For Better for Verse: An interactive learning tool that can help you understand what makes metered poetry in English tick.

Link to U.Va. English Department

Kubla Khan(1798)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
MeterIn Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
MeterA stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
MeterWhere Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
MeterThrough caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
MeterDown to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
MeterSo twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
MeterWith walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
MeterAnd there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
MeterWhere blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

Note on line 9: In this and the preceding line, we scan with anapests words that are made deliciously ambiguous on the palate by what the tongue does in pronouncing “sinuous” and “many an.” 4B4V doesn’t often pause to relish sheer word sound; but the reader who fails to savor the saying of this line, or line 1 above, is missing much of what the poem has to offer.

And here were forests ancient as the hills,
MeterAnd here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
MeterEnfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
MeterBut oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Note on line 12: The great, enjambed power of “slanted / Down” will survive this pedestrian interruption, which is just to give notice that the brilliantly turbulent verse of the following passage abounds in feminine endings like this one. Don’t let them throw your scansion off; do note their effect in unbalancing the classic symmetry that has governed the first strophe of this celebrated fragmentary ode.

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
MeterDown the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
MeterA savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
MeterAs e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
MeterBy woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
MeterAnd from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
MeterAs if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
MeterA mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
MeterAmid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
MeterHuge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
MeterOr chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks, at once and ever
MeterAnd ‘mid these dancing rocks, at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
MeterIt flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
MeterFive miles meandering with a mazy motion

Note on line 25: Stress “with” here at mid-line if you must. But there’s more fun to be had, legal too, in exploiting the capital afforded by the spondee in foot 1, and shooting the rapids of four consecutive slacks mid-line. (Best practice, in this case, would make feet 3 and 4 a pyrrhic and an anapest, respectively; alas, the coding behind 4B4V won’t permit both that and the safer anapest-iamb combo for those feet, so grit your teeth and scan the middle foot as 3 slacks, a super-pyrrhic.). The line just above this one is nearly as impressive in the same vein: straight iambic scansion is okay there but rather feeble from a hydraulic standpoint. (Try it again?) There’s plenty of recovery time downstream in the quite regular lines that are coming up.

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
MeterThrough wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
MeterThen reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
MeterAnd sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
MeterAnd ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
MeterAncestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
MeterThe shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
MeterFloated midway on the waves;

Note on line 32: Our familiar nemesis the catalectic tetrameter rears its (acephalous) head again. By this point the iambic character of Coleridge’s poem is so overwhelmingly established that the trochaic option that many shorter poems extend to such a line is simply a wrong choice here — and also in the several lines like this one that lie ahead. A trimeter scansion running trochee, spondee, anapest may tempt you in this case. But there’s no other trimeter nearby to provide answering support, so it won’t wash. Be patient till the final strophe.

Where was heard the mingled measure
MeterWhere was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
MeterFrom the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
MeterIt was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
MeterA sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
MeterA damsel with a dulcimer

Note on line 37: Another magically musical line, with the consonants (and practically the vowels too) of “A damsel” redealt in “dulcimer.” That phonemic shuffle is one reason for putting stress on the final syllable. Another, better reason is that the syllable will eventually find a set of partners-in-rhyme 10 lines further down. (Long-range effects and distance learning are what this final phase of Coleridge’s wonderful Romantic manifesto is all about.)

In a vision once I saw:
MeterIn a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
MeterIt was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
MeterAnd on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
MeterSinging of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
MeterCould I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
MeterHer symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
MeterTo such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
MeterThat with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
MeterI would build that dome in air,

Note on line 46: You might ask why this and the line above it aren’t identical trimeters scanned anapest, iamb, iamb. You might even plead that “long” in the former line rhymes with “song” in a trimeter just two lines above it (line 43). It’s not an easy question to answer, but two considerations countervail: (1) coming right after the feminine ending “win me” in line 44, the double-slack of an anapest feels like an awkward stumble, just where Coleridge wants to build up a steady head of steam toward his finale; (2) in building up that head of steam, nothing can be apter than the driving force that catalectic tetrameter possesses in English (the people’s voice!). With the dulcimer-damsel as opening act, he is now bringing his rock-star poet out on stage and needs all the crowd surge he can get.

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
MeterThat sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
MeterAnd all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
MeterAnd all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes! his floating hair!
MeterHis flashing eyes! his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
MeterWeave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
MeterAnd close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
MeterFor he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
MeterAnd drunk the milk of Paradise.

Note on line 54: The utter regularity of iambic rhythm here bends the poem back towards its almost equally regular beginning strophe. But where that was Classic architecture, this (for better and for worse) is Romantic incantation. Turn on the spell checker: there’s magic in the web.


Rhyme

Resources

  Click the link above to hear the poem read by Classic Poetry Aloud.
Show Stress    Foot division    Syncopation