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Kubla Khan by Coleridge
by Ehsan Ehsan
09/30/08
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Critical appreciation of ‘Kubla Khan’by Coleridge

‘Kubla Khan’ as described by Coleridge himself is a vision in a Dream, a Fragment. The author was a bit ill, used some medicine and slept under its spell. He continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he had the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines in which all the images rose before him as ‘things’. On awakening he instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. According to the poet himself, ‘Kubla Khan’ is now no more than a psychological curiosity. Hamphry House, however, observes and believes it to be a complete poem dealing with the theme of poetic creativity. Wilson Knight regards it a poem about life. This poem has the elements in of supernaturalism, mystery, fertile imagination, dream quality, medievalism, love of Nature, meditative note, humanitarianism, music and narrative skill which distinguish Coleridge’s poetry as the most complete representative of the English Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century and includes ‘Kubla Khan’ in the group of three great poems ‘Ancient Mariner’, ‘Christable’ and ‘Kubla Khan’.

Supernaturalism: Coleridge’s romanticism in the sense of his artistic rendering of the supernatural phenomena. Although it has not the same level of supernaturalism as is found in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, or ‘Christable; yet the supernatural in the poem stands out quite conspicuously, (easily availably). The woman wailing for her demon lover and the ancestral voices prophesying war; are obviously supernatural occurrences. The poetic frenzy of an inspired poet borders on the supernatural. The tumultuous(noisy) rise of the river Alph from a deep romantic chasm is also given an unmistakable supernatural touch. But what is remarkable about ‘Kubla Khan’ is the convincing presentation of the supernatural elements. The description of the landscape is so vivid and precise; the similes used for the mighty fountain so homely (plain) and familiar that it does not occur to the reader that anything incredible is being described. The psychological truth hidden behind Kubla Khan’s hearing ancestral voices prophesying war or the representation of the poet as a super human being make these facts acceptable.

Reference to distant times and places: References to distant times and places with a view to evoking a sense of awe and mystery is another romantic characteristic used by Coleridge in ‘Kubla Khan’. The very first line transports us to the distant city of Xanadu. The very name of Kubla Khan lends to the poem an enchantment that leads to the spirit of mystery. The same purpose is served by the allusion to the Abyssinian girl singing of Mount Abora in the second part of the poem.

The use of suggestiveness:

‘Kubla Khan’ abounds in suggestive phrases and lines capable of evoking mystery. The description of the romantic chasm, the sources of the river Alph is romantic in spirit. Perhaps the most suggestive lines in the poem refer to the woman wailing for her demon lover

A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As ever beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover.
Almost equally suggestive is Kubla Khan’s hearing the prophesies made by the ancestral voice.
Romantic spirit in sensuous phrases: Sensuous phrases and pictures so generously used in the poem contribute a good deal to its romantic spirit. The bright gardens, and sinuous rills, the incense bearing trees laden with sweet blossoms, the sunny spots of greenery, the half intermittent burst of the mighty fountain, the rocks vaulting like rebounding hails, all these vivid pictures give the poem a sensuous touch so characteristic of romantic poetry.


The romantic chasm in ‘Kubla Khan’ is given a touch of mystery by the mention of the ‘woman wailing for her demon love.’

Fertile and Rich imagination
Imagination is a mental faculty of framing images of external objects which are not present to the five senses. It is a process of using all the faculties so as to realize with intensity what is not perceived, and to do this in a way that integrates and orders every thing present to the mind so that reality is enhanced thereby. Coleridge in his ‘Biographia Literaria’ writes of imagination thus; ‘The power reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite and discordant qualities of sameness, with the differences of the general; with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order. We see that Coleridge’s imagination has all these qualities to a superb order.

Coleridge is gifted with the most fertile and vigorous imagination among all the Romantic Poets. It is by this rich and fertile imagination that he is able to create his perplexing mystery. In this respect he goes ahead of Wordsworth who was too conscientious to describe or present those things that were not seen personally by him. Coleridge, on the other hand, was able to describe and present those things which he came across during his vast study through his faculty of imagination. He had the faculty of presenting such unseen and inexperienced things so vividly as if those had been literally present before his eyes. He presents the place of Kubla Khan’s palace as he was practically present there,‘here Kubla Khan commanded a palace to be built and a stately garden there unto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground was enclosed with a wall,’ set imagination on fire and we can have vivid picture of Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome. According to the great Greek critic Longinus, a great writer is that one who has the capability of transporting the reader to his own imaginative world. Coleridge, no doubt, was bestowed with this quality. Not only this, he had the rare skill to create an imaginary world, changed it into imaginative and then transformed it to a make-belief condition. The world created by Coleridge in his whole poem of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ is the best example of this faculty of Coleridge. J.L. Lowes’ book ‘The Road to Xanadu’ amply illustrates how Coleridge’s imagination could transform simple facts collected during his reading into something mysterious and wonderful.


On the whole the poem presents a conjunction of pleasure and sacredness. At the end of the poem the poet is himself regarded as a holy and sacred person, a seer acquainted with the mystery of life, with his flashing eyes and waving hair, he is considered fed of the dew and honey and is believed to drink the milk of paradise.

In the light of the above we can safely say that the poem is replete with all the qualities of Coleridge’s poetry and is a living embodiment of supernaturalism, element of mystery, fertile imagination, dream quality, medievalism, love of Nature, meditative note, humanitarianism, music and narrative skill which distinguish Coleridge’s poetry as the most complete representative of the English Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century and makes ‘Kubla Khan’ a great poem and make it equal to his other two great poems, ‘The Ancient Mariner’, and ‘Christable’.







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