Since the early 19th century, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), has remained one of the most honored, discussed, and beloved poems in all of English literature. (Here I am excluding the feelings of most high school sophomores who when faced with reading the poem find it daunting, dreary, and dense)
The poem tells the story of an old sailor who is compelled, again and again, to relate the weird happenings that occurred on a long voyage when he was a young man. The poem contains a number of famous and quotable lines, most notably:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The poem deals with many parts of the human condition, but one of the overarching themes is the power of a story to hold our attention, especially when told by a master storyteller. The setting of the poem occurs when the ancient mariner buttonholes a man on his way to a wedding. At first, the man tries to get away, but eventually, he is captured by the story the sailor is telling.
The story of how Coleridge came to write the poem and the way in which it defined the rest of his life is also interesting and instructive.
Coleridge was born in 1772 the 10th of 10 children, and his father died when Coleridge was just nine years old. Coleridge was sent to a boarding school in London and for the rest of his childhood was essentially cut off from his family. He rarely made visits home even during holidays. But he was a precocious child and an avid reader, and during his late teenage years, he secured a university place at Jesus College, Cambridge.
Coleridge loved poetry and wanted to be part of a new movement of poets that was forming toward the end of the 18th century in England. He befriended other young poets such as Robert Southey and Charles Lamb, and in 1796 he published his first volume of poems. He also attempted to edit and publish a new journal, the Watchman, but that attempt failed after only a few months.
In 1795, Coleridge met William Wordsworth, and they formed a friendship that would have profound effects on the lives and the poetry of both. At Wordsworth’s suggestion, they made plans to jointly write a long lyrical poem Wordsworth was reading a book, A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea (1726) by Captain George Shelvocke, and he suggested that as their inspiration. Coleridge jumped on the idea and began work, but Wordsworth, who was more interested in Landscapes Than The Human Condition, tune felt out of place in the project.
For Wordsworth, however, the idea was exactly the one that he should be pursuing as a poet, and he did it with great vigor.
The poem was first published in 1798 in a book of poems, Lyrical Ballads, that contain works of both Wordsworth and Coleridge. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner appeared as the first and the longest poem in the book, and it was the one that received the most attention, much to Wordsworth’s annoyance. Most critics were confused or put off by the poem, but a few, such as Coleridge’s friend Charles Lamb, recognized its genius from the very beginning.
Coleridge was never satisfied with the poem and continued to revise it for the rest of his life. The poem grew in significance and influence as more and more people read it, thought about it, and were mesmerized by the poet’s mastery of the language and its poetic forms. Its expanse in terms of themes and ideas exerted a major influence on every significant British and American writer who came after its publication.
An excellent podcast on the poem can be found on the BBC’s long-running In Our Time here.
Many experts believe that the poem should be heard rather than read. LibriVox has several versions, including this one.
Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback
Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.