The Miracle of Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'

August 28, 2016

 

It’s part of the legend of the composition of the poem ‘Kubla Khan’ that it arose out of drug-induced reverie. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge says as much in his foreword to the poem: ‘if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things… without any sensation or consciousness of effort’. And the fact that many poems arise out of potent images must certainly be true, whether drug-induced or not. What happens between the arising of an image, however strong, and the final result, is however, a matter of careful and conscious craftsmanship. 

 

The first stanza introduces us to an image which has a mystery at its heart:

 

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. 

 

‘Khan’ is a half-rhyme with ‘man’ or ‘ran’. Sounds like ‘Xan-‘ , ’Khan,’ and ‘Alph’ combine with ‘sacred’ and ‘cav-‘, and, coupled with the assonance and alliteration in ‘twice five miles of fertile ground' create a kind of musical incantation which is precisely the effect that Coleridge mirrors with the images: a remote emperor, a pleasure-dome, caverns which are not just large but ‘measureless to man’, a ‘sunless sea’, but all encircled with ‘walls and towers’ indicating that this strange and exotic landscape is under control. Trees bear incense, suggestive of managed rituals; ‘forests ancient as the hills’ are not threatening but contain ‘sunny spots of greenery’. The contrast which Coleridge has conjured is between ‘measureless’ mystery and aesthetic administration: this wild landscape is designed and meant to serve.

 

But the second stanza deconstructs the pattern and order of the first:

 

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, 

 

 

The opening line contains an extra half-beat; the musical rhythm of the first stanza is disturbed. Exclamation marks stress the inrush of drama and we become a little breathless not only because of the poem’s change of pace but because of the startling, unsettling images which leap out at us: a ‘savage place’, ‘holy’ but at the same time ‘enchanted’ (the incense of cedars were recommended in folklore for the consecration of magic wands), ‘haunted’ beneath a ‘waning moon’ by a ‘woman wailing for her demon lover’. These are almost Gothic images, suggesting we are on the edge of a horrifying experience. 

 

Our increased pace of breathing is made explicit in the metaphor of the earth panting and a sexual image of a mighty fountain ‘forced’ with an orgasmic rhythm. Any settled pleasantness from the first stanza has been exploded with a change of verbs and adjectives: ‘seething’, ‘fast thick’, ‘mighty’, ‘forced’, ‘swift’, ‘half-intermitted’ ‘burst’ and ‘Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail’. This leads to the tongue-twisting ‘Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail’, an image which brings with it an entirely disparate sense of domestic harvesting but also a suggestion of process and production.

 

We are then given a moment’s respite: 

 

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

 

Lulled back into the more ordered garden imagery of the first stanza, the soft alliteration of ‘Five miles meandering with a mazy motion’ and the calming notion of ‘wood and dale’ soothe us before we are again plummeted into the ‘caverns measureless to man,/And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean’, presumably the same ‘sunless sea’ we glimpsed in the first stanza.

 

This roller-coaster ride then twists in an unexpected direction. We return to Kubla Khan, previously imagined as the designing emperor in control of all of these wild forces, only to find that he is hearing in the sounds of the river and fountain ‘Ancestral voices prophesying war’, punctuated by an exclamation mark to increase its shock effect. This doesn’t seem to completely undermine the emperor’s harmonious grip on things, though:

 

   The shadow of the dome of pleasure 

   Floated midway on the waves; 

   Where was heard the mingled measure 

   From the fountain and the caves. 

 

We have so far been thrown between concepts of order and pattern on one hand, and savage and dramatic, even demonic and explosive, wilderness on the other. No wonder that this stanza closes with the conclusion that this must be a miracle:

 

It was a miracle of rare device, 

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

 

Has Khan conquered these primal, destructive impulses in nature and supernature? Or are the ‘ancestral voices’ an echo that his Eden will be undermined? Coleridge may be suggesting that the ‘miracle of rare device’ may be a delicate balance. A miracle may be, for Coleridge, the achievement of balance between chaos and order: it is certainly an image of something beautiful and serene manufactured from untamed and potentially destructive forces.

 

As if this wasn’t vision enough, the poet has more to tell us. In fact, it is almost as though the first section of the poem has been a kind of ’warm up’ for the second section, in which the poet communicates his main point:

 

   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.

 

The woman who sings of Mount Abora - the location of Paradise, according to Milton - at one time created such a ‘symphony and song’ within the heart of the poet that he feels as though, if he could recover that vision, he would possess a power transcending that of the emperor of whom he has spoken in the earlier stanzas: the earthly Kubla Khan created an earthly pleasure dome, a mortal miracle, but, god-like, the poet would be able to ‘build that dome in air’, and not only the dome, which is obviously a human creation, but the caves of ice too. Not only that, but with ‘flashing eyes’ and ‘floating hair’, he would be a dreadful figure requiring a magical circle to be woven ‘round him thrice’ because he would have ‘drunk the milk of Paradise’. 

 

This is a picture of a transcendent ‘deep delight’, now perhaps unattainable but forever longed for: the power to create spontaneously, like God. But ‘Kubla Khan’ itself is a circle, and the longed-for power of creation has been fulfilled by the poem itself, for Coleridge, in writing the words down and fashioning them into a ‘breathed’ work of art, has built ‘that dome in air, /That sunny dome! those caves of ice’ and shows that he has indeed ‘drunk the milk of Paradise’ himself.

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