The Man from Porlock

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In a note that was printed with his famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge says that it was published at “the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity.”  As for himself, he coyly dismisses the poem as a “psychological curiosity,” one not being offered up for any “supposed poetic merits.”  He tells us that he was in ill health and living on a farm between Porlock and Linton.  One evening in 1797 (scholars believe that the poem was actually written in 1798), he took an anodyne and fell asleep while reading Purchas’s Pilgrimage:  “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto.  And thus ten miles of fertile ground were inclosed with a wall.”  When he woke up, he says, he was aware that in his sleep he had composed two to three hundred lines of poetry, the images being present in his mind as things.  Seizing a pen, he wrote down the 54 lines we know, whereupon he was interrupted by a man from Porlock, calling upon him on a business matter.  An hour later he tried to recapture what he had been writing, but it had “passed away.”  (In a note on a manuscript copy he identifies the “anodyne” as two grains of opium taken to “check a dysentery.”)

 

If this is true, it is one of the most remarkable accounts of artistic creation ever recorded, and it has made “the man from Porlock” a convenient metaphor for any disrupting force.  Before trying to account for this “psychological curiosity,” let’s look at the poem, itself:

 

(i)

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
***Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
***And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
***Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
***And here were forests ancient as the hills,
***Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
(ii)
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
***A mighty fountain momently was forced:
***Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
***Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
***Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
***Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
***Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
***And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
***Ancestral voices prophesying war!
(iii)
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
***It was a miracle of rare device,
***A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
(iv)
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing óf Mount Áborá.

(v)
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
***To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
***That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 

The form is interesting for the variety of poetic lines used.  (I have added the Roman numerals that divide the poem into five sections.  I have also marked various blocks of lines with three asterisks to highlight the different rhythms, and I’ve marked the most important stresses in the last line of the fourth section.)

 

Section (i) begins with iambic tetrameter.  An iambic foot is made up of a weakly stressed syllable followed by a more strongly stressed one [dih-DAH], and tetrameter [tetra-four, meter-measure] means that there are four feet in the line.  Thus, the first two lines can be analyzed as follows:

 

[in XAN] [-a –DU] [did KU] [-bla KHAN]

[a STATE] [-ly PLEAS] [-ure DOME] [de  –CREE]

 

The fifth line is trimeter [tri-three, meter-measure] and it begins with a pyrrhic [dih-dih] or possibly a trochee [DAH-dih]:

 

[down to] [a SUN] [-less SEA]

 

Then we have four iambic pentameter lines [penta-five, meter-measure]:

 

[and THERE] [were GAR] [-dens BRIGHT] [with SIN] [-u -ous RILLS]

[where BLOSS] [-omed MAN] [-y -an IN] [-cense BEAR] [-ing TREE]

 

The ending of “sinuous” [-uous] can be read as one syllable [-yws], rather than two, but it doesn’t make much difference.  The same sort of thing can be said about the third foot in the second line.

 

There are several ways of describing the first lines of the Section (ii) but I will simply say that they are iambic pentameter with an amphibrach [dih-DAH-dih] substituted for the last iamb, and just for convenience, I will call such lines “augmented.”

 

[BUT OH!] [that DEEP] [ro-MAN] [-tic CHASM] [which SLANT -ed]

[DOWN the] [green HILL] [a  –THWART] [a CE] [-darn  COV –er]

 

If “chasm” is pronounced as two syllables, the first line ends with two amphibrachs.  In practice, any foot can be substituted for any other if it fits into the emerging rhythmic pattern, and if it does not obscure the basic structure of the line.  Thus, the first line begins with a spondee [DAH-DAH] and the second begins with a trochee, but that doesn’t change the general iambic pattern which continues for the first seven lines.  (The second foot might be read as another spondee [GREEN HILLS].)  After this we have four lines of regular pentameter:

 

[a MIGH] [-ty FOUN] [-tain MO] [-ment LY] [was FORCED]

 

The other indented and non-indented portions of the section follow the same scheme.

 

It is easiest to think of the beginning lines of Section (iii) as being iambic octameter [octa-eight, meter-measure] couplets broken up in mid-line.  In the analysis below, I’ve indicated the line break (which falls in the middle of an iambic foot) with a double colon::

 

[the SHAD] [-ow OF] [the DOME] [of PLEA] [-sure :: FLOAT] [ed MID] [-way ON] [the WAVES]

[WHERE] [was HEARD] [the MING] [-ld MEA] [-sure :: FROM] [the FOUN] [-tain AND] [the CAVES]

 

The first foot of the second line above, [WHERE], is simply a monosyllabic foot [DAH], another acceptable substitution.  (All monosyllabic feet are regarded as stressed.)

 

Section (iv) is generally iambic tetrameter, except for the second line and the last.  There are two ways of analyzing them.  I prefer to think of them as iambic trimeter with an anapaest substituted for the first foot

 

[in a VIS] [-ion ONCE] [i SAW]

. . . . .

[sing -ing OF] [mount AB] [-or –A].

 

An alternative reading would make the first syllable of each line a monosyllabic foot, and this would make the lines tetrameter.  I don’t like this because it is easy to slip into a trochaic reading that produces a sort of sing-song chanting:  [IN a] [VIS –ion], etc.  But it might be read as an amphimacer [IN a VIS].   Regardless of which reading is followed, the last line must be pronounced with emphasis on the marked stresses or it will not match up with the second line, and will stand out awkwardly.

 

The first line in Section (v) is iambic trimeter with an amphibrach substituted for the last foot:

 

[could I] [[re –VIVE] [with –IN me].

 

The third and fourth lines are made from another octameter line broken after the seventh syllable:

 

[to SUCH] [a DEEP] [de- LIGHT] [‘twould WIN] [me :: THAT] [with MU] [-sic LOUD] [and LONG].

 

All the remaining lines are tetrameter, and the first of them begins with a monosyllabic foot:

 

[I] [would BUILD] [that DOME] [in AIR]

 

We should also look at the “quality” of the words the poet has chosen, particularly with regard to euphony and cacophony.  Euphony is smooth [eu-good, phony-sound] and cacophony is harsh [caco-bad, phony-sound].  The true measure of cacophony is how much work is demanded from your vocal organs in order to produce the sound.  The beginning of the poem is an excellent example of euphony, the words flowing from one to another:  “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree.”  Notice where these sounds are placed in the mouth, alternating regularly from low to high and back to front.  This doesn’t demand contortions of your tongue and lips as does the cacophony of the lines at the beginning of the second section:  “And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,/As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing.”  Notice where these sounds are placed in the mouth, particularly in groups like “in fast thick pants.”  Then, we are back to euphony in the third and fourth sections, which is followed in the last section by an ecstatic chant that falls somewhere between the examples we have looked at:  “And all should cry, Beware! Beware!/His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”

 

The combination of these various lines dramatically changes the poem in ways that are directly related to the feeling and content.  In the first section, we have a beautiful, sunny, peaceful world described in Oriental terms.  (There is no reason to make much fuss about this Orientalizing.  We find Oriental philosophical romances in Johnson and Voltaire, and Oriental tales in Byron and Moore.)  Lines three, four, and five are structurally important because they are essentially repeated in the next section (the fifth, fourth, and third lines from the bottom).

 

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

 

The shorter trimeter line with which this ends provides a sense of closure, and marks the end of the global description which locates the Khan’s palace.  The following tetrameter provides a detailed description of the Khan’s grounds.

 

The second section introduces a change of scene and a dramatic change of imagery, and this is highlighted by the change in the poem’s rhythm.  The additional syllables at the ends of the augmented lines keep them from joining fluidly together.  Here we have references to enchantment, haunting, and demons, but the images are images of birth, beginning with the “deep romantic chasm,” proceeding to the “fast, thick, pants,” and the birth itself, which is described in regular pentameter:

 

[a MIGHT] [-y FOUNT] [-ain MOM] [-ent –LY] [was FORCED]

 

We return to augmented lines to make it clear that what is born is the sacred river Alph, which is apparently thrown up in a fountain:

 

[it FLUNG] [up MOM] [-ent –LY] [ the SAC] [-red RIV –er]

 

The word, “sacred,” fits into the context of enchantment created at the beginning of the section, and there is something Orpheus-like in the reference to the “dancing rocks.”  The connection between these lines is emphasized by the repetition of “momently,” which merely means “at every moment,” but which has echoes of “momentously”:  of great moment or importance.  Blocks of augmented pentameter and regular pentameter alternate throughout this section.  The birth and “death” of the “sacred” river are emphasized by the essentially repeated lines, but we mustn’t forget—even though it isn’t mentioned at this point in the poem— that the riverside is the location of the pleasure-dome; thus, the river runs to the pleasure-dome before reaching the lifeless ocean:

 

Five miles meandering with mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;

 

The third section describes a sort of mirage which “floated midway on the waves.”  It is the “dome of pleasure,” no longer real, but a “shadow,” something tenuous.  It is introduced in the broken octameter couplets discussed above, and commented on in more prosaic pentameter.  The fourth part introduces the muse in the guise of a “damsel with a dulcimer.”  We are told that the poet saw her once in a vision.  This is told in tetrameter.

 

And finally, in the last section, we have the poet’s invocation of the muse:

 

[could I] [re –VIVE] [with -IN me]

[her SYMPH] [-o –NY] [and SONG]

 

This is in trimeter.  It is followed by another broken octameter line, after which we have a chanting tetrameter.  And what would he do if she revivified his gift of song?  He would build the pleasure dome.  And how would those who heard his song respond?

 

And all should cry, Beware!  Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

 

This connects up with the context of enchantment that surrounds the “birth” of the sacred river, and also with the Orpheus-like reference to that birth’s having taken place “mid these dancing rocks.”  Orpheus, after all, was able to play on his lyre so sweetly that the very rocks danced.

 

I would suspect that none of these changes in the quality of the words and the rhythm of the lines was plotted out in a detailed way.  Instead, they were natural changes of inflection that occurred as the poet responded to the things he was saying, just as someone telling a story may put on voices, speak dramatically, shift to a softer tone, etc.  After all, it is this internalized grasp of the music of the lines that separates the artist from the untalented, would-be poet.

 

What are we to make of it all?  It seems clear to me that the poem is about poetic creation, and it is written by a poet who felt that he had lost the ability to create—at least to the degree that he craved–and it is its own contradiction.  Let’s connect up the dots.  (i) The pleasure dome is the symbol of poetic creation, sunny and beautiful in a fertile landscape.  This is contrasted with the sunless sea into which the sacred river runs.  (ii) Now we step back to see the creative power arising out of the earth in the spasms of birth and becoming the river, which ultimately flows into the sterility of the dead sea.  (iii) The pleasure dome, poetic creation, is now no more than a shadow, a mirage located above that dead sea which has swallowed up the creative power.  (iv) The poet had at one time had a vision of the muse, but she is long gone.  (v) The poet laments the muse’s absence.  With her aid, he could again create (build the pleasure dome), and in the mantic act of creation he would become like someone possessed—a truly Romantic notion.

 

Of course, this leaves us with little questions that aren’t easily answered, such as what in the devil Kubla Khan has to do with this, and what the “ancestral voices prophesying war” are.  One might “reach” and say that the poet is the Kubla Khan of the poem;  that he had once been able to build the pleasure-dome; that the sacred river is his creative power; and that when it falls into the lifeless ocean, he knows that destruction is near at hand.   Such “reaching” always makes me uncomfortable, so I will opt for a simpler answer:  these are merely part of the mythic framework that allows the parable to be told, just as the muse is orientalized as an “Abyssinian maid.”  I’m willing to accept that, without trying to pin down every detail.  After all, the only way to say exactly what a poem says is to repeat the poem.

 

If this interpretation is correct, then Coleridge has played a joke upon his readers by writing the note.  The poem isn’t the product of an opium dream (“the milk of paradise”) as he suggests.  It is a carefully contrived lament written by someone who, through illness, drug addiction, lack of will, and bad luck in his choice of friends, didn’t seem—in his own mind—to be able to live up to his gifts.  Many people have suggested that the man from Porlock is simply a fiction, a way of explaining why the poem remains “incomplete.”  But I think the poem is complete, and it is actually about the “man from Porlock,” the interrupting force, the inablilty to create.  Thus, Coleridge slyly tells us what the poem is about by personifying writer’s block in his note.

 

Note

Although the discussion of “Kubla Khan” is entirely my own work, I must give credit to my wife, Katherine (who is a Byronist), for she has always said that she thinks that the poem is complete and has to do with the creation of Coleridge’s poetry.