As famous French writer Stendhal comments, “Pleasure is often spoiled by describing it.” Perhaps that is why some people just hate to read romance. It seems that something in the pleasure of sexuality is lost when it hits the pages of a trashy romance novel. Ages before contemporary writers such as Nora Roberts began pouring steamy affairs onto the pages of paperbacks, poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge perfected the art of describing pleasure without spoiling it. In an example of this perfection, Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” uses images from nature to describe the intense pleasure found in the sensations of a sexual experience, through the metaphor of a palace, comparing this pleasure also to the joy of experiencing great creative inspiration.
The poem can be broken down into three sections. In the first section, lines 1 to 11, Coleridge sets up the metaphor of the palace. He uses natural imagery to give the feeling that this palace is like a beautiful woman. In line 2, he introduces the topic, referring to it as “a stately pleasure-dome,” which he based on a line in Samuel Purchas’ book, Purchas his Pilgrimage, which says, “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built and a stately garden thereunto.” In presenting “Kubla Khan,” Coleridge explained that he had read this line just before drifting into an opium-induced sleep, and thus the poem is a result of this vision. Because Coleridge introduces the palace as a “pleasure-dome,” the tone of the poem is therefore marked to be about pleasure and sensuality.
In describing the palace in the first section of the poem, Coleridge uses language that is suggestive of a woman and her fertility, as he describes “caverns measureless to man” and “fertile ground” (4-6), as well as towers that were “girdled round” (7) and gardens that “blossomed” (9) as they were “enfolding” the greenery (11). With the caverns and the fertile ground seemingly representing a womb, while the following lines represent a beautiful body, these words paint a picture of a womanly image, showing the parallel desire for the pleasure-dome as the desire of a man for a fertile woman.
From here, the poem goes further into this metaphor. In the second section, lines 12 to 36, he explores the pleasure-dome, romancing the woman and experiencing the sensations of foreplay, then intercourse, and finally the moments of relaxation that follow. He describes these in terms of nature, showing the great contrast of the peacefulness and the climax. First, he describes the palace, or her body, as “holy and enchanted” (14), and then, in contrast to the purity of this image, describes the woman as “wailing for her demon-lover” (16). He uses this image of the “woman wailing for her demon-lover” (16) to describe the look of the pleasure-dome in the moon. This peaceful image depicts the rhythmic feel of a passionate foreplay, which precedes the contrasting image Coleridge gives of intercourse, “as if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing” (18). What follows this, in lines 19 to 24, is the description of his climax.
It is hard to even decipher what part of the palace of garden he is describing as he details the “mighty fountain” (19) as it “flung up momently the sacred river” (24), portraying the man’s orgasm. Using these images of water, he distinguishes the intensity of the climax from the relaxing release that follows, as he again mentions the sacred river, but this time it is “meandering with a mazy motion” (25-26). This image is like the sperm, as if they are swimming peacefully upstream. The tone shifts again to a more powerful image when they reach the “caverns measureless to man” (27), and sink “in tumult to a lifeless ocean” (28), which perhaps refers to how incredible it is that when fertilization occurs a life is created out of something that was previously lifeless.
Coleridge then zooms out the metaphor in lines 31 to 36, looking again at the larger picture of the palace, this time describing the “shadow of the pleasure-dome” (31). Possible he mentions the “shadow” to show that he is reminiscing on his experience, completing this section with another image of great contrast, “It was a miracle of rare device, a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” (35-36), and thus ends the metaphor of the palace.
The metaphor then shifts in the final section, in lines 37-54, again using a woman, although this time having little connection to the palace. Here he describes the song of a female musician, illustrating “a damsel with a dulcimer,” (37) whom he saw in a vision. Whereas the previous sections used the palace as a metaphor for an experience with a woman, this woman seems to be the metaphor, symbolizing the experiencing of creative inspiration.
The connection lies in the intensity of the experience; the woman’s song in the vision was so incredible that it brings back the sensation of intercourse, inciting in him a desire to “build that dome in air” (46). The poem has previously set up the dome as being linked to sexual pleasure, yet here he is talking about the desire to “revive… her symphony and song” (42-43), now discussing the pleasure provided by art, and as he alludes to a ritual traditionally used to protect poets, it shows that his pleasure here is as a result of poetic inspiration. The delight this inspiration provides is so incredible that it turns him into a madman, that “all should cry, ‘Beware! Beware!’ His flashing eyes, his floating hair!” (49-50). The notion of “flashing eyes” and “floating hair” could also be linked to the sexual imagery Coleridge employs in the poem, as a man in the height of passion.
He ends the poem with a reference to Plato’s Ion, where it compares inspired poets to maidens who are not in their right minds when they draw milk. With a somewhat sexual connotation, Coleridge relates his inspiration to having “drunk the milk of paradise” (54). The fact that it is “paradise” leads back to the natural garden atmosphere of the pleasure-dome. Furthermore, the reference to milk, which in Ion was gathered by maidens, hints at the connection between sexual pleasure and the joy of creative inspiration.
Taking the poem in a different perspective, one could explore the concept of drugs as a source of pleasure, since the entire poem was admittedly created as the result of taking opium. As rich in imagery as the poem is, “Kubla Khan” in notably a mark of Coleridge’s genius as a poet, raising the question of the impact of the opium on his poetry. As line 38 of the poem points out, the woman’s song was heard in a vision; it could be argued that the “deep delight ‘twould win” (44) Coleridge only as the opium inspires him.
What is the ultimate source of pleasure? What is the ultimate source of inspiration? Whether it is drug-induced or not, it seems that Coleridge would say it is imagination. As Coleridge wrote in Chapter 13 of Biographia Liter aria, imagination is “the living power and prime agent of all human perception.” Imagination is pleasure; it is creation; it is everything!
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan.” Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 446-448.