Kubla Khan essay

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is the prominent English poet, philosopher and critic. Along with his friend William Wordsworth he founded the Romantic Movement in English literature. As one of the Lake poets Coleridge was fond of natural beauty. Kubla Khan, or, A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment, is one of the most well-known his poems. It was named Fragment because Coleridge planned to finish it though he never did. Irish writer Stopford Brooke noticed in his work Theology in the English Poets: Cowper, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Burns that Kubla Khan has no rival because of its imaginative phrasing. (Brooke, 1874) In this work I try to analyze this poem and the place of imagination in it.

Kubla Khan as the historical person

Kubla Khan was the prominent Chinese and Mongolian leader. His forerunner Genghis Khan seems to be more well-known, but the reason is Genghis was a great conqueror, but Kublai was a successful ruler. He changed the image of Mongolian rulers and founded a great empire. John Man entitled the book about Kubla Khan The Most Powerful Man in the History. (Mick, 2006)

Coleridge was one of the most educated people of his time, so he knew about Kubla Khan. However in the poem Kubla Khan is the abstract character that impersonates powerful ruler in his luxurious palace.

The sources of Coleridge’s poem

It is known that Coleridge wrote his poem after awakening from drug-induced dream. That is why his imagination is strikingly visual. Nevertheless, the punctilious researches found the echoes and cites from Coleridge’s favorite book in Kublai Khan. William Bartram, famous American writer and contemporary of Coleridge, published in 1792 the record of his travels to America. Coleridge has read the book and was impressed by it very much. This can be proved with the comparison of two texts. Here is the quoted from Travels:

in front, just under my feet, was the enchanting and amazing crystal fountain which incessantly threw up from dark rocky caverns below, tons of water every minute, forming a basin, capacious enough for large shallops to ride in, and a creek of four or five feet depth of water and near twenty yards over, which meanders six miles through green meadows, directly opposite to the mouth or outlet of the creek, is a continual and amazing ebullition where the waters are thrown up in such abundance and amazing force, as to jet and swell up two or three feet above the common surface: white sand and small particles of shells are thrown up with the waters near to the top (Bartram, 1792)

The next is often-cited beginning of Kubla Khan by Coleridge:

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. (Coleridge, 1792)

It is obvious that the description of Xanadu, the summer palace of Kubla Khan, is the description of winter Florida that was transformed by the imagination of the poet under the opium drug. Nevertheless this description is valueless for English literature because this is a brilliant example of using the imagination in the poetry. It helps to understand the importance of imagination for Coleridge and for English poetry if early Romanticism. Among other sources of  Kubla Khan  can be mentioned the works and ideas of Seneca,  John Milton, William Collins and other ancient and contemporary writes.

Imagination in the critics of Coleridge

As every poet of Romanticism, Coleridge consciously conferred the imagination a great power. In his main prose work Biographia Literaria (1817) he wrote a lot about the imagination, in particular he divided imagination into primary (the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM. (Coleridge, 1817) and secondary one ( an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will (Coleridge, 1817). He considered imagination as the power in the hands and mind of the poet, that affords to get the balance of opposite qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general with the concrete; the idea with the image; the individual with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order (Coleridge, 1817).  Thus, Coleridge considered imagination as energy and a tool to impress people. In the work Biographia Literaria Coleridge generalized his own poetical experience including the poem Kubla Khan, however the interest to power of imagination could be found in the early works of Coleridge. He did not like math being a child and he wrote to his brother:

though Reason is feasted, Imagination is starved; whilst Reason is luxuriating in its proper Paradise, Imagination is wearily travelling in a dreary desert. (Coleridge, 1791)

The realization of the idea of traveling imagination and luxuriating reason was the poem Kubla Khan.

Kubla Khan and imagination

So, the Reason the powerful emperor is luxuriating in its proper Paradise the gorgeous summer palace. At the same time his Imagination is traveling and seeing a plenty of images. In purely Romantic terms Coleridge depicts the serene beauty and frightening violence of nature. Using the chain of associative links Coleridge creates the feeling of ecstasy and triumph.

The images of beautiful palace and garden, an Abyssinian maid playing dulcimer, have to make reader to bow before powerful and rightful emperor.

It is interesting to make a little research regarding the milk of paradise in the last line. Coleridge emphasized that the poem was induced with laudanum, the solution of opium in alcohol that is why many researches think that milk of paradise is this drug. However in Mongolian culture horse milk was sacred and only Khan and higher priests could drink milk of the sacred horses. Besides, in the Orient traditions milk and honey are the Paradise food, so of Kubla Khan was in Paradise, he might eat milk and honey. Thus, the Kubla Khan is the play of imagination of the poet that depicted the wonderful picture of Earth Paradise.


The poem Kubla Khan, or, A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment takes reader to the gorgeous and beautiful kingdom of imagination, its Paradise. It is typical for early Romanticism with its admiration for beauty of the nature. Though Coleridge did not consider Kubla Khan as the serious work, emphasizing its connection with opium dream, it is obvious that this is of the most talented his works. Its pure language and rich images creates the incomparable effect. That is why Kubla Khan is the true masterpiece of  the Romantic poetry.

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