Kubla Khan as A Poem About Life and Poetic Potentialities

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      G. Wilson Knight analyses the imagery of Kubla Khan and shows that it is a poem about life and about poetic potentialities. The pleasure-dome dominates the poem. Its setting is carefully described. There is a sacred river running into caverns measureless to man and to a sunless seas; in other words, the river runs into an infinity of death. The marks out area through which it flows is, however, one of teeming nature, gardens, rills, incense-bearing trees, ancient forests. The river is a symbol of life since the sacred river which runs, through Nature, towards death could easily correspond to life.

      Born on a height, the river descends from a deep romantic 'chasm', a place which is savage, holy and enchanted, and which is associated with both a waning moon and a woman wailing for her demon lover. The river's origin blends romantic, sacred and Satanic suggestion. This part of the poem hints at a mystery, blending Satanism with sanctity and romance with savagery.

      The lines that follow contain such expressions as the ceaseless turmoil', the earth-mother breathing in fast, 'thick pants', the fountain 'forced' out with 'half-intermitted burst', the fragments rebounding like hail, the 'chaffy grain beneath the flail', the 'dancing rocks'. These expressions create in us a riotous impression of agony, tumult, and power: the dynamic process of birth and creation.

      Then the river goes meandering in a mazy motion, The maze is, of course, a well-known figure suggesting uncertain and blind progress and is sometimes expressly used for the spiritual complexities of human life. After five miles of mazy progress, the river reaches the 'caverns measureless to man', which represent infinity and nothingness. The river sinks, with great tumult (that is, death-agony), to a 'lifeless ocean', that is, to eternal nothingness, namely death. This tumult is aptly associated with war: the principle of those conflicting and destructive forces that driven man to his end. The ancestral voices suggest that the dark compulsion that binds the race to its habitual conflicts is related by some psychologists to unconscious ancestor-worship, to parental and pre- rental authority.

      As far Kubla Khan himself, becomes God, or at least one of those huge and mighty forms, or other similar institutions of gigantic mountainous power, in Wordsworth or we can say that the poet's genius starting to describe an oriental monarch's architectural exploits, finds itself automatically creating a symbolic and universal panorama of existence.

      In the second movement of the poem, the dome's shadow falls half way along the river. The river, as indicates above, is the birth-death time-stream. The shadow is cast by a higher, more dimensional reality. It is directly associated with the 'mingled measure' of the sounds coming from the two extremes. The 'mingled measure' suggests the blend and marriage of fundamental oppositions: life and death, or creation and destruction. These mingle under the shadow of the greater harmony, the crowning dome-circle. It is a paradoxical thing, a 'miracle of rare device', 'sunny' but with 'caves of ice' which points to the resolution of opposites in the new dimension, especially those of light and heat, sunny for Eros-fire of mind, and ice for the coldness of inorganic nature, ultimate being, and death, the ice caves being perhaps related to the earlier caverns. Only more optimistically tones, light instead of gloomy, just as 'sunny' suggests to torturing heat. The 'caves of ice' may also hint at cool cavernous depths in the unconscious mind blending with a lighted intelligence; whereby at least coldness becomes kind. These ice and sun fire are the two elemental antitheses, and their mingling may lead us farther. We are at what might be called a marriage-point in life's progress half way between birth and death, and even birth and death are themselves mingled or married. We may imagine a sexual union between life, the masculine, and death, the feminine. Then our 'romantic chasm' and 'cedarn cover' the savage and enchanted, yet holy, place, with its' half-intermitted burst' may be, in spite of the interpretation given earlier, vaguely related to the functioning of a man's creative organs and their physical setting, and also to all principles of manly and adventurous action, while the caverns that engulf the sacred river will be correspondingly feminine with a dark passivity and infinite peace. The pleasure-dome may regard as the pleasure of a sexual union in which birth and death are the great contesting partners, with human existence as the life-stream of a mighty coition.

      The third and final movement of the poem starts with the Abyssinian damsel seen in a vision, playing music. The aptness of a girl-image here is obvious. The poet equates the once-experienced mystic and girl-born music with the dome. Could he revive in himself that music which can build the spiritual dome in air, that is, in words, in poetry. Or, maybe, he would become himself the domed consciousness of a cold, happy, brilliance, and ice-flashing, sun-smitten, wisdom. The analogy between music and some form of architecture is not unique. After this, the movement of the poem grows ecstatic and swift. There is a hint of a new speed in the drawn-out rhythm of such a deep delight it would win me...? Now the three rhyming lines gather up the poet's message together with his consciousness of its supreme meaning with a breathless expectancy towards the climax. Next follows a fall to a ritualistic solemnity, phrased in long vowels and stately measures motion, imaged in the 'circle' and the eyes drops in 'holy dread' before the prophet who has seen and recreated 'Paradise' not the earthly, but the heavenly paradise: the pleasure-dome enclosing and transcending human agony and frustration.

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