Coleridge completed this poem in 1797 and it was published in 1816. It is said that the poem was a result of an opium induced vision after reading about Xanadu, the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China, Kublai Khan. When he awoke from his opium induced sleep, he started to write lines of poetry relating to the dream, initially 200 to 300 lines in his head. Unfortunately, after writing the first two stanzas he was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock, wanting to discuss business. When he returned to his writing after an hour had passed, most of the memory of the remaining poem had gone and he only retained a dim version of the vision.
In his poem, Kubla’s palace is constructed where the sacred river Alph begins its journey to the sea. The construction of the palace is beautifully described. In the second stanza, Xanadu is described more romantically, where it becomes a savage place, haunted by a woman who wails for her demon lover. Coleridge makes this place his own, not Kubla’s, filled with images from his own imagination, where anything can happen. He describes, that from this chasm with ceaseless turmoil seething, there is a mighty fountain and he describes the force of the water and where it travels, where it reaches the caverns, measureless to man, sinking in tumult to the lifeless ocean. He then describes how Kubla hears from afar ancestral voices, prophesying war which could allude to the opposition of the real Khan by his younger brother, Arigböge, eventually leading to a military victory for Kubla. He then shifts the focus back to the pleasure dome.
In the final verse he presents a first-person narrator who recounts a vision he once had of an Abyssinian maid playing a dulcimer and singing of Mount Abora. The narrator says that if he could revive her music within himself, he would build a pleasure-dome, and all who would see it would be frightened of “his flashing eyes, his floating hair!” His observers would close their eyes “with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.” Is he saying here, that if only he could remember the visions he’d had, he would be able to complete the poem for all to read as it should have been. Would this though make the readers afraid of him, as these visions would be too much for them to handle, because I think the honey-dew he mentions is referring to the opium he took, (and to which he was addicted), which induced these evocative visions of Paradise within the pleasure dome.
Others say that Kubla Khan is a dream poem in which Coleridge has achieved what he calls the aim of a true poet, which is to create a state of poetic illusion much like dreaming. He places his readers into a charmed sleep, creating for them a waking-dream experience and it is through this clever balance of dream and waking judgement that Kubla Khan is said to be a success as a dream poem.
Kubla Khan – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
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.