Coleridge in his young twenties was an active supporter of the anti-slavery movement. Editing a radical newsletter, The Watchman, which argued for anti- slavery legislation and other causes raised by the French Revolution he would go round Bristol Harbour talking to ships’ captains and their crews about their experiences of the slave trade as well as their wider sea-going experiences. (A post on Coleridge and the Slave Trade will follow sometime soon). During these discussions he would hear tales about vanishing ships.
Perhaps you have heard of ghost ships You may remember Wagner’s opera called The Flying Dutchman. It tells the story of a legendary ghost ship which never makes it to port and is doomed to sail the seas for ever. The sighting of such ships is taken as a doom for the crew of the viewing ship. Such stories were traditional in sea-going areas; which is hardly surprising given the likelihood of visionary experiences for seamen, used to long sea voyages, with exhausted and thirsty crews.
However, it was Wordsworth who both supplied the seed of the actual story of the poem by relating to Coleridge a story of the shooting of an albatross from Shevlocke’s book (see post on Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Part 1) and then a friend John Cruikshank who told him of a nightmare he experienced in which he saw a ” skeleton ship with figures in it” which helped to inspire this part of the poem. In addition Coleridge heard of a very relevant Dutch story of one Falkenberg:
Who for murder done is doomed forever to wander on the sea, accompanied by two spectral forms, one white, one black. And in a ship with all sails set the two forms play at dice for the wanderer’s soul. Mariners that sail on the North Sea often meet the infernal vessel. (See Note below).
We can see how these ideas and stories helped form the development of Part 3 and indeed they changed my attitude towards it. For I must confess when I first read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” I felt some disappointment in reading Part 3. It seemed to me the supernatural additions brought in material that stretched too far what had been up to that point a narrative, within the limits of realist convention allowing for a deep symbolic associations to develop. The supernatural machinery of Part 3 seemed at first a somewhat overwrought elaboration and machination perhaps necessary for the movement of the narrative (Coleridge had the problem for the ongoing narrative of detaching the crew from the narrator’s tale so that the focus would be on his isolated experience) but excessively Gothic.
However, on the influence of travellers tales suggests that Coleridge is not so much seeking a form of Gothic sensationalism but drawing upon material that was widely present to those aware of the genre and is suitably linked to the theme of evil and judgement.
Early on in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s discussions of their joint enterprises one of the earliest themes for a drama was the wanderings of Cain, the Biblical first murderer. While Coleridge eventually abandoned this, the theme of the origin of evil was very much in his mind as he reviewed various possibilities including the tale of the Wandering Jew and the story of Jonah. We can see connections between these various examples and the great poem he is to produce.
Coleridge of course is not simply writing a poem to illustrate a theme or two. The livingness of the poem-and all discussion of poetry must start with the alive or dead question- does the poem live or does it not? This comes from the depth with which the poet has internalised the themes so that they live for him, as profoundly needing to be worked out for his own sake-and for his readers. What the influences discussed above do suggest, however, is that our “willing suspension of disbelief” is helped- at least mine is- by knowing a little more about the justification for the use of what might be regarded initially as the gothic horror elements of Part 3.
NOTE: I am grateful once again to Malcolm Guite’s excellent study of the poem. This quotation from Mariner 2017 Mariner is further discussed in John Livingstone Lowes The Road to Xanudu 1927.