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Samuel Coleridge

Kubla Khan

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1816

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Among Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most notable works of poetry, “Kubla Khan” imprinted itself in literary history with its rhythmic, sonorous opening lines. Upon publishing the poem in 1816, Coleridge made much of this poem’s unusual creation, as it sprang from his dreams and was never finished. Coleridge subtitled the poem, “Or, a vision in a dream. A fragment.”


The poem centers on Kubla Khan, a historical Chinese ruler, and his opulent palace in the magical world of Xanadu. After depicting the glories and mysteries of Xanadu, the poem concludes with a stanza about the mysteries of creativity. Critics have long debated the poem’s deeper meaning, but many agree that it exemplifies some of Romanticism’s favorite themes. This movement, anchored by poets like John Keats and Coleridge’s friend William Wordsworth, prized poetry about imagination, the individual, emotion, and nature. “Kubla Khan” explores these themes through vivid imagery and mesmeric sound devices, cementing Coleridge’s place of honor in this important literary period. 

Poet Biography

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) helped found the Romantic movement, which is among the briefest but most important periods in the history of the English language. 

Born in Devon, England, Coleridge was the tenth child of a minister who enjoyed reading throughout his youth. He attended Christ’s Hospital School in London during his teens and Jesus College, Cambridge for university (though he never completed his degree). During college, Coleridge developed an interest in progressive political and social ideals. He and the poet Robert Southey planned a commune in America that never came to fruition. 

After a short stint in the British army, Coleridge began his adult life with a marriage to a woman he did not love and wide-ranging attempts to make money with his writing. Not only was Coleridge a poet, but he also wrote about politics, social reform, and theology in the forms of journalistic enterprises, pamphlets, and lectures. 

In 1795, Coleridge formed a famous, fateful friendship with poet William Wordsworth. Coleridge lived near Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy for a time, and the two men penned a joint work of poetry called Lyrical Ballads. The volume was first published in 1798. A pivotal work of both the period and literary history at large, Lyrical Ballads established the Romantic mode of writing, which prioritized individual insight and emotion, the imagination, man’s connection with nature, and a writing style mirroring plain speech. Coleridge contributed four poems to the 23-poem first edition, including his famous epic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” He published “Kubla Khan” in a booklet with his poem “Christabel” in 1816. 

During a stint in Germany with Wordsworth, Coleridge also found great inspiration in Enlightenment philosophers like Kant and Schlegel, as well as German theologians. His forward-thinking work on philosophy and theology influenced many writers who followed. Coleridge suffered many years with financial troubles, addiction to opium, and chronic illness. Despite these challenges, Coleridge continued to write. In 1811 and 1812 he lectured on characterization in Shakespeare’s plays, and in 1817 he published Biographia Literaria, a foundational work of literary criticism. After working and traveling in the Mediterranean, Coleridge lived his final years with a doctor named James Gillman and died in 1834. 

Poem Text

Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

   Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile 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.

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!

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 thresher’s flail:

And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;

And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war!

   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.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan.” 1816. Poetry Foundation.


At the opening of "Kubla Khan," the speaker notes the poem is incomplete and describes a dream. In the body of the poem, a ruler named Kubla Khan establishes a palace in a beautiful, historic land called Xanadu. He builds the castle near a holy river and plants gardens of fragrant trees. Beneath one hill is a deep clearing full of mystical power. From this deep place erupts a sudden, powerful fountain which disrupts the holy river Alph, normally calm and slow-moving. In the fountain’s noise, Kubla Khan discerns a prediction of violence in Xanadu. Viewers can see the palace’s reflection on the river’s surface. The river terminates in icy, underground caverns.

The poem’s speaker recalls a dream in which a young woman performed a song he longs to remember. He wishes he, like the musician, could successfully depict the sacred place he sees in his mind. If he accomplished this, his readers would think the speaker himself was an enchanted being.

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