Careful Manipulation in Coleridge's Kubla Khan
In his preface to "Kubla Khan," Samuel Taylor Coleridge makes the claim that his poem is a virtual recording of something given to him in a drug-induced reverie, "if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things . . . without any sensation or consciousness of effort." As spontaneous and as much a product of the unconscious or dreaming world as the poem might seem on first reading, however, it is also a finely structured, well wrought device that suggests the careful manipulation by the conscious mind.
The first verse paragraph of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" is the most ornately patterned part of the poem. Coleridge gives us end-rhymes that are repetitive and yet slightly "off": "Khan" is not an exact match with "man" or "ran." End-rhymes will be carried throughout the poem, but within these lines, we discover similar sounds, the "Xan-" and "Khan," again; the "Xan-" and "a" sound of "Alph" get picked up again in "sacred" and "cav-," before being played out, finally, in "ran" and "man." The intricacy of sounds being repeated and modulated and repeated again creates the poem's energy, playful here, but also exceedingly musical and incantatory.
The paradise that Kubla Khan creates is a delightful playscape. At first, it seems a bit compulsively arranged, a bit overly luxurious, a bit too Disney. The "sinuous rills" adds a slightly ominous element to the Edenic paradise, a hint of what's to come. Already, though, there is a distinction implied between what is natural -- the "sinuous rills" and the "forests ancient as the hills" -- and what is clearly man-made, nature bent to mankind's service: the enfolded "sunny spots of...
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... a private matter: "all who heard" and "all should cry." It is a collective enchantment with the poet at the center of it. The magic of the final spellbinding lines -- beyond explication -- is based partly on abracadabra incantation ("Weave a circle round him thrice") and our corporate recollections of holy visionaries. The poet compels the vision of the public, but at the same time he is an outcast among them -- untouchable and even cursed ("his flashing eyes, his floating hair!") by his gift. The lines become completely suggestive in their wild blend of holiness, sensuality, prophecy, and danger. The poet and poem have have become their own "miracle of rare device," and the reader has borne witness to the creative miracle.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan.” Literature: A Pocket Anthology. Ed. R. S. Gwynn. New York: Addison-Wesley. 2002.