In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”, the narrator offers a host of fantastic imagery relating to a fictional “pleasure dome” constructed by the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan. Coleridge professed ignorance of the poem’s meaning, saying only that it was a fragmented memory of a dream, but an analysis of the symbolic imagery of the poem through the lens of psychoanalytic interpretation will show that the poem is a study of the nature of creativity and imagination and the dangers associated with it. This interpretation of the poem takes into account Coleridge’s personal psychological profile, as well as endowing the poem with a more generalized illumination of the human condition.
Coleridge’s first two stanzas describing the beautiful pleasure dome are not only a description of nature as seen by the romantic idealist, but also point out a disturbing flaw in this ideal. The gardens and woods and meadows are all portrayed as still. They lack the vital energy that manifests itself in a dynamic setting. Rivers are traditionally symbols of life and of vital energy, but the river Alph is portrayed as flowing through a set course down into a measureless sunless sea, the water that it supplies to the land around it being only a fraction of its potential. This image represents a state in which one is bound to stagnation by one’s own system for viewing and ordering the world (Lawall 813-815).
In this pleasure dome there is a chasm described as “holy and enchanted” but also as “savage”. Typically, underground spaces are a reference to the subconscious, and this chasm is such a space. As a cleft in the earth, it offers access to something much deeper than the superficial reality that is offered by the ordered gardens and grounds of the pleasure dome. It is spiritual place where refinement and logic of the surrounding environment does not hold sway, and thus is untamed and dangerous (Lawall 813-815).
Outside of the chasm there is “a woman wailing for her demon lover”, and if one views this from a Jungian perspective it provides insight into the meaning of this otherwise perplexing symbol. Jung posited archetypes within every mind that act as somewhat independent semi-unconscious components of the unified self. The anima, one of the primary archetypes, is the female part of the male mind, and one of the roles Jung ascribed to the anima was, in a way, the gatekeeper of creativity. She is seen as the messenger between the conscious and unconscious. It is fitting then that the wailing woman is placed outside of the gateway to the unconscious, where she can call to her “demon lover,” the ego of the narrator that she desires to communicate with. The lover, the very ego of the narrator, is described as a demon both because it has spurned the creative, generative, emotional feminine in favor of the logical rationality of the pleasure dome thus leaving the anima in a state of unrequited love, and because of the destructive potential of tapping into...