Honors British Literature
The desire to become one’s own creator spurs man to challenge God by mimicking His infinite creative potential. Coleridge attempts to solve this by discussing the concept of poetry and how it unites through the imagination, arguing that man can create something that brings harmony. “Kubla Khan” demonstrates that music parallels poetry in organic form, innately self-developing to fit into the perfect mechanical mold that humans create. However, it transcends poetry through a universality that rivals God’s own creation because music synthesizes as an organic form. The marriage of God and man thus takes place as the two appear to become equal. Through the various emanations of the mind, in which man’s imagination evolves to become increasingly potent, “Kubla Khan” illustrates the miracle humans can perform through creating music.
To fully appreciate the poem, one must first understand the primary and secondary imagination Coleridge uses in “Kubla Khan”. He explained the primary imagination as “the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM,” (Coleridge) and the secondary imagination as “an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will; yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree and in the mode of its operation,” (Coleridge). The primary and secondary imaginations work in harmony, with the former transcending the material world and the latter destroying and recreating. It is rather paradoxical that these two imaginations would exist together, however the Romantic period itself welcomes paradox and the seemingly impossible to stimulate creativity and challenge humans to transcend the nominalistic world and match God’s creation.
Before analyzing the poem, the reader must understand the synthetic qualities that poetry and music bring to the world. Poetry, according to Sydney, unites two vastly different perspectives, the historian and the philosopher, or fact and philosophy. Coleridge believed that it brought the “whole soul of man into activity,” (Coleridge) because it has both a mechanical form and an organic form. The mechanical form of a poem is whatever the poet writes, or the text. It is each flowing stanza, with countless style devices and meaning. This form allows each reader to then analyze the poem differently as the individual brings his own thoughts, his own experiences, and his own hopes for humanity to the table, projecting them onto the poem in question. That becomes the organic form, which is the infinite meaning the poem holds as it affects each person differently.
Music thus is the higher form of poetry. It takes the text and gives it life, through sounds that engage the senses so that the listener is fully immersed. Music commands the listener to become one with the music as he/she sympathizes with the musician and understands the depth of the emotion the music invokes. Its qualities transcend time and connect humanity through the emotions it stimulates. The feeling of listening to a song and experiencing again what one felt and how one lived life the first time one heard that song is brought about by the music itself. In his letters on The Authenticity of the Imagination, John Keats discusses this:
“have you never by being surprised with an old Melody–in a delicious place–by a delicious voice, fe[l]t over again your very speculations and surmises at the time it first operated on your soul-do you not remember forming to yourself the singer’s face more beautiful that it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so–even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high–that the Prototype must be here after–that delicious face you will see What a time!” (Keats).
Here, Keats praises the teleportation-like qualities music possesses and the Wings of Imagination it engages. The delicious face must be the face of God if the Wings of Imagination are the final emanation of the mind, thus both paralleling Kubla Khan and proving the idea that man rivals God in creation through music.
The first emanation of the mind is described as a beautiful place where the imagination is content to create simple and beautiful, tangible things. Through this, “A stately pleasure-dome decree/ Where Alph, the sacred river, ran,” (Coleridge, 1-2) the dome serves as a metaphor for the mind, and the sacred river Alph as a metaphor for the imagination, bringing to light the idea that it is indeed the mind which Coleridge will take the reader through. Music has not yet entered the scene; it is not even thought of in the first emanation. The reader is only introduced to what the mind can create that is beautiful, through imagery that alludes to the Garden of Eden: “With walls and towers were girdled round:/And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,” (Coleridge, 7-8).
The poet continues on to a rather bold description of one of man’s higher forms of creation: sex. He describes the act of sex through the sexual organs given to women and men respectively: “But oh! That deep romantic chasm which slanted/down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!,” (Coleridge, 12-13) and “A mighty fountain momentary was forced:/Amid whose swift half-intermittent burst/Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,” (Coleridge, 19-20). The total act of sex becomes the first emanation of the mind as two are united into one creator to produce a new life. The sacred river Alph becomes nature’s fertilization of the sperm and egg, creating yet another metaphor that the imagination combines with the mind to produce thought and creativity. The transition from what is beautiful and good to the unknown is found through the verses “Five miles meandering with a mazy motion/Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,/Then reached the caverns measureless to man,” (Coleridge, 25-27). Here, the imagination seems to run through the mind forever, boasting man’s infinite capacity to create. This further proves the idea that man can create something of organic form, because of the infinite form which music takes. The “m” alliteration found throughout the poem, especially in these verses, also supports this point because it emphasizes the unity that procreation gives. Lastly, “And ‘mid this tumult to a lifeless ocean:/Ancestral voices prophesying war!” (Coleridge, 29-39) reminds the reader again of the secondary imagination which destroys, as the metaphor of war states. This connects back to the poem because humans take the creation of life which is God’s gift to the world and re-images it as procreation through sex.
The second emanation of the mind is a transition from what is beautiful and tangible to what is seemingly untouchable by man. The dome is now described as something which should not exist: “It was a miracle of rare device,/A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice,” (Coleridge, 35-36). The author of the book talks about the beauty this emanation of the mind holds, and the unreachable state in which it resides:
“The word “miracle” above spells out for the reader the supernatural aspect of its creation. Only in the ideal world could such loveliness be realized. In these lines the accent is upon the beauty and internal reality of this pleasure-dome world of Imagination,” (Radley, 79).
The idea that the dome is in a state unreadable to humans is realized through paradoxes Coleridge puts into the second emanation of the mind. A sunny, yet icy material item should not exist, for the hot would overtake the cold in a conclusion of melting ice. If only the ideal world the author speaks of was a world that turned intangible into tangible ideas, then this emanation could be fully realized into existence. However, Lawrence Buell provides a solution that allows the second emanation of the mind exist. he describes the world as:
“…a Dancer; it is a Rosary; it is a Torrent; it is a Boat; a mist; a Spider’s snare; it is what you will; and the metaphor will hold, & it will give the imagination keen pleasure. Swifter than light the world converts itself into that thing you name.” (Bell)
Note the first description of the world: “a Dancer.” The world here welcomes art as a higher emanation and the reason the metaphors of sunny and icy domes will hold.
This art is realized through, “It was an Abyssinian maid,/And in her dulcimer she played,” (Coleridge, 39-40). Coleridge has just introduced music as an art, and the imagination is able to put a tangible object onto what was untouchable before, bringing the reader to the final emanation of the mind. Now that the dome can exist in the human world, the task becomes understanding what form the final emanation of the mind takes in the world. It was hinted before through the dulcimer, and now Coleridge declares that he can recreate the miracle of the dome through music: “That with music loud and long,/I would build that dome in the air,/That sunny dome! those caves of ice!” (Coleridge, 45-47). This is where music puts man on a pedestal that faces God, just as Keats mentioned previously. Music forms the bridge between the microcosm and the macrocosm; it is the link between nominalism and realism; the imagination has thought into existence something so powerful that it carries both a material and organic form that transcends all of the laws of man. The concept of time is known not by the composer when he painstakingly built the final chord to his song, and neither does the singer who remembers that exact moment she first heard this chord and how it struck her as the most astoundingly perfect thing man has created.
The next question that surfaces is why music makes man rival God. The final line of “Kubla Khan” weaves a metaphor through the poem that flings humans above the first emanation where the Garden of Eden was present to Heaven itself: “For he on honey-dew hath fed,/ And drunk the milk of paradise,” (Coleridge, 53-54). The metaphor screams the ideal final destination of humanity and the idea that humans have reached a state where they can create something which resides with God. The synthetic qualities music possesses-as previously stated-bring together all of humanity, and thus a community where God can be found is formed.
The various emanations of the mind continuously make tangible creations that compete against infinity and synthesis. The answer to what man rivals God in is indeed music, the only material idea that connects the world and God. “Singing once is praying twice” is, in fact, supported by this argument. Music takes the poetry and grasps the listener’s full attention. It is “the universal language”, creating a community that connects the entirety of humanity, dwelling in every person at all times. Music is part of the soul.
Buell, Lawrence. Literary transcendentalism. Ithaca (NY): Cornell U Press, 1973. Print. Style and Vision in the American Renaissance. Accessed from JSTOR.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. ” Kubla Khan”. Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Norton anthology of English literature: the major authors.” New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. Print.
Keats, John. “The Authenticity of the Imagination.” Letter to Benjamin Bailey. 22 Nov. 1817. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. N.p.: n.p., 1979. N. pag. Print.
Radley, Virginia L. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Boston: Twayne, 1966. Print