The New Testament has, buried in the labyrinthine wastes of Hebrews turgid homilies, an exhortation to ‘be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’. On the one hand, divine dinner guests would seem to be an attractive prospect. But the etiquette of such a visitation? If I serve chicken, would it be cannibalism for Gabriel to chomp down on a winged relative? Would fairy cakes be taking the piss?
Whoever penned Hebrews (scholars cannot agree but probably a depressed Roman) failed to observe the downside of such social blessings. The same celestial messenger can arrive an hour early without even a bottle of sacramental wine to mollify the dripping agnostic, newly emerged from an interrupted baptism in the en-suite. There is the Angel of Death and there is Santa Claus. There are great ideas and there are stinkers that will waste your time. Fate, throwing up Lone Rangers and Men from the Pru in equal measure, constantly reminds that in art and in life, there are catalysts and there are spanners in the works. Which brings us to that ultimate stranger - the person from Porlock.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, let it be said loud and clear, was a bit of a precious moppet at the best of times. Once forced to stay behind in the garden, nursing a gammy leg whilst his house guests the Lambs and Wordsworths yomped about the heath curing their gout; he penned a melodramatic little number called ‘This Lime Tree Bower my prison!’ It’s not just the self-pitying whine that irritates. It’s the use of that exclamation mark. The literary equivalent of a camp droll shrieking ‘Darling, it’s the absolute limit! I’ve been left off the guest list for Marjorie’s fondue!’ It makes us want to shake him and bellow in his ear, ‘Pull yourself together Sammy. You’re a grown poet. Now take off that Albatross necklace. You’re stinking out the parlour.’
An earlier poem, Kublai Khan was reputedly written under the influence of opium. As STC was the 18th Century equivalent of Pete Doherty, it is pretty fair to assume that all his poems and indeed his shopping lists were written under the same influence. I wouldn’t like to have been his milkmaid. ‘Two pints and a jug of pink antelope please’.
Sitting in a farmhouse parlour at Culbone, Coleridge fell into what he called a deep sleep, but which most Doctors would call a narcotic coma. The literary world knows what happened next. Coleridge claimed to have dreamed visions and two or three hundred lines of his most celebrated 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!’
Who was the mysterious stranger who knocked up our most inspired drug addict? An early Jehovah’s Witness? A liniment salesman with a free sample for that gammy leg? A drug dealer bringing by a new supply for his opium pipe? Like all the strange interlopers that enter our lives, he could have been a wrecker of dreams or a blessing in disguise. A wrecker if he denied us more of ‘In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.’ A blessing if he deprived us of the baffling whimsy of verse four’s ‘As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing.’ Thick pants? Velour breeches or velvet plus-fours and an aqualung?
Would Coleridge have babbled on with more and more perverse and increasingly absurd stanzas without the intervention of the mysterious stranger? Was the person an interesting, charming man with more talent in his little Porlockian finger than STC had in his entire pipe? Or was he, like Peter Cook’s E.L Wisty, forever persisting with ‘an interesting fact’ and trying to sell you a used postillion. We can never know. But sometimes, the stranger becomes your friend. A good idea that sticks around and is good enough to spend a little time with you just when you need him.
There are many others who have good cause to ponder the ambiguity of the unexpected. Stevie Smith, the still small trenchant voice of our true English hearts, took the no-nonsense approach. She could not abide preciousness in herself or in others and, in her ire, wrote a poem called ‘Thoughts about the Person from Porlock.’
‘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.
It was not right of Coleridge in fact it was wrong
(But often we all do wrong)
As the truth is I think he was already stuck
With Kubla Khan’
Ideas come along and you may be convinced that they are absolute gems and welcome visitors. But the truth is you don’t really know until you’ve entertained them for a while. In a period of depression or ennui when inspiration wanes, writers wait for a catalyst, a spur, a trigger. They fear it and they desire it.
They wait for a stranger.