Friday, March 28, 2008

Kubla Khan and its Relation to Romanticism - Free Essay -

Kubla Khan and its Relation to Romanticism

'Kubla Khan,' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is one of the most enigmatic and ambiguous pieces of literature ever written. Allegedly written after a laudanum (an opiate) induced dream, the author claims to have been planning a two hundred to three hundred line poem before he got interrupted by a 'man from Porlock,' after which he had forgotten nearly all of his dream. This may have been merely an excuse, and the poem was scorned at the time for having no poetic value, one critic even going so far as to call it 'more a musical composition than a poem.' This is partly true, as the language seems to strive for an aural beauty more than a literary beauty, although it accomplishes both. Like many great artists, Coleridge has been most appreciated after his death, when his radically different works could be justified, as the ideas presented in his works hadn't been popular during his life. Coleridge's philosophy in life was very romantic, and so nearly all of his poems exemplify the romantic ideal, especially Kubla Khan. This romantic poem uses brilliant imagery and metaphors to contrast the ideals of romantic paganism with often ingratious Christianity.

The vision of paganism is the first idea introduced in the poem. The super-natural reference to 'Alph,' or Alpheus as it is historically known, 'the sacred river, [which] ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea,' begins this pagan theme by referring to an underground river that passed through dimensions that could not be understood by any man, and then emptying into an underground sea. This also introduces an idea of the lack of human understanding that recurs at the end of the poem, one of the common elements that tie the poem's seemingly two-part separate structure together. Xanadu's walls enclosed 'gardens bright with sinuous rills.' These gardens represent the Garden of Eden, or a natural paradise on Earth. The degree of nature in this paradise is such that, although it is a biblical reference, it is still connected to pagan and romantic ideals. The 'sinuous rills' flowing through this garden can be taken as two different metaphors. The word 'rills' can mean either a stream or a valley on the moon. The moon is seen as the source of all creativity in romantic idealism, and so this first metaphor is significant in the poem. The lunar reference's antithesis comes at the end of the stanza, when it speaks of 'forests ancient as the hills,/ Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.' This reference to the sun contrasts with the valleys on the moon. The second metaphor is that of the snake in the Garden of Eden. The word sinuous implies snakelike, and the connection of these small tributaries to the river Alph shows that they are lustful, tempting, and bring about the destruction of those that offend paradise. These qualities are shared with the Snake from the Garden of Eden and the River Alph (as will soon be seen). The Garden of Eden idea is further shown with the description of the

...deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon lover!

(lines 12-16)

Coleridge uses syntax to exaggerate his emotion in the description of the 'chasm' with his use of an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence in line 14. The author is barely able to contain himself, so 'romantic' this chasm is, and so his sentence climaxes before it is even finished, then climaxes again at the end. This builds intensity until the eruption of the chasm that follows. The woman here is Eve, and she is 'wailing' for the source of her desires, literally her demon lover, but figuratively the apple that got her kicked out of Eden. This connects her to the dome, which is also offending paradise, and this wailing is what seems to set off the chasm and become the dome's and (presumably) her demise. The idea of this material dome of pleasure floating above paradise is reminiscent of a sort of inverted Tower of Babylon, where, instead of building up to reach paradise, the dome, and therefore Kubla Khan, is attempting to reach it from above. Simultaneously, the dome is mocking Heaven, a synonym for paradise, as the dome is a common symbol representing the heavens. This angers nature, and it attacks the dome with the river and the fountain from the chasm. The river Alph is directly related to the Greek god Alpheus, who was the river god. According to Greek mythology, a pagan belief, the god Alpheus had fallen in love with Arethusa, the daughter of Nereus and a Hesperides. The Hesperides' are a type of nymph whom tend to a beautiful garden, or paradise, of unknown location. Alpheus took the nymph to Sicily, where Artemis, the god of childbirth and chastity, turned Arethusa into a fountain, so that the two could make love by mingling their waters. The mingling of their waters is occurring in this chasm, where the 'mighty fountain' of Arethusa is located. To further this image of sex in nature, which Coleridge loved so much and was a large part of the romantic and pagan idea, the chasm is very much likened to a vagina, with its 'cedarn cover' like pubic hair, and its 'romantic' nature, which could mean either relating to romanticism or romance, both of which could have sexual implications. With 'fast thick pants,' the fountain bursts up and the chasm spews out 'dancing rocks' like 'chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail.' Coleridge uses syntax to emphasize the excitement of the climax by not using a comma between the words 'fast' and 'thick.' This speeds up the narration and sends the reader into a state of heart-pounding excitement and elation, showing that the destruction of the dome is a good thing. The choice of diction with the 'dancing rocks' comes to the same effect. These rocks are described as 'chaffy grain,' relating the fragments to the figurative semen, or seed, that the river is spewing out. In this destructive orgy paradise's wrath is invoked upon the dome, which is knocked down into the river and swept into the caves at it's end to rest in the 'lifeless ocean' (line 28). Both the sex in the chasm and the dome entering the caverns before sinking into the sea present the idea of convex and concave. This juxtaposition of a protruding object with a hole or depressed object adds to the two-part structure of the poem, and also lends to the ambiguity that creates complementary opposites in the work. The presence of a material dome and materialistic ruler in a romantic setting is one example of this juxtaposition, as well as the opposite juxtaposition of the immaterial dome and inspired poet with the ignorant Christians in the second half of the poem. Another example of concave and convex is line 36, 'A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!' The juxtaposition here is further dramatized by the combination of the convex with heat and the concave with ice. The materialism of this dome is proven and emphasized when the author writes: 'The shadow of the dome of pleasure/ Floated midway on the waves.' The description of the dome's shadow proves that the dome is material because only those things constructed of real material can cast a shadow. The romantic term 'suspension of disbelief' is shown when Coleridge describes the 'mingled measure/ From the fountain and the caves.' The suspension of disbelief is when an author writes something that is factually impossible, but must simply be read as it was written by the author for the effect of the writing. This ocean was described as being 'silent' at the beginning of the poem, and it was five miles away from the fountain that could be heard from it. This term was originally coined by Coleridge, one year after the poem was published. The number five can be found twice in Kubla Khan, the first time when speaking of Khan's palace of Xanadu. Coleridge goes out of his way to use the number five here, saying 'twice five miles' instead of simply saying ten. The second use of the number five is after the pleasure dome has been subdued by nature's wrath. The significance of the number five is huge in paganism. The number five refers to the fifth element, spirit, which in pagan belief is the source of all magic and life on Earth. The pentacle and pentagram are symbols of the number five, and the space within a pentagram is said to be separate from this plane of existence, much like the pleasure dome in the second part of the poem, and the paradise of Xanadu. This paganism ties in with romanticism, as they both can worship multiple gods and also see nature as living and animate.

After line 36, an abrupt change in subject, writing style, and tone occurs. This marks the shifting from paganism to Christianity in his studies. This is also an example of the idea of convex versus concave, as the first line of the first section is 'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan,' while the first line of the second section is 'A damsel with a dulcimer.' This sharp contrast between the convex Kubla Khan, a male, and the concave damsel, a female, both continues this theme of convex versus concave, emphasizing the change in sections and the difference between paganism and Christianity, as well as continuing Coleridge's obsession with sex in nature. This portrayal of humans having sex in the same poem as the sex occurring in the chasm with the two paganistic gods show the author's desire to connect humanity with nature, a true romantic ideal. The damsel, an Abyssinian (Ethiopian), is the concave force in another relationship, that of her with the 'sunny dome.' The opposite forces of the maid with the dome are further dramatized by the dark and light relationship between them. This clashing of light with dark shows the romantic ideology of the sun versus the moon. In romanticism, sunlight is a harsh, evil force, while moon light is the source of all creativity, and thus good. This is significant, as this maid is Coleridge's muse, his source of creativity. The maid is directly related to night, and the moon, in this poem, and so is pure good. Conversely, the pleasure dome is directly related to the sun, and thus to evil and the opponent to creativity. Much like the paradox of the material dome in the romantic garden, there is another dome in this section, although it is one made from the imagination and brought on by creativity (the maid). This dome represents the true paradise, one that can not be created from materials, and is strongly connected to the pagan pentacle. A pentacle was believed to mark a space that was separated from our plane of existence, much like the paradise created in this second romantic and pagan dome. The dome is juxtaposed with the ignorant christians, who ironically scorn this true paradise, and cry 'Beware! Beware!' Martin Priestman, in an analysis of this pagan romanticism, noted:

We may detect here some of the seeds of Coleridge's idea of a Kubla Khan.'

This lashing out at Christianity and Christians in general may have also been a reaction to his minister father, as the role of the father at the time of Coleridge's childhood was somewhat alienated from the family. The fact that the Christians don't accept this heaven that the speaker has created may also hint that Coleridge believes that the Christian idea of heaven is false. The repetition of the word 'Beware!' is an example of a common device in romantic writing. When an author wanted to stress an image or a feeling that a word was implying, the author would repeat the word, drilling it into the reader's mind. The author desired to emphasize the rejection that the Christians had upon his heaven, and thus on him. This may have been an allegory for the isolation and rejection that he felt at the hands of his critics, who did not appreciate him during his time as much as he deserved. The three circles that they 'weave' around him are both an ancient, superstitious (and thus pagan) ritual to keep an evil spirit at bay, and a reference to the holy trinity (with the number three). This ironic juxtaposition of Christians cursing the speaker with a pagan ritual further displays the ignorance of these fools, and also provides a final connection between the pagan first section and the Christian second. The poem is closed with a description of the gustatory delights of paradise, making a final attempt to lure the probably biased reader into the fruits of this pagan and romantic paradise.

Coleridge did not live in a vacuum, and so he was affected by both past and present while writing this poem. Kubla Khan was inspired by the great Kublai Khan (this is an example of one of the author's numerous spelling errors in this poem). Historically, this thirteenth-century descendant of Genghis Khan had built the palace of K'ai P'ing, which roughly translates to a homophone of Xanadu. Kublai Khan's greatest accomplishment was the conquering of China, and one can think of the 'pleasure dome' that he constructed as his reign over the lands of China, just as his dome floats above the land inside the boundary of his walls, or dominion. Khan's rule was ended in 1368 by the Ming dynasty, in a presumptuously bloody takeover. This is the reason behind the 'ancestral voices prophesying war,' as they are speaking of the Ming that are soon to come. The choice of a military ruler in the poem may have been influenced by the period in which this poem was written: the Napoleonic era. Napoleon was deeply hated by the British, and so warmongering may have been a subject that he had hoped people could relate and thus connect to. It didn't seem to have worked, however, as his work was widely scorned.

Despite this scorning, however, Kubla Khan is a literary work that has stirred more interest than almost any other poem ever written, at least one of such short length. Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses amazingly implicative imagery and allegory to show his romantic ideals of paganism over Christianity. He does this with amazingly complex metaphors and imagery, such that are so ambiguous as to suggest not having a purpose at all. The ambiguousness he creates is a strong example of romanticism, something that is ambiguous in of itself, as one writer said:

Some scholars see romanticism as completely continuous with the present, some

see it as the inaugural moment of modernity, some see it as the beginning of a

tradition of resistance to the Enlightenment, and still others date it firmly to the

direct aftermath of the French Revolution. The topic is complex enough that

most characteristics taken as defining Romanticism have also been taken as its

opposite by different scholars.


This ambiguity creates a sort of literary mist, and one can not help but to feel that somewhere underneath this mist, perhaps in a chasm or a cave, is the meaning of life itself. This feeling is what draws so many to Kubla Khan, and it is this unexplainable feeling that keeps such fervid study buzzing about it. Such a feeling can only be created by a True Genius, and Coleridge proves himself to be one in Kubla Khan.

List of Works Cited

Priestman, Martin. Temples and Mysteries in Romantic Infidel Writing. Romanticism On the Net 25 (February 2002): 16 pars.

Romanticism. Wikipedia. 3 Apr. 2005

by wchutlknbout at hotmail dot com



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