As I did previously, I’m posting the lecture I gave for the Honors Program. This time, I gave a talk accompanied with a short film I made with the help of some of the brilliant scholars I am pleased to call my friends. I’m not a Romanticist by training, so much of the material here is new for me.
CONTENT WARNING: references to slave ships, brutal treatment of stolen, trafficked, and enslaved people (women specifically).
Before it became my responsibility to present a lecture on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner for this course, I hadn’t read the poem for many years. In fact, when it came up amongst our group as a possibility, I could say exactly when I had read it last: it was in 1997, when I took a course on Romantic Literature as part of finishing up my Master’s Degree. In the 18 years that have transpired since my first reading of it, I’ve become a specialist in 16th and 17th century English literature and history, and so, though I occasionally read and teach works from the 18th and 19th centuries, including the years Coleridge lived and wrote “The Rime,” I am not a scholar of Romantic literature. And because I am not, I know that you, much like me, probably need a brief review of some important vocabulary that a Romanticist would take for granted.
Scholars in my field use the term “Romantic” to described a period of time in England, usually the last 30 or 40 years of the broad half-century between 1775–1830. The term Romance does have some roots in the literature from the middle ages — traditions in the Romance languages spoken in the courts of France, Spain, and Italy—and so it has a vague and distant relationship to the genre you know from last semester as Chivalric Romance. But the term as it applies to English literature the period is also something very different from chivalric romance and owes its existence more to German critics and philosophers than Italian writers like Boccaccio. The term developed in intellectual circles in Germany as a way of distinguishing new art and culture from neoclassical tastes of the 18th century. Whereas the earlier decades’ works and ideals were associated with the rational order, balance, and regularity of Classical art, the emerging styles in the 1780s and 90s were invested in the particular, the irregular, and the wild.
I could spend quite a bit of time trying to define Romanticism as an artistic and intellectual movement and an equally long time describing its practitioners’ relationship to nature and the sublime qualities of the natural world. Instead, I’ve put some information on a handout, and you can consult it at your leisure this afternoon. For now, you simply need to know a couple things: first, that the period we associate with Romanticism in English literature specifically was one in which some of the century’s best novelists emerged. Second, that Coleridge is one of several Romantic poets—including (but not limited to) William Wordsworth, William Blake, Robert Southey, and the younger poet George Gordon, Lord Byron—that we celebrate as literary and political revolutionaries.
It’s hard to see The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as being revolutionary in any way, however. I suspect that you, like me in my first encounters with it, found the poem to be a bit too fun and too fanciful to take very seriously; its relationship to political contexts seem remote, and, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, its ease and accessibility, its fantastic setting, and the facile associations one can make between it and drug use, make it an easy target for parody or appropriation by groups we usually don’t associate with high literary culture. For every esteemed adaptation of it—like the beautiful engravings by the French artist Gustav Dore, or the 2013 Fiona Shaw production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — we find multiple examples of pulpy fan-fiction, from hokey tattoos to heavy metal tees. And to be perfectly honest with you, before I read Coleridge’s poem in graduate school, my first meeting with the Ancient mariner was this Iron Maiden song that some kids in my neighborhood claimed to like back in the mid-80s.
I won’t make you suffer through all 14 minutes of the live performance, but I think the lead singer’s introduction to it exemplifies the sort of reactions that the poem produces in readers, both good and bad — that is, the feelings it provokes are at once wildly generative and sort of embarrassingly reductive, as we see here in the first two minutes:
So, among other things, that video is an argument for why it’s so important to learn about literature and history from professional scholars. Queen Victoria apparently was prescribed cannabis—there’s a bone fide scholarly book on the subject —but she did not sit on the throne of Great Britain and Ireland during Coleridge’s lifetime — his monarch was William IV.
Furthermore, Coleridge was not known for marijuana use. The drug he is well known to have taken habitually, the liquid form of opium, laudanum, was not for recreation nor to enhance the trippiness of his art. From about 1800 to 1818, he suffered from chronic rheumatic pain, and because the opiate’s effects were not fully understood, it brought on additional suffering in the form of psychological disturbances and addiction.
It is true that he did once write to a friend inquiring after hemp, not for himself, but for his friend Tom Wedgewood, the son of the famous potter, in the hopes that it could afford some “alleviation of his most hopeless malady — which is a dreadful inirritability of the intestinal Canal.” Tom didn’t need a high so much as health and happiness: both, Coleridge wrote, were “blasted by —a thickening of the Gut!—O God! Such a Tree, in full blossom, & a Grub, a grub at the root!”
Incidentally, this image of a tree in full bloom being eaten away by a worm is very nearly the same image we get in William Blake’s poem, “The Sick Rose.” And in Coleridge’s use of the metaphor and his impassioned plea, we can see perfect examples of the poetic sensibility of Coleridge and other Romantic poets. But, in some fashion, the Iron Maiden interpretation of the mariner poem is also exemplary of the Romantic spirit, and in getting the poem and English history a little bit wrong, it nonetheless gets the act of inspiration right: in fact, the band’s desire to re-create the poem — and go off their usual 3 minute script into 13 minutes of experimental thrashing—is in keeping with Coleridge’s own sense of the “two cardinal points of poetry: the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader…and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination.”
Indeed, he believed “the reader should be carried forward, not merely by mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractiveness of the journey itself.” I take both of these to mean that he aimed to write poems that pushed the boundaries of time and space, present and history, and reader and writer; the poet’s job was to produce works that not only engendered readers’ identification with an imaginative scenario, but also inspired the “spontaneous overflow of feeling” (in Wordsworth’s famous formulation), and therein the desire to create. Whatever its quality, the heavy metal Mariner forces us to reckon with the instability of the literary text as well as notions of aesthetic taste, authenticity, and literary form — and in this way, it is very much in keeping with what scholars know of the poem and the experimentation of the Romantic poets broadly.
In my time today, I’ll talk about the Ancient Mariner in ways that I hope will give you a better sense of the poem’s complexities without dictating the lines of inquiry that you can pursue in your discussion sections later. Rather than present a single argument about it, I’ll discuss the poem’s subtexts, contexts, and text-texts that I’ve learned about from other scholars since I returned to study the poem in late January. After about 40 minutes of a formal lecture with three parts of diminishing length, I’ll answer the Mad-Hatter-style question of how an English professor is like an 80s heavy metal band by showing you the imaginative exercise that the poem excited in my mind, and then encourage you to engage in similar experiments in poesis, or the act of poetic creation yourself.
You would never know it from the Rime’s apparent apolitical setting that Coleridge was deeply influenced by the complex and disparate events we know as the French Revolution. To be conveniently and overly general, these events ushered in the swift decline of absolute monarchies and theocracies all over Europe and beyond. The storming of the Bastille — a prison and symbol of tyranny — in 1789 and the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793 were both shocking and radicalizing for those who watched from the British Isles and other parts of the continent. The movement’s rallying cry celebrated the liberty, equality, and brotherhood of all men — and, as this graffiti in Paris suggests, sisterhood as well). For poets in England, the events of the 1790s in France were a source of inspiration and a potential model for the leveling of hierarchical structures in English governance and society. But because France seemed to betray its professed ideal of liberty by invading republican Switzerland; because the government put in place after the toppling of the monarchy ultimately revealed the movement’s original leaders to be corrupt; and, later, because its hero was ultimately a conquering, imperialist general named Napolean, the French revolution also was a source of disappointment and fear. By 1799, Bonaparte established his place as the French Emperor and England’s enemy. Anyone who saw the revolution in the early 1790s as paving the way for more egalitarian forms of state governance could see by the late 1790s that the road to a republic or democracy was still a difficult terrain.
As I said before, it’s hard to see immediately how the French Revolution bears on a The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, of course, but it was nonetheless is a significant subtext for all of his poetic output. Coleridge wrote the poem around 1798, when he was very much a radical and had expressed both a deep respect for the revolutionaries in France and a disillusionment with its leaders for bringing military force into Switzerland.
Take his poem from the same year, “France: An Ode,” which begins with a description of the joy and love of liberty the speaker felt at the fall of the Bastille, but then shifts to detail his “abhorrence” at the attack on the Swiss republic. In its fifth and final stanza, the speaker castigates the French revolutionaries for throwing off chains only to take on new ones. He says they are “slaves by their own compulsion” for betraying their egalitarian principles. As he moves to conclude the poem, he then goes on to address true Liberty directly, describing it with wings in the phrase “subtle pinions” (or feathers) and calling this flying freedom “the guide of homeless winds, and playmate of the waves!” Its last few lines are emblematic of the kinds of moves that are typical of Coleridge and Romantic poets broadly: reflections on abstractions are filtered through specific and intense interactions with nature, causing the speaker to feel something intellectually and bodily all at once.
I’m sharing this poem with you in part because in likening Liberty to a winged bird, the poem recalls the Ancient Mariner’s Albatross, cutting through the fog to greet the sailors with a “good south wind” behind him. More importantly, I share it because it more clearly conveys Coleridge’s radical politics, and invites us to look more carefully into how they may be lurking in the Mariner’s imagery and psychic landscape. Significantly, this same stanza had initially likened the speaker’s disappointment in France to his disappointment in the British government for its complicity in the Slave Trade. The reason you don’t see here is that editor of the periodical opted to remove it prior to its publication, claiming that it disrupted the unity of the poem’s subject matter, though Coleridge had intended for them to be described in a single breath.
We might be suspicious that the editor’s real motive was censorship, but Coleridge’s views on the slave trade were already well known by 1798.
In 1792, a good five or six years before he wrote “the Rime” and “France: An Ode,” he wrote a poem on slavery in which he called on the allegorical figure of Nemesis to inflict “burning punishment” on those who trafficked in human flesh. Three years later at Bristol (a city at the center of the trade), he attacked slavery in his “Lecture on the Slave Trade” (pdf) as both a specific wrong to its African victims and as a “perversion” in which “a Person [is made] into a thing” (Keane). He invited his countrymen to imagine themselves in the irons of those who were enslaved: “Would you choose to be sold? to have the hot iron hiss upon your breasts, after having been crammed into the hold of a Ship with so many fellow-victims, that the heat and stench arising from your diseased bodies, should rot the very planks?”
He also denounced his countrymen for their complacency and complicity in the trade in profiting from it: “The merchant finds no argument against it in his ledger,” he noted bitterly; “the citizen at the crowded feast is not nauseated by the stench and filth of the slave-vessel — the fine lady’s nerves are not shattered by the shrieks! She sips a beverage sweetened with human blood, even while she is weeping over the refined sorrows of Verter or of Clementina.” Here, he alluded to the damage Englishmen and women could inflict from afar by eating and drinking sugar and rum and other goods produced on plantations; in bringing up examples of a middle- brow literary culture, he denounced those who could be moved to tears by the plot of a novel or play but not by the real suffering that they caused in others.
What “France: an Ode” indicates is that Coleridge saw the failed ideals of liberty and equality in the Revolution as parallel to the British government’s participation in the slave trade; and if his attempt to bring up the latter in a poem about the former was thwarted by his editor, English readers in 1798 had many other examples of poems where they could see his sentiments about slavery echoed by other poets. Around that same year, for instance, William Blake wrote “The little Black Boy” in his Songs of Innocence (and also would produce a striking engraving); the poet laureate of England, Robert Southey, published an entire volume called Poems Concerning the Slave Trade (1797/8?).
Coleridge and Southey were dear friends who had formed an egalitarian society together in or around 1794. It is hardly surprising that two poets who espoused the same abolitionist convictions might also share poetic techniques and rhyme scheme. Even if you’ve never read Southey, you’ll find multiple things in the collection’s opening poem that will sound familiar. In “The Sailor who served in the Slave Trade,” the speaker hears a man crying and approaches him to ask why he suffers so; the speaker then tells his tale, confessing fear of a certain wicked person as well as guilt for the wicked thing he himself has done. Southey’s poem thus offers an inversion of the framing device we see in “the Rime” with the Mariner’s seizure of the Wedding guest; but as in Rime, the reader of the poem joins the interlocutor as a witness to a sailor’s confession.
You can also see immediately a number of resonances in the style and verse form of the two poems: as I noted already, they share a rhyme scheme. Both Coleridge and Southey make great use of the device of anaphora, as we see in purple type, starting multiple lines or clauses with the same word or phrase; we also see their common use of words like those in red that are associated with directional movement, up and down, right and left, as well as prepositional phrases in orange that emphasize specific movements from specific directions. As you’ll be able to see in this and a future slides, both poems contain references to the immediate moment through “now” as well as exclamatory outbursts, usually containing contrite religious fervor or horror. More specifically, there are also lines that are key in each narrative that are very nearly the same in both poems.
In Coleridge, we’re told repeatedly that there’s “Water Water Everywhere,” in multiple places in Southey’s poem we’re told that the evil Captain “follows follows everywhere.” Southey’s Sailor exclaims, “Oh I have done a wicked thing!” and then reiterates it in another line, “O I have done a cursed deed”; both admissions are akin to Coleridge’s Mariner who claims “And I had done a hellish thing.”
You know already what the Mariner’s “Hellish thing” is—the shooting of the albatross—so let’s look briefly into the “cursed deed” and “wicked thing” that Southey’s sailor does:
I sail’d on board a Guinea-man,
And to the slave-coast went;
Would that the sea had swallowed me
When I was innocent!
And we took in our cargo there,
Three hundred negroe slaves,
And we sail’d homeward merrily
Over the ocean waves.
But some were sulky of the slaves
And would not touch their meat,
So therefore we were forced by threats
And blows to make them eat.
One woman sulkier / than the rest
Would still refuse her food,—
O Jesus God! I hear her cries—
I see her in her blood!
The Captain made me tie her up
And flog while he stood by,
And then he curs’d me if I staid
My hand to hear her cry.
She groan’d, she shriek’d—I could not spare
For the Captain he stood by—
Dear God! that I might rest one night
From that poor woman’s cry!
She twisted from the blows—her blood
Her mangled flesh I see—
And still the Captain would not spare—
Oh he was worse than me!
She could not be more glad than I
When she was taken down,
A blessed minute — ’twas the last
That I have ever known!
They flung her overboard;—poor wretch
She rested from her pain,—
But when—O Christ! O blessed God!
Shall I have rest again!
Southey’s tale pitches the anguished sailor as every bit a victim of the slave trade as the woman he beats and whose body is mangled and eventually thrown overboard (PROBLEMATIC!). But if it sounds a bit overwrought, it’s worth noting that there were many non-fiction tales of on-board struggles that are equally horrific; in one case, an account from 1783, one Captain Collingwood described the woes of the ship called the Zong, which carried 133 Jamaicans who were malnourished and ill; because traders could collect insurance money for lost cargo but not diseased men, the crew decided it was more profitable to throw overboard all 133, many of whom were shackled together. Collingwood’s account was later depicted in a painting by JMW Turner. It was also described in detail in “The History of the …Abolition of the Slave Trade,” a work by Thomas Clarkson that Coleridge reviewed for the journal The Edinburgh Review.
Coleridge knew of both the story of the Zong and also the “cursed deed” and “wicked thing” commited by Southey’s Sailor. So to what extent, can the “hellish thing” done by the Mariner be understood as a coded depiction of the mariner’s participation in the slave trade? As early as 1961, a scholar named Malcolm Ware drew these connections explicitly, arguing that the “spectre-bark”—that is, the ghost ship bearing Death and Life-in-Death—was obviously a slave ship; its arrival in the poem, he claimed, was to demonstrate the consequences of violating the natural bonds of man to man. In 1964, the critic William Empson argued similarly that the poem’s main theme is European expansion and that the Mariner’s crime and consequent guilt represent Coleridge’s attempt to reckon with Britain’s cruel exploitation of other civilizations. According to Empson, in killing the albatross, the mariner “violated rites of hospitality with the bird but also therein violated the very harmony of the universe, the profound relation unifying humanity and, in turn, humanity with the natural world“ (Keane). The mariner’s companions on the ship and the wedding guest are also punished for this crime, because those who participated in the capture, transport, and owning of black men and women—and those who thoughtlessly consume the goods of slavery—are all his witness and accomplices.
To the analyses by Empson and Ware, more recent work by Patrick J. Keane adds that “accomplices,” the word that Coleridge’s marginalia uses to describe the other sailors, is also a key word in many of Coleridge’s public statements about slavery and the complicity of elites in England. Keane and others (such as J. R. Ebbotson) read the poem as a “a symbolic rehearsal of the crux of colonial expansion, [and] the enslavement of native peoples” (Keane) noting the way the mariner’s ship’s “warped planks” and “Rotting deck” resonates with Coleridge’s claims in his public lecture that “[the] diseased bodies [of slaves would] rot the very planks.” Still other scholars, Ve-Yin Tee and Debbie Lee demonstrate that Coleridge’s depictions of the post-trip Mariner, Life-in-Death, and the dying shipmates invoke the symptoms of Yellow fever, a disease that spread in conjunction with rum and sugar plantations, which killed many sailors and radically altered the skin color and bodies of those who survived: “From 1793–1796, the combined deaths in the Army and Navy were estimated at 35,000 annually” (Tee). Tee also draws attention to the descriptions of Yellow Fever in ten different medical texts printed in 1798, and, like Lee, shows the resonance of its symptoms with the Mariner’s skinny brown hand, the “ghastly crew,” their “withered” tongues and black lips. As multiple scholars make clear, then, the slave trade is ever present in the poem even in its apparent absence; it is an “unspoken motif” or “effaced level of meaning” in the Mariner’s “hellish thing.” Moreover, in killing the albatross, the mariner becomes a slave to his own narrative, free only in brief moments after he confesses it but never truly at liberty. Those to whom he speaks are also held captive by his glittering eye; even when he unhands us, we can not choose but hear and be sadder and wiser about the crimes committed at sea.
Thus far, I have described the slave trade and questions of equality and liberty sparked by the French revolution as being inextricably linked in Coleridge’s mind and works; accordingly, I’ve suggested that both are subtexts for the “Rime” that inflect its imagery and meaning—even if they are not identified explicitly. But there are also literary and historical contexts that the poem engages more overtly, and knowing about them can deepen our sense of Coleridge’s poem and its fantastic world. The setting on the ship and the story of a journey that takes unexpected turns links the Rime to Nordic sagas and epics like the Odyssey, of course, and more particularly, to travel narratives like Crusoe as well as what we might distinguish as “non-fictional” accounts of shipwrecks and voyages to strange lands.
Though I compared the Albatross to the slave woman that is killed and tossed overboard in Robert Southey’s poem, “The Sailor who served in the Slave Trade,” there were a number of texts from the same period that described the flora and fauna of the Isles and of far away lands, and still others focused on birds or described encounters with them at sea.
Geographically speaking, the Albatross lived in regions that few English people would have visited outside of commercial or military enterprise; so their primary knowledge of these birds would be from visiting museums and curiosity cabinets of the rich, such as this one,
where they could see in Don Saltero’s coffeehouse, an albatross or swan from the Cape of Good Hope, and more certainly an albatross’s head, along with items such as a piece of Queen Catherine’s skin and an Indian Prince’s crown.
Readers could get a fuller but still limited picture of the bird from published works of Natural history. Most histories of this sort published in the 1780s and 90s repeat the same bits of information on the bird, suggesting that even those who declared themselves experts were often drawing from a single earlier account written by somebody else. Often these accounts emphasize its ability to soar for great distances, and its predation of flying fish.
With apologies to our birder Dr. Eliot, I won’t say more here about them, because Coleridge doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the Albatross beyond what it contributes to the narrative of action and consequence. Perhaps more certainly than natural histories like these, Coleridge was influenced by a text that his collaborator William Wordsworth claimed to have recommended detailing the travels of a Captain Shevlocke and his trip to the south pole. His second Captain Simon Hatley shoots an albatross he takes as a bad omen in the hopes the weather bad will break. It eventually does, but not in a way that allows the crew to make that connection.
Although the event ultimately transpires without incident, Wordsworth claimed that he advised Coleridge to write a poem that summoned “tutelary spirits of the regions to avenge the crime.” This seems like an idea Coleridge would have liked, as he was well known for loving animals, in one famous instance, had refused to set mousetraps in his home. But if Wordsworth brought the account to Coleridge’s attention, it was not the only one that Coleridge had in mind as he composed the Rime. He claimed to have read several books before the age of 6, including Robinson Crusoe as well as another story in the same vein : The Hermit, or the Unparallel’d suffering and surprising Adevntures of Mr. Philip Quarll, an Englishman: Who was lately discovered by Mr. Dorrington , a British Merchant, upon an uninhabited island in the South Sea where he…continues to reside and will not come away.
From the title page alone we recognize one element from “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: a hermit who talks to visitors who arrive in ships. There’s also a second key element in this work, written nearly 20 years prior to the voyage narrative Wordsworth claimed to have introduced. At one point, the hermit Philip Quarll notices that the fish in a lake are being depleted rapidly, and that something big is snatching up the small ones. After staking out and learning that it’s the albatross, he “studies means to kill the destroyer.”
Here’s how the author of The Hermit describes the event:
Unlike the source of inspiration Wordsworth cited, The Hermit shows us the shooter’s brief remorse, and in this way, provided a tale that is much more in line with the poem and the mariner’s moral about how to love the things that God creates. But Quarrel’s regret is not nearly so intense as the mariner’s recrimination, for it is qualified by the Crusoe-vian reminder that killing an animal is justifiable if it helps a human being survive. Indeed, the bird here is in keeping with the Albatross described in natural history books; unlike the Christ-like bird who learns to eat biscuit-worms from the sailors, it’s very much competing with Quarll as the apex predator in the pond. His act of killing the bird, then, isn’t a hellish thing, since the Hermit has both a pre-meditated strategy and a pragmatic rationale for taking out an adversary.
Now that we’ve seen the subtext and context for the Rime by way of Southey’s poem and The Hermit and the account of Shelvock’s voyage, some of the more puzzling aspects of Coleridge’s poem become more pronounced. In contrast to The Hermit, the mariner has no apparent motive for shooting the bird, and unlike Mr. Hatley, he suffers terrible consequences for his impulsive act. What are we to make of the Mariner’s crime? The obvious place to look for an explanation of the mariner’s motives is the marginal annotations, the presence of which tacitly instruct us to move back and forth between the main text of the poem and the glosses. In some cases, we find them explaining what the main text does not; for instance, they suggest that the bird was a good omen, though of course there is no way for the mariner to know this before he shoots it, and if he did know, then the act of shooting is all the more mystifying. In that crucial moment, in fact, the gloss provides no answer, for we have nothing there but a marginal echo of the act itself. And so the shooting persists as one of the poem’s most wonderful aspects, then, that the narrator who claims to “have the strange power of speech” is forced to tell us his story but ostensibly can not or will not tell us why he committed what he later deems a hellish thing. This simultaneous compulsion to speak and inability to explain, I think, is why we are gripped by it not unlike the wedding guest: we can not choose but hear, and what we hear excites our imagination but does not fulfill our desire to know and understand the act.
II. The Text
Now the marginalia moves us into the last subject of this lecture, which shifts from subtext and contexts to consider what we can learn about the text of the poem itself. The marginal glosses are key for understanding it, but not in the way you might think. Now, your edition of the text is cheap and, I’ll admit, not a good edition. In addition to lacking line numbers, which are essential really for talking about poems, it also doesn’t tell you some major details about the version in your hands. Like the fact that those marginal glosses you see were not at all part of the poem when it first appeared in print in 1798. Coleridge added them in nearly 20 years after he originally wrote the Rime. Jack Stillinger has determined there were at least 18 distinct versions of the Rime, counting three editions published in Coleridge’s lifetime along with the handwritten corrections or changes in his hand in 15 copies that are now owned by rare book and university libraries.
The three versions that circulated most widely and while Coleridge lived date from 1798, 1800 and the 1817. The first two appeared in the collections of poems that Wordsworth compiled with Coleridge and others called Lyrical Ballads. In its opening pages, Wordsworth declared,
Wordsworth also gave the “Rime of the Ancynt Marinere” pride of place in the volume, and in the prefatory remarks, noted that it “was professedly written in imitation of the style as well as the spirit of the elder poets.”
In an effort to foreclose on the possibility that these experiments would fail to make an impression (or worse, fail to make money), he added the following: “Readers of superior judgment may disapprove of the style in which many of these pieces are executed; it must be expected that many lines and phrases will not exactly suit their taste. It will perhaps appear to them, that wishing to avoid the prevalent fault of the day, the author has sometimes descended too low, and that many of his expressions are too familiar, and not of sufficient dignity. It is apprehended, that the more conversant the reader is with our elder writers, and with those in modern times who have been the most successful in painting manners and passions, the fewer complaints of this kind he will have to make.” As you can see, this formulation basically takes any critique readers might have of their poetic experiments and insists that the flaw lies in the readers’ lack of familiarity with the literary traditions that the Lyrical Ballads drew upon and also reinvent.
So how did it go? And specifically how did our Ancient Mariner fare? Here are some anonymous reviews of the poem in the 1798 edition: The first: “The author’s first piece, The rime of the Ancient Mariner in imitation of the Style as well as the spirit of the elder poets, is the strangest story of a cock and a bull that we ever saw on paper: Yet, though it seems a rhapsody of unintelligible wildness and incoherence, there are in it poetical touches of an exquisite kind.” A second anonymous reviewer pushed back at Wordsworth’s attempt to blame the misinformed reader, claiming “We are tolerably conversant with the early English poets and can discover no resemblance whatsoever, except in antiquated spelling and a few obsolete words.” The second anonymous reviewer was Coleridge’s friend Robert Southey. Wordsworth was troubled by the response and noted, “From what I can gather it seems that the Ancient Mariner has upon the whole been an injury to the volume, I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second edition I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste” (quotations reproduced from McGann) Coleridge revised the poem, taking out a number of the archaic words and changing the argument preceding the poem to reflect a more obvious moral. Rather than exclude the poem from the second edition that was published two years later, Wordsworth kept it in, but he gave in to market-pressure, and shuffled it to the back of the volume.
Coleridge continued to revise the poem all the way up to 1817, when he prepared a new version for publication in a volume of his works alone. This version newly contained a Latin inscription preceding the poem, the quotation by 17th century philosopher Thomas Burnet (which you have in your textbook). He replaced the more pious argument from the second edition with the original edition’s argument (and that’s the one you have in your textbook), and added the marginalia you see in your textbook as well. For many critics, the marginal annotations are jarring and dissatisfying; they are reductive and simplistic descriptions that are sometimes imprecise and even incorrect in summarizing parts of the poem. For Empson, they were evidence that the opiates and Coleridge’s declining health had ruined his mind. For him and other critics, they are signs that the poet’s growing political conservatism and piety had fully taken over his poetic sensibility, much to its detriment.
I’m inclined to agree that the glosses are reductive and at times annoying; but I’m also intrigued by an argument offered by Jerome McGann, that they represent another layer of framing within the poem. McGann imagines the Rime as a fictional medieval poem sung by a minstrel whose song is about a Mariner from an even earlier time, who tells the wedding guest, the hermit, and the pilot boy about events that happened even further back in time. In McGann’s view, the poem’s glosses are intended to bring a layer of historical book-ish to the poem, using a convention that was associated with 15th century handwriting and 16th century print. McGann further argued that the marginal glosses were attended to go along with the added Latin Inscription by the 17th century philosopher, Thomas Burnet, also added in the 1817 version. The glosses are not the poet’s voice enforcing meaning onto us, but rather, intended to invoke Burnet’s, and in this way, an imagined 17th century reader becomes yet another auditor in the text as well as a later editor and creator. In this assessment of the marginal glosses, the marginalia is both a part of the text and a marker of its reception and defiant instability. We need not accept those glosses version of what happened as the truth, and instead could see it as another aspect of Coleridge’s experimentation. By bringing high and low, old and new, and audience and storyteller into close and evocative contact, the 1817 edition of the text gives us a marginal commenter from a later time, whose annotations highlight the poem’s multiple narrative registers. Burnet the annotator simultaneously occupies the roles of both captive listener and editor, rehearsing the tale in another space and adding a new dimension to the elder poets whose voices are co-opted to tell it.
III. The Tweets of the Ancient Mariner
With McGann’s reading of Coleridge’s last revisions in 1817, I want to close the formal part of this lecture with a revision of the poem I created when I returned to it, like our poet, 18 years after I first encountered it. I, too, was inspired by the experiments of Wordsworth and Coleridge to consider how “the language of every day conversation might be used for poetic pleasure,” though rather than make a song like Iron Maiden, my chosen medium for this experimentation was the social media platform, Twitter.
Sure, it’s a corporate product, (but so was Lyrical Ballads. And some really great writers have saw fit to use it. In 2012, The New Yorker’s twitter feed tweeted a new 8500 word short story by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan, 140 characters at a time. This summer, the author of Cloud Atlas did the same for his short story, which he told over more than three hundred tweets. And of course, there are thousands of poets on Twitter, and more than 20,000 people follow these elder-poet accounts.
Some of these accounts are run by real people, like the person who manages this Chaucer account, whereas others, like “Tweets of Grass,” are done by robots who tweet out bits and pieces with algorithmic regularity. There’s also the “This is “Just to Say” Bot, which replaces key words in the William Carlos Williams famous poem, and makes these interesting new versions. As you can see, Twitter really is the place to see every day conversation alongside poetic pleasure, linking old and new, high and low, and history and present.
Before I show you my version of the poem, I want to take this opportunity to plug the English Department’s Twitter poetry contest, the details of which you can find on the back of your handout.
But by the same token, it’s worth adding that it’s not just a literary utopia on Twtter; it’s also a media site that provides a platform and display case for some of the worst online harassment.
That harassment has an imperfect but important solution in the Block Button, some of the inspiration for my own experiment.
With that, I will give you my Coleridge & Iron Maiden Salute, “The Tweets of the Ancient Mariner.” Hashtag: #LOL.
The Tweets of the Ancient Mariner : Vimala C. Pasupathi, Ph.D. : Free Download & Streaming …
A re-imagining of Coleridge's poem, set in the Twitterverse. For teaching/non-commercial purposes. For a list of…
This little film was made with the help of Drs. Karl Steel, Stephanie Insley Hershinow, and Matthew Harrison; I am also grateful for the assistance of Tricia Matthew, Kim Hall, and Benjamin Armintor as I drafted this lecture and made the film.