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.