#40 “Kubla Khan” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is one of the most famous, and most frequently reprinted, poems of the past two hundred years. (Well, 212 to be exact, but close enough). By ranking it 40th on the Countdown, I hope I’m not disrespecting Coleridge. At times I’m pretty sure I could turn the Countdown on its head and go from 1 to 64 without noticing the difference; the poems are all that good.

Nevertheless, I am not including anything on this Countdown just because it’s historically important and nine out of every ten English professors would expect to see it here. “Kubla Khan” is not just famous for being famous. It’s a great achievement in language, carried out with the maximum possible panache.

“Kubla Khan,” as is apparent a few lines in, lies in the realm of fantasy literature. There was a historical Kubla Khan, of course. Wikipedia, which knoweth all things, situates Kubla (or “Kublai” Khan) as the Mongol emperor of China who ruled, at one point in the 1200s, one-fifth of the inhabited globe. For all that, he would have made little mark on Western culture. But Kubla Khan was the emperor who met Marco Polo – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Kubla of the poem has almost exactly zero to do with the historical Kubla, to say nothing of the fact that if you tried to get on a first-name basis with Kublai Khan, he would probably have had you disemboweled. Coleridge’s speaker imagines a compound that has become the type of all crazy paranoid rulers’ private residences. “Xanadu” was the name that Orson Welles used for the obscenely excessive Kane estate in Citizen Kane. Michael Jackson had Neverland, Elvis had Graceland, Nixon had San Clemente, William Randolph Hearst (the model for Kane) had San Simeon.

And every such “pleasure dome,” it goes without saying, is built on a “romantic chasm” which is quite its opposite. You cannot have the greatest artificial pleasure except by contrast with the greatest natural dark energy. Opposites clash in “Kubla Khan” in a style reached only by great movie epics and apocalyptic graphic novels.

And the whole is done in mellifluous language at a breakneck pace. One of the things I admire greatly in the best poetry, and that I think is indispensable from artistic greatness, is energy (what Coleridge’s friend William Hazlitt called “Gusto”). “Kubla Khan” has energy to spare, and that energy has fueled any number of later compositions in language and in stone.


5 responses to “#40 “Kubla Khan” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

  1. Although the richness of the language is extraordinary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan,” is complex and somewhat difficult to follow. I do not want to seem critical, especially since I am only a student in a lower level English class, and Coleridge is deemed one of the great poets, but I do think the playing field is not level. Because he wrote this poem under the influence, he could see the imagery in a magnified version whereas the ordinary reader can only see fragmented glimpses of his vision. This poem reminds me of the lyrics to Jimi Hendrix’s song, “Purple Haze.” Hendrix said the lyrics were inspired by a dream in which he was walking under the sea in a purple haze. He was one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived, but sometimes his lyrics were difficult to follow if the person who was listening to them was not under the same influence. So, excuse me Coleridge and Hendrix if sometimes your audience can’t touch the sky with you! However, I decided to comment on this particular poem because of my fascination with the travels of Marco Polo on the Silk Road, the dynasties of the Mongolian emperors, and fabled utopias like Xanadu, Atlantis, and Shambala. I found the poem difficult to follow because initially Coleridge was describing a harmonious place that reminded me of the Garden of Eden, but suddenly the poem shifted and I couldn’t figure out if the “deep romantic chasm,” swallowed up Xanadu or was it the birthing canal for Xanadu. Coleridge said,”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.” At that moment, I felt an energy flow erupting from the earth or either something was being swallowed up by the earth. The energy level of the poem is titanic in nature, and I have a great appreciation for the opulent language of the poem. I could truly hear the “the woman wailing for her demon lover,” “ancestral voices prophesying war,” and the cry “Beware! Beware!” I feel that Coleridge had to end the poem not because of a Person from Porlock but because his high ( the dark energy ) dissipated and he returned to normal. All good things must come to an end. We are not designed to live forever in Xanadu. Those who tried ended up overdosing.

  2. kursteilnehmur

    We don’t have to be a part of the world of opium in order to appreciate the wild aesthetic beauty of the Kubla Khan poem. We can only speculate the meaning of the poem; perhaps we will never fully understand the true meaning of his bizarre hallucination. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium This link shows a fairly accurate portrayal of opium, where it is grown, and the effects it can have, although I wouldn’t trust Wikipedia with my life… Upon reading up on this type of hallucinogen I couldn’t help wondering about how it affects our culture regardless of a prescription from a doctor. It seems that this poem speaks of addiction for opulence at a price, similarly to the consumption of a hallucinogen for a fleeting moment of gratification. This poem seems to be a favorite among many English aficionados, but to me it seems as if it lacks something. The structure, language, arrangement, content and diction create a profound symphony of expressions that is in no way lucid or lackluster. It is both vibrant and intriguing at the same time. It captures your attention, and manages to hold on to it for quite some time. My only qualm with this poem is the similarity of this poem to a brain whose neurons are firing at random. I know this point of view must seem critical of the poem in an artistic way, but I still have trouble accepting true aesthetic beauty from something that is inspired by an uncontrollable consciousness that comes from opium. This probably stems from my distaste for abstract art. Had I not known about the opium would I still be as critical? Probably so. To me true poetry comes from the soul of the poet, not from the hyped up neurons firing at random prior visions.

  3. I found this poem quite difficult to follow and understand. I think this poem is trying to come across in a negative way. It does not really desciribe anything. The poem lacks meaning and understanding. This is my least favorite poem on the countdown so far. I feel that the writer does not have a purpose for writing this poem, his ideas are all over the place.

  4. I like the picture of an enchanted place of infinite pleasures I get when reading this poem. I think that Samuel Coleridge does a fantastic job of painting a mental picture. I love the rhyme scheme and the contradictory word usage. For example on the back page the last line before the last stanza says: “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of Ice! “. The poem describes the caves as a result of erosion from the sacred river the Alph. We read that the Alph eventually flows into the sea in a violently. I get a notion as to the Xanadu being a place of pleasure, but one should beware of it because the pleasure taken from here is cursed. The story of Adam and Eve plucking and eating the forbidden apple comes to mind. Where if one indulges they should be weary of the consequences in store. The allure is to shadow an evil that once it has seduced you, it will own you for eternity!

  5. I enjoyed this poem because of how dramatic and imaginative Coleridge was about this Kubla Khan. It was interesting to read this poem because often times, our expectations for poetry are one-sided meaning we want the poet to cater to our thoughts and understanding and be relatable which is fine. However, I believe this poem is so popular because it is not for an audience, it was written with the poet in mind!

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