Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Summary
Written in 1797, as a result of an opium-induced dream, Kubla Khan was first published in 1816 at the request of Lord Byron. The poem, capturing Coleridge’s magnificent exploitation of the deeper recesses of the human mind, is one of the most memorable poems of the Romantic Period.
Part Wise Summary
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
Summary: Coleridge starts by giving a description of the setting. Kubla Khan orders (decree) a grand (stately), and fanciful palace to be built in Xanadu, where the “sacred river,” “Alph,” running through infinite (measureless) caves (caverns), ends up in a dark (sunless) sea. The palace is surrounded by a fertile area of ten miles (twice five miles), and there are gardens filled with fragrant (incense-bearing) trees, winding streams and ancient “forests” that seem to enfold “sunny” clearings just as walls and towers “girdle” the palace.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
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:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
Summary: However, it is not the stunning dome or its surrounding that tempts the poet; it is rather a mysteriously enchanting canyon (caverns measureless) that goes down a cedar-covered hill (athwart a cedarn cover). Half lit by a “waning moon” it is a sinister place, probably the haunt of an abandoned woman, mourning for her “demon‑lover.” Now, deep inside the chasm, there occurs intense and continuous agitation (ceaseless turmoil), giving the impression as if the earth is breathing fast. The result of this panting (thick pants), is a “mighty fountain” that erupts carrying along gigantic boulders (Huge fragments), much like springing back “hail” or grains that bounce when they are beaten to separate the chaff from it. The “sacred river” thrown out of the fountain, flows in bends (meandering) for about five miles through thickets, valleys and “measureless” caves and falls with a lot of clamor into an inky ocean. And, it is amidst such commotion (tumult), that Kubla Khan hears his forefather’s foretelling war.
Having hinted at a proposed intention, the narration reverts to the description of the “pleasure dome.” It is a “miracle” of opposing features with domes flooded with sunlight and “caves of ice” down below. As its shadow falls on the ocean, it gets reflected and seems to move (float) “on the waves,” in the middle of the river.
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.
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,
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.
Summary: In part three, Coleridge takes an abrupt turn; he starts describing a vision he has had of an Ethiopian (Abyssinian) girl, who by playing a “dulcimer” had sung about an imaginary place called “Mount Abora.” The poet fervently wishes to revive that music so that the profound pleasure (deep delight), it would bestow, would inspire him to built a similar “dome in air.” And everyone who can hear the “loud and long” music would be able to see the “sunny dome” too. However, it is through the particular exclamation of warning, (Beware! Beware!), that the poet introduces an entirely new character. One the on hand, this figure is awe inspiring with “flashing eyes” and “floating hair,” on the other hand, he is depicted as partaking the privileges enjoyed by Gods (For he on honey-dew hath fed/And drunk the milk of Paradise). This final figure may be the poet himself, who having attained the perfection of the maid’s song and the majestic palace, is determined to bring about great changes in society with the help of his powerful poetry.
It is said that Coleridge, after the publication of the poem, was apologetic to his readers due to its fragmentary nature. However, it is perhaps this very factor that heightens his imaginative exploration, allowing the poem to have multiple interpretations. To understand it better, you may go through the detailed analysis.
- River running down to a sunless sea in Kubla Khan