The Person from Porlock
was an unwelcome visitor to Samuel Taylor Coleridge
who called by during his composition of the oriental poem Kubla Khan
. Coleridge claimed to have perceived the entire course of the poem in a dream (possibly an opium
-induced haze), but was interrupted by this visitor from Porlock
(a town in the South West of England, near Exmoor
) while in the process of writing it. Kubla Khan
, only 54 lines long, was never completed. Thus "Person from Porlock", "Man from Porlock", or just "Porlock" are literary allusions to unwanted intruders.
Coleridge was living at Nether Stowey (between Bridgwater and Minehead). It is unclear whether the interruption took place at Culbone Parsonage or at Ash Farm. He described the incident in his first publication of the poem:
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!
English poet and essayist Thomas De Quincey speculated, in his own Confessions of an English Opium Eater, that the mysterious figure may have been Coleridge's physician, Dr. P. Aaron Potter, who regularly supplied the poet with laudanum. However, this story is by no means universally accepted by scholars. It has been suggested by Elisabeth Schneider (in Coleridge, Opium and "Kubla Khan", University of Chicago Press, 1953), amongst others, that this prologue, as well as the Person from Porlock, was in fact fictional and intended as a credible explanation of the poem's seemingly fragmentary state as published. The poet Roger McGough also suggested this view in one of his own poems, saying "I think he got stuck."
If the Porlock interruption was a fiction, it would parallel the famous "letter from a friend" that interrupts Chapter XIII of Coleridge's Biographia Literaria just as he was beginning a hundred-page exposition of the nature of the imagination. It was admitted much later that the "friend" was the author himself. In that case, the invented letter solved the problem that Coleridge found little receptiveness for his philosophy in the England of that time.
- In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, a character checks into a motel under the pseudonym A. Person, Porlock, England.
- In Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow, the character Ka thinks of a poem, while conversing with another character Necip. The narrator then says that Ka would soon be writing that poem in his notebook if "no one came from Porlock".
- In Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version (1997) Barney Panofsky is yet again bad-mouthing his rival: "Terry McIver's first novel published, when literature would have been better served had he been interrupted in mid-flight by a gentleman from Porlock". (p. 177).
- Stevie Smith's poem, 'Thoughts About the Person from Porlock', begins as a gentle ribbing of Coleridge and ends in a meditation on loneliness, creativity, and depression.
- Alan Bennett, The History Boys (2004). When there is a knock at the door, Akthar provides this as a literary reference.
- Vincent Starrett, Persons from Porlock & Other Interruptions. (1938)
- A. N. Wilson, Penfriends from Porlock. (1988)
- Greg Bear references the person from Porlock in The Infinity Concerto (1984).
- "The Person from Porlock" is a science fiction story by Raymond F. Jones published in Astounding magazine in 1947, where Coleridge's vision is explained as the remote viewing of a secret colony of aliens living on Earth. One of the aliens deliberately distracts Coleridge before he can write down a full description of the colony.
- In Alexei Sayle's short story "The Mau Mau Hat" (from the collection The Dog Catcher), a man called Emmanuel Porlock visits the narrator, a retired poet, interrupting work on his magnum opus.
- During Paul Jenkins's run on the Hellblazer comic series, John Constantine learns that his ancestor, one James Constantine, was "The Person from Porlock". What he does not learn, but the reader does, is that James disrupted Coleridge's opium-sparked dreams so as to prevent a group of angels from feeding Coleridge what amounted to a propaganda piece for the armies of Heaven.
- Kay Ryan's poem "Doubt" advises us not to answer "the stranger's knock;/ you know it is the Person from Porlock/ who eats dreams for dinner. . . ."
- In Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, the "man from Porlock" is the main protagonist who saves the world by time-travelling from the present day to distract Coleridge from properly remembering his dream.
- In Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman", Etain of the Second Look makes reference to the "Man from Porlock" while trying to recollect a poem she envisioned while having a dream.
- In Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Valley of Fear, Sherlock Holmes is interrupted in his labours by a letter from the pseudonymous Fred Porlock, an informant within Moriarty's organization. Porlock's identity is never revealed.
TV and radio
- Louis MacNeice, Persons from Porlock, and other plays for radio. (1969)
- Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip refers to the person from Porlock in the episode titled "4 AM Miracle". Matthew Perry's character tells his writers the story.
- In the Inspector Morse television series episode "Twilight of the Gods" (1991), Lewis (Kevin Whately) disturbs Morse while he is solving a crossword puzzle, and Morse (John Thaw) shouts out, "Damn. Seven seconds off the record, if you hadn't come barging in like that. It's the person from Porlock, that's who you are." Lewis replies, "No sir, Newcastle."
- The scientist that interrupts the frozen sleep of Daniel Field in Dennis Potter's science fiction mini-series Cold Lazarus is named Emma Porlock.