Kubla Sexy Khan

I want to first outline the uses of sex in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and then try and understand what they are doing for the poem. First, and most mysteriously, is the the pleasure dome. Although its name is evocative, it is not linked much further to sex. According to the first stanza it is “twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers…girdled round” and when it reapers in the third stanza it follows “Ancestral voices prophesying war!” Both of these references to the pleasure dome make it seem to be an implement of war, but the idea is complicated in the remainder of the poem. In the third stanza the dome “Floated midway on the waves… A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” and then in the fourth stanza: “That with music loud and long / I would build that dome in air- / That sunny dome, those caves of ice!” So the poem has appeared on land, in the sea, and in the air, and seems to have very little to do with pleasure, so what is that word doing there?

The Second stanza helps move towards an answer. We begin with a “deep romantic chasm…athwart a cedarn cover!” The effect of which is immediately compared to a “woman wailing for her demon lover!” It’s very Georgia O’keefe to say the least. And that is before “this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, / A mighty fountain momently was forced” From this sexual event the River on which the Pleasure dome is built is born. And thus the two are connected. Furthermore, the event “Huge fragments vaulted” which may have been used to build the dome, and the Ice in the caves may be fed by “sacred river.” In this way the pleasure dome is birthed by the Earth’s sexual climax.

Making the next step in this analysis feels difficult without having fed on honey-dew and “drunk the milk of Paradise”. But, since the dome is built from the earth’s pleasure, its title of pleasure dome makes more sense. Additionally, the fact that the feminine earth’s sexual action is sublimated by Kubla Khan and the Ancestral voices into a military act, and that the “damsel with a dulciminer[‘s]…symphony and song” is used by the speaker to reconstruct the pleasure dome, suggests a patriarchichal structure within the poem. The women of the poem, and their sexuality, are instruments of masculine power.

2 thoughts on “Kubla Sexy Khan”

  1. Coleridge frequently places “pleasure” and “measure” near each other to create either internal rhymes or end rhymes, like in the first stanza, “pleasure-dome” (2) and “measureless to man” (4). These two words constantly evoke each other, so I want to suggest reading this “pleasure” as a pleasure of music as well. There is definitely a connection between sexual pleasure and musical pleasure in this poem, which reminds me of Shakespeare “if music be the food of love.”

    1. I would like to expand your analysis of music to the role of the human voice in general. In the final stanza, Coleridge associates the damsel with the dulcimer’s sung music directly with the pleasure-dome: “could I revive within me/Her symphony and song…I would build that dome in air” (lines 42-43, 46). Here singing is prerequisite for building the pleasure-dome. While singing doesn’t create the dome earlier on, speech does: Kubla Khan “decrees” it into existence. Human vocalizations have power at many climactic (pun intended) points throughout this poem: the earth breathes, voices prophesy war, and onlookers cry “Beware!”

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