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Kubla Khan and Its Relation to Romanticism

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'Kubla Khan,' by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is one of the most enigmatic and ambiguous pieces of literature ever written. Allegedly written after a laudanum (an opiate) induced dream, the author claims to have been planning a two hundred to three hundred line poem before he got interrupted by a 'man from Porlock,' after which he had forgotten nearly all of his dream. This may have been merely an excuse, and the poem was scorned at the time for having no poetic value, one critic even going so far as to call it 'more a musical composition than a poem.' This is partly true, as the language seems to strive for an aural beauty more than a literary beauty, although it accomplishes both. Like many great artists, Coleridge has been most appreciated after his death, when his radically different works could be justified, as the ideas presented in his works hadn't been popular during his life. Coleridge's philosophy in life was very romantic, and so nearly all of his poems exemplify the romantic ideal, especially Kubla Khan. This romantic poem uses brilliant imagery and metaphors to contrast the ideals of romantic paganism with often ingratious Christianity.

The vision of paganism is the first idea introduced in the poem. The super-natural reference to 'Alph,' or Alpheus as it is historically known, 'the sacred river, [which] ran/ Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea,' begins this pagan theme by referring to an underground river that passed through dimensions that could not be understood by any man, and then emptying into an underground sea. This also introduces an idea of the lack of human understanding that recurs at the end of the poem, one of the common elements that tie the poem's seemingly two-part separate structure together. Xanadu's walls enclosed 'gardens bright with sinuous rills.' These gardens represent the Garden of Eden, or a natural paradise on Earth. The degree of nature in this paradise is such that, although it is a biblical reference, it is still connected to pagan and romantic ideals. The 'sinuous rills' flowing through this garden can be taken as two different metaphors. The word 'rills' can mean either a stream or a valley on the moon. The moon is seen as the source of all creativity in romantic idealism, and so this first metaphor is significant in the poem. The lunar reference's antithesis comes at the end of the stanza, when it speaks of 'forests ancient as the hills,/ Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.' This reference to the sun contrasts with the valleys on the moon. The second metaphor is that of the snake in the Garden of Eden. The word sinuous implies snakelike, and the connection of these small tributaries to the river Alph shows that they are lustful, tempting, and bring about the destruction of those that offend paradise. These qualities are shared with the Snake from the Garden of Eden and the River Alph (as will soon be seen). The Garden of Eden idea is further shown with the description of the

...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!

(lines 12-16)

Coleridge uses syntax to exaggerate his emotion in the description of the 'chasm' with his use of an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence in line 14. The author is barely able to contain himself, so 'romantic' this chasm is, and so his sentence climaxes before it is even finished, then climaxes again at the end. This builds intensity until the eruption of the chasm that follows. The woman here is Eve, and she is 'wailing' for the source of her desires, literally her demon lover, but figuratively the apple that got her kicked out of Eden. This connects her to the dome, which is also offending paradise, and this wailing is what seems to set off the chasm and become the dome's and (presumably) her demise. The idea of this material dome of pleasure floating above paradise is reminiscent of a sort of inverted Tower of Babylon, where, instead of building up to reach paradise, the dome, and therefore Kubla Khan, is attempting to reach it from above. Simultaneously, the dome is mocking Heaven, a synonym for paradise, as the dome is a common symbol representing the heavens. This angers nature, and it attacks the dome with the river and the fountain from the chasm. The river Alph is directly related to the Greek god Alpheus, who was the river god. According to Greek mythology, a pagan belief, the god Alpheus had fallen in love with Arethusa, the daughter of Nereus and a Hesperides. The Hesperides' are a type of nymph whom tend to a beautiful garden, or paradise, of unknown location. Alpheus took the nymph to Sicily, where Artemis, the god of childbirth and chastity, turned Arethusa into a fountain, so that the two could make love by mingling their waters. The mingling of their waters is occurring in this chasm, where the 'mighty fountain' of Arethusa is located. To further this image of sex in nature, which Coleridge loved so much and was a large part of the romantic and pagan idea, the chasm is very much likened to a vagina, with its 'cedarn cover' like pubic hair, and its 'romantic' nature, which could mean either relating to romanticism or romance, both of which could have sexual implications. With 'fast thick pants,' the fountain bursts up and the chasm spews out 'dancing rocks' like 'chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail.' Coleridge uses syntax to emphasize the excitement of the climax by not using a comma between the words 'fast' and 'thick.' This speeds up the narration and sends the reader into a state of heart-pounding excitement and elation, showing that the destruction of the dome is a good thing. The choice of diction with the 'dancing rocks' comes to the same effect. These rocks are described as 'chaffy grain,' relating the fragments to the figurative semen, or seed, that the river is spewing out. In this destructive orgy paradise's wrath is invoked upon the dome, which is knocked down into the river and swept into the caves at it's end to rest in the 'lifeless ocean' (line 28). Both the sex in the chasm and the dome entering the caverns before sinking into the sea present the idea of convex and concave. This juxtaposition of a protruding object with a hole or depressed object adds to the two-part structure of the poem, and



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