Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb” are both examples in which the poets endeavour to record and preserve things. The important aspect however, is whether they succeed in such an attempt and whether the preservation of something in itself is meant to last indefinitely, or merely to exist until the imagination desires otherwise, or falters by the faults and tumult of mankind. On first glance, Kubla Khan appears to be a highly complex, unstructured and almost nonsensical poem, having been solely devised to confuse the minds of readers as to its meaning and significance.
Indeed at first, there would appear to be none at all. Its complexity relates to the fact that it is incomplete, as is conveyed by its subtitle “A Vision in a Dream – A Fragment”, hence the confusion felt when reading it. However, on closer examination, we discover there to be a significant aspect as to the poem’s structure and we wonder whether it is deliberate, in order to convey the meaning of the poem more effectively.
This “Fragment of the Dream” is what the poet is attempting to preserve, his vision in a dream of the perfect poem. He skilfully endeavours this by means of metaphorically “preserving something” within the context of the poem, in order to convey his meaning more efficiently. The meaning within the poem is the preservation of the sublime and of perfection. The persona in the poem is Kubla Khan, representing God, and his creation is “the stately pleasure dome” in “Xanadu”, symbolic of God’s Garden of Eden/Paradise.
This is Khan’s vision of serene and tranquil perfection, filled with the joys and wonders of life: “And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills/Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree”. Metaphorically this represents the poet’s perfect vision. In the first stanza, Khan is proud of his creation, and it is this image of Paradise, along with its perfection and Absolute Unity of apparently contradictory elements, which is the object of his endeavoured preservation. Khan’s Xanadu is the image of perfection and perfect harmony, in which there can be no contradictions and no opposites.
The poet’s frequent use of oxymoron: “A sunny pleasure dome”/”Caves of ice”, present a series of antithesis, of which one component cannot exist without its opposite, thereby stressing the importance of obtaining the Absolute Unity in order to preserve the perfection of Khan’s Paradise. However, his attempt to retain his image of Utopia starts to deteriorate, as is evident by the end of the second stanza.
Where the first stanza exemplifies the harmonious criteria of beauty “gardens bright” and orderliness “twice five miles” the second is full of discordant images of “rebounding hail” and “deep… hasm[s]”; the movement from the beautiful to the sublime. This denotes the “ceaseless turmoil” and “tumult” which is caused with the arrival of man: “By woman wailing for her demon lover”. It is implied that man’s presence is disruptive of perfection and tranquillity. Echoed again is the Book of Genises and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden due to their disruptive inquisitiveness and thirst for knowledge. In the third stanza the metre changes completely and the language becomes more simplistic.
The poet is now speaking of himself rather than Kubla Khan “In a vision once I saw”. The poet seems to be deeply melancholic and nostalgic for the dream he has lost; “Could I revive within me/Her symphony and song”. Evidence shows here the poet’s failure at preserving his dream, which is metaphorically presented through the damage caused in Khan’s Paradise, by man, who is threatening to destroy the perfection and Absolute Unity; “And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far/Ancestral voices prophesising war! ”
An Arundel Tomb, although, in contrast with Kubla Khan, is structured in regular, even stanzas, it likewise takes on the theme of the “preservation of things”. Here, it is the importance of preserving identity and recognition in society that is being emphasized. Two people from the past – clearly important social figures – attempt to preserve their status and importance by having effigies created of themselves. However, we note that this original intention has not succeeded as a somewhat indifference to their “preserved stone presence” is already apparent in the first stanza.
Words such as “blurred”, “vaguely” and “faint”, imply a fading sense of identity and indistinctness towards their significance. This “washing at their identity” grows as the poem unfolds – symbolic of the passing of time – and it is clear to us that they are literally “getting nowhere” on “their sublime stationary voyage”. Instead of obtaining and preserving the social recognition they strive for, they are slowly fading into insignificance. This effect is caused not only by the passage of time but also by the changing of values and assumptions as a result of the coming of “the endless altered people”.
These changing values are significantly exemplified in the misinterpretation of “His hand withdrawn, holding her hand”; fundamentally nothing but a “sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace”, but which with the passing of time has been interpreted as a gesture of love. Another futile attempt at sustaining their importance is the addition of “Latin names around the base” of the tombs. Like their identity, the importance of Latin has been eroded over time, being read and understood by very few, and consequently rendering it meaningless to the greater part of society.
The misinterpreted gesture of love is a crucial component in the failing of preservation in this poem. The phrases: “Our almost instinct, almost true:/What will survive of us is love” are a clear indication that it is impossible to preserve the meaning of something as it was originally intended. As true meanings begin to fade, imagination and fanciful illusions of the human mind eventually take over, moulding and manipulating them to one’s desired ideals. “Time has [indeed] transfigured them into untruth”
Having explored both these poems and the ways in which the poets try “to preserve things”, I conclude that the original intent to preserve something worthwhile at the outset of the poems, by the end the poems is shown in some way to have failed. In both poems this failure is apparently due to the interference of man, or simply by man’s presence. In “Kubla Kahn” man’s presence in Paradise is the force that corrupts the Absolute Unity that Khan endeavours to preserve, which in turn is metaphoric for the poet’s failure to preserve his vision of the perfect dream.
Likewise, the sculptor in “An Arundel Tomb” has interfered by adding irrelevant touches to the effigies, and ironically it is this minor detail that the imagination of man has picked up and twisted, thereby unknowingly corrupting the true statement the sculptor was trying to convey. This is metaphoric for the poet’s statement of the impossibility to permanently preserve the state of something; in this case, the memory of someone. Like in Kubla Khan it is a transient vision, a vision that fades and dies.