The Person From Porlock: How Interruptible Are You?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” has a fascinating story attached to it. It seems this poem came to Coleridge fullblown in a dream.

Upon awaking, still in a kind of trance, he immediately wrote down the first 54 lines of the poem. Then a knock came at the door, and for over an hour his writing was interrupted by a visitor from the nearby village of Porlock. By the time Coleridge returned to work, the strange state of illumination had passed, and after that he was never able to finish his poem. 

The visitor from Porlock, though nameless, has become a famous man. Generations of poetry lovers and scholars have taken their turn in reviling this uncouth visitor for his role in ruining Coleridge’s masterpiece. 

The village of Porlock

But think: Without this man from Porlock, what would we have? Just one more great and inspired poem. With him, however, we have one of the most intriguing anecdotes in literary history. As it stands, there is quite enough of Coleridge’s poem to give a good idea of the whole. The story of the man from Porlock only adds to it. And what it adds, to my mind, is more interesting than the completed poem would have been. 

As a writer, I too have been interrupted in moments of high inspiration. Even as a human being, I often seem to be surrounded by people from Porlock. Why don’t they leave me alone and visit me only when it’s convenient? 

Years ago someone asked me about the greatest desire of my life. I replied, “I want to live all alone on an island and have people come to me to learn about God.” Recalling these words now, I shudder. Though at the time it seemed such a noble desire, I see now the perversity of it. I was seeking not love but power. 

Perhaps all of us, in one way or another in every relationship, nurse a secret desire to be the one who holds the power. Isn’t this what keeps us from forming healthy friendships? No one can enter the house of friendship without checking all pride and pretense at the door. Friendship is the great leveller, the destroyer of isolation. No man is an island, but we all take a stab at living on one and trying to get others to come to us and bow down.

Gradually I’m coming to see that all the intruders in my life are no accident. In fact they may well be sent by God, not to interrupt my writing or my solitude, but to make my life more interesting. It may even turn out that the Porlockians are angels in disguise. Where I fear inconvenience, God intends enrichment. Where I see a complication, God sees a glorious mystery. Isn’t this what people are for—to make our lives more interesting than any poem, more inspiring than inspiration itself? 

Coleridge’s poem portrays a vision of paradise, complete with a fabulous “pleasure dome”, a “sacred river”, and “gardens bright with sinuous rills.” It seems to me that the visitor from Porlock was not an interruption in this inspired vision but a part of it. Perhaps he was a messenger from God sent to remind Coleridge (and all of us) that no one can inhabit paradise alone. Porlock is an essential place in paradise, for the greatest pleasure lies not in vision or in poetry, but in human community. 

[The above is an excerpt from my book Practicing the Presence of People, Chapter 63, p 256] 

Finally, for an interesting and amusing companion to this piece, take a look at Stevie Smith’s poem “Thoughts About the Person from Porlock.” To quote just a few lines: 

           I long for the Person from Porlock
          To bring my thoughts to an end,
          I am becoming impatient to see him
          I think of him as a friend …

          I am hungry to be interrupted
          For ever and ever amen
          O Person from Porlock come quickly
          And bring my thoughts to an end.

Next Post:  A Concert in the Forest

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