Coleridge has said that the poem Kubla Khan would be read as a ‘psychological curiosity’. Critics have described it as ‘vivid incoherence’ and ‘patchwork brilliance’. Livingstone Lowes has called the second part of the poem “aimless as it is magnificent.” There is no doubt that there is a dream-like quality in the poem. There is a loose and incoherent cluster of images and this contributes to the atmosphere of dream and enchantment which is the greatest charm of the poem.
The poem, as it stands, presents a meaning consistent with itself and with what is known of Coleridge’s mind. Humphrey House holds that the poem is about the act of poetic creation, about the “ecstasy in imaginative fulfillment.” It is a “triumphant positive statement of the potentialities of poetry”. Wilson Knight reads Kubla Khan as a poem about life and about poetic potentialities. The two parts of the poem are related to each other indicating the marvel of the art of the poem and the poetic process of the creation of that marvel.
The opening stanza gives the ideal landscape with clarity and precision. In the center is the pleasure dome with its gardens on the river bank. The sacred river has fertilized the land about ten square miles. The piece of land with streams wandering through bright gardens and ancient forests enclosing bright green spots presents a scene of rich profusion. The fertility of the plain is made possible by the mysterious energy of the source. The river’s origin blends romantic, sacred, and satanic suggestions. The expressions like ‘ceaseless turmoil’, ‘fast thick pants’, fragments ‘rebounding like hail’, ‘dancing rocks’ create a riotous impression of energy, tumult, and power. The dome and the river represent the conjunction of pleasure and sacredness. The dome and the caves of ice symbolize life and death, sunfire and coldness of inorganic Nature. It is ‘a miracle of rare device’. It points to the resolution of antinomies. ‘The mingled measure’ suggests the blend of oppositions—life and death. The river winds across the whole landscape and disappears into the ‘sunless sea’. Kubla can hear the ‘mingled measure’ of the fountain of the source and the dark caves. It is a symbolic and universal panorama of existence which any great art strives to represent.
In the second part, the poet sees a vision, inspired by the music of a mysterious maiden-the vision of sunlit gardens above and dark caverns below-, an image corresponding, in some degree, to the traditional ideas of Paradise and Hades. The content of the inspired vision is a dome and caves, which the sequence of the poem seems to identify with the previously mentioned pleasure dome on the green hill crowned by blossoming watered gardens, and with the caverns through which the sacred river ran to the sunless sea. The Paradise-Hades archetype is reflected on the very vision of the poet.
The unity of the poem focusses on the transition from the first part to the second, and the keynote is struck in the line :
“Could I revive within me.
Her symphony and song”
The vision of the song would so inspire the poet that he would create in rhythmical poetry the imaginative picture of the dome. It would be so vivid that the people could see them before their eyes. Great poetry is written under inspiration, and great poetry is a vivid imaginative statement of the full panorama of existence, with life and death, creation and annihilation. “Flashing eyes” and “floating hair” are the image of the poet in a poetic frenzy. The poet, in the inspired moments of his creation, is a terrible figure of power, enchantment, and mystery. The real is lost in this dread and what is earthly transcends to his imaginative enchantment.