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Picture from the 1876 edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner); eighteenth century British Literature / English Literature and poetry

November 13, 1797
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth
Coleridge, Mariner, Albatross
by Steve King

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On this day in 1797 William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge began a walking holiday in the Quantock Hills of Somerset, during which they would conceive "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The original idea was to produce a gothic pot-boiler, something to suit the popular magazines, and to help pay for their vacation. "Much the greatest part of the story was Coleridge's invention," Wordsworth later wrote, though among his own contributions was the idea that the inciting incident should involve the killing of an albatross in the South Sea, for which "the tutelary Spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime." Wordsworth soon realized that "the style of Coleridge and myself would not assimilate," and left the fate of the "Old Navigator" in his friend's hands. Here it evolved from a quick money-maker to a consuming, five-months' labor; and if pot-boiler on the surface, within lay many of Coleridge's philosophical and psychological concerns, roiling up as ghostly vision, tortured soul and the need to expiate. This is the end of Part V, the Ancient Mariner collapsed on deck while two Polar Spirits hover and discuss:
    "Is it he?" quoth one, "Is this the man?
    By him who died on cross,
    With his cruel bow he laid full low
    The harmless Albatross.

    The spirit who bideth by himself
    In the land of mist and snow,
    He loved the bird that loved the man
    Who shot him with his bow."

    The other was a softer voice,
    As soft as honey-dew:
    Quoth he, "The man hath penance done,
    And penance more will do."
Biographer Richard Holmes (2 Vols., 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year) says that up to the time of writing the poem, Coleridge's only experience at sea was a crossing on the Chepstow ferry, but that at some instinctive level "the image of the lonely sea-voyage runs through all Coleridge's thought," as well as much of the 'tortured Romantic' legend. Holmes also finds a personality note in the poem, based upon the criticism (made by Wordsworth and others) that the Mariner is a too-passive, vague, and overdone character. Such comments were so taken to heart by Coleridge that they became his own criticism of himself as one too fond of fanciful visions and mere talk. "In plain and natural English," wrote Coleridge to a friend, "I am a dreaming & therefore an indolent man. I am a Starling self-incaged, & always in the Moult, & my whole Note is, Tomorrow, & tomorrow, & tomorrow." Many of Coleridge's contemporaries would comment similarly, seeing the starling-trait as responsible for so many half-completed poems and plans, the albatross around the neck.

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