The unnamed speaker of the poem tells of how a man named Kubla Khan traveled to the land of Xanadu. In Xanadu, Kubla found a fascinating pleasure-dome that was “a miracle of rare device” because the dome was made of caves of ice and located in a sunny area. The speaker describes the contrasting composition of Xanadu. While there are gardens blossoming with incense-bearing trees and “sunny spots of greenery,” across the “deep romantic chasm” in Xanadu there are “caverns measureless to man” and a fountain from which “huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail.” Amid this hostile atmosphere of Nature, Kubla also hears “ancestral voices prophesying war.” However, Kubla finds relief from this tumultuous atmosphere through his discovery of the miraculous sunny pleasure-dome made of ice.
In the last stanza of the poem, the narrator longs to revive a song about Mount Abora that he once heard a woman play on a dulcimer. The speaker believes that the song would transport him to a dream world in which he could “build that dome in air” and in which he can drink “the milk of Paradise.”
A recurring motif throughout Coleridge’s poetry is the power of dreams and of the imagination, such as in “Frost at Midnight,” “Dejection: An Ode,” and “Christabel.” In “Discovery and the Domestic Affections in Coleridge and Shelley,” Michelle Levy explains that Coleridge’s “fascination with the unknown reflects a larger cultural obsession of the Romantic period” (694).
Perhaps the most fantastical world created by Coleridge lies in “Kubla Khan.” The legendary story behind the poem is that Coleridge wrote the poem following an opium-influenced dream. In this particular poem, Coleridge seems to explore the depths of dreams and creates landscapes that could not exist in reality. The “sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice” exemplifies the extreme fantasy of the world in which Kubla Khan lives.
Similar to several of Coleridge’s other poems, the speaker’s admiration of the wonders of nature is present in “Kubla Khan.” Yet what is striking and somewhat different about the portrayal of nature in this particular poem is the depiction of the dangerous and threatening aspects of nature. For example, consider the following passage:
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
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 (lines 12-24)
In “Secret(ing) Conversations: Coleridge and Wordsworth,” Bruce Lawder highlights the significance of Coleridge’s use of a feminine rhyme scheme in the above stanza, in which the last two syllables of the lines rhyme (such as “seething” and “breathing”). Lawder notes that “the male force of the ‘sacred river’ literally interrupts, and puts an end to, the seven successive feminine endings that begin the second verse paragraph” (80). This juxtaposition of female forces versus male forces parallels the juxtaposition of Coleridge’s typical pleasant descriptions of nature versus this poem’s unpleasant descriptions. In most of Coleridge’s works, nature represents a nurturing presence. However, in “Kubla Khan,” nature is characterized by a rough, dangerous terrain that can only be tamed by a male explorer such as Kubla Khan.
The last stanza of the poem was added later, and is not a direct product of Coleridge's opium-dream. In it the speaker longs to re-create the pleasured-dome of Kubla Khan "in air," perhaps either in poetry, or in a way surpassing the miraculous work of Kubla Khan himself. The speaker's identity melds with that of Kubla Khan, as he envisions himself being spoken of by everyone around, warning one another to "Beware! Beware!/His flashing eyes, his floating hair!" Kubla Khan/the speaker becomes a figure of superstition, around whom those who would remain safe should "Weave a circle[...] thrice" to ward off his power. Coleridge conflates the near-mythic figure of Kubla Khan manipulating the natural world physically, with the figure of the poet manipulating the world "in air" through the power of his words. In either case, the creative figure becomes a source of awe, wonder, and terror combined.