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Answer: The Romantic lives in a world, not of things, but of images; not of laws, but of metaphors. Although best known for his poetry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also an important literary critic who helped to popularize the Romantic Movement among English speaking peoples. Romanticism had emerged from the German Sturm und Drang movement of the second half of the eighteenth century, which itself had arisen as a reaction to Enlightenment philosophy and values. Whereas Enlightenment thinkers envisioned an orderly universe and advocated for the use of reason as guide for productive living, the Sturm und Drang called for a passionate approach to life in a world more sensual than sensible.
The Romantics, while maintaining distance from the objective rationalism of the Enlightenment, also distanced themselves from the impetuousness of Sturm und Drang. They focused on a subjective view of reality that, while transcending the strictures of logic and reason, also avoids complete domination by ungoverned emotionalism. For the Romantic, meaning is best found through the use of imagination rather than strict adherence to calculation or passion. Coleridge’s critical essays and his poetry, especially “Kubla Khan,” serve as a Romantic counterargument to the ideals of the Enlightenment as described by Emmanuel Kant in his seminal essay “What is Enlightenment?” Indeed, “Kubla Khan,” in its very form and message, illustrates the Romantic principles that Coleridge advances in his criticism.
The fundamental assumption of the Enlightenment was that there are universal truths and laws to which the human mind is naturally able to aspire. The universe, they believed, operated on rational principles, and humans, as products of the universe, may function rationally and productively within the world as long as we are not dominated by social structures built upon superstition or mysticism in the service of authoritarian power. The aim of Enlightenment philosophy was to create and promote political structures in which the subjects and citizens of nations are free to guide themselves toward the universal laws and thus influence their own political structures for the betterment of humankind in general rather than simply for the benefit of an elite ruling class. Underlying the philosophical assumptions and political aims of the Enlightenment is the belief that the universe and humankind are both fundamentally rational similarity, and the result is inadequate or as Coleridge would say, “disgusting” and “loathsome.”
A fruitful analysis of “Kubla Khan” does not center on finding concrete correlations between Coleridge’s images and the real word or in dismissing it as a simple dreamed-up fragment. The focus must be on discovering the meaning behind the images—but more so on the meaning of Coleridge’s use of his images. Only by understanding Coleridge’s use of image can a reader understand his commentary on Romanticism. The central image, arguable, is the river. It lies beneath the surface world, but it is not passive. It affects the Khan’s world even before it erupts. As Humphrey House argues, “The fertility of the plain is only made possible by the mysterious energy of the source *the river+” (House 307). The river, as symbol of the subconscious and of the profound meaning within the metaphor, is the essential fructifying force in the Khan’s world. Coleridge implies as much by naming it the Alph, which brings to mind the first letter of the Greek alphabet (Bahti, 1043). The river is the first thing. Although it might be a stretch, it may be worth noting that the name of the Khan’s realm of Xanadu begins with chi, which appears not last, but certainly much later in the Greek alphabet. Typical interpretations of “Kubla Khan” vary from a fanciful, opium-induced nature poem to an exposition of the creative process. However, it contains a deeper commentary on the differences between the Enlightenment and Romantic views of the world. Coleridge begins with an exposition of the Enlightenment view of the world. Kubla Khan has (or so he believes) bent nature to his will to create an earthly paradise. He has encompassed and enclosed the surface world to consolidate his seat of power. Like Enlightenment thinkers, Kubla has engaged the world of visible things—trees, gardens, walls, and towers—and believes he has thus entered into accord with nature. He has taken what he can see for all that is. When the underground river erupts into his world, he experiences it as an ominous intrusion. The fountain disrupts his order, and he can only see it as a harbinger of violent chaos. Like an Enlightenment thinker, for the Khan up must be up, down must be down, and all must remain within ordered boundaries. Analyzing the other
proper names in the poem reveals more clues about Coleridge’s intention regarding his images. Both “Abora” and “Abyssinian” begin with the prefix ab-, which in the Latin means “from.” These names indicate that both the maiden and her song serve as sources of energy and meaning. The singer shares metaphorical roots with the sacred river; they share qualities of traditional Chinese Yin imagery: darkness and femininity as well as associations with water and the subterranean. Coleridge seems to be associating the singing damsel with the sacred river and positioning both as wellsprings of energy. Indeed, the poem proves out those associations out. The river erupts to the surface and brings prophesy to Kubla Khan, while the singer infuses the poet with the dreadful holy power of art. Coleridge goes even deeper in his commentary on Romantic principles. Contrary to what critics like Cooper think, the poem is not about any real place. Reflecting the idea that we live in a world of images and not things, the very subject of the poem is image, and Coleridge juxtaposes image upon image to emphasize the point. Coleridge tells the reader in his introduction that he experienced the poem as a vision. The poem itself is about that vision, and he describes the purported loss of the vision as “images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast” (Coleridge 377).
In the Romantic worldview, as Coleridge argues, art cannot be an imitation of a thing but only the image of a thing. The projecting of image upon image is best seen in lines 31 through 34: The shadow of the dome of pleasure Floated midway on the waves; Where was heard the mingled measure from the fountain and the caves. It is in this rupture of order and reason in which the river absorbs within itself the likeness of the dome, that the Khan experiences the breaking of his rational world and is subjected to the profound powers of the deep.
Taken together, Coleridge’s introduction and poem are a self-referential unity. The introduction is a supposedly rational explanation of the poem, while the poem is a collection of words that attempt to reproduce the power of the original vision, which, in turn, (like the sacred river) has erupted unbidden from the subterranean depths of the poet’s mind. Like the world of the Romantic, there is no concrete source for anything. Words simply refer to other words which refer to the memory of a vision that appeared in a dream, and meaning can only be derived by analyzing the metaphorical connections between them without the benefit of any fixed external reference.
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