Imagining the Sublime in ‘Kubla Khan’

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.  

4 thoughts on “Imagining the Sublime in ‘Kubla Khan’”

  1. I really enjoyed how you read Kubla Khan through a colonialist lens and created space for Orientalism to be talked about. I think you are totally right in pulling out how the beautiful and the frightening are written about in Coleridge’s poem and how that contributes to this idea of the East as a place that can only be imagined. I think you could totally turn this idea into a paper topic and maybe read some other poems through a colonialist lens. I think something that could even strengthen your writing is to consider the lens of travel as well!

  2. Your application of the colonial lens to this poem is so interesting! Would it be anachronistic to call this orientalism? This lens offers us a different way of understanding the typical Romantic elements in this poem. The Romantics’ obsession with the question of humanity, where it comes from and how it began. “Xanadu” and “Abyssinian maid” refer to China and Egypt, where human civilization started. This surreal description of the scenery, full of (sexual) pleasure, can it also be read as a parallel to the garden of Eden? I wonder if Milton is somehow involved in this poem.

  3. This is a really interesting way to look at this poem! Digging deeper into this, I wonder if you could compare and contrast the adjectives and word choice used to describe the “romantic” and “savage” place respectively. Do you think these are two different places or one together? Is it sublime because it has both of these features? That idea of one place holding the juxtaposed “romantic” and “savage” reminds me of “Tintern Abbey.”

  4. I agree with the others that have commented, your take on “Kubla Khan” through a colonialist point of view was very interesting to read! I can’t help but think, however, if the language Coleridge uses is sexual simply because of the sexual nature of the poem. I also really liked your take on the way “Kubla Khan” relates to “Tintern Abbey.” Are you considering the landscape in “Kubla Khan” to be the source of inspiration such as the painting in Tintern Abbey?

Comments are closed.