“Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave life to the doldrums, embedded in his magnificent poem of 1798, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner“. These stanzas furthered the genre of great sea voyages. The mariner survived, but was plagued with a pressure of speech to tell all his tale.
The Ancient Mariner has been analyzed by countless literary experts, explaining his words on many levels, evoking the sanctity of all life.
“He prayeth well, who liveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
In other words, it does not pay to kill Albatrosses, for they be angels. During Pixie’s sojourn in the Southern Ocean, she encountered both dragons… and angels.
“With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.
…He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.”
The literary critics say it was this violence that doomed the Mariner to tell his tale – forever. Surprisingly, Coleridge never went to sea, nor ever saw an Albatross in flight (nor did most of his critics, I suspect). How did Coleridge know to focus on the Albatross, the quintessential life force of the Southern Ocean?
One explanation could be that Coleridge’s childhood school master, William Wales, was previously Captain Cook’s astronomer on his second voyage in 1772. This voyage was also the World’s first East-about circumnavigation, which probed the Southern Ocean in search of Terra Australis, and was blocked several times with ice.
I wonder if Master Wales was, in fact, Coleridge’s true Ancient Mariner who was a changed man, as are all who venture to the Southern Ocean, awed by that immense cold grey sea where Wandering Albatrosses abound?
Literary minds expound on the Mariner’s symbolism, archetypes, themes, allegories and supernatural elements within. But they miss out and overlook the reality described, as do all who have never ventured to the forlorn and majestic Southern Ocean and seen its quintessential life form – the Wandering Albatross.
Coleridge’s lyrical ballad captures the awe of the Southern Ocean, the Doldrums, and the greatest of birds. Prose is not the best medium to do this job; verse captures the spirit. The Ancient Mariner is doomed forever to tell his tale of the Southern Ocean, as are all who sail there.
The Southern Ocean is best experienced in one’s own vessel. Whether one sails there or not, reading “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is recommended.