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Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The publishing of Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems in 1798 is usually regarded as the birth certificate of the Romantic movement in English litterae.
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, deliberately breaking away from the common taste of the age, had underlined in the opening Advertisement the “experimental” and innovative character of their compositions. It had been their program to write poetry in the lower and middle registers, with a particular focus on “painting manners and passions” and an explicit link “with our elder writers”. All of which applies to the poem in question. The Rime takes place of honour as the opening poem of the collection, and by far also the longest.
It was actually one of the very few contributions on Coleridge’s part, and an ill-fitting one at that. Wordsworth came to think that “the old words and the strangeness” of it turned readers away from the rest of the collection (made up largely of his own poems). His final comment on the poem, though, is a perfect statement of pros and cons:

The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects; first, that the principal person has no distinct character, either in his profession of Mariner, or as a human being who having been long under the control of supernatural impressions might be supposed himself to partake of something supernatural; secondly, that he does not act, but is continually acted upon; thirdly, that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other; and lastly, that the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated. Yet the Poem contains many delicate touches of passion, and indeed the passion is every where true to nature, a great number of the stanzas present beautiful images, and are expressed with unusual felicity of language; and the versification, though the metre is itself unfit for long poems, is harmonious and artfully varied, exhibiting the utmost powers of that metre, and every variety of which it is capable. It therefore appeared to me that these several merits (the first of which, namely that of the passion, is of the highest kind) gave to the Poem a value which is not often possessed by better Poems.

Note in passing the stress on feeling and imagery over reason and equilibrium. How Romantic.
As for the ‘old words’, Coleridge programmatically used archaic spellings and constructions in order to achieve what we would now call a vintage look. This is what the Advertisement has to say on the point:

The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere was professedly written in imitation of the style, as well as of the spirit of the elder poets; but with a few exceptions, the Author believes that the language adopted in it has been equally intelligible for these three last centuries.

In point of fact Coleridge revised the poem in 1817, modernising some forms (title included), adding a few stanzas, and including an explanatory gloss that is now justly famous in its own right. This edition follows the later version—but sadly omitting the gloss.

This is my third or more probably fourth reading of The Rime. And for all its shortcomings, it is always a pleasure. However unnatural and contrived, both the language and the imagery are extremely powerful. And it’s funny how the most artificial passages are often the most effective: the description of Cape Horn frosted with ice is just one among my personal favourites. Otherwise there’s no shortage of sea birds, sea monsters, sea gods, ghost ships, oceanic scenery and a whole boatload of mariners’ talk: a must for all lovers of sea narratives!
Pointedly, the poem has been interpreted as symbolizing a great many things. Christianity, paganism, the Wandering Jew… Personally I’m more interested in the sheer number of these readings than in each or any of them: such wealth of interpretations is perhaps the best testimony to its aesthetic value. Oh and obviously it has been in time quoted by Herman Melville, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, The Pogues… among countless others. The Ancient Mariner is still in perfect good health.
Finally, I have always loved the fact that the closing message is one of animalism ante-litteram, albeit on religious grouds:

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798)
pp. 48, €8/copyleft
Dodo Press, 2008

Giudizio: 4/5.

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