Samuel Coleridge – “Kubla Khan”

The middle of the 18th century was a period of transition and experiment in poetic styles. Shifts in the view of nature and function of poetry started from the idea that poetry is imitation, to the view that poetry has or its major function the expression of the poet’s emotions. Now what matters is the poet’s relation with his poem, rather than with his audience.

Romanticism brought along new sources of inspiration, such as the primitives – the Bible, Homer’s writings, ballads and folk poetry. Also, new political and social ideas helped to complicate the picture, such as the French Revolution, with its ideals of freedom, rejection of the old, spirit of rejuvenation etc, while the Industrial Revolution in England brought along worries about the future of the new urban areas, the decaying countryside and nature in general (pollution).

Also the Romantics went back to history, glorifying the local past, not only the remote past of the Greek and Roman antiquity, as the Neo-Classics had done before them. The local past and local legends and heroes become sources of inspiration to the Romantic poet, just as less glorious subjects, such as the lives of ordinary people, are given attention.

Samuel Coleridge belongs to the first generation of Romantic poets, and the first to introduce the supernatural in his poetry.

Kubla Khan’s garden retraces the symbolism of Milton’s Paradise Lost and tries to recapture the qualities of the original paradise, by reconciling the extremes of reason/intellect and instinct/subconscious, the whole reunited into a beautiful metaphor of artistic creation and an inspired presentation of the poet-prophet and visionary, forever transformed by the experience of creation.

Also the first stanza can be read as a representation of the combination of sacredness and pleasure which for Coleridge, like for Wordsworth was the sign of true art

The first two stanzas are organized around the conscious/subconscious duality, which is paralleled by the duality reason/instinct. Nature is tamed by the civilizing will of Kubla. The imagery of the first stanza evokes this domesticated character : ‘fertile ground’, ‘the dome’ – whose hemispherical shape evokes the sphere, symbol of perfection – the walls and towers – products of human alteration of the environment – ‘sunny spots of greenery.’

This re-creation of Milton’s Paradise Lost is vividly opposed in the second stanza to the wild nature, standing for instinctuality and, from a psychoanalytical perspective to the subconscious itself. The epithets used here mirror the change of perspective too: deep, chasm, savage place, demon-lover.

The ascribing of human reactions to inanimate elements of nature is extensively used here, a technique typical of Romanticism; the earth is breathing in ‘fast thick pants’, the rocks are ‘dancing’, the general outlook of the scene being one marked by force, power, instincts, unleashed energies of nature. This vision of virgin, untamed nature is another typical theme of Romanticism, and goes back to the glorification of nature and its virtues by French philosopher J. J. Rousseau, whose ideas in this area greatly influenced the Romantic philosophy of nature.

The element connecting the two universes – the orderly world requested by Kubla and the wild, pulsating nature – is the ‘sacred river’, flowing in ‘caverns measureless to man’ and into the ‘lifeless ocean’ – a metaphor of the subconscious.

The reconciliation of the two distinct worlds is made in the last verses of the second stanza, but only at a visual, illusory level through the mirroring of the ‘dome of pleasure’ on the waves: “ It was a miracle of rare device/A sunny pleasure-come with caves of ice”. This equally stands for the dual nature of all human consciousness, but also alludes to the mixture of effort and inspiration that constitute the act of creation.

The last part of the poem represents a celebration of a lyrical moment and deals with the issue of creative imagination, of acute poetic ecstasy. It suggests a glorious vision, of the poet as prophetic figure, which is part of the unified pattern of the poem. The reader is moved from a contemplation of serenity to a violent agitation of mind, a consuming and terrifying activity of the mind. “Kubla Khan” is a poem that both describes and enacts the process of vision and of creation, the way in which poetry is ascribed cognitive