Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Person from Porlock in "Kubla Khan" and Later Texts: Inspiration, Agency, and Interruption

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Person from Porlock in "Kubla Khan" and Later Texts: Inspiration, Agency, and Interruption

Article excerpt

Of late, literary criticism has focused on the socio-cultural agency of artistic production, writing in the material elided by the classical tradition of the Muse on the one hand and the Romantic figure of the autonomous genius on the other. We no longer read inspiration by the light of the Muse's presence, or by the wan light cast by the candle in Chatterton's garret; "inspiration" as a concept has come to seem an illusion that covers up the full story of the processes by which art comes into being, in which artists respond to large currents within their culture. Thus, older ideas about inspiration have been overshadowed by a focus on artistic production as a complex series of negotiations between an artist and his or her culture, a turn much at odds with twenty-four centuries of thought about inspiration in the Western tradition. The gap between current explanations and those of the past reveal a central problem in aesthetics-how is art really created? Coleridge's 1816 "Kubla Khan," with its accompanying narrative about how the poem came into being and how its writing was prematurely stopped by a knock on the door, offers a figure that represents the cessation of inspiration: the person from Porlock. The person from Porlock stands for the interruption of inspiration, and this figure's popularity in many subsequent narratives by authors writing in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries shows that the issue of inspiration and its agency continues to vex our collective imagination. After all, the power to stop inspiration must be innately related to the forces that make inspiration possible at all. Who is the person from Porlock, and what gives him the power to stop inspiration in its tracks?

To answer this question, a short review of how the Western tradition has understood the genesis of artistic creation is necessary. This tradition oscillates between two strands, a belief that art follows Godsent inspiration and a belief that art results from the application of craft and design.1 Ancient Hebrews believed inspiration was prophetic and God-given; the Hebrew prophets either serve as a mouthpiece for God directly, or pass God's words on to the people, through a highly charged vatic poetry. In the oldest Greek sources, notably in Homer and Hesiod, divinity is also the source of all song, though for the Greeks that divinity is Apollo or the Muses. Plato links the poet and the prophet directly: "the good lyric poets [...] are not in their senses when they make these lovely lyric poems [but] are possessed [...]. Herein lies the reason why the deity has bereft them of their senses, [...] the god himself [...] speaks, and through them becomes articulate to us" (534a-d). Aristotle, by contrast, focused on the rational, craftbased qualities of art, those elements open to analysis and criticism. In the Hellenistic period, both sides of this debate flourished: those who argued with Plato that art was at heart divinely inspired were opposed to those who stressed artisan rules, following Aristotle. The Aristotelian tradition was dominant by the time of the Roman critic Horace, and the aesthetic values of skill, finish, and order continued to hold enormous sway throughout the middle ages and the Renaissance.

But the inspirational, prophetic tradition continued in force as well, primarily because the orthodox Christian perspective held that inspiration comes from God, the wellspring of and authority behind scriptural texts as well as works which deal with the sacred, from Dante's Commedia to Milton's Paradise Lost.2 From Sidney, whose 1595 Defense of Poetry gave due reverence to the prophetic, through the neoclassical re-emergence of Horace, chiefly through Boileau's 1674 Art Poétique, these two traditions continued to play themselves out against each other. Pope's purely ironic invocations to the Muses give way, for instance, to the reawakened prophetic tradition that arises through Blake and other Romantic figures.

Romantic ideas of inspiration tend to take a distinctly individualistic, autonomous bent. …

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