Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
- Now we rise up and zoom out, looking across the "dome of pleasure" and the shadow it is casting on the ocean.
- Coleridge is starting to have fun here, taking all the elements he has introduced so far and scrambling them together.
- In just four lines we get the waves, the caves, the fountain, the dome. Everything is mixed up, including the different sounds of the river, which make a "mingled measure."
- All this mingling shows up in the rhyme and the meter of the poem too.
- These lines make a good example. Now, they do have an even rhyme scheme. Just look at the last words in each line: pleasure, waves, measure, caves – ABAB.
- But this is different from most of the rest of the poem, which uses all kinds of other rhyme schemes. Plus these four lines have a varying number of syllables.
- There really is a kind of music in this poem, but it is strange and irregular, basically, a "mingled measure."
- We'll be the first to admit that Coleridge seems to be taking himself pretty seriously here, but if you look around the edges, he's playing around a little bit too.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
- These two quick lines bring up that same obsession with contrasts that we saw with the palace and the river.
- In the opening lines, the speaker never said anything about the caves being cold, or the dome being hot, but he goes out of his way to makes these points here.
- Actually there's a whole world of contrasts between the dome and the caverns: Natural vs. man-made, above ground and below ground, symmetrical and irregular, sunny and frozen.
- This is what gives the poem a lot of its energy: opposites clashing together and then making a weird kind of harmony.
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw;
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
- Now the poem takes a major turn.
- Without any warning, the speaker changes the subject. He starts to describe another vision that he once had.
- In this vision he sees a girl. He tells us three things about her, in three lines: 1) She was Abyssinian (that's an old way of saying Ethiopian). 2) She was playing a dulcimer (an instrument with strings that you pluck or hit with a mallet). 3) She was singing about a place called Mt. Abora (a name that Coleridge made up).
- That's a pretty clear description in some ways, but what are we supposed to take away from it? Why does this combination of images matter? Why does it show up here?
- One way to look at these lines would be to dig around and see if there's a kind of code here.
- For example, where and what is Mt. Abora?
- Some people think the speaker is referring to a real place in Ethiopia, some think it's a biblical reference, and others tie it to a place that Milton mentions in Paradise Lost.
- You could ask the same questions about the other parts of this vision.
- Why is she from Ethiopia, what does the dulcimer symbolize?
- We think this question is important, but we also think that this part of the poem is also meant to be personal and mysterious.
- Coleridge could definitely have been more explicit if he wanted to.
- In one sense, though, all dreams and visions are private, and they can't be completely explained. That sense of mystery is part of what makes this poem beautiful.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
- Now the speaker looks back on the powerful music he heard in that vision.
- He can describe it to us, but he can't really get back to experiencing that intense feeling. And yet he's longing for that experience, for the sense of wonder that disappeared with that vision.
- The speaker wants to "revive" the music, to bring it back to life. If he could tap into the power of that vision, he imagines that it would inspire him, and allow him to create amazing things himself.
- The music of the Abyssinian maid would fill him, and he could make his own "music loud and long" (line 45). This music would let him bring back the spirit of Xanadu, to "build that dome in air" (line 46).
- This all sounds pretty strange at first. When you think about it, though, this is a great description of what artists do.
- Composers, poets, musicians all build things in the air. They use words or sounds to make their visions come to life.
- Even though the speaker says he wishes he could do relive the musical experience, that's actually what Coleridge is doing in this poem.
- He uses his words to transport us, like he says on line 48: 'And all who heard should see them there."
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
- But this vision isn't just about a dome. When the speaker calls up Xanadu, he also calls up a strange spirit, and this other creature is a lot scarier than the palace, the caverns, or the ocean.
- You know in those horror movies when a bunch of kids say a magic word three times and call up an evil creature? That's pretty much the idea here.
- The speaker imagines that his vision has become so real that it can actually scare people, and make them cry out "Beware, Beware!" (line 49).
- He describes a terrifying figure, complete with "flashing eyes" and "floating hair" (line 50).
- This creature is so scary that you have to perform rituals to protect yourself from a demon: "Weave a circle round him thrice" (line 51).
- Who is this weird spirit?
- The speaker doesn't say, exactly. He might be talking about himself.
- Maybe his song and his vision have become so powerful that he has turned into a kind of god, eating "honey-dew" and drinking "the milk of Paradise" (line 54).
- Maybe these images are reference the opium Coleridge took, which made this vision possible in the first place.
- Or maybe this is a final vision of Kubla Khan, turned into some kind of strange new creature.
- What really sticks with us though, is that super-intense image, made even more exciting by its mysterious description.