Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
But oh! that 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!
- Then, just like that, we get pulled back into the wild, slightly scary natural world. The speaker takes us back to the river Alph, which is beginning to seem almost like a character in this poem.
- Xanadu is located in a valley surrounded by hills. The river cascades down the side of one of these hills, cutting a "deep chasm," or canyon, through it.
- The chasm cuts a path "athwart a cedarn cover" which means that the entire hillside is covered in cedar trees. This river is violent and uncontrollable, completely unlike those poky little rills we heard about it line eight.
- The speaker seems to be pulled toward this river like a magnet. He could have imagined himself sitting in those gardens, having someone feed him grapes.
- But it's the "romantic" chasm that appeals to him, and gives the poem its life.
- Can you feel how excited the speaker is when he talks about the river?
- One way Coleridge tips us off to his excitement is with all of those exclamation points. They are all over the place in the first few lines of this section.
- Look at just two examples: "a cedarn cover!"(line 13), "a savage place!"(line 14). The exclamation points really make those images pop out at you, don't they?
- And how about that woman, the demon lover, and that waning moon?
- The speaker is using them to let us know just how romantic and spooky the chasm really is.
- Our speaker wants us to imagine a woman, maybe even the ghost of a woman, since she haunts this place.
- Maybe she has been cursed, or has had a spell cast on her, and she has fallen in love with an evil spirit.
- If this woman wanted to scream about her terrible fate, to let out all her sadness and her anger and her longing, where would she go? She'd go to a place just like this: a lonely, wild canyon, where no one could hear her but the "waning moon" (that just means the moon is getting smaller).
- These images are really intense, and it gives us a little glimpse of a whole new story.
- The speaker isn't saying that any of these things are there in the poem; he's saying that this is the kind of place where they would be at home.
- He's coloring the mood of the landscape, not introducing new characters, so don't let the details throw you off too much.
- Remember that we're hearing a description of a dream or a vision.
- Have you ever been at that moment where you're about to fall asleep and something flashes across your mind? One minute it's there, and its really intense, maybe as intense as this woman and her demon. Then the next minute it's gone, just like the woman in this poem.
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
- More about this river. Seriously, he really likes it. Apparently it comes rushing down the hillside at every moment ("momently") like a "fountain."
- Of course, rivers don't usually stop moving, so Coleridge doesn't need to tell us that it flows at every moment. However, he wants us to think of the river not as something continuous, but as something that is created each moment.
- The speaker wants us to focus on the wild, rushing, violent excitement of the water.
- Coleridge and his poet-friends, the Romantics, loved scenes like this, where the tremendous power of nature is unleashed and we get to watch.
- Coleridge gets so carried away by this scene that he turns the earth into a kind of "seething," "breathing" animal.
- The rushing water becomes the sound of its "fast thick pants," as if the earth were really tired from doing a lot of exercise. He really wants you to hear and almost feel the rushing force of that river.
- You can't just dip into an image like this. It's like trying to get a drink from a fire hose.
- Coleridge keeps this intensity up line after line, plunging us into the river again and again.
- After a while, this turns into a snowstorm of images and analogies.
- Apparently the river is bouncing off the rocks, which reminds the speaker of the clatter of hail, or grain raining down out of the air as it is being separated from the chaff.
- We could dig into each one of these images, and we definitely wouldn't want to stop you from looking as closely as possible at every one of these lines. But we think what the speaker is really after here is a feeling.
- Do you feel the rushing of the river, the crash of the water against the rocks?
- If yes, then the poem is doing its job. Each image is meant to drive home that feeling of wild natural force.
- In a sense these lines are like a symphony – a rush of feeling and sound and excitement that's meant to pick you up and carry you along.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
- Suddenly things calm down a little.
- Our favorite river reaches the flat plain of the valley where Xanadu is located, and it begins to "meander with a mazy motion" (line 25).
- So, now we've gotten the whole story of the river, from the perspective of someone in Xanadu.
- The first glimpse is of the river rushing down a deep canyon cut into a wooded hillside. The water is moving fast and furious, almost like a waterfall, but not quite so steep. It bounces off rocks and creates a lot of big ruckus.
- The river then flattens out and turns into a proper river, flowing gently through Xanadu for five miles until it reaches a bunch of caves or "caverns."
- Nobody knows how deep these caverns are. They are so huge you couldn't possibly measure them. But we do know that they seem to contain an underground ocean, into which the river flows.See all those "m" sounds? We call that repetition of the first sound in a word "alliteration."
- Coleridge has gotten us all worked up, and now, to show us he can, he slows it all down.
- One minute the river's making a "fast thick pant," then it's lazy and murmuring in the woods and dales.
- You know how some pop songs start out quiet, build up until they are fast and loud and then quiet down again?
- That's what's happening here. The speaker took us up to peak, and now he's taking us down again, circling back to the quiet, spooky images that started the poem.
- To bring this idea home, the speaker repeats the phrase "caverns measureless to man" that we first heard in line 4. Remember that "sunless sea" in line 5? It's back too, this time as a "lifeless ocean" (line 28).
- Different words, same gloomy idea.
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
- Coleridge could have ended the poem there, with that "lifeless ocean."
- In that case, it would have been almost perfectly symmetrical.
- But what fun would that be? This is supposed to an intense vision, after all.
- Plus, what about Kubla, our title character? It almost seems like Coleridge has forgotten him.
- Well now he's back, in the last two lines of this section. As the poem's pace slows down, the "tumult" of the river becomes an echo of the intense rush we just felt.
- Like us, Kubla listens from a distance, and what does he hear? "Ancestral voices prophesying war" (line 30).
- This is Genghis Khan's grandson, after all, so he probably spent a lot of time thinking about war, even when he wasn't listening to rushing rivers.
- This new image takes us away from the river, and into the even wilder second half of the poem. Think this is all a little strange already? Just wait!