Kubla Khan, though much known as a Coleridgean poetical work, is no great poem of the rank of his celebrated poems, like Christabel and The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. Nothing of the superb enchantment of Coleridge’s concept of the supernatural, so much important in his poetry, is marked here. Again, the typical didacticism of those poems that indicate the poet’s serious purpose is absent, too, here. In fact, Coleridge does not convey any moral either of God’s creative greatness or of the protection of good men by His messengers, so much evident in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and in Christabel, in Kubla Khan.
Indeed, Kubla Khan is no serious poem of the class of Coleridge’s other celebrated poetical works. This is rather an exhibition of his fancy and artistry, without anything of Coleridgean didacticism. It may well be taken as a collection of images superbly conceived and precisely presented. Of course, incoherence in the conception of the images and their execution is distinct herein.
As a matter of fact, the poem is supposed to be a product of Coleridge’s dream fancy. Sometime in 1798, while, the indisposed poet had fallen asleep, under the effect of possible opium, he had a fanciful dream about the pleasure dome, erected by the Mongolian ruler Kubla Khan and its surroundings. Awakening from his slumber, the poet tried to write down the verse based on his dream impression, but not complete the project as he had been interrupted by a visitor and he could not recall the rest of his dream after the departure of the person concerned. That was the background of the composition of the poem and might have been the cause of the lack of coherence in its two parts.
Of course, it is to be noted here that Coleridge’s dream poem had some base work from his reading, especially an account given in the Elizabethan work, ‘Purchase-His Pilgrimage‘, published in 1625. There were possibly some other works to which the poet might have been indebted.
What is, however, more interesting about the poem is its theme. This is simply about some magnificent natural sites presented by the poet in connection with his reference to the erection of a stately ‘pleasure-dome’ at Kubla’s capital Xanadu’. The poet is found to draw lively images to represent the entire environment and in this connection some of his pictures, such as the course of the sacred river Alph (Alphus): “Where Alph, the sacred river running through measureless caverns to fall into the sunless sea may be mentioned. There are also the images of the gardens of Kubla Khan brightened with “sinuous rills” and incensed with sweet blooming blossoms: ” And there were…..spots of greenery.” There are some such pictures like the “green hill, lying” ‘athwart a cedarn cover’ and also the mighty fountain emerging out like a rebounding hail: ‘Huge fragments… thresher’s flower.’ Such images are superb and bear out the grandeur of Coleridgean’s image-making.
Of course, consistency and coherence may be lacking in these images. After all, as the mere recollection of his dream the poet’s images could not have necessary links, and as such incoherence has become evident in them. But in the second part of the poem, that is connected with the first one. Coleridge’s imagery appears to be more incoherent. It is a rare fit of fancy that presents the shadow of the dome of pleasure floated midway on the waves or of a sunny pleasure-dome with the caves of ice.
As a matter of fact, it is the Coleridgean imagery that constitutes mainly the charm of the poem and invests it with the romantic enchantment that is so much present in his poetry. But the enchantment of ‘Kubla Khan’ is definitely different from what is noted in The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner or Christabel charged with the supernatural of the romantic suspension of disbelief. Coleridge’s enchantment here is of rare fancies and visions and their simple and straight presentation. The enchantment of the poem is somewhat puzzling because this seems to be made of loose fragments of private experience and not of a universal human realization.
Indeed, the poem is exclusively the poet’s private experience, and may well be taken as a product of what is called psychological curiosity. It is no complete or comprehensive work, “but rather incoherent, brilliantly conceived patchwork of art, aimless, though magnificent” as seen the scenic beauty
“And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”