Study Guide

Kubla Khan Analysis

  • Sound Check

    This poem sounds to us like a symphony orchestra. It has all kinds of different sounds, movements and tones. When the river is crashing through the caves, we imagine the pounding of kettledrums. Listen to those rocks crashing: "Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail" (line 21). That word "rebounding" has such a hollow, open sound that we can hear the pounding of the rocks even as they are being described. Then, when we travel through the gardens, we hear the soft sounds of the woodwinds. It's hard not to feel soothed by the tone of line 9: "Where blossomed many an incense bearing tree." These are calm, quiet moments. When you say the words out loud, they have the sound of a soothing, delicate instrument like a flute.

    At the other extreme, the scary, flashing-eyed figure that appears at the end reminds us of the horns, sharp and brassy and startling. Listen to the way the words cut through the air at this moment: "Beware! Beware!"(line 49). These words are blurted out, quick and loud, like the sound of a trumpet blaring out a warning. The poem is a journey of sounds. It tries to use the effects of language as if they were the different parts of an orchestra.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The main title of this poem is just plain "Kubla Khan." It's a pretty great name, isn't it? Sounds tough, mysterious, and exotic. We're willing to bet that Coleridge wanted that name to echo in a big way, to call up associations and feelings. It sets a tone for the poem, since the title transports us to another place and time before we even get started. But there's another piece. The full title is: "Kubla Khan Or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment."

    All of a sudden, Coleridge is giving us a much more detailed description of the poem itself. The famous back-story, (as told by Coleridge), is that he wasn't feeling well one night. So he took some opium (a drug), and had this strange dream. We think this really explains a lot about this poem. Do you feel how hard he works to describe an altered state? The meter, the rhyme the subject matter are all trying to make you feel what it's like to see things that aren't normally there. Letting you know that it's not only a dream but also "a vision in a dream" leaves you extra prepared for the weirdness that's coming.

    Last of all, how about "A Fragment?" Apparently Coleridge dreamed about writing several hundred lines, and when he woke up, he started writing them down. He was interrupted, in the middle of writing, and when he came back, he had forgotten the rest. What about this poem might make it seem like a fragment? Does it seem finished to you?

  • Setting

    Xanadu, during the reign of Mongol emperor Kubla Khan

    Coleridge has a lot to say about the setting of this poem. He devotes many lines to describing the landscape, the caverns, and the sea. That works for the first half of the poem, but then that Abyssinian maid shows up, and then there are the flashing eyes, and the milk of a paradise. All this new stuff makes it hard to believe we're still in the same place as the river and the palace. Maybe we need a setting that can encompass this whole experience.

    So here's what we think: This poem could take place in a kid's bedroom. Remember that age when you were really excited about faraway places and legends and monsters? Imagine Coleridge as your cool uncle who told you amazing, spooky bedtime stories. "Kubla Khan" is sort of about a person and a place, but it's really more about how you can create those things with words alone. That's the heart of the bedtime story. You didn't need pictures or movies or a plane or any other props. Coleridge needed sleep and sickness and drugs in order to have this vision. But the amazing thing about this poem is that he can recreate this experience without any of those things. He just needs the sound and the texture of words. So, imagine yourself tucked in on a rainy night in winter, just a candle lighting the room, listening to Coleridge build castles with his words.

  • Speaker

    We think the speaker of this poem sounds like he's trying to impress a crowd. He would be right at home at a circus or a magic show. He could even be a con artist, performing card tricks on the street. He knows he has to draw his audience in right away, and make his pitch fascinating.

    The speaker doesn't waste any time because he doesn't want to lose us. His descriptions are fast and dramatic at first. He paints a picture that enchants us and pulls us in. Once he's got us, he can slow his patter down, or speed it up as he sees fit. He can tell us about his strange visions, but he's always careful to add some verbal fireworks. He repeats himself for dramatic effect ("That sunny dome, those caves of ice!" [line 47]), just like you would if you were preaching, entertaining, or trying to sell something to a crowd. He's confident, even a little showy, but he's also got one eye on the crowd, making sure we're with him. He never lets the energy drop.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (5) Tree Line.

    This poem falls right in the middle on the Tough-O-Meter. It's not going out of its way to make things hard for you, but there are a lot of tricky words and strange images to wade through before you can really start to feel like you've got your head around it.

  • Calling Card

    Natural Drama

    The speaker of this poem finds a lot of dramatic material in nature. He's totally captivated by the power he sees in the natural world. This is pretty typical for Coleridge. His poems tend to be intense, emotional and rooted in the natural world. These are not polite, quiet, regular poems. They celebrate emotion instead of restraining it. "Kubla Khan" is stranger than most of Coleridge's poems, but almost none of them are meant to merely be amusing. He wants you to think about big, exciting ideas. Bringing all the raging power of nature into his poems is a way to get you to think about love, death, the soul and eternity.

  • Form and Meter

    Rhyming Iambic Meter

    Iambic just means that the poem is made up of lots of two-syllable units, in which the stress is placed on the second syllable. The lines also rhyme, although maybe not in the ways you'd expect.

    "Rhyming Iambic Meter" makes the form and meter sound simpler than it really is. Coleridge could have sat down to write a standard iambic poem. If that were your project, there are a few ways to use rhyme and meter to let your readers know that's what you're doing. Ideally, your lines would all have the same number of iambic syllables. If they had four, we would call it "iambic tetrameter" if they had five, "iambic pentameter," and so on. But Coleridge didn't make this a normal poem. Check out the first section. Lines 1-7 have 8 syllables each, and lines 8-11 have 10 each, so it's a mix of tetrameter and pentameter.

    Who cares exactly how long the lines are? Well, you might have been more likely to notice if you lived in the early 19th Century. You'd be more used to reading poets like Alexander Pope, who would rather chew off his arm than jump around like this in a poem. But we're willing to bet that you noticed this change in a subtle way, even if you didn't stop to count the syllables.

    Think about the effects Coleridge can create with this technique. In the short lines at the beginning of the section, he's giving us a quick overview, and describing the rushing of a river to the sea. Then, as the poem slows down, the lines get longer too, and as we wind along those "sinuous rills," we start to feel the poem meandering a little too. When the setting changes in line 31 and the poem shifts gears, the lines get shorter again, back to the eight-syllable length. So the line lengths are a little weird at first, but when we look closer there's some logic to them.

    Same goes for the rhyme – it isn't regular. Sometimes Coleridge loops back and picks up a rhyme he hasn't used in a while, creating a kind of echo in the poem. Remember that Coleridge is describing a drugged out dream here. Would it make sense to write it like a nursery rhyme? He creates strange music, where the different parts fit together in unexpected and beautiful ways.

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    The River Alph

    This big, dramatic river takes over most of the first half of the poem. Our speaker is a fan – he seems to be constantly drawn back to the river. Descriptions of the river largely focus on how powerful it is. It gives us the poem's main images of the force and excitement of the natural world. While other places may be quiet or safe or calm, the river is noisy, active, and even a little dangerous. It is also always moving, traveling across the poem and across the landscape from the peaceful gardens to the faraway sea.

    • Line 3: The river is specifically introduced here, the only time its name is mentioned. The name Alph may be an allusion to the Greek river Alpheus. This connects us to a whole world of classical literature, art and history that was important to English poets.
    • Lines 21-22: Here the river surges up in a huge fountain, and it's so strong that it tears up pieces of rock and throws them along with it. The speaker wants us to understand this power, so he uses a simile, comparing the rocks to "rebounding hail." For added emphasis, he offers another simile in the next line. This time the comparison is with the process of "threshing." When you harvest a grain like wheat, you need to separate the part you can eat from the part that covers it, which is called the chaff (that's why he calls the grain "chaffy" in line 22). In Coleridge's time, you would do this by beating the grain with a tool called a "flail." This would loosen the chaff and make it easy to remove. So when you hit that grain, it would bounce and tumble around like the rocks in the raging River Alph.
    • Line 25:This poem has little moments of alliteration all over the place, but this is a big one. All the major words in this line start with "m." The murmuring sound of these words picks up the lazy, slow-moving feeling of the river at this moment in the poem.

    The Ocean

    When it shows up in the poem, the ocean is a gloomy, mysterious and far-away place. Nothing in particular happens there, except that it marks the end of the river. It's a dead-end, a place where there is no life or light. The other settings in the poem tend to be active and alive. The forest is sunny, the river is noisy, the dome is warm, even the caves are deep and icy. The ocean, however is just an empty, open space. It might make us think a little bit of the Underworld, a place where things simply end.

    • Line 5: Our first image of the ocean emphasizes the absence of light. It's a place where no sun shines, far away from the "sunny spots" we will see in line 11. The alliteration of the two "s" sounds also adds to the sense of mystery and emptiness, and gives this short line a slithery, sinister, sound.
    • Line 28: Here it is the absence of life that becomes the most important part of this image of the ocean.
    • Line 32: In this line, the ocean is a blank canvas. The shadow of the palace floats on it, but we don't have any sense that it has a life of its own.

    Xanadu – a.k.a. The Pleasure Dome

    This might sound a little more exciting than it really is. As far as we can tell, it just means a big, especially nice palace, with pretty gardens all around it. The dome is a safe, sunny, happy place. In the poem, it stands for all the majesty and the triumph of mankind, since it's the house of an emperor. However, when it is compared to the power and the immensity of nature, it might not seem so big after all.

    • Line 1: This is the only time the name of the palace is mentioned. This dream version of Xanadu is an allusion to a real historical place, built as a summer palace in what is now called Inner Mongolia. Marco Polo visited it, starting a legend that filtered all the way down to Samuel Coleridge in England.
    • Line 2: Let's talk for a second about this "dome." What are we supposed to see in our heads when Coleridge uses that word? We'd guess that it's not meant to be just a dome hovering in space or an empty shell. The dome is his way of referring to the legendary palace of Xanadu. When you use one feature of a thing to refer to the whole, that's called metonymy.
    • Line 31-32: This comes up in a few places, but here the dome is a symbol for the work of mankind, set against the natural world. The "shadow of the dome…on the waves" contrasts a building with the wild, unknowable power of nature - a major theme in this poem.

    The Caverns

    The caverns are huge, frightening, cold, and fascinating to our speaker. They appear in the poem for just a moment at first, as the place the river passes through. As things move along, however, we start to see that these caverns are important in this poem. They are the opposite of the warm, happy palace. They are dramatic, freezing, underground, and represent everything the pleasure dome is not.

    • Line 4: The phrase, "caverns measureless to man," is a good example of hyperbole. The speaker could say that the caverns are "really deep" or "you can't see the bottom." Instead, the depth of the caverns is exaggerated to an infinite point, adding to the feeling of mystery. In the real world, any cavern could eventually be measured, no matter how deep. So what and where are these strange caves?
    • Line 27: Here we see the caverns again, described in exactly the same way: "measureless to man." The repetition of this phrase emphasizes their importance and drives home their sense of mystery and depth.
    • Line 47: When they are contrasted with the sunny dome like this, the caves of ice becomes a symbol of the forces of nature that lie under and surround the works of man. We keep mentioning this because Coleridge keeps pushing it into view. The clash of these forces is one of the main points of this vision.

    The Woman and Her Demon Lover

    This one comes and goes fast, but it's a really powerful image. The line calls up feelings of supernatural power, romance and excitement. A waning moon and the spooky chasm all help set a scene that is wilder and more foreign than what we've already seen in the poem.

    • Line 16: There could be a whole other poem or even a novel in here, built around the image of this wailing woman. We get just a taste of the drama of her story, but it helps to set the mood of this landscape. Check out the way that adding the word "demon" changes and deepens this image. If she was just wailing for a plain old "lover," that would be sad, but not nearly so strange and exciting.
    • Sex Rating

      G

      There may not be any sex here, but there are plenty of disturbing images. What about all the intense imagery, and the "fast thick pants" and the Abyssinian maid, and the story about all the opium it took for Coleridge to write this? If this was a movie, we're just not sure we'd be comfortable taking little kids.

    • Shout Outs

      Literature, Philosophy, and Mythology

      • River Alph (line 3)
      • Abyssinia (line 39)

      Historical References

      • Xanadu (line 1)
      • Kubla Khan (title, line 1, line 29)