It’s probably not a good first impression upon my new reader to admit that I did not actually re-read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner before I began this first post. I promise it was not out of apathy or laziness. You see, I’ve read the Mariner’s Tale at least ten times in my life, at least four times for school, the other times because my
teachers had instilled in me the beauty and power found within this strange and wonderful poem. This confidence in the material, really my own working knowledge of the poem, allows me to focus instead upon a work of art that has played a significant role in my appreciation of the work.
You see, several years ago, my mother found at a garage sale several prints that had been torn out of their original book. The prints in question were a large collection of images from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and were made by Gustave Doré. Before you scream at me in envy, they are not original prints, and some show serious signs of wear. Still I should really check up on that seeing as how Antiques Roadshow is almost certainly around the corner and all I have is the world’s largest collection of Mapplethorpe photograph negatives to show for it.
Now to those who are scratching their heads trying to figure out why they should care about these prints, or Robert Mapplethorpe (for once in your life DON’T Google it, trust me) I’ll elaborate. If you believe that you have no working knowledge of Gustave Doré I can assure you that you probably do. Since we are discussing English Romanticism it’s almost impossible not to mention the name John Milton at some point. More important than Milton however, for the purpose of this essay anyway, is the work Doré performed in reproducing through woodcut prints, the images presented in that epic poem. Doré’s classic black and white worlds are stunning in their complexity and powerful in their ability to evoke a sense of the sublime. Whether it is his more widely known work of The Divine Comedy, his lesser known scenes from Orlando Furioso and Little Red Riding Hood, or finally his iconic illustrations of Satan in Paradise Lost, Doré manages to create the images that I could only aspire to fashion within my own mind. His figures are can assume Greek perfection or Gothic horror, and never once lose their humanity.
Now the conflict already, for I can hear the Romantic Professor always in my mind, he hasn’t been the same since Karen left, is that Doré was born in 1832 about the time the Romantic period was ending. What significance would these “prints” be to a scholar of Romantic poetry?
Well my contester is accurate in one regard. Scholars of the Romantic period may not have much use for the man’s work. But helping scholars is not my aim in this essay. Instead my attention is turned to the teachers of the Romantic period, and while I know some will object that those are one and the same thing I can assure you there is a difference in my experience. While some people can balance both titles and execute them efficiently, there are those select academics that, while brilliant intellectuals, cannot teach a class to save their life.
Last fall I began graduate school at the University of Texas at Tyler and I was fortunate enough to have a face to face class, rather than online, with the first English professor I had ever had in my life. Dr. Catherine Ross is an amazing professor, an accomplished scholar, and I’ll stop brown nosing after I say this last trait, one of the most important intellectual parents I’ve ever had. As such, I wanted from the beginning to do well in her class, and also to help the undergraduates in the course to have the same passion I have when approaching the brilliance of the Romantic period. I had read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner once before for Dr. Ross, and this time I had found the prints.
That week in class Dr. Ross allowed me to show the prints during a discussion of the poem and while we discussed particular stanzas I would carefully, for some of the pages are ripped, find and place each page according to the topic of the conversation. To my great benefit many of the pages contain the most distinct and essential moments of the poem: the shooting of the albatross, “water water everywhere,” the ghost crew taking the ship to shore, the wedding guest being stopped by the Mariner, the wedding party leaving the church, the Mariner randomly stopping the next listener, the three spirits discussing the Mariner’s fate, and of course the skeleton ship on the horizon that shall being forth Death and Life-in-Death.
It would be enough to search online for stock photos of an albatross, a wooden ship, an angel, but that’s assuming a teacher bothers to incorporate any images in their lectures. I have had many professors that do little to no effort to incorporate images from the period, play, poem, novel, etc. because it is assumed that our minds form perfect constructions of the events, or else the images may “hinder” our minds ability to construct the images being created through prose. The conflict I find with this position is that it has the tendency to turn the material into abstract mental masturbation. I become divorced from the material, turning the text into an amalgamation of words that may or may not possess significance. This is not to say that every book I read requires pictures, though Ulysses and Moby Dick would have been much more tolerable had they any, my point is more geared towards student enrichment.
The discussions of the poem before my presentations of the prints were phenomenal and demonstrated that my fellow students were fascinated by Coleridge’s poem. The idea of man’s tendency towards senseless violent action got us all to question why we sometimes behave cruelly to others, and while this idea hung in the air I showed the print in which a single arrow floats in space about to pierce the white bird that did nothing but entertain the crewmen and lift their spirits from their plight. What was significant was the way my fellow students reacted to the images. Some commented on details in the actual print, others said that they pictured it entirely differently while some argued that the print actually helped them picture parts that they had been confused with, but what stands out the most for me was the moment when my fellow students observed how large the albatross actually was in comparison to the Mariner.
The prints did more than supply pictures from the poem for student appreciation, they included another dimension to our collected analysis and discussion of the poem. Doré’s work, as I described before, is capable to demonstrating the term so essential to a study of Romanticism: the sublime.
Looking at the prints alongside the text one is able to construct new feelings and impressions that can further a student’s appreciation and understanding, and when a teacher is dealing with such a difficult concept as the sublime, any and all help is appreciated. Simply trying to get a student to accurately describe sublime can be an uphill challenge, and so often what a teacher turns to is a solid image: a tornado, a hurricane, snow covered mountains. These images convey the abstract idea of the sublime and immediately communicate understanding. Such as it is, and while many may complain, incorporation of images, even at the most basic level, can help students as they attempt to understand difficult language or imagery.
I know this has not really tackled Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner at all, and I do apologize, but as graduate students who are preparing to enter the world of academia to become educators it is essential that we stop and consider our positions. Students will come with bias and previous frustrations from high school, many plagued by an unshakable perception that English, particularly the Romantic period, is nothing but old dead white dudes writing about weird stuff.
To be fair to them, this is a pretty accurate picture, and Byron’s sex life doesn’t really help. However, it becomes crucial to tackle this bias head-on and demonstrate that, while some of the ideas expressed can be complex, the fundamental laws of human nature such as our unnecessary cruelty but also our capacity for selfless action is absolutely important to recognize and discuss. These aspects of our humanity manifest in the way we approach politics, economics, science, family, friends, and culture.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is more than just a story about an old dude with a beard stopping a wedding guest and then talking about a bunch of weird shit that happened to him on a ship. It’s about understanding human nature and how it can make us or destroy us.
Sometimes the way to get a young student to recognize this is to show them a few pictures. And we that live in this age of Google, Great Praise be Upon Its Name and Ancestors, can surely take the time to at least search for some stock photos of abltosses…albatri?…Albatrossi?…huh, I’ll figure this out.