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.  

Beachy Head

Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” is an ode to the beauty and power of nature. This poem’s excerpt immediately establishes themes of natural grandeur by both personifying and deifying Nature; the narrator states they were “An early worshipper at Nature’s shrine / I loved her rudest scenes” (lines 346-347). These lines not only establish the immense importance of Nature, but also the beauty of Nature in its wildest state. As the narrator goes on to describe “unfrequented lanes,” “wild roses,” “uncultured flowers,” and numerous other natural miracles, they emphasize the beauty of Nature when it is untamed (lines 349, 350, 359). The narrator’s listing of wild flora culminates with the declaration that these flowers and grasses were “Fit crown for April’s fair but changeful brow” (line 367). The comparison of these natural elements to a crown emphasizes the beauty of Nature while also restating the royal or godlike importance of it. Additionally, by referencing April as a representation of Nature, the narrator links Nature to seasons and the passing of time – which is further reinforced by the mention of April’s “changeful brow” (line 367). Allusions to royalty continue throughout the poem; the narrator details “purple tassels,” “purple clouds,” and “purple haze” (line 351, 366, 487). The repetition of the color purple, which is commonly associated with royalty, carries connotations of majesty that reinforce the narrator’s belief in the power and importance of Nature.  

The power and importance of Nature are themes that are expanded further, especially in relation to time. After discovering seashells on cliffs far above the sea, the narrator wonders at possible changes the landscape could have undergone that could explain this phenomenon. The narrator muses on natural changes that would have taken centuries to develop, though they eventually dismiss these theories as simple “conjecture,” seemingly concluding that Nature works on timelines that are too extensive to ever fully comprehend (line 393). The narrator’s deference to the power of Nature is further emphasized through their depictions of common people, each of whom are reliant on Nature for their livelihoods. These people work, “unheeding such inquiry” into Nature’s power, and not considering the “remains of men” that rest “deep beneath them” (lines 396, 402, 401). Rather than trying to comprehend the great power of Nature, they are simply grateful for what it gives them. This contrast between the working people and the bones and fossils buried deep beneath them reinforces Nature’s power and introduces the idea that everything will return to Nature eventually. While the contrast of humanity’s short lives to Nature’s long reign may seem bleak, the narrator seems to find this return to the natural world humbling and comforting.  Though this poem exalts the beauty and power of Nature, it also understands that the passing of time will inevitably return everything to its wildest, most natural, and most beautiful state. 

A Red Red Rose

Robert Burns’ “A Red Red Rose” is an effusively romantic poem, both in structure and content. It is written with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, which make it a type of ballad. The poem’s balladic structure enhances its romantic message by connecting it to the well-known romanticism and sentimentality of the genre.  

The narrator begins the poem by comparing their “luve” to both a “red, red rose” that is “newly sprung” and a “melodie” that is “sweetly played in tune” (Burns lines 1-4). These are common romantic similes which, alongside the ballad structure, set up the passionate tone of the poem.  

While the “luve” mentioned in the first stanza could refer to either the narrator’s love or their lover, the following stanzas are explicitly addressed to “my bonnie lass” and “my dear” (Burns lines 5, 8). In these stanzas, the narrator draws upon natural imagery to represent the passing of time and ensure their lover of the longevity of their affection. They state “I will love thee still, my dear / Till a’ the seas gang dry… And the rocks melt wi’ the sun… While the sands o’ life shall run!” (Burns lines 7-8, 10, 12). These exaggerated claims illustrate the strength of their love through impossible to imagine natural phenomena. Just as one can’t imagine the seas without water, the narrator can’t imagine their life without their love. The repetition that occurs among these phrases further reinforces the narrator’s vehement claims of devotion while simultaneously enhancing the poem’s balladic lyricism. 

Interestingly, these claims of eternal love contradict the first stanza’s similes, which compare the narrator’s “luve” to ephemeral objects (Burns line 1). “Newly sprung” roses die, melodies end, and instruments fall out of tune (Burns line 2-4). These comparisons (especially the one to “newly sprung” roses) suggest the beauty of a new relationship, as well as its inevitable impermanence (Burns line 2). The relationship between fleeting beauty and love is directly contrasted in the lines “As fair art thou, my bonnie lass, / So deep in luve am I” (Burns lines 5-6). The use of the phrases “as fair” and “so” suggest a connection between the lover’s beauty and the narrator’s adoration of them; while their lover is beautiful, they love her deeply, but will this dim alongside her appearance? (Burns lines 5-6). Perhaps the narrator is saying their love will remain as intense as if it is new, for as long as they can envision.  

Finally, in using both the Scots spelling “luve” and the English spelling “love,” the narrator gives a sense of universality to their affection. This enhances their final claim that their love would endure anywhere, even “ten thousand mile” away from their lover (Burns line 16). Overall, these romantic declarations encompass popular romantic themes by representing the impermanence of beauty and nature.