Reading "Kubla Khan"

This assignment is part of 200-level course in either British literature or a general survey of literature. One of the key critical questions of the course is one of the founding questions of English as a discipline: What literary works do we choose to read, reflect critically on, and teach? What literature belongs in the literary canon?

You have probably had this experience before:


You wake up from an especially vivid or entertaining dream. On waking, you try to remember as many details as possible – maybe you write them down or tell them to someone else. But before you can quite capture all of it, it starts to fade. Perhaps something else interrupts you, causing the details to fade even faster. Soon, all you're left with is whatever you specifically called to mind – maybe only a few particular images or impressions. This is the experience Coleridge captured vividly in writing "Kubla Khan," which you will find of page xx of your anthology. But what separates Coleridge's account of the experience from that of millions (if not billions) of others across the globe? What makes this poem worth reading?


First, let's get a little background Along with Christabel (page xx) and "The Pains of Sleep," "Kubla Khan" is believed to reflect the influence of opium addiction (which he normally took as laudanum) on Coleridge's writing.


Coleridge’s notes indicate that Kublah Khan (use the link for an online copy of the poem) was written in 1797, but some historians date the writing to 1798. When the poem was first published in 1816, Coleridge included this note:

The following fragment is here published at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity , and, as far as the Author's own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the grounds of any supposed poetic merits. In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas’s Pilgrimag: "Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.


When he woke, he began to write about the dream, but several lines in, probably no later than the line "From the fountain and the caves” (though Coleridge was not explicitly clear), he was interrupted by a visitor. The interruption distracted him, and he was never able to remember the rest of the dream. The poem itself shows a definite point of interruption when the scene shifts from the pleasure dome itself to a memory of an imagined woman singing a song about it.


Once you have read the poem and reviewed the background facts, you will want to begin exploring:

Feeling Lost?

I don’t get it. What is the poem about?

While some readers really connect with the dreamlike imagery of the poem, others have a hard time following the constantly fluctuating and shifting details. If you feel like you are struggling with the reading, click the link above.

What do all these odd names and places?

While many people can read through the poem and not worry that they understand every name, other readers may find the mix of real and fictional names and places distracting. This link provides an annotated copy of the poem, with each of the names linked to specific notes. Before trying to links though, read the poem through once and try to get the overall "feel” of the mood and tempo.

Reflect Critically

Why was this poem so important to Coleridge’s contemporaries?

While Coleridge was apparently hesitant about the poem, other romantics, such a Lord Byron, felt that the poem was important enough to publish. How does this poem reflect the values of the romantic movement? This section provides a sample answer.

What have critics said since its publication?

Of course, if only Coleridge's fellow poets liked the poem, that might call into question why we should continue to read it today. This link looks at how critics through the years have evaluated Coleridge's work.

What literary devices did Coleridge use in the poem?

An important question that is often neglected is "How?" In this case, how did Coleridge attempt to affect his audience? What literary devices did he use? Were the effective? What makes his work distinctive?

What sort of lasting impact did Kubla Khan have? Is it still a part of our culture?

Camille Paglia, a cultural critic living in Philadelphia, has argued that we are still living in the Romantic period today. Where do we find the romantic values exemplified in Kubla Khan represented in today’s culture? This section explores some potential answers.

Explore Further

Why is the opium connection so important?

Since the romantic movement, and even before, we have seen an increasing connection between European and American art and mind-altering drugs, not excluding alcohol. While drug addiction was certainly known before the 19th century, increased trade with the Americas as well as Central and Eastern Asia made them far more common. We have seen drugs influence a variety of art forms, including poetry, fiction, big band jazz, and contemporary popular music. Just what might be the reasons for the connection?

What does Kubla Khan tell us about the emphasis on dreams in our own culture?

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and into the 21st, literature, art, and psychotherapy have struggled to make sense of our dreams. This link looks at the relationship between Coleridge's poem and the ways we have continued to explore dreams in words and images.