Study Guide

Kubla Khan Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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.