“Natural Imagery as a Reflection of the Creative Process in Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan'”

“Natural Imagery as a Reflection of the Creative Process in Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan'” by Sergio Osnaya Prieto

Not much is known about Dolon Nor, a farming town hidden in the grasslands of northern China. Truly, there is not much to know about the town: the people’s livelihood is mainly based on agriculture, and the population density barely reaches the double digits. A few cafés, a state-run bank, and a modest hotel are the few amenities enjoyed by the townspeople. However, Dolon Nor was once a vibrant city, home to “a vast palace of marble” (Edwards), as described by Marco Polo: during the 13th century, Dolon Nor was part of Shangdu, the capital of Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan’s kingdom. Shangdu was the vision of Khan’s close advisor, Liu Bingzhdong, and meticulously planned according to the canons of feng shui, which meant to balance men’s souls with their natural surroundings. Sadly, Khan and his city fell to Jin soldiers a century after Shangdu’s construction, leaving behind a trail of tombs and ruins of a once majestic city (“Site of Xanadu”). Fortunately, the city’s tale was picked up by several historians, including Samuel Purchas, who revitalized the mystique of Shangdu, now famously known as Xanadu. Among Purchas’s readers was English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who famously penned the poem “Kubla Khan Or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment” after waking from an opiate-induced dream. Despite his laments that the text is solely a fragment of a larger work about Xanadu —lost due to an untimely “person [from] Pardock” (459)— “Kubla Khan” is rather a probe of the creative process itself, reliant upon the story of Shangdu as an analytical tool. Specifically, the text reveals the frustration of the poetic genius when he is unable to fulfill his ideal goal, described by Coleridge as “the whole soul of man [being brought] into activity” (Mahony). Throughout the text, Coleridge’s use of natural imagery is allegorical for the elements which harmonize the Poet’s mind and work; however, since the poem studies a fracture in the creative process, this harmony is shattered, and so is the balance between the Poet and Nature.

The first stanza introduces the primary dichotomous—yet, it will later be revealed, also complementary within the creative process—components upon which the poem is set: Kubla Khan’s “stately pleasure-dome” (2) and the “caverns / measureless to man” (4). Khan’s dome is the product of absolute power, a “decree” (2), an artificial edifice entirely constructed within man’s control and order, overt in Coleridge’s perfectly consistent iambic tetrameter, as well as the stanza’s terms of enclosure, such as the “walls and towers […] girdled around” (7) and “enfolding” (11), and the mathematical specificity of “twice five miles” (6) and “sinuous rills” (8). Nevertheless, the stanza also introduces an opposing image to Khan’s control: the “caverns” under his “pleasure-dome” are “measureless to man” (4), hinting at man’s inability to control every element of Nature. Such ignorance— “measureless”—about their true quality grants the “caverns” a rather mystical character, for they are beyond the knowledge of man and seemingly barren; however, they are still carriers through which the “sacred river” (3) runs. They are an embodiment of both Nature’s absolute freedom, untouched by man, and its life-giving qualities, as they carry the source of life—the “sacred river”—to a man-made construction. Within the context of poetic creation, this duality parallels two abstractions fundamental to the creative process. The dome, in its controlled and order character, parallels the meticulous execution and construction perceived in the act of writing poetry: The Poet, in his ideal form, attempts to build an artificial paradise of his own upon the page—analogous to the Edenic qualities of Xanadu—and, in an unadulterated framework can control every element of his work, such as the meter or rhyme. However, “Kubla Khan” was not written under such a framework. Inspiration stemmed from somewhere more profound and uncharted within Coleridge’s consciousness, for he envisioned his manuscript within a dream vision, a region analogous to the “caverns”: unexplored yet still beaming with the holy life-source which feeds the “fertile ground” (6) and “sunny spots of greenery” (10) of the pleasure-dome. Thus, the natural imagery—the “caverns measureless to man”—is revealed to be both opposing and complementary to the existence of man’s constructions, both the gardens of Xanadu and Poetry itself.

Underpinning Coleridge’s creative allegory is “Alph, the sacred river” (3), whose motion serves as a connecting force between both settings—the pleasure-dome and the caverns— thus also linking the analogous unconscious and conscious mind of the Poet. As Professor Mary Mahony observes, “These areas are bound together by the sacred river, which connects the uncontrolled chasm and stagnant ocean with the ordered world of Kubla Khan. The river travels symbolically from passion through order to chaos, from birth through life to death. As the river sinks into the realm of death, it is possible to hear in the tumult the prophecies of war.” Mahony’s allusion to the sacred river’s journey through “order to chaos”, is traced in the poem’s second stanza, as the river “bursts” (20) with energy as it runs through “that deep romantic chasm”:

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

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. (17, 19-24)

Coleridge’s choice of potent verbs, such as “forced,” burst” and “flung up,” accompanied by the setting in which such actions take place—the chasm, a “savage place!” (14)—once again clashes order against chaos. Within this controlled artificial Paradise, Nature still cannot be subdued, nor will it be subservient to the will of Khan; inevitably, it will unleash its “natural” force, even when confined.

Similarly, the “deep romantic chasm” (12) is a dichotomous natural image within the dome. The “romantic” adjective implies the chasm is a region of profound passion, furthered by the “woman wailing for her demon-lover” (16) and the “waning moon” (15), as explained by critic Harold Bloom: “This [waning moon’s] fading power […] makes a statement about the diminution of creative potency. With respect to the wailing woman, [her] love must be forever unrequited in order to perpetuate the relentless quest for fulfillment.” Bloom’s remark on the “relentless quest for fulfillment” unveils the wider symbolism of the second stanza, placing it within the context of the creative process. The chasm, with all its ghastly imagery, is within the dome—specifically, hidden “athwart a cedarn cover” (13)— and from this area of fear and passion, the river “bursts.” In a creative context, the river which crosses the caverns of the unconscious mind into the controlled constructions of men (i.e. the pleasure-dome and poetry), bursts from a chasm of passion within an ordered area, linking all elements together: thus, the chasm is a source of inspiration inside the conscious mind. In Chapter 10 of his Biographia Literaria, Coleridge explained his proclivity for such images of water as the sacred river, specifically “a stream,” because it accomplished exactly this connective purpose: “I sought for a subject, that should give equal room and freedom for description, incident, and impassioned reflections on men, nature, and society, yet supply in itself a natural connection to the parts, and unity to the whole. Such a subject I conceived myself to have found in a stream” (Coleridge 194).

Following this burst from the chasm of inspiration, the sacred river resumes its course to the edge of the pleasure-dome before it dies in the “lifeless ocean” (28), foreshadowing a loss in the harmony of the dome and the caverns, as well as in the creative process. However, before the river “sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean” (28), a sudden lull appears in the text, appreciated in line 26, “Five miles meandering with a mazy motion.” At this point, the river has connected all elements, and the poet has risen victorious from the chasm. As critic Dorothy F. Mercer explains, “At no place is the river gently flowing except in paradise. The reason for the incantatory quality of the entire lyric is symbolically set forth in this line [26], and its significance pointed, i.e., the unconscious activity in genius, the even, harmonic flow of the secondary imagination as it gains complete control of the artist and gives him his insight into […] paradise.” The alliteration of “miles meandering” and “mazy motion” reveals the river has regained a tranquil state (Mercer goes as far as to say the lyric has a “hypnotic power”), immediately before it “sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean” (28). By sinking “in tumult” the river once again contrasts order and chaos, specifically due to the “ancestral voices prophesying war” (30) which are introduced. In a historical sense, these “ancestral voices” ought to be interpreted as a beneficial sign to Khan—the embodiment of absolutism and masculinity: the Mongols’ mastery in war was the key to their sweeping expansion throughout Asia. These “ancestral voices” are thus symbolic of a long tradition of man’s power, control, and belligerence; however, these voices only emerge once the “sacred river” sinks into the “lifeless ocean.” More accurately, these voices emerge because the river sinks into the ocean. As Mahony illustrates: “The stanza ends by mourning the loss of this wondrous pleasure dome where art and nature had briefly been blended together.” Once the “sacred river” sinks into the “lifeless ocean,” it no longer connects man—or “art,” as Mahony describes—with nature: the ocean is pure Nature, or “lifeless,” while the voices of “war” are the epitome of Men: once the river no longer connects every element together in equilibrium, the vision of Paradise falls apart, and all that is left is a memory, or a shadow:

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

   Floated midway on the waves;

   Where was heard the mingled measure

   From the fountain and the caves. (31-34)

This vestige, resulting from a break in the equilibrium between Man and Nature, is analogous to the frustration Coleridge expressed when being unable to capture his whole dream vision on paper.

Through this allegory, it can thus be said that the use of natural imagery in Kubla Khan as reflective of the creative process is much more than a mere analogy: it is an embodiment of a purely Romantic philosophy. The caverns of imagination, mysterious and unexplored, reveal themselves spontaneously in an ordered and artificial paradise, created by men. Such revelation occurs in the form of a sacred river, a harmonizing icon of nature, bursting through a chasm of passion into man’s paradise to inspire him. When the imagination and nature are in equilibrium, “the whole soul of man is brought into activity” (Mahony) as Coleridge desired; when they are no longer in equilibrium, the system collapses into a lifeless ocean. In other words, the Romantic poet’s goal can only be achieved when man and nature are in perfect harmony—much like the feng shui gardens of Kubla Khan’s close advisor Liu Bingzhdong. When an inconvenient person from Pardock or savage soldiers from the Jin dynasty destroy this harmony, all that is left is an incomplete manuscript or the ruins of a marble palace scattered around a small Chinese farming town.



Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. “Kubla Khan.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Chelsea House, 2001. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/HRC/Search/Details/5140?q=kubla%20khan.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. ElecBook, 2000. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/waketech-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3008608.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D, W.W. Norton, 2012. 459-462.

Edwards, Mike. “Marco Polo, Part I.” National Geographic Magazine, May 2001, ngm.nationalgeographic.com/features/world/asia/mongolia/marco-polo-i-text.html.

Mahony, Mary. “Critical Essay on ‘Kubla Khan’.” Poetry for Students, edited by Mary Ruby, vol. 5, Gale, 1999. Literature Resource Center, login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=nclivewtcc&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CH1420042977&asid=8a5e44b5fd9a4cfc1a3e36bba2987e9a. Accessed 11 Oct. 2017.

Mercer, Dorothy F. “The Symbolism of ‘Kubla Khan.’” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 12, no. 1, 1953, pp. 44–66. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/426300.

 “Site of Xanadu.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, United Nations, 2012, whc.unesco.org/en/list/1389.