Fear and Awe

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” he juxtaposes beautiful and petrifying scenery together in order to fully encapsulate the sublime.  In the second stanza, he describes a deep “chasm” as “romantic,” and a “savage” place as “holy” and “enchanted” (lines 12 and 14).  He sets up the location to be frightening with its chasms, caverns, caves, etc, and yet describes these things to still be beautiful.  

During the romantic era, the sublime was present in many poets’ works, and this poem is no exception.  In a romantic context, the sublime consists of an image of nature that is so grandiose or extreme in some way that it inspires strong emotions within the viewer, especially awe.  “Kubla Khan” embodies this by depicting such an extraordinary and breathtaking sight and playing up the emotion of fear in its descriptions while the speaker projects a romantic lens onto it.  The petrifying diction of “chasm” and “savage,” as well as the later supernatural inclusions of “haunted” and “demon” illustrate a scene that evokes a strong emotion, which is that of fear.  Coleridge then takes this strong emotion and builds on it by weaving magnificent diction such as “holy,” “enchanted,” and “romantic” between the frightening diction.  Although this move diminishes the overall terror of the scenery, it does not do so to the overall emotion.  Instead, Coleridge capitalizes on the readers’ fear by turning it into awe.  He writes the speaker to be a true romanticist, who looks at dangerous rushing waters, deep caves, and debris from a geyser and sees the beauty in it.  Of course, it helps that the pleasure dome and its surroundings are not all treacherous territory but genuinely peaceful and wonderful.   

Coleridge takes his depiction of the sublime in “Kubla Khan” a step further by including the supernatural.  The scenery of the pleasure dome is so hauntingly beautiful that it conjures the image of a “woman wailing for her demon lover,” and on line 30, Kubla hears “ancestral voices prophesying war” (line 16).  These supernatural elements also emit a feeling both terrifying and romantic.  Passionate wailing, demons, mysterious voices, and war are clearly frightening, and yet paired with the speaker’s romantic lens, they only serve to further the sublime aspect of the pleasure dome.  Through this lens, the image of lovers and of ancestors can actually be quite comforting.  Combined with the description of the scenery, the pleasure dome’s supernatural atmosphere does not inspire fear so much as it heightens its own extraordinary and astounding image.  The significance of the supernatural or uncanny in this work is that it indicates that the picture of the pleasure dome is so amazing and astonishing that it transcends what is physically possible in the mortal plane.  This location in Xanadu is almost literally unreal.

In “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge blurs the lines between emotions of fear and awe, employing contrasting diction in order to heighten readers’ intense emotions and embody the sublime.  He understands that any intense reaction to nature can prove its magnificence, and wrote this poem with that knowledge.  Coleridge utilizes the sublime as a tool to thoroughly make known the miraculous nature of the pleasure dome.