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The Guardian : Books
Saturday 7 March 2009 00.01 GMT
Author, author: Persons from Porlock
Hilary Mantel on literature’s great interruptions
Most readers (though perhaps not most hairdressers) know how Coleridge, waking from what we take to be an opium-induced slumber, scribbled down some lines of the poem he’d been composing in his sleep, but was interrupted “by a person on business from Porlock”; when he returned to work, “Kubla Khan” had evaporated, he said, except for “some eight or ten scattered lines and images”. Ever since this mishap in 1797, writers have grumbled about the crass interrupters who wreck their inspiration; they probably grumbled before, but they didn’t have a name for the phenomenon. No one has ever identified the nature of the Person’s business. Some believe it was Coleridge’s dealer dropping by with his narcotics supplies, in which case it was doubly ungrateful of him to complain. Thomas de Quincey is said to have originated this theory, which I like very much; I came across it on the internet, which is the same as saying “I read it in the Beano.”
Stevie Smith had Coleridge bang to rights:
Coleridge received the Person from Porlock
And ever after called him a curse,
Then why did he hurry to let him in?
He could have hid in the house.
In excerpt, Stevie Smith’s poem ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock’ continues….
/ He was weeping and wailing: I am finished, finished,
I shall never write another word of it,
When along comes the Person from Porlock
And takes the blame for it.
It was not right, it was wrong,
But often we all do wrong.
/ 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 felicitate the people who have a Person from Porlock
To break up everything and throw it away
Because then there will be nothing to keep them
And they need not stay.
Why do they grumble so much?
He comes like a benison
They should be glad he has not forgotten them
They might have had to go on.
These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing,
I wish I was more cheerful, it is more pleasant,
Also it is a duty, we should smile as well as submitting
To the purpose of One Above who is experimenting
With various mixtures of human character which goes best,
All is interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us.
There I go again. Smile, smile, and get some work to do
Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.
The full poem is published in The New Selected Poems of Stevie Smith (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1988); reproduced online by the Poetry Foundation (United States).
Posted by Elizabeth Kerr
This post is offered in the public interest.
*The Beano is the longest running British children’s comic, published by DC Thomson. The comic first appeared on 30 July 1938, and was published weekly.