Four immortal poems by the genius of Romanticism
‘The inescapable glow of the authentic visionary’
THE OXFORD COMPANION TO ENGLISH LITERATURE
The most innovative and influential of all the English Romantic poets, Coleridge was also the least prolific. Yet what force of genius is contained in his most famous works! From the thrilling mystical power of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ to the visionary magnificence of ‘Kubla Khan’, these poems reshaped the landscape of English poetry and ensorcelled generations of readers. Over the years, numerous artists have been drawn to them. Now, The Folio Society presents a collector’s edition of four immortal poems by Coleridge with superb illustrations by one of the country’s leading wood-engravers, Harry Brockway.
Coleridge stands alongside Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats as one of the principal architects of the Romantic movement. He forged new paths in poetry, philosophy and criticism, but it is his poems that have earned him pre-eminence. From Xanadu to the Ancient Mariner and the albatross, Coleridge’s poetic images have sunk deep into our cultural consciousness, while whole phrases are frequently quoted: ‘water, water every where’; ‘a sadder and a wiser man’… This edition unites four famous poems, all written early in Coleridge’s career, and exceptionally influential on later writers. Mary Shelley in Frankenstein, Bram Stoker in Dracula and Herman Melville in Moby Dick all explicitly referred to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
Coleridge had his inspiration for a supernatural ballad when walking in the Quantock Hills with William and Dorothy Wordsworth. In Wordsworth’s great work The Prelude (originally entitled ‘Poem to Coleridge’), the poet recalls how Coleridge ‘in bewitching words, with happy heart/Did chant the vision of that AncientMan,/The bright-eyed mariner’. From the initial inspiration Coleridge laboured for five months, changing a traditional ballad stanza into an astonishingly flexible and musical unit of varying length with intricate internal rhyme, repetition and alliteration. Lyrical Ballads, the collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth, opened with ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. It became the keynote of the book, indeed of English Romanticism as a whole. Fantastical, supernatural, ballad-like but innovative in metre and rhyme – this was poetry as it had not been known before. No wonder it instigated a literary revolution.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeeze to blow!
The poem is a gripping supernatural tale: a voyage into a far southern sea with towering icebergs and the soaring albatross, a ghost story of curse, death and expiation. On another level it is an allegory of sin and repentance, a mystical account of man’s fall from a natural state of Grace through a symbolic killing of innocent and beautiful nature. For some critics, the mariner represents the poet himself: Coleridge wrote of his ‘Mind shipwrecked by storms of doubt, now mastless, rudderless, shattered, – pulling in the dead swell of a dark and windless Sea’. Just like the wedding guest, halted by the glittering eye of the mariner and unable to break away, the reader is entranced by this visionary poem, carried along by the beauty and passion of the language.