Understanding the meaning of Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the most complicated pieces of poetry owing to its profound imagery that has various symbolic ramifications. However, beneath the thick veneer of Kubla Khan’s imagery lies the central theme of Romantic imagination and poetic creation that has been exploited all throughout the poem.
Towards the beginning of the poem, the poet sheds light upon how a poet’s romantic imagination is the driving force behind his creation. The sensuous image of the chasm – “But oh! That deep romantic chasm which slanted down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!” signifies the mysterious dark mind of the poet that is holy because it is the seat of poetic creation and also enchanted by his yearning for this state of poetic creation that has been symbolized by the image “woman wailing for her demon lover”.
Under spasmodic impulses of this romantic imagination, the mind of the poet goes into the labor of childbirth to create his poetry that has been well demonstrated by the image of the fountain that erupts from the womb of the chasm – “And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil breathing, as if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, a mighty fountain momently was forced.” This new-born poetic creation first comes forth in form of untamed thoughts, untouched by norms of classicism and then takes form of a river that has been considered sacred by Coleridge – “And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever, it flung up momentarily, the sacred river”.
This stream of poetry that has been created is the artistic child of Romantic imagination has the power of bringing about a revolution in the way the world thinks and perceives. Its source of Romantic imagination makes it a potent tool of art which is capable of attaining “a miracle of rare device” such as the image of “A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice”. This means that the Romantic imagination infuses in the poetic creation an esemplastic power that is capable of putting fundamental polarities like heat and ice, light and dark, dome and cavern into a harmonious existence. From Coleridge’s “Biographia Literaria” we gather that this power of Romantic imagination is known as its “shaping spirit” which aims at “reconciliation of opposites in art”.
Possessed by this spirit of the Romantic imagination, the poet goes into a frenzy of poetic creation and takes the form of an eloquent prophet who is symbolized by the image of the mythological musician Apollo at the end of the poem. Such a divine-aided poet is a force to be reckoned with as “he on honeydew hath fed and drunk the milk of paradise” which means he has been awarded a divine seat as he has the power to create.
Thus we see that the theme of Romantic imagination and poetic creation that runs through the poem from start to finish through a series of vivid images awards it an organic unity. This theme brings the poem out of the realm of an opium dream and establishes its worth as meaningful poetry.