BOOK (1797)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor
(Dover Publications)

The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was complicated. When not depressed, the bipolar opium addict equipped with a photographic memory operated as a soldier, lecturer, critic and philosopher.

Accordingly, his noirish masterpiece, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is awash with meaning and mystery. The long-form ballad about a voyage plagued by vengeful spirits makes multiple cultural connections.

According to one theory, the ballad was inspired by British explorer Captain James Cook's historic southern meandering. Coleridge's tutor, William Wales, was the astronomer on Cook's flagship. Regardless, Coleridge's atmosphere-soaked epic appears to tap into two legends: that of the Wandering Jew, who was forced to roam the Earth until Judgment Day for taunting Jesus during the Crucifixion, and the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship doomed to sail the seas forever.

Recited by a nomad sailor with a glittering eye, the poem tells how, after a smooth start from its native harbour, a ship becomes locked in an ice labyrinth.

Enter an albatross that leads the ship from the glacial maze that foreshadows the berg that sunk the Titanic. The good deed seems to signal that the dark tale is doomed to degenerate into a fairy tale more in the mould of Hans Christian Andersen than the Brothers Grimm.

But the mariner thanks the bird for its guidance by shooting it down with a crossbow. Cue the calculated retribution with dice-playing spirits crewing a phantom vessel.

The spirits pursue the ancient mariner's ship and subject him and his shipmates to a string of ordeals that take the story into Gothic thriller or murder mystery terrain. One by one, the crew members perish, leaving the protagonist to agonise in isolation.

The melancholic meditation remains relevant because it keys into the modern consequences of environmental vandalism. Coleridge's proto-eco-parable raises the spectre of the carnage man wreaks on the marine habitat - in particular the long-line boats that strip-mine the ocean, devastating stocks of all kinds of fish and the odd albatross.

Despite its resonance and depth, Coleridge's classic has blips. 'Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down, 'Twas sad as sad could be,' reads one clunky couplet. But most couplets and verses sing, rich in imagery that bespeaks the influence of 'the white poppy'.

The hot copper skies and bloody sun that serve as a backdrop for the sailor's tale throb with hallucinatory force. Despite arousing criticism for archaic language even in his day, Coleridge's richly textured classic retains the ability to captivate.