Coleridge comes to the process of poetic creation. The 'deep romantic chasm' is the unconscious mind of the poet. It is the source of the river of imagination, the Alph, running in a sacred and enchanted place. The enchanted setting makes poetry look supernatural. The chasm functions as a volcano forcing out the sacred river as well as 'huge fragments' suggesting that poetry is not only 'a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' but good poetry, like its source the 'romantic chasm', is romantic; that is, wild and natural. The 'mighty fountain' of line 19 is actually 'the sacred river' of line 24, repeated for the sake of emphasis and the significance of imagination in the creation of poetry.

Lines 25 to 30 repeat the process of creation and how it joins the lifeless society that is unpoetic and even anti-poetic. The conflict between poetry and society suggests that poetic imagination is always threatened with conflict and extinction. But lines 30 onward show that poetry overshadows the society that cannot but hear poetry's mingled measure. Poetry dominates the society because it is 'a miracle of rare device'.

From line 37 to the end of the poem (the last 18 lines) Coleridge forgets about Kubla and Xanadu and speaks in his own person. He has the vision of an Abyssinian maid singing of Mount Abora--Milton's Mount Amara, a fabled paradise (paradise Lost, IV, 268-284). Thus the Abyssinian maid is singing of a paradisal landscape more beautiful than that of the opening lines. She becomes somebody like Sarah Hutchinson, the poet's source of inspiration. Here and in another poem "Dejection" Coleridge emphasizes the need for 'delight' or 'joy' as the first step in poetic ecstasy. When inspired and joyful, he flies beyond the reach of Kubla or any classical poet who builds the palace of art on earth. The Romantic poet can 'build that dome in air.' In the mood of poetic ecstasy, the poet is in his poetic paradise, and he is the inspired magical prophet-bard.

Segments of notes taken during lectures of Dr Amrolah Abjadian, professor of English literature in Shiraz University Iran.

For the purpose of reference, the full text of the poem with the original spacing. Kubla Khan was first published in 1816 and likely written in the Autumn of 1797 or Spring 1798 if Coleridge's accounts are to be believed (which, knowing the Romantics' penchant for hyperbole, may not be the most accurate recollections of actual events). Coleridge supposedly wrote the poem based on an opium-induced dream. It is famously unfinished as he was called away before writing the conclusion and could only recall a few scant images upon his return.

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.
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,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

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:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

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,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,

That with music loud and long,
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!
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.

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