This is a work in progress line by line study of Kubla Khan (Or, a vision in a dream, A Fragment) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decreee:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Here, with alliterative pairs on each line, we are introduced to a harmonious world. Stately, sacred, measureless. The pleasure dome as cathedral. The sacred river, believed to be a reference to the Greek river Alpheus, connected with sun-worship.
The caverns measureless to man hint at a limitless unconscious. The sunless sea indicates a deep, calm emotional state, perhaps too calm, death .
So twice five miles of sacred ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
The walled and towered gardens indicate beauty under control. We are led through an ancient and peaceful paradise. Man and nature in sacred harmony.
The peace and harmony changes to passion and dynamism in the second stanza..
But oh! that 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!
Sexual, passionate, intense. The depths of longing and emotion.
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the threshers flail:
The dynamism reaches its turbulent climax.
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
At once and ever - here is the panta rhei of Heraclitus. Permament movement and renewal.
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
The poem attains an alliterative apex, and revives the peaceful river. Reminding us of its divinity, evoking a calm day in the countryside.
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
The sunless sea, now a lifeless ocean. Reminding us of the end point of turbulent birth and meandering life: death.
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
Here the poem takes on a more mystical tone, voices of ancestors, prophesy, oncoming war - possibly a reference to the revolt of Nayan in 1287.
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.