Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and Materialism

Samuel T. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is a poem of two opposing ideas: materialism and imagination. In the poem, Coleridge presents imagination and emotion as the means to achieving pure pleasure and creating paradise. He does this by depicting two separate creations of a pleasure dome. One, made by Kubla Khan (a Chinese emperor in the 13th century), was founded on materialistic greed and was created in physical reality, infecting an already present paradise in nature. This now contaminated paradise is doomed to be destroyed. A first-person narrator in the rest of the poem discusses being able to create this pleasure dome in his mind, thus achieving the experience of pure pleasure. In addition to the basic portrayals of materialism and imagination, Coleridge associates religious views, specifically those of paganism and Christianity, with each one. The pagan emphasis on nature and the abstract ties in with the ideals and, in the words of John McKay, “emotional exuberance [and] unretrsained imagination” (766) of the romantic period. Christianity’s great desire to continuously spread, as well as its comparatively ungrateful attitude toward nature and its superstitious rejection of most forms of pleasure as negative and evil, fits in with Kubla Khan’s materialistic pleasure dome as well as the presumed attitude toward the narrator’s creation. Coleridge communicates all of this in Kubla Khan with allusions, imagery, recurring ideas (both in repetition and of actual ideas), and excellent and elaborate diction throughout. All of these (particularly the imagery and the repetition) are characteristic of romantic poetry, so not only do Coleridge’s beliefs fall in line with the many of the ideals of romanticism, his techniques reflect those used by other romantic poets.

Kubla Khan, the source of the title of the poem as well as the creator of the first pleasure dome, is representative of all those who desire control over territory and land. The real Khan was an emperor focused on territorial gain. He conquered several other dynasties in China and made attempts to conquer Japan, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia. It is of note that when Kubla Khan was written, Napoleon had recently come into power in France. His land-hungry crusades throughout Europe could have inspired Coleridge to use a historical leader (specifically Khan) as his figure of materialistic greed. Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome is a futile attempt by mankind to capture and physically create the epitome of pleasure in the form of a paradise. By making this attempt, Kubla Khan is contaminating an already existing paradise. Coleridge shows a sensitive appreciation of the nature on which the pleasure dome in built throughout the first stanza in which he describes it. Coleridge notes “Alph, the sacred river,” “caverns measureless to man,” a “sunless sea,” “twice five miles of fertile ground,” “gardens bright with sinuous rills,” “an incense-bearing tree,” “forests as ancient as the hills,” and “sunny spots of greenery.” Most of these images, in addition to portraying a setting with almost every imaginable natural formation, have a deeper significance. The allusion to five in “twice five miles of fertile ground” is making this setting closely tied in with the spirit and paganism, as the number five is extremely meaningful in pagan beliefs as the fifth element, or the spirit. This connection intensifies Coleridge’s approval of the natural setting of the pleasure dome as he and other romantics fall in line with the many beliefs of pagans as well as the belief in abstract qualities such as the spirit. The image of the “caverns measureless to man” is an image that rebels against science, as they are incapable of being defined (measured) by man. This rebellion is very typical of romantic poets as they reject the scientific rationality of the preceding time period, the Enlightenment. By making the caverns indefinable, Coleridge criticizes Khan’s comparatively commonplace creation of the pleasure dome. The “gardens bright with sinuous rills” are used to, in a very complex manner, criticize the preceding image of the “walls and towers… girdled round” (which is used to contrast all the surrounding nature images and is comparatively ugly and out of place, the alliteration of a strong but sickly ‘w’ sound in “with walls” emphasizes this ugliness). Throughout the poem, Coleridge uses the moon negatively and the sun positively. This is the complete opposite of the traditional romantic idea of the moon as pure. It is unclear why he makes this switch, perhaps to create a new and a mysterious world or to emphasize the dramatic irony (with this irony) of Khan’s futile attempt at the construction of a pleasure dome in this place, but what is clear, through the other images in the poem, is that he has made it. Knowing this, and knowing the double meaning of the word rills (in addition to the meaning of a small brook, it also means a long narrow straight valley on the moon’s surface) one can understand the complexity of the image of the “gardens bright with sinuous rills.” In the gardens, there is something impure (the moon’s valleys, as the moon is used negatively in Kubla Khan), out of place (the moon has no place in a garden), and out of its accepted norm (describing them as bright and sinuous is strange given the moon’s association with night and darkness as well as the fact that rills are defined as straight). This idea of a garden with impurity is an allusion to the snake in the Garden of Eden, or a paradise that has been contaminated with vileness. This reflects onto Khan’s materialistic pleasure dome as the snake that brings the downfall of humanity’s possibility of paradise, or the cause of the destruction of this near-paradise. The double meaning of the word incense in the image of the “incense-bearing tree” is also criticizing Khan’s “walls and towers” as it both creates both a pleasurable sensory experience (incense as an aromatic substance, adds an olfactory experience to the visual description of the setting) and shows nature’s disapproval of Khan’s intrusion (incense as to cause to be extremely angry). This disapproval of Khan’s pleasure dome by nature intensifies the rift between the dome and the place in which it resides, which then, by comparison (as nature has been described so lovingly), vilifies Khan and his dome. The image of the “forests ancient as the hills” gives an even more mysterious atmosphere to the description as Coleridge again rebels against science, choosing not to define nature’s age in numbers, instead “defining it” with more nature. However, despite how significant all these images are, perhaps the most important one is that of “Alph, the sacred river.” This image’s essence is in the allusion to Alpheus, the river-god of Greek mythology. Not only does this emphasize the pagan-like atmosphere of this setting, it also makes it a place of gods, setting up a more subtle allusion later in the poem when “a mighty fountain momently [is] forced” from “that deep romantic chasm which slanted / Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!” To understand the allusion in this image, one must know a little about Greek mythology. Alpheus, the river god, fell in love with Arethusa. Arethusa was a Hesperides and the daughter of Nereus. A Hesperides is a nymph that tends to a blissful garden of an unknown location. After Alpheus and Arethusa fell in love, they made their way to Sicily. There, Artemis, the god of both chastity and childbirth, turned Arethusa into a fountain. This allowed Alpheus to swim underground and mix his water with hers in a sex-like act. The power of this allusion in intensifying Coleridge’s message is extreme. If the fountain is accepted to be the source of the river, and the river is accepted to be Alpheus and the fountain accepted to be Arethusa, their togetherness is a sexual act. This act intensifies the sexual imagery (metaphorical imagery) of the “deep romantic chasm” and the “mighty fountain” forced from the earth after “fast thick pants.” This sex is not simply sex, it is the sex of a god, and there is no better representation of pure pleasure than the sex of a god. In addition to this, Arethusa’s status as a Hesperides who tends to a blissful garden emphasizes the eminence of the setting of Khan’s pleasure dome (as well as connecting it further to the Garden of Eden). Xanadu is not merely a place; it is the paradise of gods. The material creation of Khan has no right to reside in such a place. The image of the “woman… beneath a waning moon…wailing for her demon-lover” is another reference to the Garden of Eden. The woman is representative of Eve, her demon-lover is representative of the apple (indulgence sin and evil), and her wailing is the human condition to never be satisfied with what one has or has had (the eerie and thus negative depiction of which further criticizes materialistic greed). This image establishes the moon as negative (something crucial to understand when examining Coleridge’s other images) and intensifies the idea of this setting as a Garden of Eden-like place and Khan’s pleasure dome as the infection that eliminates it. The ambiguity of Coleridge’s imagery’s reference to the Garden of Eden is somewhat relieved by its recurrence. As he does here with an idea, Coleridge makes a point to repeat several of his images and allusions in the poem such as the “sacred river” and “caverns measureless to man,” “sacred river” seen again in “it flung up momently the sacred river,” and both seen again in “through wood and dale the sacred river ran, / Then reached the caverns measureless to man,” and the number five in “five miles meandering with a mazy motion.” This repetition (seen both in the traditional repeating of exact words an
d the more subtle repetition of an idea) is extremely characteristic of the romantic belief that repeating something again will allow the reader to understand it better. The fact that Coleridge believed these ideas were worth repeating allows the reader to know that they are extremely significant in the communication of his message. Another important image in the poem is that of the “dancing rocks” that were “huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail” caused by the “switch half-intermitted burst” of the “mighty fountain” from the “deep romantic chasm.” This jovial personification of the rocks lightens the mood of the tumultuous occurrence. This is not a natural disaster; it is merely pleasurable nature at work. The power of this event should not be mistaken for violence; it is simply the pure strength of nature. The image of the “dancing rocks” allows the reader to understand this. Coleridge ends Alph’s journey as it “sinks in tumult to a lifeless ocean.” The significance of this image is not necessarily part of Coleridge’s message, but it is an example of the romantic poet’s rebellion against science. Earlier, Coleridge called this same “lifeless ocean” a “sunless sea.” He completely disregards the difference between an ocean and a sea by using the words interchangeably. This is because from one man’s perspective, an ocean and a sea are the same thing, especially in the lifeless dark. Coleridge places an emphasis on the creation of a vivid visual image rather than scientific accuracy. The surety of the destruction of this paradise is solidified with the lines “and ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far / Ancestral voices prophesying war!” It is significant that Coleridge only alludes to this eventual fate rather than actually showing it, as his deep appreciation of the paradise cannot allow him to depict such a horrible event. The line break before the prophecy and the caesura after it serve to almost allow the reader to come to terms with this disgusting fate. Khan brought materialistic greed to this paradise and because of that, it is doomed to war as more humans vie for its control. The dome’s influence in this matter is seen as “the shadow of the dome of pleasure / [Floats] midway on the waves.” Shadows, traditionally and here, are representative of the presence of evil. In the words of Juergen Matthias Schroeder, the shadow is “the material manifestation of too great human ambition or aspiration” (Coleridge: KUBLA KHAN or A VISION IN A DREAM – ANALYSIS by JM Schroeder). The ominous evil shadow (which also proves the dome to be material) is covering the greatness of Alpheus, and is soon to be responsible for its destruction. “It was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.” The miracle was not the pleasure dome. The miracle was the land to which it is going to bring destruction. The line break after “it was a miracle of rare device” pauses as if to give hope to the reader that the narrator would understand the greatness of this paradise that was, only to let them down with the next line showing that perhaps mankind will never understand the effects of their materialistic ambition and greed.

After these lines, there is an abrupt shift in the poem. As the topic shifts from Khan’s pleasure dome to a different one (after one last view of Khan’s), as does the narrator. This first person narration is from the point of view of a visionary man who entertains the possibility of being able to create the pleasure dome in his mind. He describes his vision of a “damsel with a dulcimer” and desires to use the memory of this to “build that dome in air,” thus achieving pure pleasure. This method is Coleridge’s ideal and directly contrasts that of Khan. Khan tries to materialistically control an existing paradise by building his pleasure dome there while the second narrator uses true enlightenment to manifest it in his imagination. The narrator of this section is representative of all visionaries, but it’s most likely that it is Coleridge himself (this from the fact that Coleridge himself said the whole poem was an opium-induced vision, associating him with visions). Thus, this first person point of view makes everything the narrator considers part of Coleridge’s ideal (the common problem of an unreliable narrator is mostly eliminated when the author himself narrates). This positive attitude toward paradise through imagination is reinforced with several subtle allusions in the vision of the damsel. He speaks of the “Abyssinian maid… singing of Mount Abora.” Mouth Amara of Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia) is a mythical paradise of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The significance here is the title of the work Paradise Lost. This is saying that vision he wishes to revive within him was that of paradise. Abyssinia is also occasionally sited as the location of the Garden of Eden. These allusions allow the reader to know that what the narrator experienced was not simply a beautiful faзade, it was a true paradise. The fact that the damsel was Abyssinian is also significant because Abyssinians were thought to be the essence of beauty in ancient Egypt, thus intensifying the pleasure of the experience of her beautiful “symphony and song.” Coleridge’s diction in the narrator’s decision to “build that dome in air” (in his choice of the word air) allows the reader to know that this dome is nothing like the one built by Kubla Khan. It is founded on emotional exuberance and in imagination rather than on materialistic greed. Air implies that the dome is not concrete and is separate from the physicality of the earth. The narrator then begins to examine the possible response to his achievement. Again, mankind’s ignorance is seen. The people react by “[weaving] a circle round him thrice,” an ancient Christian ritual that will seal away an evil force. This is tied further to Christianity with the number three, an allusion to the Holy Trinity. Coleridge is exposing Christianity’s superstitious ungratefulness, close-mindedness, and inability to accept pleasure. The narrator is offering them the experience of pure pleasure and they react hostilely, rejecting his gift and immediately trying to distance themselves from his enlightenment. Their disapproval of pleasure is also seen in their negative approach to the gustatory translation of the narrator’s experience: “ and close your eyes with holy dread / For he on honey-dew hath fed, / And drunk the milk of Paradise.” Coleridge’s vivid sensory language allows the reader to enjoy the rather pleasurable gustatory experience while the Christian reaction vilifies it. His diction in the word dread is significant because it contains both the meaning of to hold in awe and to react with terror. This emphasizes the hypocrisy of the Christian reaction as they realize the significance of what the narrator is offering, and yet still choose to renounce it. With these last lines, Coleridge offers little hope that Christianity (or even mankind in general) will ever be able to accept the complete pleasure offered by an emotional paradise.

Kubla Khan is the height of ambiguity in poetry. Every new perspective seems to add something worthwhile to the interpretation of the poem. Not only is its meaning veiled in uncertainty, the literal occurrences in the poem are also unclear. Just as some view the poem as an exploration of the essence of paradise while others view it as a statement against materialism, some see Kubla Khan’s dome as being submerged by water and others see it left perfectly fine but doomed in the future. However, this should not be attributed to poor writing by Coleridge but rather to his genius. The poem is so overflowing with meaning and images that people cannot help but take something personal from it. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is not simply a musical masterpiece or a vivid experience; it is full of meaningful ideas: All of the ones people believe and yet at the same time none of them at all. There must be willing suspension of disbelief by the reader as they overlook minor inconsistencies to see the true genius of his work. However, if you do not see this genius, just blame it on the Man from Porlock.

Works Cited:

McKay, John P. A History of Western Society. 7th ed. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. 766.

Schroeder, Juergen M. Coleridge: KUBLA KHAN or A VISION IN A DREAM – ANALYSIS by JM Schroeder. 7 Jan. 2002. 27 Mar. 2005


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