Somerset: Walking with Coleridge and the Person from Porlock

Trees, sea marsh, coast - Porlock

Trees, sea marsh, coast – Porlock

Walk in parts of Devon and Somerset and you walk the footsteps, opium dreams and Romantic poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Exmoor, the Quantock Hills, the coastal path, old stone farmhouses, combes, brooks, dramatic cliffs: all inspired him as he conceived and wrote his finest poems, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kublai Khan.

(You can click on images marked with STC in captions for Coleridge poetry quotes that accompany the images)

Coleridge was revolutionary, not just in his politics and poetry but also in his epic walks. At the time walking was an unavoidable chore for poor people, not a pleasure or choice. He walked to explore, to observe nature, to think about his work and perhaps also battle his depression.

The tourist board does not hesitate to exploit the literary connections; adding to the scourging arguments of those hostile to the branding and heritage takeover of British countryside. But that’s merely a layer to the network of ancient paths used for centuries by walkers, poets, saints, farmers, hunters and villagers.

Yes there’s cider in quaint wood-beamed pubs and cream teas in National Trust thatched cottages. But there’s also mysterious old springs covered in green lichen that once slaked the thirst of wandering saints. There are tiny churches in the woods, rising out of the valleys with overgrown forgotten graves and boards on the walls so worn the writing has disappeared. You push through soaking waist-high bracken watched by brown, semi-wild Exmoor ponies. You walk, slightly disconcerted, along the tops of dramatic cliffs that dive down to tiny coves before climbing, wearily, back up again. It is something to walk these same paths as all those before you in time, to see the same things that inspired such poetry, to feel the joy of words yet understand their limits.

Omens in the Valley of Rocks

We sleep in the Valley of Rocks with its steep curves of heathland topped by strange rock formations. A sunset floods the valley with a surge of vivid green light. The prevailing winds are captured in the twist and bent of stubby trees. There’s the noise, like fighting with sticks, of the satanic looking goats as they semi-fight with their horns, and then nimbly walk the cliffs, carefree of disaster only a false step away.

Night draws in and the lights of Wales twinkle on the other side of the channel. Faraway needles of fire flare from the steelworks. A shadow of a ship silently slips by. I lie with the night breeze caressing my face and ruffling my hair. Sleep does not come but the rain does, soft at first and then impossible to ignore. We beat a dignified retreat to a shelter, appropriately called Poet’s Shelter. We stretched out along the benches and fall sleep.

We are woken by a crash of thunder and violent rain sweeping halfway into the shelter. It is a premonition, perhaps even an announcement. My phone bleeps with a message coming through from the real world. Brexit.

Coleridge would have shrugged his shoulders at this latest convulsion in Europe. In his time Europe was burning with fevered radicalism and dangerous ideas; fuelled by war, the terror and adrenaline of the French Revolution and independence in America. He would have eaten his breakfast and discussed everything over a walk. And so did we.

The Person from Porlock

One day in 1797 a man left Porlock and walked to a farmhouse where an ill Coleridge was staying. Coleridge had taken opium and fallen asleep for a few hours, half-dreaming half-hallucinating of Xanadu, the summer palace of the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan. In his dream he composed three hundred lines of poetry and when he awoke began writing them down. A poem of a poem in a vision of an opium dream. He wrote 54 lines and then the Person from Porlock knocked on the door and broke the spell. When Coleridge returned to his work the remaining lines “had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast”.

The strange hallucinatory lines of Kublai Khan was eventually regarded as great romantic poetry, infamous for the drugs and the mystery surrounding its composition. Who was the Person from Porlock? It could have been Coleridge’s doctor who supplied him with opium, or his friend and fellow-poet Wordsworth. Another suggestion is that the person never existed. Coleridge simply got stuck; or he invented the person to justify the fragmented nature of the poem; or the fragment reflects the limit of imagination to truly reflect reality. Ambiguous meanings morph and spiral into a circle.

Whatever the case the Person from Porlock was born and has never stopped visiting; often representing a mundanity or a disruptive influence on the creative process. The person appears in Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, Lolita and The Sandman. The poet and novelist Robert Graves wished the person had interrupted more poets. Douglas Adams has the person as a time-traveller, distracting Coleridge from accidentally revealing alien information that could threaten life on Earth.

But the person is more than just a visitor to artists and creatives. Who hasn’t drifted through vivid daydreams or narcotic reveries, shining in their brilliance and colour, only to emerge into a greyer, flatter reality? Who has not stumbled through a sluggish working day after soaring through weird and wonderful dreams of the night before, their memory fading but their mood still lingering?

In this respect our friend from Porlock visits us all.

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14 thoughts on “Somerset: Walking with Coleridge and the Person from Porlock

  1. Excellent. Funnily enough just learnt about Dorset’s Undercliff and its influence on Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman as well as the coast on du Mauriers’ Cornish writings.

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    • Well that’s another one to add to the theory. Love the thought of 18th century coppers giving him an arrest warning if he does opium again. “Now then what’s going on here then Coleridge.” “Don’t be ridiculous.I’ve only had a few ales. Look here, my cousin’s a QC! Now I must go, I’m writing the finest poetry known to humanity. Bugger. What was it again?.”

      Sorry – that just slid into Withnail and I.

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    • It was a very strange night and subsequent days all things considered. Had inconsistent reception so every now get an update. Brexit, walk through glorious uncaring countryside, discuss. Cameron resigned, keep walking, discuss while knowing nothing more. Rain. Pub. Walk. Sunshine. Both great and frustrating not to know what was happening and avoid media onslaught.

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  2. Good stuff. Wasn’t aware of the Person from Porlock, however, I did read In Pursuit of Spring by Edward Thomas recently, and he too has a mysterious companion, that some believe was an apparition or poetic device. And Thomas wasn’t just searching for a season, he was also hoping to intersect with Coleridge too – I wonder if Thomas’s companion was inspired by the Person from Porlock?

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    • It does sound like it – as a device the Person from Porlock seems to serve many purposes for a number of writers and poets, including perhaps Coleridge as I don’t think it was the only time he claimed a mysterious interruption disturbing his work. I had never heard of In Pursuit of Spring so just looked it up and now another book to be added to the list!

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  3. Great writing, Alex, as always. Entertaining and thought-provoking. I appreciate the quintessentially English tone…”slightly disconcerted” …lovely. The Brexit inclusion made me chorlte as well…even though it’s still a sore subject with me. As for Du Maurier, so depressingly dull and Radio Times, but that’s just my silly old opinion…take no notice of me. There’s another, dark side to Somerset- one that you have captured well in your lovely prose and photographs.

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    • Thanks Iain! It’s still a bit sore with me as well but we are living in interesting, shifting times. Is that a challenge to try and walk Du Maurier countryside in a non-Radio Times way? I accept but it might take a few years to get there. Thanks for lovely comments. Glad can still do an English tone – not gone completely native in Glasgow yet!

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  4. Lovely Alex! This part of England is special to me because it’s where I first took my wife-to-be back on a walking trip back in 1998. I guess I had always associated Somerset with the very beginnings of Romantic poetry in Britain and it certainly has a sense of being an edge-land of some kind – not wild like Dartmoor, but somehow hidden & out on a limb. Very quiet too as I remember it.

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    • Hi Paul – know what you mean and we found it quiet as well. It might have been because we were slightly off-peak but at times we hardly saw anyone, especially on the Coleridge Way. Glad it brought back special memories. I was thinking my wife would love it as well although she would be less than impressed if I suggested sleeping on the cliffs!

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