A Short Analysis of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’

Analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Kubla Khan’ is perhaps the most famous unfinished poem in all of English literature. But why the poem remained unfinished, and how Samuel Taylor Coleridge came to write it in the first place, are issues plagued by misconception and misunderstanding. How should we analyse this classic poem by one of the pioneers of English Romanticism?

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.

‘Kubla Khan’: summary

A brief summary of the poem first, then: the speaker tells us that in Xanadu (also known as Shangdu, the summer capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan empire), the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan (1215-94) ordered a majestic pleasure-dome to be built, near the sacred river of Alph (a fictional river invented by Coleridge for the poem, and suggesting the idea of beginnings – Alph summoning Alpha, the first letter in the Greek alphabet, and a synonym for the beginning or origin).

Walls and towers were built around the dome’s periphery, forming an area of ten square miles. (You can see how paraphrase destroys the magic of Coleridge’s words; but it might help to elucidate his meaning.) Within these grounds there were gardens with meandering streams (‘sinuous rills’), trees bearing sweet-smelling incense, and plenty of green land.

But beneath this opulent and Edenic exterior lurks a sinister and haunting reality, akin to a woman crying for her lover who is some sort of demon; we then get a violent and quasi-sexual image of a spurting fountain producing (in just one moment – ‘momently’) the life-giving river; the river flows into the ocean; and amidst all the noise, Kubla Khan hears ancient voices forecasting war. We then get the intriguing contrast of the sunny pleasure-dome containing caves made of ice, and the shadow of the pleasure-dome floating on the water.

The focus of the poem then changes with the start of a new verse paragraph: like Kubla Khan, the speaker (possibly Coleridge himself) hears voices, though in his case it’s a young woman playing a dulcimer (a stringed instrument similar to a zither) who sings to him of Mount Abora (another place invented for the poem by Coleridge, supposedly because he liked the sound of the name).

This woman is Abyssinian (i.e. someone from Abyssinia – now Ethiopia; though Coleridge may have chosen this word because it suggests the abyss and thus echoes the ‘chasm’ and ‘caverns’ from earlier in the poem). The poet ends by saying that, if he could recapture that beautiful sound of the woman’s singing, he would be inspired to build the land she sang of, and which he described earlier in the poem.

‘Kubla Khan’: analysis

That, in summary, is the ‘content’ of ‘Kubla Khan’, a poem whose meaning is far from clear, not least because so much of it seems to be poetry for its own sake. Should poetry be about something, i.e. carry a message and meaning? Or might it not be enough for it to exist as a collection of beautifully suggestive sound-patterns and images? Should we embrace or shun the verbal universe of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’?

Three things surrounding the composition and publication of ‘Kubla Khan’ are immediately eye-catching and interesting.

First, the poem’s genesis was supposedly in an opium-induced dream Coleridge experienced in 1797.

Second, the poem was unfinished, according to Coleridge himself, because while he was writing up the vision he’d had he was interrupted by a ‘person from Porlock’ who caused him to forget the rest of the poem as it had been developing in his head.

Third, Coleridge didn’t bother to publish ‘Kubla Khan’ for nearly twenty years, until a later Romantic poet, Lord Byron, encouraged him to do so in 1816.

‘Kubla Khan’ is like a fantasy novel in terms of the grandness and opulence of its imagery and the sense of war and the clash of empires that lurks at the margins of the poem (Kublai Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, was a great Mongol leader and Emperor of China in the thirteenth century).

Xanadu, or Shangdu, was indeed Kublai Khan’s city, his summer capital. Coleridge described the origins of the poem in his preface to the 1816 collection in which ‘Kubla Khan’ first appeared:

In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in ‘Purchas’s Pilgrimes’:


Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.

The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.’ ‘A person on business from Porlock’ interrupted him and he was never able to recapture more than ‘some eight or ten scattered lines and images.’

However, we might add some altogether less exotic locales that acted as inspiration for Coleridge’s poem: the caves at Cheddar Gorge, for instance, which are found not far from where Coleridge was living when he wrote ‘Kubla Khan’, may lurk behind the ‘caverns measureless to man’ that Coleridge’s poem describes.

And indeed much of Coleridge’s account concerning the writing of ‘Kubla Khan’ has been questioned by critics and biographers. Purchas’ book, for example, was a rare and rather unwieldy tome, and Coleridge was unlikely to have had a copy with him at his farmhouse just before he wrote ‘Kubla Khan’.

The notion that the writing of the poem was interrupted by the unnamed ‘person from Porlock’ has also been doubted: it smacks of Romantic mythmaking, with the poet’s artistic creation being scuppered by the prosaic demands of the real world, which comes literally knocking at the artist’s door. (It’s been speculated that it was Coleridge’s doctor who was also his drug dealer; if this was the case, there’s a neat circularity to the fact that a poem which was inspired by opium was also abandoned because of the arrival of more opium.)

Whatever the truth of the supposed circumstances surrounding the composition of ‘Kubla Khan’, we have the poem itself, in its incomplete (assuming it is incomplete) form. And what is noteworthy here is the fact that the final part of the (supposedly incomplete) poem is precisely about this issue of poetic inspiration and composition:

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!

If the poet could recapture the beautiful song of the ‘damsel with a dulcimer’ (a dulcimer is a stringed instrument distinct from, though perhaps recalling, the lyre, from which we get ‘lyric’ poetry), he would be hailed as a divine being, almost a demigod or prophet, who would be regarded with ‘holy dread’ because he had tasted of paradise itself.

But as the subjunctive mood in which this is couched (‘Could I revive’) reveals, such an artistic ambition is foolhardy: the poet of Coleridge’s time cannot revive the medieval grandeur and magic of Kubla Khan’s empire, with its ‘stately pleasure-dome’, ‘mighty fountain’, and ‘sacred river’. Indeed, there is a ‘romantic chasm’ not just in the landscape but between Coleridge the Romantic and the romanticised (but, in reality, brutal) world of warfare and imperialism that was the age of Kubla Khan.

The poem is haunted by repetition, suggesting that Coleridge’s very attempt to replicate the glory and beauty of this lost world is linguistically doomed to failure: words like ‘chasm’ and ‘momently’ appear twice, as do the phrases ‘pleasure-dome’, ‘sacred river’ (actually present three times), ‘caverns measureless to man’, ‘sunny (pleasure-)dome’, ‘caves of ice’.

It is as if the poem, and the poet, cannot get beyond these phrases summoning the world of Xanadu but unable to recreate it in any true sense. The reasonably regular iambic tetrameter rhythm of ‘Kubla Khan’ is almost chant-like, but this chant will not succeed in magically causing anything to appear.

In the last analysis, ‘Kubla Khan’ is at once a gorgeous evocation of a lost world of fantasy and wonder, and a poem deeply aware of the poet’s inability to call back that world to us. It is fitting that Coleridge locked the poem away for nearly 20 years, seemingly in acknowledgment of its lack of success in this regard, but it is a triumph of the poem that when it was published it became one of the most famous statements about the limitations of the poet’s art in recalling to us the majesty of a forgotten age.

You can listen to Benedict Cumberbatch reading ‘Kubla Khan’ here.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: The Sepulchre of Safdarjung (picture credit: Tarunpant), via Wikimedia Commons.

One Comment

  1. Such a bizarre but memorable poem…