Thursday, June 11, 2009

Point of view and the person from Porlock

Elizabeth Zelvin

In 1798, Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge woke from a particularly vivid opium dream and feverishly scribbled as many of the details of his vision as he could remember. The result was “Kubla Khan,” a poem that English professors still teach and readers of poetry still enjoy.

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.

Evocative and mysterious, the poem describes “sunny caves of ice,” “dancing rocks,” and “a mighty fountain” as well as Kubla Khan’s experience of “ancestral voices prophesying war.” It ends with what in filmmaking would be called a “reaction shot”—Coleridge’s idea of how Kubla takes this amazing experience from the point of view of an observer invited into the scene by way of Coleridge’s portrayal of the event.

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.

At least I think the “him” referred to is Kubla—or is it the poet himself? Like Poe and other Romantics, especially those addicted to mood-altering substances, Coleridge leaves much unexplained. In this case, moreover, Coleridge never finished the poem. He reported that while he was writing down his dream, a “person from Porlock” came to call, and the interruption dispelled the vision forever.

In 18th century England, the term “person” as used by the well-born and educated designated someone who was not a gentleman. The man from Porlock might have been a tradesman, a merchant, perhaps a provider of some low-level professional service that wasn’t as highly regarded then as it is now. Coleridge in fact might have known him, perhaps even had an appointment with him. But he did not consider such a “person” worth naming. From Coleridge’s point of view, this unwelcome interruption was an unmitigated nuisance and a great loss to literature.

But as we know, point of view is a powerful tool to alter perspective and elicit or dispel sympathy for a character. It occurred to me to wonder what the meeting with Coleridge might have been like from the point of view of the person from Porlock himself. Let us imagine him describing the encounter afterward—in 21st century idiom for the sake of the modern reader.

“Poets! He came to the door hung over and half asleep. His shirt hung open. His pants were wrinkled. He was shoeless at 2:30 in the afternoon. He’d forgotten our appointment. He said he’d been writing, and showed a pen and ink-stained hands in evidence, but I would swear the man was high. He had the nerve to be annoyed at me for interrupting his creative process—his nap, more likely. I read the poem when it came out. I couldn’t see what everyone was raving about. Honey-dew, indeed. Why not come right out and call it opium? He should be grateful to me. The poem might have been worse if he had finished it.”


Julia Buckley said...

How very creative, Liz! And what great points you make about POV.

Kenna Coltman said...

"The poem might have been worse if he had finished it." - I love it! Glad you posted the note to the SinC list. POV is one of those issues I struggle with - it was interesting reading the article and considering the POV. Thanks for sharing.