Study Guide

Kubla Khan Quotes

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  • Versions of Reality

    "a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment" (subtitle)

    This line is really a part of the poem. Think about how at the end of a cheesy movie someone will wake up and say "It was all a dream!" Well, that's what Coleridge does here, except he starts off like that. We know right away that the world we are stepping into is an alternate version of reality. Even though it contains some parts of the real world, it won't always look and feel the same.

    "Ancestral voices prophesying war!" (line 30)

    There isn't just one dream going on here either - there are all kinds of layers in this poem. Kubla (who might be a ghost) hears the voices of his ancestors in the river. It's a vivid image - you can almost hear the shouting and the clanking and the stomping of those Mongol hordes. These guys conquered all of Asia and some of Europe in just a few decades. They must have been terrifying. So we've already got a strange dream of Xanadu going on, and now there's another dream of the armies of Genghis Khan nested inside of it.

    "In a vision once I saw" (line 38)

    When did he have this vision? Is this the vision in the dream he was talking about? It seems like this must be yet another vision. The dulcimer-playing maiden appears in a strange way, and seems to belong to another story entirely. So we have dreams and visions and hallucinations all fighting for space in this poem. See why alternate versions of reality are such a big deal here?

    "His flashing eyes, his floating hair!" (line 50)

    This is the last and most intriguing vision. The speaker dreams he could sing this creature into existence. The dream is turning into a nightmare pretty quickly. It's hard to pin down exactly what we're seeing here. Is this some new vision of Kubla, now ready for war? This person or thing seems to be some kind of god, and whatever is happening with these eyes and this hair, we think it sounds like bad news. This is the part of the dream where you wake yourself up and go have some cookies and milk. Or, you write a poem about it, if you're Coleridge.

  • Man and the Natural World

    "A stately pleasure dome decree" (line 2)

    This dome is the most important symbol of civilization in the poem. It is the image of safety, peace, and order. The speaker returns to this image throughout the poem. We don't learn much about what it looks like, but we know that domes are symmetrical and strong, and that they shelter us from the weather. In other words, the dome is everything that the chasm, the river, the caverns, and the ocean are not.

    "Through caverns measureless to man" (line 4)

    We could have picked any number of natural spaces out of this poem, but this one seems like the most important, and the one that returns the most often. The caverns are a symbol of everything in nature that we can't understand or dominate. These caverns are dark, mysterious, and full of secrets. The speaker emphasizes all these points, and underlines the difference between man and nature, when he says the caverns are "measureless to man." They are beyond our reckoning; they cannot be controlled by our science.

    "Through wood and dale the sacred river ran" (line 26)

    Again, this is just one of many examples of nature in this poem. At this point the river is quiet and harmonious. It isn't throwing up boulders or crashing into the sea. Even though it is outside the dome, it is called the "sacred river." It is part of nature, but humans have a relationship with it. There's a long history of people creating a relationship with nature by worshipping it. Here the idea recalls the Greeks, who had sacred relationships with rivers, streams, and springs.

    "That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!" (47)

    This recurring image cements the contrast between what man makes and what nature creates. By describing the dome as sunny and warm and the caves as cold and icy, Coleridge finds yet another way emphasize the difference between man and nature. But here, we see a harmonious juxtaposition of man and nature: the combined effect seems to delight our speaker. Nature and man work together to make a beautiful study in contrasts.

  • Time

    "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan" (line 1)

    When does this poem take place? Here we seem to be in the past, when the actual Kubla Khan built his palace, in the 13th century. The dream mentioned in the subtitle is happening in the present, though, and it's an experience that the speaker is having. Later it seems that he is looking into the future. We aren't looking for one answer here, but keep an eye on the way in which this poem marks the passage of time.

    "Ancestral voices prophesying war!" (line 30)

    The idea of history keeps coming up here. In this line Kubla, who is in the past, is remembering an even deeper past. But the people in the past are "prophesying" or imagining the future. Confused? That seems like part of the idea. In a vision or a dream, time can take on strange twists, and appear to be different from what we are used to.

    "In a vision once I saw" (line 38)

    Here the "once" tells us that we are moving into a new time frame. This is a big shift for the poem. We were dealing with one vision, and now we've got another one on our hands. Keep an eye on these time changes, since they are important markers.

    "I would build that dome in air" (line 46)

    Here we step solidly into the future, when the speaker makes his own prophecy and imagines what he might be able to do in the future. It's still an impossible dream, but time has shifted here too.

  • Art and Culture

    "was heard the mingled measure" (line 33)

    "Measure" is a very rhythmic, musical idea. The phrase "mingled measure" turns the different sounds of the river into a complicated piece of music. It gives us the sense that all that roaring and crashing comes together to make a kind of harmony. In this poem, music comes from nature just as much as it does from mankind.

    "A damsel with a dulcimer" (line 37)

    This is the first place where music is specifically mentioned in the poem. Having that dulcimer lets us know that the speaker's dream of this damsel is filled with sound. He's not just seeing her, but also hearing her play and sing. Like we saw with the mingled measure, music has been under the surface in this poem, and now it rises to the top.

    "Her symphony and song" (line 43)

    Here the speaker tells us that he wants to bring back the vision of the damsel. But what he misses is not her words. In fact he barely tells us what she said, except that she was singing about some mountain that we don't recognize. What he misses is the feeling of the music. When you hear a symphony, you don't get specific information in the form of something you could write down or describe. You get a mood, a series of feelings that touch more than your brain. This is what Coleridge is trying to do with this poem, to give you the emotion of the vision as much as a description of what is in it.

    "with music loud and long" (line 45)

    Finally he imagines that the damsel could inspire him to perform his own magical, piece of music. This song would build Xanadu again, and bring Kubla Khan back to life, more amazing and terrifying than ever? Is that piece of music the same as this poem? He doesn't quite say that, but maybe it's moving in that direction.