Wordsworth’s contemporary, and his ally in the enunciation of a new turn in poetry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is now known better as a critic and essayist – or even perhaps as an opium addict. But he wrote one poem which deserves to be remembered, and which was indeed a staple of school literature courses until the last quarter or so of the last century. Then, as Bloom puts it so graphically and so often in Genius, his account of 100 writers deserving of that name, the study of literature was replaced by the study of politically correct texts.
Bloom does not include Coleridge in his 100 studies, and this is understandable. Still, given some of the relatively incomprehensible if innovative continentals he includes, I suspect the average reader would find The Rime of the Ancient Mariner more accessible.
It is a strange poem, beginning with a bizarre figure who stops a wedding guest and tells him his strange story. It is claimed that ‘he stoppeth one in three’, but nothing of the sort occurs in the poem, which substantiates my theory that Coleridge was committed more to sound than to sense. The wedding guest who is caught is treated to a wonderful tale, based on the old European legend of a man doomed to sail the seas for ever, as best known perhaps in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman (or perhaps that is outdated now, and I should talk rather of Captain Jack Sparrow and the other strange creatures that frolic amongst the Pirates of the Caribbean).
Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was sent by a storm towards the South Pole, and the ship was trapped in ice, until an albatross appeared and played around the ship; whereupon the ice cracked and the helmsman steered the ship through
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white Moon-shine.’
‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
The ship then gets stuck in a ‘silent sea’ full of strange grisly creatures,
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
And the men are dying of thirst when they see a ship on the horizon. But it is the Ship of Death, and a grisly pair on board are playing for the lives of the sailors, who are duly doomed to death. The others then drop off one by one, but the mariner lives on, unable to pray, seeing in the eyes of his dead comrades their condemnation for his killing of the albatross.
He is relieved only when he learns to love the slimy creatures of the deep, and registers their beauty. That enables him to pray, and the albatross which the other sailors had tied round his neck drops off. He falls asleep and it rains, and the winds blow, and the dead men rise up and work the ship. It finally brings him to his own country land, though not without more adventures and spirits discussing his fate and the dead men still continuing to have.
All fixed on me their stony eyes,
That in the Moon did glitter.
The pang, the curse, with which they died,
Had never passed away:
I could not draw my eyes from theirs,
Nor turn them up to pray.
The Mariner finally makes it to land with the help of a Hermit who comes out in the Pilot’s boat, whereupon the ship splits and sinks and the corpses, on which when they came into the harbor seraphs had stood, finally go to their rest. The Mariner makes it into the Pilot’s boat (which drives the Pilot’s boy mad) and cleanses his soul by telling his tale to the Hermit. But
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach…
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The Mariner’s last words are obviously the message of the poem, expressing the pantheistic creed – God is in everything – that Wordsworth and Coleridge espoused in their radical youth. The message is simple, but we need to register that it was unusual at a time when the dominant outlook of monotheistic religions was to make distinctions, and to relish the salvation Christianity provided not so much for positive reasons as because the vast majority of the human race, let alone of living beings, was left out.
This was of course the time of the French Revolution, and its ideas, of Liberty and Equality and Fraternity, were to become more common, and the dominant discourse of the West, at least until the Reaganite reaction of recent years. But the freshness of what Coleridge had to say, and the skill with which he clothed it in an old myth, and put it in the form of a readily understood narrative balland, ensured that the poem became a popular classic.
Nothing else Coleridge wrote is memorable, except possibly for Kublai Khan, which is both incomplete and incoherent, even though it has memorable lines and images. Understandably enough, it is famous also for Coleredge’s claim that his composition was interrupted by a visit by a person from Porlock, after which the inspiration never came back. Porlock has since become a trope for the prosaic, and to try to explain what the poem is about would be a thankless task. But it is well worth reading in full, and one should register the sheer magic of the lines I have highlighted, the sunless sea deep underground, the woman wailing for her demon lover, and the final image of the inspired poet who had drunk the milk of Paradise.
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.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean;
And ’mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
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.