Kubla Khan by S. T. Coleridge Questions and Answers
- What type of a poem is ‘Kubla Khan’? or What delving into the human mind does Coleridge bring about in ‘Kubla Khan’?
Ans. Samuel Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan is a metaphorical journey through a complex labyrinth of symbols and images that represent the unconscious and seemingly troubled mind. It is a voyage that continually spirals downward toward uncharted depths, while illustrating the unpredictable battle between the conscious and the unconscious that exists inside every individual. Moreover, the poem appears to follow a dreamlike sequence past numerous, vivid images that are mainly artificial recreations of the narrator’s (most likely Coleridge’s) previous thoughts and experiences.
- Why is the poem called a fragment? or Comment upon the fragmentary nature of the poem.
Ans. Kubla Khan is predominantly a mosaic of fragments of thoughts and incomplete themes and the poetic material perpetually escapes Coleridge’s full attention, while the poem simultaneously contains profound gushes of documented creativity. One is led to believe that this continual tension between recorded and unrecorded poetic thought creates the unique narrative sequence and the mysterious, disturbing quality that embodies Coleridge’s story of Kubla Khan. Moreover, these various fragments all combine to instill a sense of ambiguity throughout the poem. In a sense, as the poem progresses, the audience discovers further and more troublesome questions regarding its message and its implications. The audience, perhaps, even begins to wonder if there are, indeed, absolute answers or whether Coleridge consciously intended to create an unresolved poem.
- Comment upon the syntax and pattern of the poem.
Although there is no consistent syntax, rhyme, or meter in Kubla Khan, the poem begins its journey through the mind in a conscious and calculating manner. The first four lines of the poem, in fact, appear to almost directly derive from a passage of Purchas’s Pilgrimage, as the narrative voice slowly drifts into a dreamlike state. Coleridge’s paraphrasing of a relatively accessible, published piece of literature seems to provide the narrator with a solid foundation to build his seemingly inaccessible poem upon.
- Comment upon the fifth line: “down to the sunless sea”
Ans. The fifth line, however, is marked by an indentation. The words down to the sunless sea” appear to initiate an abrupt drop into the unconscious and away from the character Kubla. There is an initial sense of natural mysticism and Eastern tranquility among the gardens bright with sinuous rills” and a vibrant, “incense-bearing tree” in this scene of fertile greenery.
- What does the colour ‘green’ signify?
Ans. Interestingly, the color green, uniquely, exists on a dual level, as it is able to convey the vitality of life and vegetation, while simultaneously conveying an undertone of fear, jealousy, ill humor, and sickness that most likely dominates Coleridge’s own subconscious thoughts and soul” green as emerald. This abundant greenery, however, is soon met by a romantic chasm” that ironically, is described as savage and haunted.
- What turmoil of the unconscious mind is presented in the second stanza?
Ans. After the narrator’s initial description of the majestic setting of unconscious thought, the second stanza is dominated by the “ceaseless turmoil” that exists within the deeper layers of unconscious mind. As the metaphorical journey continues, the mind seems to habitate “beneath a waning moon” and is gravely disturbed by “a woman wailing for her demon lover!” Underneath this foreboding shadow of the moon, this haunting image of the wailing woman implies the presence of unconscious desire and loss and conflict that perpetually wails inside the mind.
- What image is portrayed by “a woman wailing for her demon lover!”?
Ans. As the metaphorical journey continues, the mind seems to habitate “beneath a waning moon” and is gravely disturbed by a woman wailing for her demon lover!” Underneath this foreboding shadow of the moon, this haunting image of the wailing woman implies the presence of unconscious desire and loss and conflict that perpetually wails inside the mind.
- How is mother Earth personified in the poem?
Ans. The narrator personifies the Earth’s existence, describing it as though this earth in fast thick pants were breathing”. The Earth and Nature herself appear to be in peril amid the unconscious mind. Moreover, they seem to both parallel the wailing woman, as all three appear to uneasily gasp for life throughout this period of “ceaseless turmoil” and finally the Earth heaves and gasps until there is an explosion
- What does the ‘mighty fountain’ symbolize?
Ans. The narrator observes that soon a “mighty fountain” appeared that in a “swift half-intermitted burst” propelled “huge fragments…like rebounding hail”. Symbolically, this fountain seems to represent the haunted, violent, and sporadic inspiration that raptures upward from the unconscious. Interestingly, the narrator describes this inspiration as rebounding.”Perhaps, in an attempt to illustrate that undetected or uncontrollable inspiration is almost immediately lost, and therefore, symbolically returns to the depths of the unconscious from which it arose in a sort of ongoing creative cycle.
- Why does Coleridge change the cyclic nature of imagery into linear?
Ans. The cyclic imagery in Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ abruptly turns linear as the narrator fixes his attention upon the “mazy motion of the “sacred river”. Although the river appears to meander, the audience assumes that it flows in a single direction, and may in fact, represent the sacred pathway through the mind.
- What is the significance of the almost repetitive couplet in the 26th and 27th lines?
Ans. In this predominantly unsymmetrical poem, the twenty-sixth and twenty-seventh lines are a couplet and a near repetition of a previous couplet in the first stanza. One is led to believe that this chorus of “through wood and dale the sacred river and the reached the caverns measureless to man”, represents the unconscious, yet progressing, mind as it returns to previous thoughts. Moreover, the mind’s sacred pathway through the unconscious seems to return almost to itself during its forward progression as the river’s natural flow returns to points it has already conquered.
- How does the river’s journey end and what does it symbolize?
Ans. In ‘Kubla Khan’, almost ironically, the “sacred river” empties into a lifeless ocean” and a seemingly “sunless sea”. The narrator clearly implies that the river’s lengthy and detailed and perilous journey merely ends in nothingness and death. Symbolically, this image seems to represent that the detailed and creative processes of the mind are forever lost, as they gradually empty into lifelessness. One is led to believe that the narrator is metaphorically describing the perpetual loss of poetic inspiration and creation, similar to the uncontrolled, “rebounding hail” of line 21.
- Why does Kubla hear ancestral voices prophesying war”?
Ans. In the concluding section of the poem Kubla returns and is found hearing voices from the past. Kubla’s reappearance and this notion of ancestral voices” seem to imply the impact that past experiences and contacts have upon the unconscious mind. In this sense, the past maintains a vital and prophetic role in the unconscious mind, as it seems to predict turmoil through ongoing conversation and foreboding warnings. Moreover, this line also illustrates the various relationships that exist between cause and effect, as well as history and the present. This echoing of the past – much like the echoing of the chorus – seems to represent the echoing of the past within the unconscious psyche, as both seem to continually search for a sense of grounding and consistency amid this “ceaseless turmoil of the otherwise unconscious. The unconscious, it appears, is never fully able to liberate itself from the mind’s memories of the past.
- What is the peculiarity of the 3rd stanza of the poem?
Ans. The third stanza, similar to the fifth line of the poem, is indented and dissimilar from the majority of the poem. The stanza begins in the form of a miniature sonnet, as the first four lines alternate in rhyme and then conclude with a couplet. This miniature sonnet, moreover creates an eerie symmetry amid the poem’s overall chaotic structure, as it mystically intertwines the images of the pleasure dome, the waves, the fountains, and the caves. However, the couplet introduces a problematic image that mysteriously haunts the remainder of the poem – the “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”
- Comment: “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”
In Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ the problematic and seemingly illogical description of the pleasure-dome is the first truly ambiguous image that the audience encounters within the poem. The audience is led to wonder what this sunny, yet icy, “pleasure-dome” actually represents. Perhaps, it represents the structure of the mind, as the ‘sunny exterior represents conscious thought and the icy caves’ represent the unnavigable passages of the unconscious. Or perhaps it represents the perfect, sublime poem, as it dually possesses a ‘sunny,’ brilliant structure and a mysterious depth that reaches into the ‘icy caves’ of unconceivable truth. Finally, one is led to wonder if this “pleasure-dome” represents two, contrasting sources of poetic inspiration. The ground beneath the dome symbolically represents interior, if not unconscious, inspiration – a combination of fountains with their explosive and spontaneous inspiration and icy caves with their deep and disturbing proximity to the unconscious. The “sunny pleasure-dome “then, would conversely illustrate external inspiration that would primarily derive from the sublime, natural beauty of Nature.
- What does the damsel with the dulcimer symbolize?
Ans. The damsel with the dulcimer is perhaps a representation of exterior inspiration for the narrator. Mysteriously, the damsel is reminiscent of the wailing woman of the second stanza, as both women reside in the narrator’s past visions. This “vision of the damsel seems to exist as a past, sublime memory and as a pleasure that has slipped away. Moreover, the damsel represents a pleasure that the narrator wished that he could “revive” because he believes that it would “win” him a deep delight”. For, the narrator declares that he wants to perfectly record “her symphony and song”.
- What is meant by “Beware, beware! / his flashing eyes, his floating hair!…”?
Ans. There has been much debate with respect to these “flashing eyes, and one can logically argue that the glittering within the eyes may, in fact, represent the fantastical undertones of Romanticism in general. Or perhaps, the man’s internal and prophetic madness is emerging through his eyes, much as the “rebounding hail” emerged from the fountain in the second stanza. On a more basic level, however, the audience is led to wonder: who is this man? Perhaps he is the source of the ancestral voices prophesying war” and turmoil within the mind (30). Or perhaps, the audience is imagining the external characteristics and qualities of the man whose mind the entire poem is exploring. Is Kubla Khan actually exploring Coleridge’s mind, and therefore, is this man Coleridge himself? By this point within the poem, however, the ambiguity has increased to such an amount that the audience is no longer able to reach any firm conclusions.
- Comment: “weave a circle round him thrice”.
Ans. It is the increasing and uncontrollable bursts of ambiguity that leads the audience to want to “weave a circle round him thrice,” as they have become irrevocably traumatized by this mad representation of the unconscious truth that the poem is attempting to discover. The audience appears to justify their desire to “weave a circle or a sort of safety net around this man as a means to protect themselves from the traumatizing appearance of unconsciousness itself. This attempt, however, appears unsuccessful, as the audience can only offer the instruction -“close your eyes with holy dread”.
- What do the concluding lines of the poem imply?
Ans. The concluding lines of the poem seem to imply that the audience is not only fearing unfathomable truth, but also, the effects that Original Sin have upon the individual. It appears that although this man has “on honey-dew hath fed/ and drank the milk of paradise,” he was not able to elevate himself from the Hellish elements within the icy caves of unconscious truth Although, the “honey-dew” and “the milk of paradise” alludes to the mythological nectar that nourished the Greek and Roman gods, it cannot save the man from these horrific consequences. One is led to question is the audience actually describing Adam after the Fall, and therefore, is the audience actually expressing their own fear of a fearful God? If so, must all men continually live amid this perpetual barrage of truth and turmoil that boils within every man’s unconscious as a result of this Original Sin?