November 6 Samuel Taylor Coleridge: excerpt from Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Part Three

I am NOT going to post the entire “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, it’s too long (and much as I’d love to spend all day typing up a 19th Century poem, I’ve got things to do). Let’s just say, Coleridge did not write short poems, and, for that matter, a great deal of poetry was quite long before the 20th Century.

I like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner quite a bit, it’s rich in imagery and atmosphere. It can be read on many different levels and never fails to entertain. It’s spooky as hell and certainly a better horror story than the many that Hollywood is pumping out. I like it so much that I decided, just for fun, to post all of the third part which I’ll put last. I hope that this will accomplish two things: it will give the two revision stanzas some context (so that you can see why one rewrite was better than the other) and I hope it’ll whet your appetite to read the whole poem (if you find the third part exciting, there’s more where that came from!).

So, the poem is an old sailor telling the tale of his ill-fated journey to a group of young, starry-eyed lovers. This excerpt is right at the part of the tale where his ship is stalled at sea because there is no wind, his crew is starving and dehydrated. A ship comes along, somehow able to sail without wind, but instead of inspiring hope, it inspires despair and they give up.

1799 version of the stanza

One after one, by the horned Moon
(Listen, O Stranger! to me)
Each turn’d his face with a ghastly pang
And curs’d me with his ee.

1817 version of the stanza

One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang
And cursed me with his eye.

When I first read it, I like the 1799 version better. A horned Moon is a more beautiful image than a star-dogged moon. And without the context of the poem, the line, “Too quick for groan or sigh” just didn’t make any sense (and it had been a while since I’d read the poem). But when I looked at the greater context of the poem, I had to admit that the 1817 version was much clearer and got closer to the theme.

And here’s why. In an earlier stanza, “the horned Moon” is mentioned, so there is little need to use it again. A horned moon is beautiful (that long thin crescent, a sliver of communion wafer) and is connotative of a devil’s horns implying that there is some evil afoot. But I think avoiding repetition is always the better choice (repetition of phrases can often sound clunky if not done to make a point, or to emphasize an important idea). And “star-dogged moon” gives the image of a moon endlessly harassed by the stars (signifiers of fate as used in astrology – or think of the phrase “star-crossed” or “born under an unlucky star”) just as the Mariner himself is endlessly pursued by his fate. Thus this small phrase in this small scene emphasizes the poem’s overall theme (useful!). And it is an ugly scene, therefore it’s more fitting to have an ugly image.

As for the phrase “Too quick for groan or sigh,” within the context of the poem it is an alarming action; the ship has been dead at sea for a very long time, very little action has taken place, then swiftly the men fall to the deck with a thump! (in the next stanza). It shocks the reader, more than “a ghastly pang” (which to my ear is melodramatic rather than terrifying). I think that it is a stronger choice to shock the audience, it makes them more emotionally invested which I believe good art (masterful art) should do.

He most likely revised with an eye toward strengthening the whole of the poem. I don’t have any of the revisions of the other stanzas for Part III, but willing to bet that he’d made similar choices. And that is what revision is, making choices; a great writer will make choices with an eye toward clarity. Stronger word choice, unique images and clearer language all work together to make the piece more insightful, evocative and memorable – a real experience for the reader.

So, I’m going to paraphrase a bit of the poem and then let you read Part 3. I hope you’ll read the whole thing (it’s in seven parts), it’s a wonderful poem!

The story goes like this: it’s a happy, sunny day by the seashore and people are having a nice wedding when along comes a strange, old man from his docked boat. He gathers every one around him to tell the tale of his disaster at sea and how he became eternally cursed (the perfect thing for a wedding; I guess some people just got to share!). At this point in the story, the old man, captain of his crew, has killed an albatross (something that one should never, never do) and the ship has hit the doldrums. The wind has stopped blowing (someone in the cosmos is unhappy that our sailor killed his bird); the ship isn’t going anywhere. It’s stuck in the middle of the ocean and their supplies have all run out.

Part III

There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye!
When looking westward, I beheld
A something in the sky.

At first it seemed a little speck
And then it seemed a mist;
It moved and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.

A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it neared and neared:
And as if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged and tacked and veered.

With throat unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could nor laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood,
And cried, “A sail! A sail!”

With throat unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin
And all at once their breath drew in
As they were drinking all.

“See, see!” I cried, “She tacks no more,
Hither to work us weal;
Without a breeze, without a tide,
She steadies with upright keel.”

The western wave was all a-flame,
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright sun;
When that strage shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the sun.

And straight the sun was flecked with bars
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace!),
As if through a dungean-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.

Alas! thought I, and my heart beat loud,
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? And are there two?
Is Death that woman’s mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold;
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The nightmare Life-in-Death was she
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came,
And the twain were casting dice;
“The game is done! I’ve won! I’ve won!
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

The sun’s rim dips, the stars rush out,
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.

We listened and looked sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip!
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steersman’s face by his lamp gleamed white;
From the sails the dews did drip –
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The horned moom, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.

One after one, by the star-dogged moon
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang
And cursed me with his eye.

Four times fifty living men
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.

The souls did from their bodies fly,
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by
Like the whiz of my crossbow.’

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About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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