AD's English Literature : Analysis of S. T. Coleridge's Kubla Khan as a Dream Poem

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Analysis of S. T. Coleridge's Kubla Khan as a Dream Poem

  Coleridge’s dream faculty is his strong point as a poet and he is a dreamer of dreams and his Kubla Khan(1798)  is not the product of his observation but has come out from mysterious dreams. Coleridge himself claimed that the poem “Kubla Khan” was the product of a hallucinatory dream experienced after he had taken opium “in consequence of a slight indisposition.” On awaking, he began to commit the experience to paper but was interrupted by “a person on business from Porlock.” On returning to his desk, he found that the intensity of his impressions had faded. The poem claims to be “scattered lines and images” from a longer, forgotten work. Whether the story is true or not, the poem takes the unrecapturable nature of such dreams as its theme. It opens with sumptuous images of a mythic land, in which a powerful ruler orders the construction of a fabulous palace. It is an edifice of dream, a fragment of pure romance and a product of a dream rooted in imagination.  

Apparently Kubla Khan lacks any logical coherence of ideas. It has the essence of poetry and dream because its aim is to delight, not to present the truth. Farther, it has procession of images which are Vague. All these romantic associations are concentrated within a short space to arouse a sense of wonder, mystery and awe. Such romantic images include ancient forests and hills, caverns which are measureless to man, spots of greenery, music of dulcimer, a damsel with a dulcimer, milk of paradise, a waning moon, and a woman waiting for her demon lover:
        “But oh! That deep romantic chasm which slanted
        Down the green hill athwart a cedern cover.
        A savage place! As holy and enchanted.
        As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
        By woman wailing for her demon lover”.

So to say, the images are not also linked logically. They come one after the other through association as happens in dreams. In first four lines Kubla Khan orders a palace to be built. In the ensuring four lines, it is built,
        “In xanadu did Kubla Khan,
        A stately pleasure dome decree”
        with walls and tower girdled round
        and there were gardens bright with sinuous rills”

In the midst of highly romantic description of landscape, the poet introduces an entirely different note:
        “Ancestral voices prophesying war”

Farther when the dream is broken midway, the poet feels himself unable to give description of the pleasure dome. So the poet wishes romantically to revive within him the symphony and the song.

The poem has two parts. In the first part there is a record of the vision or dream. The second part is the poet’s efforts to realize that dream and to build that dome in the air. In fact, Kubla Khan is the most perfect example of what might pleasure dome, its sacred river, its panting fountain, its caves of ice, its ecstatic figure with flashing eyes and floating hair, Kubla Khan is clearly a poem about poetic inspiration. Though symbolism and loose disconnections the poetic mood of ecstasy can not be missed in this poem. The organic links among the different parts of this poem is its symbolic unity which simultaneously defines a world of separation of head and heart, action and contemplation, the matter of fact world and the realm of imagination. The richness of this poem is its dream quality, multiple point of view and an apparent ambiguity.

There are temporary changes in the metre because the poem has dreamy origin. In this connection three points may be mentioned:
(i)               There is irregularity of the rhymes.
(ii)            There is unevenness of the lines
(iii)          There are temporary changes.

As if the words images and visions are so loose and floating in the world of conscience which is best poetically revealed in the poem.

For example: “It was a miracle of rare device
                A sunny pleasure dome with eaves of ice.
                A damsel with a dulcimer
                In a vision once I san”.

Again Coleridge conveys the idea of harmony and order by imitating the word order of the Latin language, using strong single-syllable rhymes, and providing a percussive beat heightened by alliteration. The poem offers sensual images of an oriental paradise: There are “gardens bright with sinuous rills” and “many an incense-bearing tree”. With a powerful sense of movement, the poem follows the progress of the river Alph in order to focus on a violent natural force beyond the palace walls: a “chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething.” Coleridge describes this place with a mass of contradictory adjectives: It is “holy,” “enchanted,” and “savage,” its massive force like that of a living being. If, as literary critics have suggested, this place is a metaphor for the imagination, its blasts might be compared to Wordsworth’s definition of the poetic process as “a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.”

Hi Friends!

Now try to answer these questions:
  •   Critically analyse Kubla Khan as a dream poem.                       
  • Do you find any logical bind in the fragmentary nature of the poem?


  1. Dear Sir,
    Iam elated to see a treasure house of material on the internet provided by you i have attempted previously but could not clear it was very disappointed but hope under ur guidance will be able to crack it .
    Can you please let me know the relaxation and cut out dates provided to Ph.D candidates for Lectureship.
    Please can u send me ur e-mail id .
    Meenakshi Banerji

  2. I think we may also focus on the fact that Coleridge presents two visionary figures: a damsel with a dulcimer and Kubla Khan. Note that , while Kubla seems to encroach upon Nature forcibly (twice five miles of fertile land, with walls and towers ), the Damsel shows a pleasant accomodative power (she sings of the mountain). It is as if Coleridge presents before himself a choice: to act like Kubla, or the Damsel( a figure of inspiration, almost like Goddess Saraswati, the muse of poetry) and says that the true pleasure dome can be created only through Imagination (her symphony and song). Interestingly, Kubla's pleasure dome becomes the archetype of lost paradise which both Man and Satan wish to re-create and possess. The approach of Kubla is satanic- hence is efforts are doomed (as his ancestors could wisely guess), but a true poet is almost Christlike in his frenzy and passion: and he is entitled to possess the paradisal experience right in this world.From this perspective, the poem becomes as logical as the metaphysical poems, if not as direct. it is a poem that must never be explained, its almost a crime to make it a part of syllabus, it is definitely an experience worth a lifetime of literature.
    you have undertaken a massive job and i am sure countless students are blessing you every day.

  3. please ignore the typographical error in the 11th line . it should read "his efforts"

  4. Dear monami

    thanks for your worthy words. I truly appreciate your views.

  5. How should I prepare for paper-ii of PGT English, DSSSB? Please provide me detailed guidelines, if possible. Specifically, I would like to know whether I should cram the notes i have already prepared or just understand them.In exams i can write answers based on my previous understanding.
    i hope you would soon respond to me.

  6. Dear Pratibha,
    The dominant writing technique for rehearsal practices of students are to be designed mostly for specific productions or realistic styles. As interest in that process is the key. Experimental Method of preparations and workshops encourage the study in variety of techniques. Being the teacher or instructor, I like to encourage you to incorporate elements from your own notes into the standard canon.

    Best wishes.


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