Home » Arts & Life, criticism, Poetry

Rime Redux

By (October 1, 2011) No Comment

The Rime of the Modern Mariner

By Nick Hayes
Jonathan Cape, 2011

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s otherworldly masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has always been something of a shape shifter. The poem first appeared in the 1798 Romantic movement bellwether Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge’s collaboration with his friend (at the time) William Wordsworth. Yet even Wordsworth was uncomfortable with the poem, commenting in a letter, “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 more likely to suit the common taste.” He did ultimately condescend to include it in the 1800 edition, though it was moved from the opening of the collection to the less conspicuous middle.

Today, of course, it is that book’s most well-known work, and remains as vibrant and disturbing as it was upon publication. The poem spills a cauldron of supernatural spirits, religious allegory, sin and retribution that has kept the pens of academics busy analyzing it for over two hundred years. Inspired in part by a popular book of the period, A Journey Round the World, by the way of the Great South Sea, which recounts a trip around South America’s Cape Horn, and features the shooting of an albatross, Coleridge’s ballad concerns a ship marooned in the endless ice fields of the Antarctic. In it, an albatross spotted overhead is embraced as a symbol of luck and salvation to the crew, which Coleridge renders in chanting quatrains:

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

At length did cross an Albatross:
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.

It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners’ 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 mariner’s decision to kill the albatross is an event without any apparent motivation, and the bird’s demise triggers a dramatic reversal of fortune for the ship. The wind stops blowing, a drought ensues, and the entire crew, aside from the mariner, perish. The mariner is left alone, surrounded by dead sailors, “my soul in agony,” shackled with the albatross around his neck. Although he eventually awakes to the beauty of other living things and is saved from his sinking ship, he is condemned to wander the world, telling his story for ever after.

Coleridge, initially stung by reviewers who accused his work of being too “Germanic,” amended the text of the poem over the following two decades. For the reissued 1800 version, he gave Death’s companion the name ‘Life-in-Death’ and changed the wording of the introductory paragraph that preceded the poem. Coleridge now starts by overtly accusing the mariner of having “cruelly and in contempt of the laws of hospitality killed a Seabird.” Having originally aimed to create a work of “pure imagination” (as he told his literary contemporary Anna Barbault, “the work’s “only, or chief fault … was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader”), his stance tilted in more didactic directions. Indeed, still later he added notes on the text in the margins, giving the poem an even stronger tone of moral judgment. Unfortunately, Coleridge’s glosses are often more distracting than illuminating. The following, for example, provides an uninspiring explanation to an already powerful passage in which the dead crew rise, and the ship sails on despite a lack of wind to blow the sails: “But not by the souls of the men, nor by daemons of earth or middle air, but by a blessed troop of angelic spirits, sent down by the invocation of the guardian saint.” The result of Coleridge’s years of tinkering is to make his intentions for the work that much more complicated to decipher.

Continuing Coleridge’s propensity for revision, the author and illustrator Nick Hayes has tinkered further and created a graphic novel, The Rime of the Modern Mariner, based on the canonical text. The premise of the Ancient Mariner has provided Hayes with an apt vehicle for a story about modern transgressions against the natural world. With windswept hair and a curling beard that would do Poseidon proud, his seafarer looks every bit the part.  Appearing silently amid the rustle of autumn leaves, the mariner joins a lone man eating on a park bench and begins the story of his sea journey to the ports of “old Japan”. In Coleridge’s poem, the mariner’s audience is a wedding guest, en route to festivities; in Hayes’ he is a divorcé having a packaged lunch. The character’s disposable marriage – documented without emotion in the first pages of the book – is a harbinger of things to come.

It is no surprise that the divorcé is in for an unpleasant tale. Alienation from the surrounding world has dire consequences in both poems, with Coleridge portraying it as a form of spiritual purgatory and Hayes showing us how our shortsighted culture of self-interest and waste will be mankind’s downfall. The modern mariner’s journey is one of toxic, plastic-strewn waters and sickly sea creatures – a grand tour of environmental degradation. The story is set in the waters of the North Pacific Gyre, a slow-moving whirlpool, apparently better known as the North Pacific Garbage Patch – a place that is, unfortunately, all too real. The modern mariner encounters disaster upon disaster – among them a fiery oil spill and a tsunami – and is eventually swept to the bottom of the sea. Confronted by an angry cast of doomed sailors, vengeful gods, and ghoulish spirits at every turn – in keeping with Coleridge’s other-worldly cast – he seems sure to perish deep amongst the very mess mankind has created.

Hayes has done a masterful job of echoing Coleridge’s rhythmic verse, evocative imagery and rapid tempo. Although the prose is not written out in traditional stanzas – each phrase is designed with the images as part of a larger expression on the page – it reads, like the original poem, in quatrains. Here we find the mariner alone at sea; the albatross has been shot, the crew has perished, and a storm is gathering:

…I slept and dreamt of rain

At first it spat and pattered down
In peppered punctuation
But then it grew
Into a sluice of dense precipitation

Though my body lay comatose
My ears and eyes awoke
To sense a stirring of the sea
And the dead men of the boat

Like bats they darted round the deck
In spectral animations
That moved as swift and silent…
As my own imagination

I heard the wind from far away
A horn from foreign wars
And like a wrathful god it reached me
In a rough and ragged roar

The ocean roused insurgent strength
Against its mistress moon
The sky cried out a symphony
A trumpeting typhoon!

Screaming fists of hail and ice
Crashed down like weights of lead
…and ancient Thor of Nordic lore
Hammered on my head.

I gaped across Poseidon’s lair
…and saw a gathering army:
Waves of wailing myrmidons…
Had formed a great tsunami.

Hayes has done his homework, infusing this passage with a number of the Romantic era’s favorite themes: the embrace of classical Greek mythology, the redemptive, feminine moon, and man’s self-destructive antagonism toward the natural world. It also features a subtle but important transition in the story, as the mariner becomes increasingly aware of his surroundings: “my ears and eyes awoke / to sense the stirring of the sea”.

Yet, much of what makes Hayes’ work so accomplished is his pairing of images and prose, which seem to work as one seamless entity. His artistic style conveys the texture of old European woodcuts, the flatness of Japanese fishing scenes, and decorative touches reminiscent of Art Nouveau. Shifting in size and placement on every page, the words and images create a constant sense of movement, much like the sea itself. Without the artwork, Hayes would be much harder pressed to summon the energy of Coleridge’s hallucinatory visions. With a palette of blue, brownish-black and white, the drawings have nautical whimsy underlined with a sense of menace. The sailors are eerily blank-eyed, with long, thin fingers on oversized hands, as if on the verge of becoming fins, while the hostile spirits and sea gods are overflowing with malevolence. The “ghoulish apparition” that fills the

role of Coleridge’s “Life-in-Death” figure sent shivers up my spine – she is decayed and skeletal, all bones and wild black hair, with angry eyes that protrude in heavily-lined swirls. Appearing on the prow of an approaching oil rig, which is spilling a slick of petroleum, she hovers by the mariner with pent-up rage:  “I’m no figment of your frontal lobe … no children’s story ghost. I am the real repercussion of your hubristic human boast!” As this quote shows, however, Hayes’ ever-present lesson about mankind’s evils against the earth and its inhabitants risks overshadowing not only the power of his imagery but also our ability to surrender ourselves to his story. The adaptation is not free of Coleridge’s later didacticism.
Hayes is hardly the first artist to bring images to the story of the mariner, whether ancient or modern. Since 1832, when David Scott created the first illustrations for Rime of the Ancient Mariner – and even showed them to the invalid Coleridge in London – no fewer than 14 artists have produced images to accompany that text. The French artist Gustave Doré’s edition, first produced in 1876, is the one most people associate with the poem. Doré, who was already something of a celebrity across the Channel by the time he was commissioned for the work, provided elaborate full-page engravings for Coleridge’s text. Setting the story in the past – the characters and the landscape have a distinctly medieval affinity – Doré’s illustrations are suitably dark, portraying both magnificent maritime landscapes and gruesome scenes of the sailors’ unfortunate demise.

It is easy to forget, however, that the illustrated versions of Coleridge’s poem are not the same as a graphic novel – Doré’s images are an interpretation of the words, rather than an integral part of the storytelling. As Will Eisner has written about comics, “text, artwork, and meaning cannot be judged independently of the whole work. Word and picture interact in the best examples without one dominating the other.” This is precisely what occurs in Hayes’ work – the illustrations and the prose work as equals. His ever-changing page design – whether a solitary image without words, a series of images interspersed amongst the text, or a many-layered page of overlapping pictures, to name just a few – has an irresistible momentum that seems to inherently reflect back upon the pace of the poem itself.

Throughout the book, Hayes’ view of our culture of consumption and waste is unambiguous and his hopes for the future are dim. But whereas Coleridge’s poetry, with its evocative and mysterious imagery, keeps us teetering in a liminal, dreamlike state, Hayes’ insistence on making his point keeps bringing us back to reality despite the intriguing visual structure he has devised. This leaves the reader with a feeling akin to reading Coleridge’s glosses, which are most distinctive for their own heavy handed moralizing. Yes, Hayes has incorporated the supernatural beings, mythical interludes, and other themes of the Romantic era. But it is the very enigmatic quality of Coleridge’s work that he cannot match – or, perhaps, chooses not to. Rather, the Modern Mariner stays true to its lesson – to what Hayes suggests will indeed be a bitter end.

Sara Henkin lives in London where she writes non-fiction and blogs about cities.