Kubla Khan Poem Summary


The poem Kubla Khan is highly imaginative, in which, after each stanza, the level of imaginations and creativity goes deeper. The poem focuses on the “willing suspension of disbelief” i.e. the reader must quit his rationality in order to understand the creativity of the poem[i].

Kubla Khan – Detailed Summary

Stanza 1 – Creativity of Kubla Khan

Or, a vision in a dream, a fragment…
...Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

In the first stanza, the poet in a dream or in imagination sees Kubla Khan in his capital city Xanadu, commanding from his luxurious palace dome. The river of Alph flows through the vast chambers and covering huge distance mixes into the sea where there is no sunlight.

(Note: – there is no such river with the name Alph in the world. The word Alph resembling the first letter of Arabic “Alif” probably symbolises the river of knowledge for which the humans are thirsty)

The capital of Kubla Khan is about ten square kilometres with fertile land which is surrounded by walls and towers protecting it. There are beautiful gardens through which a streamlet flows in a curved manner and along the streamlet, there are trees and plants having a sweet fragrance.

There are forests which are as old as the hills and are covered with green plants over which sunlight is falling. In the first stanza, it is the creativity of Kubla Khan. It is the first level of imaginations.

Stanza 2- The Divine Creativity

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted…
…And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean

In the second stanza, creativity moves to a deeper level of imaginations. The poet describes the divine creativity. There is a sloping hill with green plants, across which there is a chasm or a deep gap covered with mosses.

It is as wild and holy (i.e. natural) as the love of a woman who under the decreasing moon is crying for her supernatural lover. In this chasm or gap, there is an unending disturbance. It seems that earth is breathing angrily and through the gap, water is coming out with great force and then falling down.

There is thus a duality of the movement (up and down). With the water, huge stones are thrown out on either side of the chasm which covers the gap. Amidst these stones, the holy river comes out and flows through the woods and the valley in a zigzag way. The river reaching the vast chambers ultimately sinks with noise into the silent sea.

Stanza 3 – Poet’s Creativity

And ‘mid this tumult Kubla Khan heard from far…
…A sunny pleasure-dome with cave of ice

Now in the third stanza, the creativity moves into the 3rd or deepest level of imaginations where human creativity and divine creativity are combined and as a result of its artefacts is made.

It should be also noted that in stanza 1, it is the creativity of Kubla Khan, in the second stanza, it is the divine creativity and in the 3rd stanza, it is the creativity of the poet. While hearing the noise of the river falling into the silent sea, Kubla Khan hears the voice of his dead ancestors who predict and foretell the future war.

The shadow of luxurious palace dome floats in the air, where a combination of the noise of fountain and silence of cave is heard. (Something quite impossible!). 

The poet calls it a miracle of a rare device which is really true because a sunny dome (hot) and cave ice (cold) cannot co-exist. It is thus the impulse of creativity which makes the contradictory things like sun and ice, dark and bright, flat or hilly, silent and sound to exist together.

Stanza 4 – Willing Suspension of Disbelief

(A damsel with dulcimer…
…and drunk the milk of Paradise)

In the 4th stanza, the poet in a dream sees a damsel (i.e. a virgin girl) who is playing the dulcimer (a musical instrument). She is from the Black Race of Africa and probably from Ethiopia.

She is playing the dulcimer and singing for Mount Abora (which probably means the river of Akbara which joins the River Nile). The poet by saying “Could I revive in me her symphony and sound”, expresses the superiority of the damsel and in spite of being a European, he praises a Non-European.

The poet wishes that if he could have the skills of symphony and music of that damsel, he would have built the dome-like that pleasure dome of Kubla Khan, in the air with caves of ice, and thus he would have constructed some impossible artefact.

The audience, on seeing him, doing so would pay attention to his acts. They would then appreciate his attractive eyes and beautiful hair.

They would then weave a circle thrice around him i.e. they would appreciate his poetry by reading it three times, each time going to a deeper level and at this instance, there would be the willing suspension of disbelief i.e. they would close their eyes of rationality with holy dread which means that they will then go to imaginations.

They would then witness that by creating the imaginary dome and ice cave in the air and by having the symphony and music of that damsel, he would drink the milk of paradise i.e. he would achieve the best pleasure.

[i] Acknowledgements

Thanks to Prof. Ameena Kazi Ansari (HOD English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India) for sharing her peerless knowledge.[i]

Further Reading