The Person from Porlock
The images in this ongoing work-in-progress are inspired by the work and life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet, polemicist, political activist and utopian visionary. They are part of my developing, and deepending, relationship with poets, past and present. Coleridge was one of the founding figures of the English Romantic movement, which started out as a radical response to the many revolutions under way at the turn of the nineteenth century - political, social, technological, industrial and, of course, cultural. These made up a set of transformations that created the modern world, at great benefit but also at great cost to individuals, to societies and to the very natural order that the Romantics so revered.
I live in the south-west of England, a part of the world where the young Coleridge walked and talked and looked about him with a gimlet gaze. This remarkable person was charismatic, eloquent, idealistic, passionate, yet also deeply flawed by the sometimes heartless self-obsession of the artist. In truth, these contradictions draw me to him, make him seem tangible, and encourage me to look at the places that he once inhabited with the intensity and concentrated attention he gave them. Like Coleridge, I wish to see deeper into the structures of nature and human society. And, like all the Romantics, I wish to connect the world we inhabit to our deepest desires, ambitions and fears.
In 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge was locked into a period of creative frenzy. He was working closely with his new best friend, William Wordsworth, to create the first collection of Romantic poetry in English,
the Lyrical Ballads. With their use of informal language, close observation of the world around them and a strong sense of the personal voice of the poet, these ballads became revolutionary in their impact on world
literature. But of course, at the time, revolution was in the air. America had shaken itself free from the shackles of British rule, and was becoming a beacon for freedom and opportunity, despite the annihilation and enslavement of millions of its non-citizens. France had rewritten the rulebook of politics and was promising to transform Europe. And, driven by the innovations in agriculture and industry, the common man, woman and
child, were taking their first steps in an exodus to the global city. Coleridge and Wordsworth bore witness to the beginnings of a process that has reached its apogee (or nadir) in our own
moment of unassailable globalisation.
Wordsworth was the total poet, the theorist of their joint enterprise, thorough in his methods. Coleridge was the impassioned radical, more eclectic in his appetites, less likely to complete the many tasks he set himself. He drew ecstatic crowds to his polemical outpourings on justice and power, and also the intimidating attention of the authorities. He even fantasised about creating a utopian, egalitarian, self-sustaining community in the rebel state of America, which was a provocative act in itself. But Coleridge's sustaining legacy is a set of vivid, wildly-imagined poems, some of which were first published in Lyrical Ballads. These dazzling displays were, in part, fuelled by the author's addiction to laudanum, the morphine and codeine-rich opiate that was the painkiller of choice for most people at the time, to be found on almost every kitchen shelf.
Coleridge tells us about a night when he was staying in a cottage in the small Somerset seaport of Porlock. He felt, as he often did, unwell, so he took a swig of laudanum that submerged him in a deep and productive sleep. When he woke from his narcosis, he had dreamt, in complete detail, the content of what was to become his most exotic poem, Kubla Khan. He urgently began to write down whatever his fevered memory dictated. But a knock at the door broke the spell. An anonymous Person from Porlock, as Coleridge baldly describes him, distracted the poet for more than an hour, and his visionary epic was smashed to pieces. What we have now is the "fragment" (as he calls it beneath the title of the first public edition) that he managed to painfully piece together, over the next several years
Some say that Coleridge's report of this calamitous interruption is a fiction, designed to cover up with dramatics the truth that his poem is less than he would wish it to be. Certainly Coleridge could be a self-dramatising narcissist. In some senses he can be accused of flouncing through life: flouncing in and out of Oxford without the commitment to gain a degree; flouncing in and out of the army, using claims of insanity as his exit strategy, when he realised what must have been obvious to everyone else, that he'd never make a soldier; flouncing in and out of love, and even marriage. Perhaps it is the cold-blooded treatment of his wife and adored children that causes the most distress to the detached observer, looking from the distance of the twenty-first century. Coleridge most certainly had feet of clay. But so too did his Romantic peers, Beethoven and Schubert, Blake and Byron, Friedrich and Turner. How diminished a world it would be if they had not shared with us the fruits of their passion and their pain. Their humanity.
I find that Sam Coleridge, as I like to think of him, fills my mind on my almost daily walks through landscapes that connect us across time . I often converse with him, as we stroll together, as if I too have become some uninvited Person from Porlock. He encourages me to look with great care and curiosity at things he might have seen and things he could not possibly have seen. To call someone a Romantic in our detached and ironic age is usually to abuse them. But when I think of Romantics I think of people who look with amazement and appreciation at the Creation they have been, miraculously, destined to be part of. And they inspire me to do the same. Coleridge in particular urges me to link our betrayal of nature, our hubristic defiance of its laws, to our cynical exploitation of each other. Two sides of the same coin, you might say. He too could be cruel and exploitative but, uninterrupted, he could glorify the very best of what it is to be human.