Monday, 30 January 2012


In his dreams he saw many strange and wonderful things, and when he woke he tried to turn his visions into poems, though he found that most escaped his memory soon afterwards. But as time progressed, and the drug increased its hold, his visions brought darkness amidst the beauty. He saw a pavilion, set in marvellous gardens above a river, but he knew it was doomed to destruction. He saw himself on a mountain peak near his friend’s home in the Lake District, and listened to the music of the bells ringing in the valleys below, but the songs the bells sang were songs of death. He saw a young bride entering the castle of her elderly widower husband, and she was very lovely, but her stepdaughter saw in her face the yellow unblinking eyes of a serpent. All these things he was tried to record, which helped to relieve his pain. Each time his apprehension increased, but he could not abandon his search now.

After a while, waking and dreaming seemed to merge, and he was left unsure which was which. Sometimes when he walked through the streets at night, plagued by the insomnia resulting from the opium, he thought he had found the wondrous city that he had so long sought, only it was no longer marvellous, but sinister and haunted. Evil lurked around every corner, watching him from a distance, just out of his sight, and the people he met (but could not speak to, nor did they speak to him) were not noble heroes and ravishing beauties, but ghosts, who wore the masks of death. He realised he was being punished for his temerity. His awareness of guilt deepened, until he came to feel he had committed a crime so monstrous, so horrible, that even he could not be told what it was. I have blasphemed against the gods, he thought: no, it is far worse than that: my crime somehow threatens the very basis of the universe; and my punishment will be like none that has ever existed before.

He only knew of one way which might allow him to escape from these horrors: he must set them out in a poem, which would tell of a man who is guilty of a terrible crime and justly suffers an equally terrible punishment, but is eventually redeemed by his suffering and pardoned. Such an ending would provide him with at least some hope of release. But what precise crime would the man in his poem have committed, since he could not know it himself? He consulted his closest friend; also a poet, but more down-to-earth in his ideas. And William pondered for a while, and then said, “I was reading the other day about a sailor who was marooned on a desert island by his shipmates, who were disgusted by the fact that he had shot an albatross. It appears that sailors regard this as a very wicked act, and also an extremely unlucky one”.
"Thank you, William", said Samuel, "I shall write the poem, and I shall call it 'The Ancient Mariner'"


Readers will have noticed in this references to Thomas de Quincey's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" (1822) as well as to Coleridge. What put me in mind of it was not 'The Ancient Mariner' or "Kubla Khan", but 'Christabel", a less-well-known Coleridge poem (where we also meet the stepmother with the eyes of a serpent). These are the opening verses of the second part of that poem:-

"Each matin bell, the Baron saith,
Knells us back to a world of death.
These word Sir Leoline first said
When he rose, and found his lady dead.
These words Sir Leoline will say
Many a morn to his dying day.

So hence the custom and law began
That still at dawn the sacristan
Who duly pulls the heavy bell
Five and forty beads must tell
Between each stroke; a dying knell
Which not a soul can choose but hear
From Bratha Head to Windermere.

Said Bracy the bard; so let it knell!
And let the drowsy sacristan
Still count as slowly as he can!
There is no lack of such, I ween,
As well fill up the space between.
In Langdale Pike, and Witch's Lair,
And Dungeon-ghyll so foully rent,
With ropes of rock and bells of air
Three sinful sextons' ghosts are pent
Who oft give back, one after t'other,
The death-note to their living brother;
And oft too, by their knell offended,
Just as their one! two! three! is ended,
The devil mocks the doleful tale
With a merry peal from Borrowdale".

From the topographical references, Coleridge would seem to be listening to the bells from somewhere around Ambleside, at the head of Lake Widermere; probably in the hills above Wordsworth's Dove Cottage. But despite the charming nature of the scenery, he has given us what I regard as the most sinsiter lines of poetry in the English language: the only cheerful note is attributed to the devil. This is why I have speculated as to what might have prompted his visions.

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