Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" has to be one of the most memorable poems in the English language. The poem is a fragment, only 54 lines. Coleridge's explanation of why the poem is so short is well-known:
"In the summer of the year 1797, the Author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas's Pilgrimage: 'Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.' The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!"
The poem itself was not published until 1816, after several revisions, which has led some scholars to believe that the story of the person from Porlock was an invention to explain the fact that Coleridge was unable to finish the poem. I'm willing to believe the poet. And I wonder whether the poem would have been as popular had it been the "two or three hundred lines" that the author mentions. The very mystery of the forgotten lines have inspired so much. My favorite science fiction novel is Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, in which the hero (SPOILER ALERT!) becomes the Person From Porlock and saves the world. The English poet Stevie Smith, in the poem, "Thoughts About the Person from Porlock," believes Coleridge used the interruption as an excuse for not finishing the poem. She goes on to write:
I am hungry to be interrupted
For ever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.
Canadian writer Robert Fulford wrote a fascinating essay on the impact of this nameless interrupter. Someone once told me about a Porlock Society, which celebrated fragments, though I am unable to find any reference to it on the Web.
Do we blame the Person from Porlock for preventing the completion of a masterpiece, or thank him for creating a very romantic mystery about one of the great romantic poems? Of course, we'll never know what "Kubla Khan" might have been had Coleridge not been interrupted. But I love the poem as it is, and have read it scores of times. Given the tremendous outpouring of creativity that resulted from the Porlock story, perhaps we should thank the anonymous Person.