Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Person from Porlock: Villian, Hero, or Invention?

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.


Charles Gramlich said...

there is a "Porlock" society? Wow, now that is something I didn't know and I find it amazing. Humans are infinitely strange.

SzélsőFa said...

This is very strange!
I never knew about this Porlock person.
I suspect it was not a person, but the writer's own needs (hunger, perhaps). He firmly believed he would be able to finish those 200+lines after some snack...
well, he wasn't.

But this mistery around him, the poem, and the person makes it even more interesting!
Thanks for the info!

Lisa said...

I like to think there was a person from Porlock. It's much more romantic notion that makes the poem that much more interesting. Whether he did indeed exist doesn't matter to me at all.

Perhaps I can explain losing threads of my chapters to "the UPS man". :)

steve on the slow train said...

Charles--I heard about the Porlock Society maybe 25 years ago from an English professor. I van't find any reference to it on Google or Dogpile, so it probably no longer exists.

Szelsofa--You're in good company. I probably should have noted that the "anodyne" Coleridge had taken was laudanum, an opiate. "Kubla Khan" was popular in the 1960s because it appeared to be drug-induced. I suspect that the drug was less important than the dream. It's difficult or impossible to remember a dream unless you write it down immediately. That's why I believe Coleridge.

Lisa--The UPS man is probably a better excuse than some. Cindy over at "An Uncapped Pen" started me thinking about the Person from Porlock. I probably should have mentioned that.

P.S. I'm hoping that our friend Julie over in Kent has some pictures of Coleridge's cottage. Amazingly, it's still standing, and owned by the National Trust. It's where he wrote "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (which may get the prize for the most misquoted poem) there as well.

virtual nexus said...

Steve, what a brilliant post.

The Fragment soc rings very vague bells from Durham where I did (some) English lit including Coleridge.

My favourite lecturer quote on C's thought was 'searing flashes of illumination in labyrinths of nothing very much at all'...which seems to fit the bill.

I've never visited Porlock, but I'll have a scout round. Suppose NT have photos?

....Coleridge Challenge, perhaps??

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info about the poem.

steve on the slow train said...

Julie--There are photos of the cottage at the NT site. I was just hoping that you might have some with your own particular photographic artistry. I know you can't have been everywhere in Britain, but there was always a chance.

Unknown said...

Kubla Khan sounds familiar to me from history lesson. I think there was a Mongolian leader in the Middle Ages called Kubla Khan. Or maybe "Khan" mislead me.

steve on the slow train said...

Gerry--Thanks for stopping by. I need to check your blog out again--always wonderful pictures.

Ropi--The poem is loosely based on the actual Mongol emperor Kubla (or Kublai) Khan's plans to build a palace, but Coleridge goes into fantastic, dreamlike descriptions of the palace and its grounds, and ends with a warning about someone--perhaps the emperor.

virtual nexus said...

Steve - I found the NT pic; having sat mapped Nether Stowey and checked some of the details have earmarked the area as a definite must see.

Geograph have photos of the Ancient Mariner pub...and I've always wanted to visit East Quantoxhead nearby(rich fossil cliffs). It's about three hours run - could have gone this weekend, ironically, but it's still rather chilly here. I'll do a post on it if I get there.

Tea N. Crumpet said...

I love this poem-- I recite it often!

steve on the slow train said...

Julie--I'd love to visit the Ancient Mariner Pub. Meanwhile, I'm trying to keep up with all the changes on your blog.

Tea--Thanks for stopping by. As you can see, it's one of my favorites as well. My wife and I even tried to memorize it once, but didn't get mych beyone the deep romantic chasm.

Pab Sungenis said...

My English professor at St. Bonaventure claimed to be a member of the Porlock Society. Each year they meet for a dinner where they announce the three lists: the list of writers who have been interrupted (Coleridge), the list of writers who should be interrupted (always a source of hilarity), and the list of writers who are going to be interrupted (whoever have been selected to read papers at the dinner, which will sooner or later be interrupted by jeers and mirth).

The Porlock Society plays a role in a novel I may finish one of these days.