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Kubla Khan was published in 1816 with a preface that explained the story of its conception. The story of the composition of the poem is infamous and rivals the popularity of the poem itself. Coleridge explains that in 1797 he was reading the story of Kubla Khan in his farm house in the English countryside. While reading Purchas's Pilgrimage" he fell into a deep sleep because of the affects of a prescribed anodyne on account of a slight indisposition. This is actually a euphemism for opium, of which Coleridge had an addiction. He fell asleep at the very moment he was reading about how Kubla Khan had ordered a great palace to be built with stately gardens. He claims that he spent the next three hours, composing while he slept, a poem of approximately three hundred lines. He woke up and furiously copied down the first three stanzas of his dreamt poem until he was interrupted by a person on business from Porlock. After being detained for an hour he returned to his work but found that he was unable to finish what he had started. The mysterious man from Porlock is the most notorious in Coleridge's biography, no one knows who he was or what he wanted, or even if Coleridge was telling the truth, adding another dimension to this poem.Â
The first few lines of the poem introduce Kubla Khan the ruler of the Mongol Empire in China during the 13th century. His kingdom has been a source of great mystery and wealth ever since Marco Polo first wrote about his travels. Coleridge extends this as throughout the poem he builds a sense of the exotic and mysterious. The first of many contrasts that appear in this poem is introduced in the second line; "A stately pleasure-dome decree." Here the word stately, which conveys a sense of splendour and royalty of Khan's creation, is contrasted with the notion of a pleasure-dome, a place of happiness and relaxation.
Kahn chooses to build his pleasure-dome on a sacred river, which the poet calls Alph. As there is no river that exists by this name, many believe it to refer to the Greek river Alpheus. Moreover, Coleridge chooses to use "Alph" as it is very similar to Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, which is considered to be the beginning of life and language. Further adding to the notion of the river giving life, Coleridge always precedes 'river' with sacred. The poet employs this language to solidify that fact that rivers and water are life-giving therefore; the sacred river is seen as a symbol of life. This emphasis on the life bearing qualities of the river sets up the next contrast within the poem.
The poems second contrast appears as Coleridge describes the river leaving the pleasure dome and entering underground caverns, "Measureless to man". Beyond the reach of human comprehension the ultimate destination of the river is "Down to a sunless sea," a place without sunlight and therefore without life. This description is a complete contrast to earlier impressions of the river.Â
The next lines of the poem provide a representation of landscape of which this work is dominated. This common feature employed by romantic poets is considered to be the symbolic source and keeper of the poetic imagination and Coleridge uses this to great effect. As Coleridge returns to the vivid construction of his kingdom, another contrast is introduced. The man made beauties of the pleasure-dome's gardens are contrasted against ancient forests surrounding his kingdom. "There were gardens brightâ€¦where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree" is juxtaposed against the realm of the wild, untamed nature "here were forests ancient as the hills, enfolding sunny spots of greenery." However, these two contrasts appear to co-exist in harmony with each other, hinting at Coleridge's attempt to resolve the contrasts that exist within Khan's pleasure-dome. Specifically, the contrast between the notion of the Beautiful (the gardens) and that of the Sublime (the ancient forest). Finally, by employing descriptive language that evokes images of colour through words such as bright, blossomed, sunny and greenery. Coleridge further adds to the vivid representation of the magnificent landscape.
Upon reflecting on the opening stanzas of Coleridge's poem it is clear that the language he employs is remarkabley similar to that of the ones he was reading right before he fell into his deep sleep: words which are italicised;"In Xamdu did Cublai Can builde a stately Palace, encompassing sixteene miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant springs, delightful Streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a suptuous house of pleasure."(Norton 3432)
Then all of a sudden on one of the green hills, a chasm, a deep crack develops and runs downward through a thicket of cedar trees. This cover has been sheltering or concealing something from sight. An arrangement of adjectives builds to a climatic end as what has been concealed is revealed. The chasm is deep, followed by romantic, with its connection with beauty, landscape and the mysterious. Then Savage, wild and untamed. Followed by holy and enchanted which convey a sense of the pagan and supernatural. Coleridge indicates that this place is haunted, a site visited by women longing or mourning for her demon lover. This relationship between human and demon could be the source of the disaster, similar to that of Eve and the serpent.