Who is the “Person From Porlock”?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesThe phrase “person from Porlock” (also known as the “man from Porlock” or simply “Porlock”) is a literary allusion that refers to an unwanted intruder who interrupts creative work or more precisely, a flash of inspiration, to the point that the work cannot be completed. Porluck also can mean an evasion or excuse not to work. Poet Robert Pinsky cites the telephone as “the perfect Porlockian escape.” He admits that when he is writing and receives a phone call from another writer, he is eager to take a break, engaging in “mutual Porlockism.”

The phrase has its origins in an incident that occurred to the famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797 while living in Nether Stowey, a small town in southwest England. Coleridge had taken opium while reading about Emperor of China Kubla Khan’s palace, Xanadu. While in an opium-induced dream, Coleridge conceived a poem consisting of over 200 lines. When he awoke, he began furiously writing his poem, Kubla Khan, that begins with the famous line: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan /  A stately pleasure-dome decree…” Unfortunately, he was in interrupted by a visitor, a person from Porlock, who was there to conduct some business (some scholars believe it was Coleridge’s drug dealer, a doctor who supplied him with laudanum).

Coleridge, writing in the third person, elaborates on the incident: “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!”

Alas, Kubla Khan remain unfinished, consisting of only 54 lines. Damn Porluck! Consequently, Coleridge decided not to publish the work. From time to time he read it to friends at private readings. In 1816, Lord Byron encouraged Coleridge to publish the poem. And it’s a good thing he did, since critics now regard Kubla Khan one of Coleridges greatest poems, alongside Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

A copy of Coleridge’s manuscript is on exhibit at the British museum, located in London, England. Cinephiles will instantly recognize that Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan is quoted in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, as the camera pans along the spectacular estate of Charles Foster Kane in the opening sequence.

Read related posts: Clothes Make the Man
Rhadamanthine Oath
The Sword of Damocles
Hoist with His Own Petard
To Cut the Gordian Knot

For further reading: http://www.robertfulford.com/porlock.html

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