Porlock, a little town in southwest England, crept quietly into literature one day in 1797--and never went away. Samuel Taylor Coleridge mentioned it, just once, and since then Porlock has been a symbol handed down through history, writer to writer, like a baton in a relay race. It demonstrates, on a small scale, how literature feeds on literature and how an idea mutates as it visits different imaginations.
Depending on the writer who uses it, Porlock can mean an interruption, an evasion, an excuse not to work, or death. Two centuries after its first appearance, it shows up once again, in The Bacon Fancier (Viking), a new book of stories by the American writer Alan Isler. After finding it there, I went off in search of earlier sightings.
Coleridge recalled that he fell asleep in his chair when he was staying at a farmhouse near Porlock in 1797. He had taken opium, to which he became addicted, and he was reading about Kubla Khan's palace. In his opium dream he imagined a poem of perhaps 200 or 300 lines. When he awoke, with the whole work clear in his mind, he began writing: "In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree...."
But after a while, he was "called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour." That made him forget the rest of the dream. And that's why "Kubla Khan" runs only 54 lines and remains, by its author's account, unfinished.
Coleridge scholars have doubted that neat little story: some think he was making an excuse for a poem he considered imperfect. No matter. When "Kubla Khan" was recognized as a jewel of the romantic age, the story grew famous alongside it. Porlock acquired a life of its own, and a set of meanings. It started turning up in book titles. In 1938, Vincent Starrett, the Toronto-born essayist who flourished in Chicago, wrote Persons from Porlock & Other Interruptions. Louis MacNeice put it in the title of a BBC play, which was published in Persons from Porlock, and other plays for radio (1969). In 1988, A. N. Wilson called his collection of essays, Penfriends from Porlock.
The English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) wrote a piece called "Thoughts about the Person from Porlock." It focused, like much of her work, on death, specifically her desire for her own death. She started by saying she didn't believe Coleridge's account, she thought he was just stuck and the person from Porlock was an excuse. She ended by announcing she yearned for her own person from Porlock--
I am hungry to be interrupted
Forever and ever amen
O Person from Porlock come quickly
And bring my thoughts to an end.
In Slate magazine last year, the American poet Robert Pinsky mentioned Smith's poem when he wrote about the need of writers for distraction. "Few people," Pinsky said, "can write without procrastination, time-wasting, whining, and avoiding." But writers hate admitting that, and may create spectacular fibs to cover it. "The most famous example is Coleridge," with the person from Porlock, which Stevie Smith saw through. Pinsky says writers of today have "the perfect Porlockian escape: the telephone," provided there's no answering machine. When another writer phones Pinsky he welcomes the respite from work, and the two of them converse happily, achieving "a valuable means of evasion: mutual Porlockism." Pinsky's comments explain why Porlock appeals to so many writers: the feelings of a writer about distraction and interruption can be ambivalent, mysterious, and vaguely guilty. Writers, of course, want the impossible: to be alone without being lonely.
Kurt Vonnegut employed Porlock differently. When he argued that Hamlet should end about the time Polonius gets killed, he wrote that at that moment we should "Bring in a person from Porlock. Lower the curtain. The play is done." In 1987, Douglas Adams put the Porlock story to ingenious use in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. His plot has Coleridge discovering, in the dream, how to create a time machine--which, Adams's characters believe, shouldn't have happened at the end of the 18th century. So someone must go back to that English farm in 1797 and prevent a time machine from being prematurely invented; the Adams character becomes the person from Porlock who interrupts Coleridge's writing.
Isler's The Bacon Fancier, though it lacks a time machine, dashes back and forth across the years: its four tales concern Jewish life in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Isler playfully borrows from other writers--his first story, about Renaissance Venice, is narrated by Shylock. The second is told by Ben Cardozo, a violin maker who lives in Porlock. On a trip to Bristol he stops at a farm where he knows he can get food. As he sits in the farmyard a young man comes out of the house, having been distracted from his poetry-writing by Ben's call for more ale.
The young man, who says he's a philosopher and journalist as well as poet, mentions the beauty of a stream near the house. Ben says the water comes from an underground cavern. When the young man asks how deep the cavern is, Ben says only God knows, it's "measureless to man." Ben shows the man a dulcimer he has made for a young lady in Bristol. Ben never learns the fellow's name, and never hears about "Kubla Khan," with its references to "caverns measureless to man" and "a damsel with a dulcimer." Ben never even discovers that he, in truth, is the person from Porlock.
In truth? Well, Isler's story is as truthful as any of the others, though almost certainly it's not the last word on Porlock.