Sensuality, Sexuality, and Fertility in “Kubla Khan”
In “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge imagines a land where sensuality, sexuality, and fertility abound and share inextricable links. Any threats to the fecundity of the land exist outside of its magnificent walls. Coleridge uses this image of an impenetrable fortress of sexual creativity in considering his own mind, desiring the same productivity in his poetic imagination. By creating this connection, Coleridge finds both a source of inspiration and blurs the lines between the poet and the poem.
Coleridge describes Xanadu as a land where pleasure is a virtue, by both direct statement and appealing to the senses. The most direct insight into the luxury of Xanadu is given in Coleridge’s description of the land as a “pleasure dome” (2, 36). Besides stating it outright, Coleridge emphasizes the hedonistic nature of the land by appealing to the senses. A description of the hills mentions their “enfolding sunny spots of greenery” (11). These sunny patches both illuminate the vision of flourishing vegetation, while giving a tangible warmth in the same breath. Nearby, a garden is filled with “many an incense-bearing tree” (9), perfuming the air of the dome.
In his consideration of the Abyssinian maid, Coleridge continues his representation of sensual pleasure. Although unable to remember “her symphony and
song” (43), Coleridge knows that any recollection “to such a deep delight ‘twould win me” (44). This later recollection demonstrates that Coleridge’s vision includes the
pleasure of sound, as well as the presence of sights and sounds. Coleridge continues to emphasize the hedonism of this vision, as he purposefully equips the musical maid with a dulcimer. The Oxford English Dictionary chronicles the etymology of this word, “supposed to represent L. dulce melos sweet song, tune, or air” (oed.com). Not only does Coleridge suggest pleasure in the representation of the maid’s song, but also he supports this notion by having the maid perform with an instrument in which pleasure is implicit.
In this “pleasure-dome,” Coleridge pronounces the ties between sensual pleasure and sexuality through brilliantly suggestive images. Moving away from the gardens in the first stanza, Coleridge happens upon “that deep romantic chasm” (12). Mention of the word “chasm” perhaps conjures up notions of female sexual anatomy, but his description of this ravine as “romantic” has a strong sexual implication. Coleridge continues to qualify this chasm, describing the water’s movement “with ceaseless turmoil seething…in fast thick pants were breathing” (17-18). The water develops an internalized tension as it seethes in its attempt to find an outlet, only possible in sexualized moaning described on the following line. The previous line finds Coleridge describing a “woman wailing for her demon-lover” (16), in a simile remarkably reminiscent of the lines following.
This tension built up in the image of...