revising the poem: coleridgePoints Illustrated

Revision of The Ancient Mariner, towards intelligibility.

The Ancient Mariner: 1834 Version

A.F. Scott concludes his useful analysis of Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner revisons with the words: "Coleridge profited from all these comments, for the final version of the poem is free from many of the original archaisms; he also diminished much of the grotesqueness, the realism, and horror, and reduced some of the iteration of the 1798 version. This careful revision greatly enriched the poem, which remains one of the finest examples in our literature of poetic imagination combined with supreme craftsmanship in words."

Let's begin with the final version of Part III, which Scott selects for analysis:


1. 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.

2. 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.

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

4. With throats 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!

5. With throats 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.

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

7. 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 strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.

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

9. 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?

10. 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?

11. Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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 dew did drip —
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornèd Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.

15. 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.

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

17. The souls did from their bodies fly,--
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my cross-bow!

And ask:

1. Is mist the right word for a speck that gradually becomes a sail? (stanzas 1 to 3)

2. Why should the mariner sink to the last resort of sucking his blood if help is apparently on the way? (stanza 4)

3. How did the mariner gain so clear a picture of the woman before the ship came alongside — with a telescope? (stanza 11)

The verse is remarkably faulty in places, and the rhymes contrived. :

11. 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.

14. From the sails the dew did drip —
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornèd Moon, with one bright star
Within the nether tip.

Southey had his own axe to grind, but wasn't far from the truth in his Critical Review article of October 1798 when he called the work perfectly original in style but no resemblance to earlier ballads, and drew attention to laboriously beautiful stanzas that in connection were often absurd and unintelligible. {1}

But our comments apply to the final version. What corrections had Coleridge made in the 1800, 1802, 1805 and 1807 revisions?

Much to the good, replacing the opening nursery jingle in the original version, for example:

1. I saw a something in the Sky
No bigger than my fist;
At first it seem'd a little speck
And then it seemed a mist:
It mov'd and mov'd, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.

And changing words simply present for the rhyme:

10. Are those her naked ribs, which fleck'd
The sun that did behind them peer?
And are those two all, all the crew,
That woman and her fleshless Pheere?

But also losing important aspects — the horror of:

12-13. A gust of wind sterte up behind
And whistled thro' his bones;
Thro' the holes of his eye and the hole of his mouth
Half-whistles and half-groans.

And simpler expression (though ships to do not tack on the tide):

6. She doth not tack from side to side —
Hither to work us weal
Withouten wind, withouten tide
She steddies with upright keel.

No one disputes that The Ancient Mariner is one of the most original poems in the language, or that passages have the extraordinary vividness of a dream. But we can't, it seems to me, call the poem a coherent dream, or say that "Up to the lifting of the curse the poem is perfect". {3} Too much is muddled, the verse in Part III is shoddy or childish, and even the better lines of the poem — beautiful, memorable and much quoted — do lend themselves to pastiche or parody more than is proper, as every teacher knows. To complete the school report: 'could have done better.'

Notes and References

1. A. F. Scott, The Poet's Craft: A Course in the Critical Appreciation of Poetry (CUP, 1957), 55-58.
2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) The Ancient Mariner.
3. Herebert J.C. Grierson and J.C. Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry (Chatto & Windus, 1944) 313.


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