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 greenery," the various gardens and perhaps even the incense-bearing trees (that seem somehow unnatural here, compared to the forests). The whole thing is "girdled round," with the walls and towers of Kubla Khan's fancy. Nature is controlled, set apart; pattern and order have been asserted and established as supreme.
The first line of the second stanza -- "But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted" -- carries an extra half-beat; the easy rhythms and order of the first paragraph are upset as we move into "A savage place" or begin to recognize the place for what it really is, beneath the surface. We become more and more aware of contradictions being held together: the contrasting ideas of nature and artifice of the first stanza, the holy and enchanted (the sacred and the pagan). The sacred river, Alph, takes on its own voice in the following lines:
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.
The production of sounds has become difficult, forced, like giving birth to something: "forced" and "burst." The...