Kubla Khan as A Imaginative Act of Poetic Creation

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      Kubla Khan is a triumphant positive statement of the potentialities of poetry. How great those potentialities are, is revealed partly in description of its effects at the ending of the second part and partly in the very substance and content of the first.

      The precision and clarity of the opening part are noteworthy even in the order of the landscape. In the center is the pleasure-dome with its gardens on the river bank; to one side is the river's source in the chasm, to the other are the 'caverns measureless to man', and the 'sunless sea' into which the river falls. Kubla in the center can hear the 'mingled measure' of the fountain of the source from one side, and of the dark caves from the other. The river winds across the whole landscape. Nobody needs to keep this mere geographical consistency of the description prominently in the mind as he reads (though once established it remains clear and constant); but if this factual-visual consistency had been absent, and there have been a mere random sequence or collection of items, such as a dream might well have provided then the absence would be noticeable. The poem will have been quite different, and a new kind of effort, will have been needed to apprehend what unity it might have had. Within this main landscape, too, there is a pervasive order. The fertility of the plain is only made possible by the mysterious energy of the source. The dome has come into being by Kubla's decree. The dome is stately: the gardens are girdled round with walls and towers.

      It is so often said that Kubla Khan achieves its effect mainly by 'far-reaching suggestiveness', that it is worth emphasising this element of plain clear statement at the outset, a statement which does particularize a series of details inter-related to each other, and deriving their relevance from their interrelation and their order. Furthermore, the use of highly emotive and suggestive proper names is proportionately no large source of the poem's effect, it is only necessary to watch the incidence of them. Xanadu, Kubla Khan and AIph occur once in that form within the poem's opening two-and-a-halt lines: and none of them occurs again except for the single repetition of Kubla in line 29. Abyssinian and Mount Abora occur each, in the three lines 39-41. There are no other proper names in the poem at all, unless we shall count the final word Paradise.

      Next, the mode of appraisal which relies on suggestiveness is likely to underestimate the strength and firmness of the descriptions. In particular, lines 17-24, describing the source of the river, do not employ suggestiveness at all.

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
A mid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragmer's vaulted with rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

      The whole passage is full of life because the verse has both the needed energy and the needed control. The combination of energy and control in the rhythm and sound is so great, as in that we are even in danger of missing the force of the imagery, as in 'rebounding hail' and 'dancing rocks'.

at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river

      A different kind of clarity and precision in the first part leads us nearer to the poem's central meaning the consistency with which the main facts of this landscape are treated, the dome and the river. The dome is an agreed emblem of fulfillment and satisfaction, it is breast like, full to touch and eye, rounds and complete. It is the stately pleasure-dome in line 2, the dome of pleasure in line 31, and 'A sunny pleasure-dome' in line 36. Each time the word 'pleasure' occurs with it. So too, the word river is used three times in the first part, and each time, without fail, it is 'the sacred river'; this is its constant, invariable epithet. The center of the landscape of this part is, as we have seen, the point at which the dome and the river join:

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves.

      Here, without possibility of doubt, the poem presents the conjunction of pleasure and sacredness; that is the core of Part One and in part Two the poet who has been able to realise this fusion of pleasure and sacredness is himself regarded as a holy or sacred person, a seer acquainted with the undivided life: and this part is clinched by the emphatic and final word 'Paradise'. The conditional form of Part Two does not annul the presentation of paradise in Part One, though it may hold out the hope of a future fuller vision.

      Positively, it causes a distortion of the poem if we try to approximate this Paradise either to the earthly Paradise of Eden before the Fall or to the Heavenly Paradise which is the ultimate abode of the blest. It may take its imagery from Eden, but it is not Eden because Kubla Khan is not Adam. Kubla Khan himself is literally an oriental prince with his name adapted from Purchas. What matters is not supposed fixed and antecedent symbolic character, so much as his activity. Within the landscape treated as literal he must be of princely scope, in order to decree the dome and gardens: and it is this decree that matters, for it images the power of man over his environment and the fact that man makes his paradise for himself. Just as the whole poem is about poetic creation at the imaginative level, so within the work of the imagination, occurs the creativeness of man at the ethical and practical levels. This is what the poet, of all men, is capable of realizing.

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war

      This is essential to the full unity of the conception: the Paradise contains knowledge of the threat of its own possible destruction. It is not held as a permanent gift - the ideal life is always open to forces of evil, it must be not only created by man for himself, but also defended by him. It is not of the essence of this Paradise that it must be lost, but there is a risk that it may be lost.

      About the river, again, we need not aim to be too precise and make equations. Its function in the poem is clear. The bounding energy of its source makes the fertility of the plain possible: it is the sacred given condition of human life. By using it rightly, by building on its bank, by diverting its water into the sinuous rills, Kubla achieves his perfect state of balanced living. It is an image of these non human, holy given conditions. It is an imaginative statement of the abundant life in the universe, which begins and ends in a mystery touched with dread, but it is a statement of this life as the ground of ideal human activity.

      The 'caves of ice' needs a special attention. Some discussions of the poem seems to imply that they belong with the 'cavern measureless to man' but there, surely can be no doubt that in the poem they belong closely and necessarily with the dome -

It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome, with caves of ice:

      The very line shows the closeness by the antithesis, the convex against the concave, the warm against the cold. It is not necessary to invoke Coleridge's own statement of the theory of the reconciliation of opposites in art to see that it is the holding together of these two different elements in which the miracle consists. They are repeated together, also within the single line, 47, in Part Two. The miracle or rare device consists in the combination of these softer and harder elements. And when this is seen in relation to the act of poetic creation, in the light of which all Part One must be understood, its function is still plainer such creation has this element of austerity in it. For this is a vision of the ideal human life as the poetic imagination can create it. Part One only exists in the light of Part Two. There may be other Paradises, other false Paradises too: but this is the creation of the poet in his frenzy. And it is because he can create it that he deserves the ritual dread.

      Thus we may confidently say that Kubla Khan is a finished fragment, about the act of poetic creation, about the 'ecstasy in imaginative fulfillment'.

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated! midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the eaves.

      When looked at closely, the words 'midway' and 'mingled' prove to be both exact and' consistent with other references made in the poem. Only by its very great height could the dome's reflection extend midway' across the mighty Alph, and the impression of height is confirmed both by the reference to the dome's being 'in air', and by the fact that it must soar clear of the shadow of its surrounding hills and incense-bearing trees' to qualify for the adjective 'sunny', which is twice used. But not only does die dome's shadow reach out across the river, it also falls half way between the tumult of the 'mighty fountain', which is the river's source, and the tumult of the caves in which the river sinks to a 'lifeless ocean', since only at a 'midway' position can the tumults be actually mingled. This kind of precision has been overlooked by those who are content to capitulate before the poem and praise it for its vague stringing-together of dream images.

      The poem is in three parts. In part one, Kubla decrees a 'stately pleasure-dome', the central and recurrent image of the poem. We are given the details of the extent of Kubla's pleasure-garden, and of its rich variety of natural beauties, with a clarity and particularity that is astonishing, the profusion being wonderfully conveyed by the swift flow of diverse images. The picture given is an earthly Paradise. Life has frequently been compared to a river flowing into the sea of death, and the epithets 'sacred', use of the river, and 'sunless', use of the sea, are enough to establish the implicit comparison here.

      Part two, which is no less rich in its range of images, continues and completes the picture of Kubla's Paradise, but introduces a note of fear and turmoil in its description of the river's source and final annihilation. The raw, elemental imagery which occurs in parts of The Ancient Mariner is fully matched in the lines which describes the chasm:

A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover!

      But, fine though the description of the 'ceaseless turmoil' of the 'mighty fountain' is, it fails to sustain the terrifying power of these lines. The images of 'rebounding hail' and 'chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail; though exact comparisons, tend to diminish the effect they are meant to convey. What do emerge is a clear picture of the Paradise. The river representing life seethes from the earth itself, flows slowly and with a 'mazy motion', expressive perhaps of life's twists and turns, through a walled garden, and at last enters the 'caverns measureless to man' before sinking to a 'lifeless ocean'. Dominating garden and river alike is the pleasure-dome: as it is the first so it is the last image used. In obvious opposition to the 'sunless sea' of death, the dome is 'sunny'. It is a proud manifestation of life; it is both a work of superb art in itself and a symbol for all artistic achievement.

      At the beginning of the third part a sharp literary-geographical change of scene occurs. We move from Kubla's Paradise, taken by Coleridge from Purchas's Pilgrimage, to the equally exotic paradise of Mount Abora, takes from Milton. Then a much more fundamental switch occurs this time, a switch of subject. The poet affirms that his touch, could build the whole miraculous dome of Kubla, if he can revive the vision induces in him by the singing of the 'Abyssinian maid'. Her song is in all respects a counterpart to the 'strong music in the soul' spoken of in Dejection. From it comes a 'deep delight' - the 'joy' Coleridge persistently insists on as the condition of creative activity. Granted this joy, he will create the fabled splendour of Kubla's dome through a poetry so astonishing that his powers will be thought the result of sorcery and he regarded with 'holy dread'. It will be said by those who hear his poetry that he has fed on honey-dew, and 'drunk the milk of Paradise'. And indeed this will be true: to taste 'the milk of Paradise' is to know the 'deep delight' which expresses itself in poetry.

University Questions

Kubla Khan is a poem about the act of poetic creation, about the ecstasy in imaginative fulfillment." Justify.
Would it be correct to describe Kubla Khan as a finished fragment? Give a reasoned answer.

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