Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” is deeply infused with Romantic themes of the sublime, imagination, and creation. The content of the poem, as well as its form, both seemingly work to explore the importance of imagination and creativity. The narrator writes about a vision of a woman singing about Kubla Khan’s pleasure-dome having the ability to inspire “such a deep delight… I would build that dome in air – That sunny dome, those caves of ice!” (lines 44, 46-47). This theme of art inspiring imagination of the sublime is also seen in William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth’s poem describes how the narrator’s imagination of the sublime is inspired by a painting. This exploration of imagination and creativity is also seen in the structure of Coleridge’s poem. Each stanza of the poem is written with a different form and rhyme scheme, which seemingly works to explore the creative potential of poetry.
Additional meaning is added to the poem when it is viewed through the lens of English colonialism and travel. It’s worth noting that Coleridge’s inspiration for this poem came from a travel book about the East. He draws from the book’s descriptions to detail a location that is paradoxically beautiful and frightening. The poem describes “fertile” grounds that are full of “gardens bright,” “sinuous rills,” many “blossomed” trees, “forests ancient,” and “sunny spots of greenery” (lines 6, 8, 9, 10, 11). This beautiful setting contrasts with the “deep romantic chasm,” which is also contradictorily described as “a savage place… holy and enchanted” (lines 12, 14). Coleridge’s descriptions do not seem to be rooted in fact so much as a desire to craft a beautifully mysterious setting for his poem; the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the frightening create an image of the sublime. Coleridge also emphasizes the stunning, unknowable beauty of this location, referring multiple times to the “caverns measureless to man” (lines 4, 27). These descriptions are consistent with the Romantic fascination with nature and the sublime. However, they also create an image of a foreign, strange land that is consistent with European orientalist beliefs. While Coleridge’s exploration of imagination and the sublime fits within the Romantic literary tradition, his depiction of the East as an unknowable and mysterious place also reflects European imagination of foreign countries, which came as a result of the English empire’s colonial pursuits.