Kubla Khan by Coleridge: Analysis and Summary

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  • 0:42 Writing the Poem
  • 3:58 A Person from Porlock
  • 5:41 The Poem: Stanza 1
  • 7:11 The Poem: Stanza 2
  • 9:32 The Poem: Stanza 3
  • 10:43 The Poem: Stanza 4
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this lesson, you'll learn about Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan. It's a poem that's as famous for how it was written, a story involving drugs and a mysterious interruption, as the work itself.

Introduction to Kubla Khan

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree

Hello, I was just reciting Kubla Khan, which was one of the most beloved Romantic poems of all time. Not only is it awesome, but there's an awesome story of how it was made. But remember through all of this - drugs are bad. Don't do this. Coleridge did it and it worked out great, but it didn't actually work out great for him in the end. It just worked out great that he wrote this poem.

Writing the Poem

So, drugs might make you write a poem like Kubla Khan, but they'll also do lots of other horrible things to you. In Coleridge's time, it was super popular for doctors to prescribe opium for everything. If you have a headache... opium! If you're depressed...opium! If you're getting something amputated...probably opium. Doctors didn't really understand that it had the potential to really get you seriously addicted to it. Coleridge would develop a really bad addiction by the end of his life.

In 1797, Coleridge was still just a recreational user. As you might learn if you take a psychology course, Coleridge was just abusing drugs but he wasn't dependent on them yet. Because drug abuse is totally fine...not! Not at all. But he was reading a book about Xanadu, which is strange to me because there was a house at my college called Xanadu and I was horrified to learn that even the people who lived in it had no idea that it was the location of Kubla Khan's summer palace. Okay, I was just horrified that they didn't wonder about it; I had to look that up on Wikipedia, but it really is a dorm that you could live in...

Anyway, Coleridge was reading about Marco Polo's journey to Xanadu. Yep, that Marco Polo. That's where Kubla Khan, who was the grandson of the Mongol conqueror, Genghis Khan, set up shop to rule China from this place. He got really into it; Kubla Khan got really into ruling China but Coleridge got really into reading about Kubla Khan.

Then he took some opium, as he was wont to do, and he went to sleep. He had some really cool dreams. Later on, these dreams would become nightmares; when he was in the dependent stage of his drug problem, his dreams were not good. But for now, they were awesome. So, he had this wonderful dream about Xanadu, about Kubla Khan's summer palace. He claimed that he composed a complete 200-300-line poem about Xanadu all in his sleep. Then he got up and started writing it.

It's kind of like if you're out partying with friends, and one of your friends (not you, of course) gets really messed up and spends an hour talking about his crazy plan to build a Taco Bell on the moon. You know, it's crazy, definitely. He's thinking outside the bun, but he also has this incredibly fleshed out thing in his head.

The same thing happens to Coleridge. The problem is when he wakes up, he only gets about three stanzas in until he's interrupted by a mysterious person from Porlock, which makes him forget the rest of it and then he has to stop. That would be kind of like your drunk friend deciding that instead of putting a Taco Bell on the moon, he just wanted to go get some Taco Bell because he kind of gets interrupted, which happens all too often.

Coleridge gets interrupted, doesn't finish it, and shelves the poem for nearly 20 years thinking it's not good enough and it's not complete. But then a friend found it and pushed him to publish it, and he included it in his collection from 1816, Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep.

A Person from Porlock

As for that person from Porlock who interrupted him and made him forget the rest of the poem, he's actually one of literature's greatest mysteries. No one really knows who it was. Porlock is just a village in England, near where Coleridge was living at the time.

But since Kubla Khan has become such a significant poem that everyone is, rightfully, really into, this person from Porlock has kind of risen in stature because he's theoretically the reason why it's not longer and even better and more glorious.

Some people think that it might have been Coleridge's doctor, who was prescribing him the opium in the first place. That'd be a bit ironic. Some people think that Coleridge just made the whole thing up. It's like, 'Oh, yeah, my essay is going to be 10 pages long. I dreamed it all out, but then the person from Porlock ate 9 pages of it.' Sure. F. It might just be all a myth.

Still, this Porlock figure - the interrupter of creativity - gets referenced all over the place. He come up in Lolita; a person checks into a hotel under the pseudonym A. Person, Porlock, England. It comes up all over the place always as this symbol. He also has a Facebook page and a Twitter page. It's always as this symbol of interrupted creativity. So, a side legacy of the Kubla Khan poem is this reference to this mysterious figure.

That's a lot of background on the poem but it's interesting stuff. Now we're going to get to the poem itself, which as you might remember, is a lot shorter than it should have been so it should go pretty quickly.

The Poem: Stanza 1

It begins with a description of Xanadu, which again is Kubla Khan's summer capital. It's a stately pleasure-dome (those are the lines that I read in the very beginning), which basically means a fancy palace. Coleridge describes its walls and towers…girdled round, its gardens bright with sinuous rills and forests as ancient as the hills. It sounds pretty plush and pretty great.

We also learn about where Xanadu is:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

This is notable because although Xanadu is a real place, there is no Alph river. It does not exist. Coleridge made it up. This is interesting because he's kind of openly saying that while Xanadu is real, it's a place of his imagination; he's kind of re-making it in his head. Imagination is a key element or key idea for Romantic poetry - this idea of recreating things in the mind and the artist's imagination. So, he's really calling attention to that with this inclusion of this fictional river.

There's also an interesting dichotomy here: between the positive, warm images of Xanadu, all those gardens bright, incense-bearing trees and whatnot, and then the outside world, with has caverns measureless and sunless sea.

There's clearly a hierarchy here; there's nice things on the inside and there's nasty things on the outside.

The Poem: Stanza 2

So, then we get to Stanza 2 where Coleridge seems entranced by the landscape outside of Xanadu and the river that runs through it. He describes it as:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e'er beneath waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

In those three lines, we got three important facets of Romantic poetry: imagination celebrated, nature and mysticism.

The Romantic poet's awe of the majesty and power of nature you can see throughout this stanza and those lines and also in these next lines when he's describing this river.

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

Look at all those strong, dramatic words: chasm, ceaseless, turmoil. It's is not a lazy stream; it's not like the lazy river at the water park. It's kind of this fantastic, almost impossibly theatrical river.

The second stanza ends with a turn. We follow this river down to that lifeless ocean and then we learn:

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The poem is supposedly about Kubla Khan and not just the natural world.
Kubla Khan

We're all caught up in this amazing river; there are all these words describing how great it was, but, then we realize that this poem is supposedly about Kubla Khan and not just about the natural world. But that's an interesting thing; a lot of it is about the natural world, which is a Romantic trope that Kubla Khan is sort of represented and kind of shoved aside in favor for these images of nature.

Just a quick reminder, he is Genghis Khan's kid. He ruled in the 13th century mainly and he wasn't really renowned for peace. He had lots of war. That's those voices prophesying war. That's what they're talking about.

The Poem: Stanza 3

Then we get to Stanza 3 and this is a weird little segment where Coleridge brings back the juxtaposed images of Xanadu and the surrounding natural scenes:

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