A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Person From Porlock


On the second day of my walk along England's South West Coast Path I passed through Porlock and down to Porlock Weir (see photo). The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge used to live not very far away - in the village of Nether Stowey between Minehead and Bridgwater to be exact - and he and his friends William Wordsworth, Wordsworth's sister Dorothy, and the poet and essayist Thomas de Quincey, used to take frequent long walks in the surrounding hills of Exmoor and the Quantocks. What lively, literary conversations they must have had! Or do you think they must have just grumbled about the weather and the state of their feet, like most walkers? (Though actually we know both from Wordsworth and from William Hazlitt that Coleridge was a brilliant conversationalist.)

Of course, the name of 'Porlock' resounds in the literary imagination because of Coleridge's famous story about being interrupted by a 'Person from Porlock' while feverishly writing his visionary poem Kubla Khan. Whether Coleridge was struggling to finish it, or whether his juices were in full creative flow, we will never know. Whether the 'Person from Porlock' really existed, or whether this was a fiction invented by Coleridge to excuse the fragmentary nature of his poem, we will also never know. But what is certain is that only fifty four lines were ever completed - out of a projected two to three hundred. And what is also highly probable is that the poem was composed in an opium-induced trance. For Coleridge was addicted to laudanum (an easily obtained, readily prescribed pain-killing drug at the time) - as were many of his friends and contemporaries, including Thomas de Quincey (whose book Confessions Of An English Opium-Eater I strongly recommend; it makes wonderful reading.) Indeed, some scholars believe that the actual 'Person from Porlock' was Coleridge's physician, Dr P Aaron Potter - who had called unexpectedly on that day in 1797 to supply Coleridge with his fix, thus diverting him from one of his wildest visions. Anyhow, the term 'Person from Porlock' has been alluded to by many poets and novelists ever since to mean any unwelcome visitor or unwanted intruder.

On a wider note, all this got me thinking about 'unfinished' art in general. Creative works may be 'unfinished' for many reasons: the death of the artist, the deliberate wish of the artist, the interruption of the artist. Consider the great 'unfinished' masterpieces: Jane Austen's Sanditon, The Mystery Of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, Coleridge's Kubla Khan. Does the fact that they're 'unfinished' really matter all that much? Personally I feel it matters not one jot. Indeed, for me, some works of art are all the better for being 'unfinished'. Perhaps this is why I like so much some of the suggestive, seemingly unpolished drawings and sketches by artists like Constable, Van Gogh and many others. Perhaps this is why I like so much the fragmentary nature of a poem such as Kubla Khan, with its half-fulfilled desires and half-complete visions. Sometimes the 'unfinished' work of art reflects more truly the life we really live. We can fill in any gaps and omissions and endings in our own imaginations.

Back at Porlock Weir, this family's having a good time crabbing and messing about by the boats ...



But this couple's striding off rather purposefully towards ... what ..? I leave this unfinished, as I don't know the answer myself ...



(If anyone is interested in the relationship between opium and English Romanticism, try reading Alethea Hayter's terrific book Opium And The Romantic Imagination, a book I read and enjoyed many years ago.)

9 comments:

George said...

You are certainly not a "person from Porlock' this morning, Robert. It's good to have you back, and I hope the ears have begun to clear.

I agree with you that it matters not a bit that a piece of art is left "unfinished." That trait, in fact, is often what elevates art, giving it a sense of immediacy. Nothing kills art more than overworking it.

Gorgeous photos! What magnificent scenery you must have seen on your walk.

The Solitary Walker said...

Can't hear a thing, George. Except for the promptings of my inner voice, that is. Thanks for the comment.

The Solitary Walker said...

And I thank you, George, for your continued praise of my photos - but I fear they are just 'snaps' in a way. Because I am forced to carry a very compact, lightweight camera on my treks, really I just point-and-shoot. Although I do think I have a natural eye for texture and composition, I wish I could do greater justice to my scenes with a more expensive, versatile and pixelated camera!

Bonnie said...

Questions are like doors - opening an opportunity for further discovery of self, other, world. I enjoy a conversation, class, film or book that ends with a question.

Unfinished works provoke many questions and often reveal more about the process of the artist. Of course, the speculative answers one produces would be quite different if we knew the work was fueled by a drug-induced trance.

Interesting post Robert - full of information and questions!

susanna said...

I like your take on the appreciation of the "unfinished" and likened it to life..... yes, life will never be finished or completed. I have never encountered anyone who is ready for death.... no matter how prepared or how old.

Luiza said...

Can you hear these days SW? I hope so.

I also love the photographs and understand your frustration about using a point and shoot, pack weight and all that. However, you have a photographer's eye and that is what makes for the great photos.

Thanks for making me think .....

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Bonnie! When will the questioning ever cease?

And thanks, too, for your comment Susanna - I think you're new to this blog, so welcome! Ready for death? No - you are right. We have too much living to do yet.

Luiza... Trying to hear you ;) Thanks for your comment. You have greatly encouraged me in my hit-and-miss photography...

Caroline Gill said...

I am reminded of Paul Valéry's words that a poem is never finished, only abandoned ...

Have you visited Coleridge Cottage at Nether Stowey?

The Solitary Walker said...

Caroline - no, I haven't visited that cottage... but I have always loved that Valery quote!