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In both his poem ‘Kubla Khan’ and its accompanying prologue Samuel Taylor Coleridge presents two ideas: the variable nature of the imagination and the beauty of the foreign and exotic. Many scholars view the story behind the poem’s composition as not only one of the most significant events in both the Romantic Movement but in Literature as a whole. Gregory Leadbetter, for example, states that “It is its own creation myth.” In no way, however, should this “myth” surrounding the discovery and loss of inspiration overshadow or distract from the poem itself as it is one where Coleridge shows great poetic ability as well as illustrating what Edward Said would later go on to call “Orientalism”.
In the prologue Coleridge explains how he composed the poem after a dream “in which all the images [of the poem] rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions”. This dream supposedly provided Coleridge with between two to three hundred lines of the poem. Coleridge, however, would only write fifty-four due to a barely explained interruption. This fragmentation of the poem is greatly important in itself due to the implications it has on the limits of the imagination. There is a sense that Coleridge is disappointed in himself for being unable to complete the poem, even as far as feeling somewhat robbed. As he writes in the prologue, “I shall sing a sweeter song tomorrow: but to-morrow is yet to come.” [pg.460]
Coleridge seems to suggest that perfection, or possibly even something close to perfection, is something of an ungraspable state, always beyond what we are able to achieve. This sense of disappointment in himself carries on into the poem itself with his writing “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and son, / To such a deep delight ‘twould win me, / That with music loud and long, / I would build that dome in the air”. [Lines 42-46] His wish to “rebuild that dome” is a wish to re-envisage that dream and thus complete his poem. He does, however, suggest some pride in the poem, inadvertently calling it “sweet” [pg.460], therefore suggesting that although perfection or true excellence is not attainable due to the limits of the human imagination, something close can be achieved. The imagination, for Coleridge, is something which is not limitless in its ability but is still capable of great achievements.
Another focus of the poem is the attraction and intrigue associated with the exotic. The influence that the extravagant images and ideas concerning the court of Kublai Khan in Xanadu is easily shown through the sense of awe, mysticism and undeniable beauty present in the poem. Coleridge describes “Alph, the sacred river” [Line 3], “twice five miles of fertile ground / With walls and towers girdled round” [Lines 6-7] and “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” [Line 6] These almost hyperbolic descriptions shows a passion with this certain aspect of the foreign that, when compared to the works of other Romantic poets who focussed on the beauty home in Great Britain (such as Wordsworth and his poem ‘Tintern Abbey’), suggests an interest in a more worldly, unfamiliar strand of the sublime than his peers. While Wordsworth focusses on “steep and lofty cliffs” and “hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild”, Coleridge is far more comfortable with overt grandeur and majesty.
This, however, often seems like glorifying the exotic for the sake of it being the exotic, capitalizing upon misconceptions of the Orient for the purpose of glorification. It could be argued that Coleridge, who never experienced the Orient himself beyond the writings of Samuel Purchas and Marco Polo, is simply re-envisaging stereotypes of the Far East. This, therefore, could be interpreted as a product of the cultural misconception Edward Said explored in his 1978 book Orientalism. Said describes the Orient as “a European invention, and has been a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” It is clear to see that this is an adequate description of how Coleridge, as shown through ‘Kubla Kahn’, views the Orient, as nothing more than a “British and French cultural enterprise”. It could be argued that, from an Orientalist or post-colonial perspective, through this poem Coleridge is helping to further solidify the influence of cultural misconceptions and stereotypes.
In ‘Kubla Khan’ Coleridge displays the great ability and talent he has as a poet, as well as providing one of the most influential composition stories in the canon of English Literature. In doing so, however, he brings attention to two big issues within not just Romantic Literature, but Literature as a whole. Firstly, the human imagination, although capable of great feats, is not something to be taken for granted as it cannot always fulfill our expectations of it. Secondly, there exist, even literary works taken for granted as classics of Literature, ideas and images that in a modern context could be seen as demeaning or misleading.
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