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ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

Aperson from Porlock”—that is all we know about the fellow himself. Yet generations of readers have anathematized this nameless shade for the one untimely deed by which he entered into history, his disturbance of Coleridge’s mazy recollections, so that the alleged remainder of “Kubla Khan” was forever lost, to its dreaming creator and to a devoted posterity. In its unique combination of infamy and obscurity, that person’s case teases fancy and prompts innumerable what-if’s.

Resentments against the person from Porlock have been fed by an assumption that had Coleridge not been called out from his writing, and had he been allowed to render the whole of his dream, by setting down the additional two hundred lines or so which he thought he had in mind, “Kubla Khan” might then make better sense. But Professor Lowes’ reports from spying out the land toward Xanadu have suggested, to the relief of many a dutiful school teacher, that “Kubla Khan” doesn’t mean much of anything, as meaning is assessed by either logicians, rhetoricians, or Freudians, A further heaping up of heterogeneous fantasies, bookbe-gotten and opiate-enhanced, scarcely could have made the poem a more intelligible composition. Nevertheless, ire against that person endures. For who would not wish “Kubla Khan” longer, even though the additions rounded out no perfect sphere, even though they were only other disjointed scenes in that variable phantasmagoria, a later shower of erratic sparks from the fire that was so nearly divine and that so pitifully lapsed into murkiness. Methodical fact-hunting students dare not assess the loss statistically, however, and say that the person from Porlock cheated us of a good three-fourths or more of the poem as Coleridge had dreamed it. As an eminent professor once said (or probably said more than once, with the perennial thriftiness of his guild), whatever Coleridge may have been doing in his sleep, he certainly wasn’t counting lines. Furthermore, the records show that S. T. C.’s own estimates of what he had conceived and was about to render were always on the long side. Indeed, no equally powerful man of letters ever announced so many intellectual pregnancies that proved but vaporous. Though one may reject Southey’s acidulous suggestion that Coleridge only dreamed he dreamed a poem, one might suppose that the dreamer’s memoranda on “Kubla Khan” had their own aura of magnification.

When he speaks of not less than two or three hundred lines, acquaintances may sadly recognize a familiar note, and may remember how Coleridge left lying on the great spaces crossed by his ever-wandering thought many preternatural bleached skeletons, of tables of contents and prospectuses that never wore flesh. At a time when he was struggling to finish “Christabel,” he was also toying with plans for a tragedy, a life of Lessing, an essay on poetry, a book on Locke, Hobbes, and Hume, a dramatic romance, a farce, a schoolbook on geography—but meanwhile the benign and practical Thomas Poole had lent a hand on some of the Morning Post articles by which Coleridge had proposed to eke out his annuity. The more hypothetical and remote the project, the more cheerfully detailed were Coleridge’s specifications for it. His reply to Godwin, never bodied forth, was to be “a six shilling octavo” but “to contain as much matter as is usually sold for eight shillings.” His symmetrical recipe for whipping up an epic poem called for ten years to collect materials, plus five years to write, and five to correct. Since he himself never put Pegasus through any such prolonged show-ring paces, he never had to revise his tidy estimates. How clearly it might have seemed to Coleridge that “he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines” of that dream, poem, and yet how little faith dare we put in his figures.

Other characteristics of Coleridge might be taken into account also, and as of greater import, in measuring the guilt of the person from Porlock. This fellow is alleged to have “detained” the poet for “above an hour.” Does that necessarily mean he talked to Coleridge at such length? Is it probable that the poet would have attended, yet impatiently and on a mere matter of “business,” to that anonym from an obscure place? Does “a person from Porlock” suggest the man who could hold Coleridge like a three years’ child? Under reflective scrutiny Coleridge’s account seems not entirely credible and indeed gives off an unconscious irony, It is the human frailty of inveterate conversationalists to blame the other fellow for detaining them, when they themselves have repeatedly waived their natural right to desist. Coleridge then may have been held, even spellbound, for above an hour; but would it not have been by his own dreams and visions, as ever? And, as usual, he must have done most of the talking, not to any particular point his visitor may have brought up, but along the devious irresistible line of his own reveries, as they arose out of his preoccupations. Lowes’ captivating account has revealed what matters crowded the poet’s mind at that time—what strange landscapes and tableaus out of those travel books by Purchas, Bruce, and Bartram, hazed over with the “anodyne” which had induced Coleridge’s prolonged nap, and further transmuted by his ever-shaping spirit of imagination. Coleridge always had much to talk about, but on this day the tip of his tongue was especially loaded. It is unbelievable thai he could have kept such lore to himself for above an hour. Such a supposition not only contradicts biography; it is impiously against nature, as revealed in the great colloquist,

“Probably the man from Porlock was a printer, to whom S. T. C. owed money,” wrote P. E. G. Quercus several years ago. That is a suggestive remark. It may be doubted, however, that such a one’s dealings would have concerned anything more than perhaps a temporary supply of writing paper and ink, since in those years Cottle of Bristol was Cleridge’s devoted and trusted publisher. Thus, even though it had prompted the person to a journey of miles, the business, as Coleridge named it, might have been easily brushed aside. And in such a case, such a person might not have protested too much. While a printer from Porlock would have been an innocent, yet he too could have been visited by the intellectual glimmers contagious in type-setting; and he might have yielded easily, might even eagerly have followed a quick transition from his account rendered to Coleridge’s yet unrendered account of “a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands.” Transitions always came easily to Coleridge, anyhow; but what Hazlitt called the “tangential” habit of his mind showed itself particularly in escape from troublesome material facts, such as small debts. Business was one of those parochial concerns from which Lamb thought Coleridge ought to be exempt, and evidently Coleridge thought so, too. “Taking up the subject, then, upon general grounds,” a procedure he was even more addicted to than was Wordsworth, Coleridge might have embarked on a scholarly rebuttal to the dun, speaking of the spiritual uses to which he was putting the printer’s stationery supplies, illustrating ideality by the miracle of their transub-stantiation into art, and mentioning the very poem he was then inditing, on paper and with ink that still belonged in a parochial way to the person from Porlock, but that by a higher, a Platonic morality appertained to Coleridge’s diocesan functions, and had in truth already become the heritage of the ages. One can imagine a little printer, open-mouthed, sensing that the great tides of history were not to flow utterly over him, but were to bear him along for centuries a visible dot on the surface—and in a much more favorable light, of course, than has since been allowed him. If Quercus is mistaken in his guess that the ignominious person was a printer, at least it could be supposed that he was some tradesman with a bill. That was the chief kind of business poor Coleridge had, save with the benevolent Wedgwoods and Poole and all the other endowers of his promises or underwriters of his fiascos. Any one of a variety of commercial persons might have come to the farmhouse in another try for a cash payment: Coleridge wasn’t given to physical austerities; he complacently laid tribute in all directions on the material world; and even on a pantisocratic honeymoon he had wanted, and by letter had requested of the obliging Cottle, some twenty-six miscellaneous commodities, including slippers, candlesticks, a dust-pan, a cheese-toaster, a Bible, a keg of porter, and five kinds of spices. If perhaps Coleridge himself never paid for those, either, that would have been consistent with one of his loftiest principles at the moment, an ideal so ineffable that he had his own word for it out of the Greek—aspheterism. Southey said it meant “the generalization of individual property,” but when he and Coleridge aspheterized in Bristol lodgings, writing at the same table, Southey found it worked out more definitely to his earning four-fifths of the income. Yet Coleridge remained serene; by giving appropriation or requisition another name, he made it sweet enough for his use. Indeed, the person from Porlock might have been any sort of benighted bill-collector—on his arrival, that is. An hour later he was no doubt a neophyte, an auditor of matters other than financial, crediting Coleridge’s dreams.

Nor need it be supposed that only a printer, accustomed to suffer poets gladly, as of some technical affinity with them, would have let himself be deflected and yet detained by Coleridge for above an hour. Preponderant testimonials show that Coleridge’s monologues, especially in his prime, exercised almost hypnotic power over many different minds. Had he been in his ancient mariner’s place, he would have stopped all three. Nor need they have been professed intellectuals. There was the rustic John Chester, almost totally inarticulate himself, who followed Coleridge like a dog with pricked-up ears, even to Germany, “where,” says Hazlitt, “the Kantean philosophers were puzzled how to bring him under any of their categories.” There were those various people in unliterary walks of life who for certain periods harbored Coleridge with something like a medieval patronage of minstrelsy—the landlord of the Angel, not unaware of a unique visitation, who sought to entertain Coleridge indefinitely without charge if only he would go on talking; the governor of Malta, who admiringly gave him agreeable quarters and a sinecure; the enraptured American sea-captain Derkheim, who offered him free passage, falsely swore with rich particular invention of United States citizenship, a fresh set of parents, and a local habitation in a red brick house half a mile from New York to get Coleridge a passport, and then nursed him in illness on the voyage. Wherever Coleridge went it was the same. The extreme this fascinating talker came to is evidenced by Rickman’s writing Southey that Coleridge was “terribly pestered with invitations to go to parties, as a singer does, to amuse the guests by his talent.”

While it is true that others, in all levels of life, cultivated the prima donna in Coleridge, he was following his original and apparently uncontrollable bent. At ten, taken by his uncle to London coffee-shops and ale-houses, he not only entered into talk with the astonished habitues in those centers of loquacity, but took and held the floor. At a still earlier age he had reduced even the old ladies of Ottery to speechlessness. Hazlitt says of Coleridge’s three-weeks’ sojourn among the delighted Shrewsbury Unitarians that he did not cease talking while he stayed, and adds, though writing years later, “nor has he since, that I know of.” Crabb Robinson, describing his first encounter with Coleridge, admits being kept “on the stretch of attention and admiration” for more than eight hours, from afternoon till midnight. From all sides comes the suggestion that Coleridge’s enchanting oral discourse should forever top the list of the world’s great rivers. “Charles, did you ever hear me preach?” Coleridge once asked Lamb, and he replied, “I never heard you do anything else.” Conversation with S. T. C, noted the diarist Farington, consisted of listening. And those captivating monologues were prodigal. Coleridge never held back a thought, to save it for more opportune, more systematic use. He aspheterized the entire wealth of his mind, instantly thrusting its currency upon all whom he encountered, were they only his casual associates in a stagecoach. Can one doubt what happened “for above an hour” to anybody from Porlock? Can one doubt what happened then to any unwritten remainder of “Kubla Khan”?


If talk was a chief source of his fame among his contemporaries, it was also one of Coleridge’s worst indulgences; and possibly it dissipated more of his potentialities than did his unhappy marriage, or opium, even—much more, certainly, than any and all interruptions by persons on business. Coleridge’s spirit used itself up in effusions; his vast erratic powers lacked compensatory and equilibrating machinery. He himself apparently understood the problem, though he failed to solve it. He admitted to Godwin that on occasion “the whole thinking” of his life would not bear him up against “the accidental crowd and press” of his mind. He knew, as Lowes has emphasized, that association is but an instrument and not the end of art. Coleridge may be easily condemned for a slothfulness that preferred spontaneous uncensored rambling to the rigors and commitments of genuine composition. Certainly, his contemporaries’ severest verdicts, as that he started from no premise and proceeded to no conclusion, are fully borne out by such evidence as Crabb Robinson’s notes on the more discursive Shakespeare lectures and above all by the running jump that misses the boat in those ambitious abortive middle chapters of “Biographia Literaria.” History has often met more than halfway the consequent temptation to ridicule S. T. C. But to reverse Lamb’s whimsical admiring description, though Coleridge may appear “slightly damaged,” he was nevertheless an authentic “archangel”; and similarly to paraphrase Hazlitt, though he dallied with the wind, it was like an eagle. The spectacle of Coleridge’s volcanic genius devastating its own channels should move historians and other lesser men not to superciliousness but to a “holy dread.” In Xanadu are streams too turbulent for engineering; there are minds too wildly romantic for strictly efficient mortal uses. Of these Coleridge’s is the first, and hence he will remain a poignant idol of all who sense the fierce dilemma and the unending drama of human creativity, in which impulse and purpose groan and travail together, and a season’s fruits spring up in kind, to wither away like grass.

If artists are to derive any admonitions from Coleridge’s defeats, a first principle might be the prohibition of such debilitating intemperances as opium and metaphysics. Coleridge apparently took to the latter as to a drug, at his life’s critical turn in his late twenties; and he seems to have recognized philosophy’s breaking-in upon the quick particular joy and incisive chisel-work of poetic composition. Concerning the health of his personality, the welfare and potency of his artistic temperament, he wrote dejectedly that “abstruse research . . . which suits a part infects the whole.” This impasse elucidates the fundamental fact that art must be cultivated in whatever garden is wholly a man’s own. If there are those restless minds that cannot settle and possess, their example is instructive. One like Coleridge, given to wide-ranging abstraction, may view all knowledge as his province, but though he enter it like a king, he can scarcely inhabit it as a man. Seeing such ambition prove disruptive to art, the amateur should shun a puerile mumming of any tragic overthrow. The confrontation of infinity is a great fatal issue in human life, and a radical test of both reason and courage. There are always limits, “there are roughly zones”; and the proudest writers recognize these, and make a practicable strategy of holding their ground up to such limits—as Shakespeare and Milton did, as Words-worth and Keats partly learned to do, as Shelley did not. Coleridge trespassed upon this edge of doom, he ate of the apple, and he did not escape torment.

Here the ultimate fault lies beyond view. In what image of infinite memory and cosmic assertion was Coleridge created, and why so created that on luminous wing he lost himself in space? Did he who made the star-desiring moth make S. T. C? And by what equity must men who can glimpse transcendent intimations in shifting rainbow am content themselves with tracing circles of known centers and fixed radii? Yet it must be admitted that such an order exists, however inscrutably founded. Under it man may not find any peace that passes understanding, but only within it can he know self-possession. The bread of life must be earned daily; the human mind can best express its nature and uphold its honor not in dreams and fragments but in finished works. Wayfarers toward infinity, such as Wordsworth in his Alpine climb, must walk some substantial upward slope of earth, and must be content to descend again across the divide. Icarus-spirits may soar above the highest peaks, but it is only into a void beyond reference to mankind’s compass-points, into rarity unsustaining to the blood; and their fall is awful. Their mettlesome zeal and impetuosity of intellect show a heroic stature and a flaw, demanding such admiration and pity as must be accorded any Hotspur. Thus, though almost every one of Coleridge’s friends grew annoyed with him and censured him, no one ever quite repudiated him; even Southey, while calling him “poor fellow” as Lamb refused to do, grieved that Coleridge’s mind, “ten thousand-thousand-fold the mightiest of his generation,” could leave no adequate representation of itself.

Yet what mind can, whatever its scope? By the veiled light of melancholy, and as “a shadow of a magnitude,” ft natural limitation lies upon all of man’s finished works. Acceptance of it is implicit in the most fit and fruitful artistic connotations, that have their root in a worldly soil, thus projecting themselves toward the apparent sky, but not pretending to it. Great poetry, in conserving joy, matches both cunning and fortitude, as well as love, against the sense of doom. Yet transcendentalism, while seemingly so often disastrous to art, has had a powerful appeal to the romantic. Coleridge’s story is the story of many others also, but writ large; the role is indeed all too familiar, though the player is immense. Many artists and their partisans may feel a kindred sympathy with Coleridge’s quixotism; they might also feel due terror of catastrophes like his. They might fitly imitate Caldwell, who, when Coleridge “arose, terrible in reasoning” for pantisocracy, “fled” because “he could not answer for his own sanity” in the face of that genius and madness so nearly allied.

Such a retreat, such resignation to the conditions of mortality, need not be surrender, but may give the artist the soundest possible footing. By recognizing both the immortal yearnings of mind and its limitations, creativity evolves an effective craft. For example, the writer may start from the homely maxim that one with literary work in progress had better send all persons from Porlock on their way, had better keep his mouth conservatively shut about his project until he has got it set down. Art is of essences, and in this brute world of embroiled matter essences are volatile. Imaginative expression is a mentally organic function, that tends to complete itself in a blaze of realization, and is no more subject to precise repetition than other acts of ardor. Recasting, especially of that which has already been spilled orally, does not often produce the pure masterpiece. The most resolute artists do not try to imitate themselves, or to recapture their past save as it enters into their present. Vigorous formulation may seed itself in a recognizable strain, but such generation will not ordinarily avoid a falling off, for truly imaginative creations are the gorgeous sports of cerebral process. These illustrious accidents derive from mysterious concatenations, unique and momentary; and a great portion of art’s excitement, for both creator and contemplator, depends upon a fixing of the fluid and evanescent, a use of temporality to memorialize itself, an instantaneously opportune conversion of cloud into crystal. The operation is of course never completely effective; the scripture never captures and holds the vision entire, even for the scribe, much less for the reader. A writer’s possible dissipation of advantage, whether by delay or by premature talk, only goes to show, however, that more than simple recall is involved, that creation is not merely verbal but psychical, dependent upon a unique complexion and continuum of mood. All poems are thus occasional, since literature comes of human life, and life is forever passing away, in a succession of unprecedented and irreclaimable hours. With regard to personal relationships William McPee has quoted the Turkish proverb that every parting is a little death; similarly the mind is torn from the embrace of its moments; for the most notable of these, art urgently carves out its sculptures that become cenotaphs, with Galatean potentialities, as in the sweeter melodies of no tune echoing from Keats’s Grecian urn. Thus art eludes and mocks mortality, though it cannot forever escape; thus on this world’s darkling plain fatalistic and gallant poets fight a delaying action.

Coleridge’s romantic spirit comprehended this truth, and it may have been his paradoxical lot to be demoralized by knowledge, as well as by the momentum of his ricocheting consciousness. There was intellectual beauty, of “inconstant wing,” passing by; and Coleridge coidd not wait, but must speak immediate tribute in that flood of ecstatic ejaculation toward which hearers so eagerly turned, to his further stimulation. Even so the person from Porlock may have stood to become the only inheritor, and for those moments only, of the rest of that sublime insubstantial business concerning pleasure domes, ancestral prophecies, and a song to the dulcimer—the fading rack of that enchanting pageant with its subterranean echo of terror. May he not have departed in a trance without remembering the business that had brought him? If that had been a bill, how did he explain to his wife that he had gone to the farmhouse a collector and, without any monetary exchange, had come away a debtor? If Coleridge could not recall the rest of his evaporated poem, could a person from Porlock revive within himself enough of the poet’s symphonic talk to appease, much less to compensate, a helpmeet importunate for coin? It is easy to imagine that under domestic attritions the matter may have worn down to a standing controversy, the person asserting that he was in fact a poet’s patron, to the extent of sundry supplies, for delivery and disclaimer of which he might yet be honorably known to unborn generations, and the person’s wife retorting, with the outrageous cynical prescience of a shrew, that it was little enough thanks he’d ever get from anybody. Meanwhile, into what sunless seas would have sunk irrecoverably whatever remnant of the poet’s discourse that person may have savored on his bemused return to Porlock.

Such transitoriness is the world’s way, and the most glorious works of art are not exempt from it. In such fashion, though at various rates, all creativity wastes itself. The “mortification” Coleridge felt on returning impotent to his unfinished manuscript is no exceptional misfortune in the order of things, but a type of the spirit’s predestined and self-consuming grief, in the bonds of time, under the scourge of change. And that is one reason why, though his closest readers may sometimes smile or shake their heads at Coleridge’s pretensions and stumblings, they know that in his mixture of obliquity and aspiration he is microcosmic, and their hearts go out to him. Thus it is that such readers are so moved by lines he did succeed in putting down entire. There is “The Ancient Mariner,” that monument of poetry, as solid, intricate, and evocative as a cathedral. There are also those less formal yet fully rounded poems called “conversational,” which give perhaps the surest clue to what Coleridge’s talk must have been like at its best, showing from what slight incidents his mind would spring up, and how it could soar. There is that piece he wrote under no more august prompting than that his busy Sara had inadvertently spilled hot milk on his foot and he couldn’t go walking, and talking, with his dearest friends, but must remain invalided under the lime tree, where as dusk fell his self-possession deepened, and he became one of the wise and pure “to whom no sound is dissonant that tells of Life.” There are those lines composed when his family had retired and left him on that silent frosty midnight to those not too abstruse musings in which the seasons chimed such sweet antiphonies eloquent of the ages of man, and in which the poet fated to so many sorrows for once saw life steadily and with such compassionate joy, as gifts of nature lifted his mind toward infinity, while he still sat at his warm hearth, beside his sleeping son, in memory and in hope of many a summer’s greenness.

For that hour, at least, he was acclimatized, at home in the world and at ease in his own house. Certainly then he was one of “the truly great” of whom he wrote that “Time is not with them, Save as it worketh for them, they in it.” His imagination, like the frost, performed its “secret ministry” in silence; the work of art seems to have come as naturally as the icicles “quietly shining to the quiet Moon.” Yet for all its simplicity the poem is both complete and vibrant, and in its ordering of wonder is more truly romantic than any “Kubla Khan” could have been. Did Coleridge realize that difference, or is there a curse upon the romanticist, that he shall confuse his own strength and his weakness? Did the tangential drift of Coleridge’s voluminous thought inevitably deflect and disrupt artistic creation, or was it his proud erring choice to go on talking? No one really knows about Coleridge. No one ever knew, unless it was that person from Porlock, who departed so long ago and left no word behind.


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