Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
- Here's the famous opener.
- This line gets a lot of work done quickly. It introduces us to the title character (Kubla Khan), and begins to describe the amazing setting of the poem (Xanadu).
- That "stately pleasure dome decree" means that he had a really fancy and beautiful palace built.
- We want you to know right away that Coleridge is actually talking about a real place and a real guy.
- Kubla Khan was the grandson of the legendary Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, and he built a summer palace (called Xanadu, in English) in Mongolia.
- Marco Polo visited Xanadu, and helped to start the legend of its magnificence.
- We're starting with actual history here, although by Coleridge's time Xanadu is already a bit of a legend.
- Keep this little historical nugget in mind, as you read. Does this feel like a real place and a real person? Or does it seem completely imaginary? Maybe a little of both?
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
- The speaker begins to describe the geography of Xanadu. He starts by introducing us to the River Alph.
- There's certainly no river in Mongolia by this name. Some scholars think that this is an allusion to the river Alpheus, a river in Greece that was made famous in classical literature.
- The name "Alph" might also make us think of the Greek letter "Alpha" which is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and a symbol of beginnings.
- These associations, and the fact that the river has a name at all, really make the Alph stand out in the beginning of this poem.
- Notice how Coleridge is already stepping away from history: he is transforming this place, this person, and this story into his own creation.
- "Kubla Khan" is definitely a poem as much about the journeys of the mind and the imagination as it is about the real world.
- If this is partly an imaginary landscape, how does the poem's speaker make it look and feel? When he talks about "caverns measureless to man" we get a sense that this landscape is both huge and unknowable.
- That slightly spooky feeling continues when we get to the "sunless sea." That's a pretty gloomy image to start out with, and it casts a shadow over these first few lines. It also gives us a sense of being in an imaginary landscape, because where else could a sea always be "sunless" and never bright or cheerful, or any of the other things a sea can be?
- Also, check out how much shorter line 5 is than all the others. In a poem where all the lines have a carefully planned length, short lines stand out and make us take notice. It makes this image just a little lonelier. It also makes this line into more of a dead end, a stopping place, just like the sea is for the River Alph.
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.
- Now things become a little more cheerful.
- The speaker takes us away from those gloomy, endless caverns, and tells us a little bit about the gardens around the palace.
- You might have noticed that the language gets fancy here. A "sinuous rill" (line 3) is really just a twisty stream.
- Coleridge often uses beautiful language to illustrate simple underlying concepts.
- Here, the speaker is setting up a contrast between the scary, strange caverns and the pleasant, familiar space around the palace. He describes how the palace is "girdled" (that just means surrounded) by walls and towers. While the caverns were "measureless" (line 4) this space can be measured very precisely at "twice five miles."
- Everything about this place feels safe and happy. It's protected by the walls, it's "fertile," the gardens are "bright," even the trees smell good ("incense-bearing").
- Even though the forests are "ancient" the speaker manages to make them seem comforting too, since he tells us they are "enfolding sunny spots of greenery" (line 11).
- Notice how the idea of "enfolding" echoes the sense of "girdled." The forest wraps around those little sunny spots and keeps them safe, just like the walls wrap around the palace and keep it safe.
- The natural world outside is wild and strange, but within the palace walls things are peaceful and protected.