Person from Porlock

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The Person from Porlock was an unwelcome visitor to Samuel Taylor Coleridge during his composition of the poem Kubla Khan in 1797. Coleridge claimed to have perceived the entire course of the poem in a dream (possibly an opium-induced haze), but was interrupted by this visitor from Porlock (a village in the South West of England, near Exmoor) while in the process of writing it. Kubla Khan, only 54 lines long, was never completed. Thus "Person from Porlock", "Man from Porlock", or just "Porlock" are literary allusions to unwanted intruders who disrupt inspired creativity.

Coleridge was living at Nether Stowey (a village in the foothills of the Quantocks). It is unclear whether the interruption took place at Culbone Parsonage or at Ash Farm. He described the incident in his first publication of the poem:

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!

English poet and essayist Thomas De Quincey speculated, in his own Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, that the mysterious figure was Coleridge's physician, Dr. P. Aaron Potter, who regularly supplied the poet with laudanum.

This story is by no means universally accepted by scholars. It has been suggested by Elisabeth Schneider (in Coleridge, Opium and "Kubla Khan", University of Chicago Press, 1953) among others, that this prologue, as well as the Person from Porlock, was fictional and intended as a credible explanation of the poem's seemingly fragmentary state as published.[1] The poet Stevie Smith also suggested this view in one of her own poems, saying "the truth I think, he was already stuck".[2]

If the Porlock interruption was a fiction, it would parallel the famous "letter from a friend" that interrupts Chapter XIII of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria just as he was beginning a hundred-page exposition of the nature of the imagination. It was admitted much later that the "friend" was the author himself. In that case, the invented letter solved the problem that Coleridge found little receptiveness for his philosophy in the England of that time.

In other literature[edit]

  • Robert Graves's The Person from Porlock regrets that Coleridge's visitor had not called on more poets.
  • A. D. Hope's poem Persons from Porlock uses Porlock as a trope for the vapid mediocrity that is the enemy of poetry.
  • In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, a character checks into a motel under the pseudonym A. Person, Porlock, England.
  • In Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow, the character Ka thinks of a poem, while conversing with another character, Necip. The narrator then says that Ka would soon be writing the poem in his notebook if "no one came from Porlock," and explains the phrase's origin.
  • Stevie Smith's poem "Thoughts About the Person from Porlock" begins as a gentle ribbing of Coleridge and ends in a meditation on loneliness, creativity, and depression.
  • Vincent Starrett, Persons from Porlock & Other Interruptions (1938)
  • A. N. Wilson, Penfriends from Porlock (1988)
  • U. A. Fanthorpe, The Person's Tale (1984)
  • Dennis O'Driscoll, Porlock
  • "The Person from Porlock" is a science fiction story by Raymond F. Jones published in Astounding magazine in 1947, in which Coleridge's vision is explained as the remote viewing of a secret colony of aliens living on Earth. One of the aliens deliberately distracts Coleridge before he can write down a full description of the colony.
  • During Paul Jenkins's run on the Hellblazer comic series, John Constantine learns that his ancestor, one James Constantine, was The Person from Porlock. What he does not learn, but the reader does, is that James disrupted Coleridge's opium-sparked dreams so as to prevent a group of angels from feeding Coleridge what amounted to a propaganda piece for the armies of Heaven.
  • In Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, the title character saves the world, in part by time-travelling from the present day to distract Coleridge from properly remembering his dream; if Coleridge had completed the poem an alien ghost would have 'encoded' certain information within the completed work that would have allowed him to make repairs to his spaceship in the past at the cost of wiping out all life on Earth.
  • In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, Etain of the Second Look makes reference to the "Man from Porlock" while trying to recollect a poem she envisioned while having a dream.
  • In Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Valley of Fear, Sherlock Holmes is interrupted in his labours by a letter from the pseudonymous Fred Porlock, an informant within Moriarty's organization. Porlock's identity is never revealed.
  • In the webcomic "2D Goggles", the Person from Porlock is revealed to have been Ada Lovelace, who is represented in the series as disliking poets and poetry and who owned a mansion near Porlock, where she used to retreat to during summer along with husband Baron William King and family.
  • Louis MacNeice, Persons from Porlock, and other plays for radio (1969)
  • Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip refers to the person from Porlock in the episode titled "4 AM Miracle". Matthew Perry's character tells his writers the story.
  • In the Inspector Morse television series episode "Twilight of the Gods" (1991), Lewis (Kevin Whately) disturbs Morse while he is solving a crossword puzzle, and Morse (John Thaw) shouts out, "Damn. Seven seconds off the record, if you hadn't come barging in like that. It's the person from Porlock, that's who you are." Lewis replies, "No, sir, Newcastle."
  • Laird Barron's story "The Men from Porlock" was first published in The Book of Cthulhu from Night Shade Books in 2011.
  • In Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version the titular character tells us, in relation to the publishing of Terry McIver's first novel, "literature would have been better served had he been interrupted mid-flight by a gentleman from Porlock."
  • In Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, Jubal tells Anne "you hail from Porlock" when she interrupts him.

References[edit]