“Kubla Khan” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses a extended metaphor to demonstrate its two central themes, romantic vision and natural opposites. Coleridge wrote the poem in 1797, while stricken with ill health and taking strong opiate medicines. He envisioned a place he called Xanadu, a beautiful and savage enchanted valley. The poem’s title refers to the ruler of Xanadu, Kubla Khan, who builds a domed pleasure palace in this wild land. As an extended poetic metaphor, “Kubla Khan” comments on the duality of nature as a poet might see it, romantic and intense.
Kubla Khan and Xanadu
Coleridge imagines a mystical land, where a sacred river flows. He describes the river as endless, and both the beginning and the end of Xanadu. It weaves through the land, traveling through both oasis-like areas and seemingly sinister caverns. The river is rocky and in turmoil as it passes through Xanadu, but empties into a dark and endless calm.
Rivers often symbolize a transition from life into death, such as the river Styx in ancient Greek mythology, or the river Jordan which separates our world from the Heavenly Land. As a metaphor for life, a river suggests the nature of life is endless, always changing, and constantly renewing itself.
Opposites in Nature – The Duality of Nature
Despite the rocky and wild nature of the land in Xanadu, Kubla Khan has made an opulent pleasure palace there. Fountains pour and rivers spray among green hills and dark woods, and icy caverns exist alongside sunny castles and fragrant gardens. This miraculous place is a paradise, built in a deep valley surrounded by violent mixtures of darkness and light. The combination of darkness and light, cold and warmth, and sunlight and shadow appears everywhere in Xanadu, much as it does in our natural world. The poem graphically demonstrates the continuous balance of extremes in nature.
Coleridge, and other poets of his era such as Wordsworth and Blake, wrote about the romantic quest, the responsibility of the poet to share romantic vision with others who cannot see it. The romantic quest is the journey of the writer, artist, poet or craftsman to seek enlightenment through nature. Once the artist achieves this supernatural vision, they attempt to share it with the world though artistic expression. The inability to share this romantic vision with the majority of people, is the pain and loss of the romantic quest. The poet sees the good in evil and the evil in good, the endless duality that exists in the natural world.
Few people see the world as a balance of extremes. Poets, artist, and romanticists see heaven and hell as part of daily life. As Kubla Khan looks across the land of Xanadu, he sees both a sanctuary and a savage land. Few people can accept a vision of heaven and hell all around us. The extreme nature of this romantic vision causes poets and writers to quickly burn out emotionally. It can be hard to accept the consequences of the good and bad in life.