'Kubla Khan,' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is one of the most enigmatic and ambiguous pieces of literature ever written. Allegedly written after a laudanum (an opiate) induced dream, the author claims to have been planning a two hundred to three hundred line poem before he got interrupted by a 'man from Porlock,' after which he had forgotten nearly all of his dream. This may have been merely an excuse, and the poem was scorned at the time for having no poetic value, one critic even going so far as to call it 'more a musical composition than a poem.' This is partly true, as the language seems to strive for an aural beauty more than a literary beauty, although it accomplishes both. Like many great artists, Coleridge has been most appreciated after his death, when his radically different works could be justified, as the ideas presented in his works hadn't been popular during his life. Coleridge's philosophy in life was very romantic, and so nearly all of his poems exemplify the romantic ideal, especially Kubla Khan. This romantic poem uses brilliant imagery and metaphors to contrast the ideals of romantic paganism with often ingratious Christianity.
The vision of paganism is the first idea introduced in the poem. The super-natural reference to 'Alph,' or Alpheus as it is historically known, 'the sacred river, [which] ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea,' begins this pagan theme by referring to an underground river that passed through dimensions that could not be understood by any man, and then emptying into an underground sea. This also introduces an idea of the lack of human understanding that recurs at the end of the poem, one of the common elements that tie the poem's seemingly two-part separate structure together. Xanadu's walls enclosed 'gardens bright with sinuous rills.' These gardens represent the Garden of Eden, or a natural paradise on Earth. The degree of nature in this paradise is such that, although it is a biblical reference, it is still connected to pagan and romantic ideals. The 'sinuous rills' flowing through this garden can be taken as two different metaphors. The word 'rills' can mean either a stream or a valley on the moon. The moon is seen as the source of all creativity in romantic idealism, and so this first metaphor is significant in the poem. The lunar reference's antithesis comes at the end of the stanza, when it speaks of 'forests ancient as the hills,/ Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.' This reference to the sun contrasts with the valleys on the moon. The second metaphor is that of the snake in the Garden of Eden. The word sinuous implies snakelike, and the connection of these small tributaries to the river Alph shows that they are lustful, tempting, and bring about the destruction of those that offend paradise. These qualities are shared with the Snake from the Garden of Eden and the River Alph (as will soon be seen). The Garden of Eden idea is further shown with the description of the
...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!
Coleridge uses syntax to exaggerate his emotion in the description of the 'chasm' with his use of an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence in line 14. The author is barely able to contain himself, so 'romantic' this chasm is, and so his sentence climaxes before it is even finished, then climaxes again at the end. This builds intensity until the eruption of the chasm that follows. The woman here is Eve, and she is 'wailing' for the source of her desires, literally her demon lover, but figuratively the apple that got her kicked out of Eden. This connects her to the dome, which is also offending paradise, and this wailing is what seems to set off the chasm and become the dome's and (presumably) her demise. The idea of this material dome of pleasure...
Cited: Priestman, Martin. Temples and Mysteries in Romantic Infidel Writing. Romanticism On the Net 25 (February 2002): 16 pars.
Romanticism. Wikipedia. 3 Apr. 2005
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