The Struggle of Art in Kubla Khan

Our first glimpse at the emerging pattern of imagery comes when the speaker describes “gardens bright with sinuous rills/ Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;” gardens produce lush and natural imagery of plants and flowers, and “sinuous rills” seems almost seductive, hypnotizing the reader down its winding path (v.8-9). We can also see the garden as Edenic imagery if we visualize the winding shape of the rills as resembling a snake, such as the one found in the Garden of Eden. The snake imagery can symbolize the temptation of Eve, and can also be seen as a phallic image – both interpretations reinforcing the sexuality of the “sinuous rills,” and the Edenic imagery bringing in the idea of divinity (v.8). It also seems odd that the poet would choose “incense-bearing” as a description of a tree, but it is another example of him combining the seductive qualities of incense with the naturalness of a tree (v.8).

The pattern of imagery becomes much more flagrant in the next stanza. We get a juxtaposition of sexuality and nature already in the first line: “that deep romantic chasm,” which refers to that “Savage place! As holy and enchanted/ as e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/ By woman wailing for her demon lover!” (v.12, 14-16). The image of “woman wailing for her demon lover,” which clearly symbolizes feminine lust, is used as a metaphor for the “ceaseless turmoil seething” of the chasm (v.16-17). Nature, often represented as a feminized Mother Nature, has become so sexually impassioned in her “romantic chasm” that she reaches a metaphorical orgasm: “A mighty fountain momently was forced” (v.19). We reach the trinity of nature, sexuality and divinity if we notice how the “savage place,” which can mean both sexual and natural savageness, is described as “holy and enchanted” (v.14).

Coleridge seems to express in this stanza the powerful physical nature of the trinity through its quake-like orgasm of “dancing rocks,” which “flung up momently the sacred river” (v.23-24). The idea of a fountain being forced from a chasm also strikes up the image of an overflowing well. If we see the well as a symbol of the latent qualities of the unconscious, or, those qualities which our creative faculties struggle to access, then the image of an overflowing well can symbolize all of the dormant potential of the unconscious suddenly being unleashed. Thus the trinity of the three qualities, the initial cause of the overflowing, can also be seen as a key to unlocking the unconscious.

In the last stanza, the poet describes a “vision once [he] saw,” of “A damsel with a dulcimer… …Singing of Mount Abora” (v.36-37, 41). The trinity of nature, sexuality and divinity is found here once again, but is far less obvious than previously. Mount Abora can be seen as a natural monument, and the music from the dulcimer can be reflective of a sort of divinity, as musicality is often seen as the purest and most elevating form of aesthetic expression. The damsel herself does not signify any sexuality, but the speakers description of how “Her symphony and song,/ To such a deep delight ‘twould win me” indicates her seduction, especially through the word “win,” which has a dominating connotation (v.43-44). Having established the trinity here of the naturalness of the mountain, the damsel’s seduction, and the divine music of the dulcimer, we see that these three qualities converge to become a muse for the speaker: (continuing from the last quote) “That with music loud and long,/ I would build that dome in air,/ That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!” (v.45-47). The dome being built in air clearly means that it is figurative, symbolizing a creative product resulting from the inspiration of the three-fold natured muse.

In the final lines of the poem, the speaker, having been inspired by his muse, describes himself as having “flashing eyes” and “floating hair,” and “on honey-dew hath fed,/ And drunk the milk of Paradise” (v.50, 53-54). This description gives us a final unification of nature, sexuality and divinity, but does so to achieve idealism of all three. Paradise is the highest state of divinity; honey is naturally secreted by insects, and may represent the sweetest fare that nature has to offer; drinking of milk is reminiscent of the process of breast-feeding, the most intimate, or caring, of human exchanges. By describing himself as having been nourished with these three qualities, the speaker seems to be saying that he has been inspired by the perfect muse, one that has transformed him into some supernatural being capable of building those “sunny pleasure-domes with caves of ice” – which is perhaps a symbol of artistic perfection (v.36). This pleasure-dome is mentioned in the penultimate stanza as a “miracle of rare device” (v.35-36). The miracle seems to refer to the muse, and its ‘miraculous’ power to inspire, and the rare device might comment on the rarity of these flashes of inspiration.

It is ironic that Kubla Khan, an impulse-driven poem inspired by an opium muse, is itself about the nature of muses and the process of artistic creation. The story of the poem, which we have not touched on, speaks of Kubla Khan’s decree to build a “stately pleasure-dome,” one which would, with “walls and towers,” surround and encage “twice five miles of fertile ground” (v.2, 5-6). It seems that the quaking of the “deep romantic chasm” resulted from this encaging of a natural landscape, and the breaking free of the walls and towers indicates a sense of artistic emancipation (v.12). Thus we see that alongside the inspiration of muses, Coleridge believes that artistic freedom is also essential to the creative process, and paints in his Kubla Khan a fierce portrait of a man struggling towards artistic perfection.

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