Orientalism: Kubla Khan’s Often Overlooked Racism
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem Kubla Khan is remarkable and well renowned for many reasons, but while it is a great example of The Romantic Period’s style of poetry, sadly it is also a great example of the racist ideas that many Western, white, people had about anyone from the Eastern part of the world. Through word choice and imagery Kubla Khan evokes an exotic and sensual tale that is clearly not about English society, but about the English ideas of what the East must be like. In Kubla Khan there are repeated offensive remarks made about Eastern people, especially towards Eastern women. Because of this, Kubla Khan is a great example of the all too popular theme of Orientalism in Romantic Literature, which is the stereotyping of all Eastern people as being extremely sexual and erotic (in a fetish like manner), being mystical and exotic, and also of being “demon-like” or supernatural. There is no differentiating between any of the Eastern nations and instead these stereotypes are applied to anyone who comes from anywhere East of Europe. Because of this Orientalism is a form of racism, that sadly gets overlooked.
The first hint of Orientalism seen in Kubla Khan is in line 6 when the magical and Eastern inspired realm of Xanadu is described as being “five miles of fertile ground (Coleridge)”. Of course, Xanadu is not an English word and instead sounds like a Western man’s idea of what an Eastern place would be called, thus stereotyping all Eastern languages. This is also the first of many sexual references in this poem which alludes to the idea of Eastern women being very sexual and fertile. The emphasis on the word “fertile” in this line has a very strong sexual connotation which evokes the idea of female sexuality. Yes, maybe the ground and earth really are fertile, but supposedly so are the women of this magical Eastern land. Fertility, of course, is a highly desired item in women for men, so this makes Eastern women seem all the more valuable in regard to their sexuality. This line is then followed up by line 9 where it’s mentioned that there are “many an incense-bearing tree (Coleridge)”. Incense, of course, is a very sensual and mystical item, which further creates the image this erotic and magical Oriental realm. Incense is a rich and sought after product that comes from the East, so no fantasy depiction of an Eastern land would be proper without it. By beginning the poem with the mentioning of fertility and incense, it sets the stage for the rest of the sexual references that are yet to come.
The second instance of Orientalism in Kubla Khan are in lines 14, 15 and 16 where there is “A savage place! As holy and enchanted/As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/By a woman wailing for her demon-lover! (Coleridge)”. Xanadu is described as being enchanting but also savage and holy, all three of these words support the ideas of Orientalism, since they each carry an important connotation, savage being animal-like, holy being mystical and enchanting being exotic. It is also important to note that the following line says Xanadu is haunted, also supporting all the supernatural beliefs of Orientalism. To even further this stereotyping, of course, no Western man would refer to a Western woman in a poem as crying out for her “demon-lover”. No respectable, every-day, English woman would do such a thing, yet an Eastern woman is depicted doing so because it was believed that not only were Eastern people “demon-like”, but also infatuated with sex. This is an incredibly racist depiction of Eastern women, since they do not have demon-lovers, just like English women don’t. Had it been an English man this woman was calling out for in the poem, he would not have been described as being demon-like, so this line implies that the men these Eastern women love are not humans but devils. This takes away the humanity of both the woman in this poem and her lover. This lack of humanity allows for racist ideals to continue, since they aren’t considered fully human, but rather are depicted in this line as demon-like or even animalistic. The way the woman is described as wailing out into the night brings in a wild and beast-like element, just like many animals call out in the dark to their mates, this poor woman is depicted doing the same, making her appear uncivilized. Instead of a reserved and mild English woman, she’s created to be a passionate and sex-crazed non human.
Kubla Khan carries on with the racist Orientalism in lines 29 and 30, where “And mid’ this tumult Kulba heard from far/ancestral voices prophesying war! (Coleridge)”. This is one of the strongest examples of the supernatural element and mysticism in the poem. By calling them “ancestral voices” it makes them out to be ancient and magical, even ghostlike. These voices do not belong to people who are alive and well. There is an eery feel to these lines, they are not bringing good news. On top of that, not only are there ghost voices talking to Kubla, but they are warning about there being a war. This brings back the element of violence and of the people being wild and untamed. This Eastern land is made out to be a very uncivilized place since there are crazy voices from afar speaking of wars. Instead of glorifying and explaining the cause for the violence, which would be done if it were Western men mentioning the start of a war, these voices are set up to be scary and create an uneasy feel in the poem. By the sudden reference to these voices it shows how unpredictable this land is, just like the poem is unpredictable in its story, so too is this Eastern land. There is no telling what will happen next!
Lastly, another strong example of Orientalism is seen in lines 43 and 44, where a woman from a vision is spoken of, “Her symphony and song/to such a deep delight ‘twould win me (Coleridge)”. This woman is more than likely meant to be an Eastern woman and is appearing to the speaker in a supernatural vision or some sort of fantasy, making her unreal and magical. The speaker is convinced that she would win him over due to her songs alone. While this image isn’t nearly as sexualized as the previous depictions of a woman, it still expresses the idea that these non-Western women are charming to men and easily tempt and seduce them. Apparently for the speaker all it would take is a simple song from this lady to make him hers. This makes the woman mystical and definitely exoctic, since she’s no ordinary woman that could be found in England. While this scene isn’t a derogatory image of her, it once again stereotypes all Eastern women into all being alluring and seductive, plus that fact that she is appearing in a vision bring back the idea that all of the East is a superstitious and unnatural part of the world.
To summarize, Orientalism is often overlooked as a form of racism because it is not as prominent in culture as other forms of racism, but it is still there and it is always unacceptable. Kubla Khan is racist towards anyone of Eastern descent because it creates a fantasy land with fantasy people that in reality have never existed. While there’s nothing wrong with creating a fantasy, it is wrong when Kubla Khan bases all of it (especially derogatory aspects) off of thousands of real people and hundreds of real and unique nations. Kubla Khan is a famous Romantic poem, but should be noted that it is also a famous racist poem. The subtle forms of racism are the worst, because they are so easily brushed under the rug or overlooked by people who do not want to see it. Coleridge was from a society that saw nothing wrong in embracing the stereotypes and generalization of minorities, but that never made it alright. Through the blatant derogatory and stereotypical aspects of Kubla Khan, the horror of Orientalism will not be forgotten anytime soon.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2016. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173247>.
Kubla Khan (an excerpt). Digital image. InstaWeb. Instagmy.com, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2016. <http://www.instagmy.com/tag/imperialism>.