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HomePoems > Kubla Khan > Images                           


1. Building the Pleasure Dome

2. The sacred river

3. The chasm

4. The woman wailing

5. The fountain

6. Fragments like hail

7. Grain and chaff

8. The meandering river

9. The caverns

10. Prophesies of war

11. The floating dome

12. The rare device

13. Sun and ice

14. The Abyssinian maid

15. Her song

16. The warning

17. His eyes and hair

18. The magic circles

19. The eyes closed

20. The taste of Paradise


In The Road to Xanadu, Lowes argues that Coleridge had an unusual sensitivity to visual imagery, and often saw what he imagined or envisioned very clearly, as if he were actually in the scene. Trailing behind the visions came the words.

The words, Lowes argues, arose unbidden out of memory, perhaps recalling one or more passages in authors that Coleridge had studied carefully, when he was preparing to write hymns to the sun and moon (poems he never actually got around to writing).

Most of these images contain several components, often contrasting.

  • The dome is full of sun, but has caves of ice.
  • The water rises and falls.
  • The poet's delight would help create the pleasure dome, but visitors would pull back in dread.
  • The chasm is holy--and enchanted.
  • The man with the flashing eyes and floating hair is frightening because he has been to Paradise.

The scenes change rapidly, too, as we move from one to the next.

And within some of these scenes, we glide forward over the landscape, as if we were floating through the air, or following the water down into the earth and back up in the river. These are moving pictures.

Lowes suggests that whole scenes rise from Coleridge's memory, not just particular images. Ignoring the possibility that any of these scenes are ones that Coleridge himself had seen, Lowes argues that the imagery comes back to Coleridge's inner eye, from his reading. Of course, some of the images have no particular source, as far as Lowes can tell.

But the most vivid images often have multiple sources, leading Lowes to argue that Coleridge's synthetic imagination has combined all those scenes he read about, concatenating them because of their similarity.

When you read through the flat descriptions of these images, from the beginning to the end, you can see that there is not a very coherent progression.

You cannot call this a closely plotted poem. For instance:

  • What do the prophesies of war have to do with the chasm?
  • Are they perhaps related to this magical figure who has flashing eyes and floating hair?
  • Where did this damsel come from?

Visually, we are yanked from one scene to another.

And the point of view shifts midstream. At line 37, the poet himself enters the poem, recalling that he once had a vision of a girl playing and singing, and he wishes he could reconstruct her music. Somehow, recovering that would let him build his own pleasure dome in air.

I suspect that the gentleman from Porlock interrupted Coleridge's writing after line 36, and when the poet returned to his manuscript, he found he could not really lose himself in the dream again.

The second half of the poem seems to argue that if he could just recover the music, he could write a poem like Kubla Khan.

And, then, at the end, he seems to regain the magical world, as he describes this mysterious person with the floating hair, a man who has come back from Paradise.

But through all these scenes, and changes of viewpoint, Coleridge's verbal music ties these moments together in an onrushing rhythm that recalls Milton touring Paradise, or following Lucifer in his fall.

The sound, not the vision, keeps us moving forward as if under a spell.

And Coleridge inserts internal, end-line, and half rhymes, in an irregular pattern, surging forward, pausing, and echoing what went before, all in a breathless tone of awe. The music of the language is magical and fluid--deliberately so.

The verbal symphony--the mingled measure--stitches together the descriptions of these scenes in a way that induces us to ignore the logistical confusion.

Generally, as we read Kubla Khan, we do not ask reportorial questions about who, what, why, when, and where. We are content to give in to the charm.

Like the spell woven at the end of the poem, the text keeps circling around and around and around, recreating a vision that mingles together the verbal, the visual, and the musical.

Here, though, we isolate the individual scenes, showing the lines in which they occur, highlighting the words that Lowes suggests Coleridge may have borrowed, along with the visions.

Analysis definitely removes some of the magic from these scenes. But by putting our attention on the visual, we get beyond the merely verbal echoes, to "see" something closer to the twilight consciousness that Coleridge experienced, akin to a dream, where we never ask rational questions about what is happening, or why one event follows another.

In this sense, Lowes endeavors to go beyond mere verbal trifling, to imagine what Coleridge was seeing, hearing, and recording.

Other Perspectives

Kubla Khan--The Poem








William Bartram
William Beckford
F. Bernier
James Bruce
Thomas Burnet
William Collins
Athanasius Kircher
Jerome Lobo
Thomas Maurice
John Milton
Samuel Purchas
Major James Rennell

Mary Wollstonecraft
























Note: I have separated out the images here, for analysis, but in doing so I am not closely following Lowes.  You will see that some lines have no hot text, because none of the words in those lines have been linked to a source, in Lowes. Perhaps Coleridge had a moment where he actually thought of an image himself, at those times--or perhaps Lowes just did not do enough detective work, to spot a possible source.



Text           (Click a word to trace possible sources)


1. Building the Pleasure Dome
A great head of state, or khan, issues a decree, ordering a pleasure dome to be built. Ten miles of walls and towers surround gardens, and odoriferous trees with blossoms, ancient forests, hills, and sunny spots of greenery.



In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.


2. The sacred river
A sacred river runs through caverns that are so deep that no man can measure them, plunging down below the earth, filling a sea below ground, where the sun cannot get through.

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
3. The chasm
Inside the area marked off for Kubla Khan's pleasure dome, a deep chasm cut down a green hill, covered with cedars. This chasm was romantic, savage, holy, enchanted.


But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
4. The woman wailing
In moonlight, a woman wails for her demon lover. 15-16


As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

5. The fountain
Water surges up from below the ground, in the chasm, making a mighty fountain. As the water is forced up from moment to moment, in fast bursts, as if the earth itself were panting, the flow ebbs, half-intermitted, then resumes, tossing huge fragments that rebound--dancing rocks. And from this fountain flows a sacred river.


And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.
6. Fragments like hail
The fragments toss around like hailstones bouncing back off the ground, against each other.


Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
7. Grain and chaff
The fragments tossed up by the fountain are like the chaff falling off grain beaten by a thresher with a flail.


Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail:
8. The meandering river
The sacred river follows a meandering course, moving for five miles as if through a maze, past wood and dale.


Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
9.  The caverns
The river sinks into a cavern that no one has every been able to measure, tumultuously falling into an ocean below the ground, waters where there is no life.


Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
10. Prophecies of war
Over the noise in the chasm, Kubla Khan hears the voices of ancestors prophesying war.


And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war!
11. The floating dome
The pleasure dome casts its shadow right in the middle of the waves, as if it is floating on top, in the middle of the sound from the fountain and the caves, whose music mingles there.


The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
12. The rare device
The pleasure dome is a miraculous piece of art, a device.


It was a miracle of rare device,
13. Sun and ice
The pleasure dome is full of sun, but inside it are caves of ice.



A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

14. The Abyssinian maid
The poet has a vision of a maid playing her dulcimer in Abyssinia, singing of Mount Abora.


In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,

And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.

15. Her song
If the poet could recall her song, he would feel such delight that he would build the pleasure dome in air.


Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,

I would build that dome in air,
16. The warning
Anyone who saw the pleasure dome would then cry, "Beware! Beware!".


And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

17. His eyes and hair
They are warning us of a man who has flashing eyes and floating hair.


His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
18. The magic circles
They want us to protect ourselves from him by drawing a circle around him three times.


Weave a circle round him thrice,
19. The eyes closed
To avoid seeing this man, they suggest closing our eyes, in a dread that is holy.


And close your eyes with holy dread,
20. The taste of Paradise
This man has fed on honey-dew, and drunk the milk of Paradise.


For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.


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