This week’s theme is a line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic (and very weird) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I realise that we have been visiting the romantic poets rather a lot recently and promise that we will explore other literary topics soon, but William Blake and John Clare are very much outliers of the romantic movement, kept somewhat apart from the mainstream by social class and circumstances. And Blake’s poetry and art would never fit into the mainstream of anything at all.
Coleridge was different. He was at the very heart of the Romantic Movement, together with William Wordsworth and Robert Southey. Southey is less well known these days but he was very popular in his own, and he was Poet Laureate, like Wordsworth but unlike Coleridge.
All three were radical young men, enthused by the French Revolution. Southey and Coleridge were involved in a scheme to set up an utopian community in America, which came to nothing, whilst Wordsworth went to Paris to support the Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
Wikipedia says that, “ Like the other Lake Poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Southey had begun as a radical, but became steadily more conservative,” This seems a bit unfair to Coleridge who, though he became less radical, continued to support progressive causes like the anti-slavery movement and the Factory Act protecting children from industrial exploitation. Southey became a real reactionary and, at one point, a Tory MP, and he blamed the victims of the Peterloo Massacre for what happened there.
The three had lives entwined beyond poetry. Southey married the sister of Coleridge’s wife, Sara. Coleridge then fell hopelessly in love with Sara the sister of Wordsworth’s wife, Mary.
American comic, Rich Hall had a character called Otis Lee Crenshaw who kept marrying women called Brenda. Coleridge’s thing was Saras. His daughter was also called Sara and, presumably to lessen the confusion, he referred to the Sara who was Wordworth’s sister in law as Asra, and to the one who was Southey’s sister in law as Sara. Sara and her daughter, Sara moved in with Southey and his family when Coleridge left. Wikipedia says he abandoned his family, which again seems harsh to me as he struggled to support them financially for many years.
So Coleridge began writing in company with Southey but really blossomed when he met William Wordsworth and his sister (mercifully, not called Sara, but Dorothy), in the West Country. The two critiqued, discussed and even worked on each other’s poems, often in the course of long walks in the Quantock hills. Wordsworth claimed credit for coming up with the albatross motif, for example. In 1798 they published Lyrical Ballads and the Romantic Movement in Poetry was launched. https://catch23writinggroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/06/r._l._brett_a._r._jones_lyrical_ballads_willia.pdf
Something that interests me is that, while the term Romantic Poets tends to conjure up images of daffodils and nightingales, this small group of people, if not invented, profoundly influenced modern horror. Some time ago we looked at the events in the Villa Diodati in 1816 where Lord Byron challenged the company to come up with fantastic stories, which resulted in Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein and Dr Polidori producing the first modern vampire story.
But I have not been able to find an earlier example of the living dead in literature than the re-animated sailors in the Ancient Mariner.
Coleridge was a close friend of William Godwin, anarchist, father of Mary Shelley and husband of Mary Wollstonecraft the feminist writer of A Vindication of the Rights of Women. One night after a dinner, Coleridge gave a recitation of The Ancient Mariner and Mary Shelley, then a little girl, was discovered hiding under a sofa with her step sister, Claire Clairmont (who was later to become Byron’s lover and was also at Diodati). Upon Claire’s mother sending them to bed, Coleridge interceded and the girls were allowed to listen to the grisly story.
Oh yes, and the actual term “zombie” was introduced into the English language by none other than Robert Southey (in his history of Brazil)
The poem is very long so instead of quoting a section, here is the complete work (with fabulous Gustav Dore illustrations) thanks due to Adelaide University and the Marine Cafe Blog: https://catch23writinggroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/06/coleridge-samuel_taylor-ancient-b20122-37.jpg
And if you would prefer to hear it read, as we did in the group, this link is to the Big Read reading of the poem by forty different readers. If you have ever wondered how The Rime of the Ancient Mariner would sound read by Iggy Pop, now is your chance to find out! https://www.ancientmarinerbigread.com/readings