Coleridge's "Kubla Khan:" Parallels to Reality
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan" is described by the author himself as a fragment, a part of a whole that is no longer retrievable from his memory. The sub-title for the poem,"or A Vision in a Dream, a Fragment," supports the fact that Coleridge indeed felt that the poem was incomplete. Despite this opinion, however, the poem seems complete in itself, as a vision in a dream. "Kubla Khan" seems to parallel Coleridge's reality rather closely when compared to his description of the occurrences which forced him to leave the poem, in his opinion, unfinished.
The first three stanzas of the poem depict an idyllic natural scene. The pleasure dome, constructed by Kubla Khan in Xanadu, is described as a paradise of nature's splendor, unspoiled by man:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea. (lines 3-5)
In describing the caverns as "measureless to man," Coleridge ascribes them a quality of mystery, and adds to the unspoiled image of the land, since men have not yet combed and cataloged its every inch.
According to Coleridge's description, this paradise is not solely reminiscent of a calm and gentle scene. Throughout the first three stanzas, Coleridge contrasts soft, warm images of nature's beauty to raw and dangerous images of her power:
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover! (lines 14-16)
The juxtaposition of "savage" and "enchanted" forms a very powerful contrast; one that expresses Coleridge's rapture for the scene he describes. An even more potent contrast is formed between "holy" and "demon lover." The use of these words in the same line to describe the scene that Coleridge finds before him in Xanadu expresses, rather strikingly, his Romantic love for nature in all its forms. The language of the poem leads the reader to believe that whether nature presents itself in its most enticing or most savage form matters little to Coleridge; he finds it enchanting in either case.
The contrast between nature's beauty and raw power can also be seen in the contrast between the first two stanzas. The first, which contains imagery such as "fertile ground" (line 6), "gardens bright with sinuous rills" (line 8), and "sunny spots of greenery" (line 11), represents the gentler and more delicate aspects of nature, while the second offers images of nature's savagery:
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced. (lines 17-19)
The third stanza seems to balance the preceding two by incorporating the contrasts and expressing Coleridge's fondness of nature in its entirety. Almost every line in the third stanza suggests a middle ground between the two contrasting depictions offered in the preceding two:
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice! (lines 31-36)
The first two lines may serve as a metaphor for the middle ground on which Coleridge stands. The shadow of the dome floating midway on the waves represents his love of nature, not torn, but balanced midway between her gentle beauty and savage power. The following lines seem to continue this notion as a measure, or song, is heard mingled from the fountain, which represents the eruptive power of nature, and the caves, which symbolize the more gentle and mysterious character of nature. Coleridge ends the stanza expressing the feelings of awe he has for both contrasting sides of nature by describing the balance and mingling as "a miracle of rare device."
The final stanza reveals the parallels between the poem and the events concerning its creation. Coleridge believed the poem to be a fragment because he was interrupted by a person on business from Porlock after awakening from his visionary dream. After spending an hour with the person, Coleridge was unable to recall much of what he claims would have been a poem of two to three hundred lines in length. The final stanza ironically seems to echo these events through its depiction of the narrator's longing to return to Xanadu. After his encounter with the businessman from Porlock, Coleridge was clearly upset over the loss of his work:
...all the rest had passed away like images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!(footnote 1, p. 295)
His tone here appears to be one of longing, similar to the final stanza where he expresses his wish to relive the emotions and experiences of Xanadu:
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me. (lines 42-44)
This final stanza also serves as an effective conclusion to the poem, which Coleridge, in his anguish, refers to as a mere fragment. The balance in the poem's structure, as well as content, allow it to stand as a complete work in its entirety. The balance originates from the opposing and contrasting themes of nature in the first two stanzas, from their fusion and appreciation in the third, and finally from the longing to return to this lost but idyllic scene in the last. At the end of the poem, another testament to Coleridge's belief in the majesty and mystery of what he has envisioned is revealed. He believes his vision to be so powerful and moving that few would understand his Romantic love for all of nature's splendor. Because of this lack of understanding, he feels people may find him crazed if he were to begin to expound on the virtues his idyllic setting, since only he understands their importance and only "he on honey-dew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise" (lines 53-54).