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What Is a Literary Fragment?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A literary fragment is a literary work that remains or exists only as a part of the whole that originally existed or was planned. This can refer to a work that was never finished, such as the poem Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The term can also be used in reference to literary works that likely were completed, but which remain only in part due to loss of original versions or damage to remaining copies. A literary fragment can also refer to one of the sections of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

One common type of literary fragment is a piece of writing that is begun but is not concluded, due to a lack of inspiration or the death of the author. Perhaps the most famous literary fragment of this type is the poem Kubla Khan, which was written by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge claimed that inspiration for the poem came to him during a dream that was influenced by opium he had used for a medical issue. When he awoke from the dream, he began to write the poem but completed only 30 lines before he was interrupted by someone he described only as “a person from Porlock” and was unable to remember the rest of the poem as he had dreamt it.

A literary fragment can also be a literary work that was completed, but which does not remain in such a state. This can refer to works written on tablets or papyrus scrolls that have not remained intact over time. Such a work is often found only as a literary fragment, as pieces of the original text remain but cannot be read or recovered as a complete work. These types of fragments have extended into other art forms as well, such as old films that exist but are missing reels or have had the only existing copy deteriorate over time.

The term “literary fragment” can also be used to refer to one of the sections of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. This work exists as ten fragments, which are often numbered using Roman numerals or alphabetized as A-I. These fragments remain for scholars and lovers of literature to read, but their proper order is not quite known. Some of them refer to events in other fragments, which has allowed for some certainty in ordering a few fragments, but most of them contain no such references and the original order intended by Chaucer has been lost.

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Discussion Comments
By anon258684 — On Apr 02, 2012

When you cite Kubla Khan as a fragment, it is necessary to note that it is a specific type of fragment: an intentional fragment. This means that the author intended it to be a fragment (the man from Porlock being a stand in for lack of inspiration).

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