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Gilbert: Nautical Inspiration

I recently learned of two real events that reportedly inspired the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s masterpiece “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem most of us read in high school about an old sailor who stops one of three people walking to a wedding to tell him a captivating but grim story.

According to author Ken McCoogan, in 1797, Coleridge’s neighbor John Cruikshank told him about a nightmare with a “mysterious skeleton ship manned by strange, tormented figures.” Listening to Cruikshank, Coleridge remembered that six years earlier, at fancy charity dinner in London, he’d met a weather-beaten old explorer named Samuel Hearne. Coleridge had listened, rapt, as Hearne spoke compulsively about his days in the Royal Navy, his travels across the Barren Lands of northern North America to the Arctic Ocean, and the hardship of the journey, which had ended in a massacre of native people that still haunted him. We now know it as the Bloody Falls massacre. Coleridge found Hearne immensely compelling – a man so tormented by guilt that he was compelled to bear witness and tell his story.

Having heard Cruikshank’s nightmare and recalling his meeting Hearne, Coleridge read Hearne’s book about his travels. Perhaps, Coleridge thought, he could write a poem about that guilt-burdened character with a new narrative drawn from Cruikshank’s skeleton ship nightmare.

And he did. Samuel Hearne’s guilt-ridden memory of the massacre at Bloody Falls inspired the guilty feeling of the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s famous poem.

But Coleridge didn’t settle on a cause for this fictional sailor’s all-consuming guilt until he apparently found it in yet another mariner’s narrative. According to Kenneth Poolman’s book The Speedwell Voyage, Coleridge told his friend and fellow poet William Wordsworth about the poem he’d been working on, the skeleton ship of suffering, and the guilt-ridden sailor. Wordsworth replied that amidst his books was an account of a voyage made by a Captain George Shelvock 75 years earlier, in which a musket-toting sailor had shot an albatross, an act mariners believed inevitably brought on the wrath of Neptune. Wordsworth suggested that Coleridge use shooting an albatross as the reason for the mariner’s suffering and guilt. Coleridge did – just changing the musket to a cross-bow.

And thus it was that in Coleridge’s poem the sailors who suffered with “Water, water, everywhere,/Nor any drop to drink. . . .” hung the albatross around the shooter’s neck, and for the rest of his life, his profound feelings of guilt compelled him to tell his sad tale to all he met.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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