By Catherine Angerson, Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts. A small display to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) can be seen in the Treasures Gallery until 25 September 2022.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner recounts the experiences of a mariner whose ship becomes trapped in ice during a long voyage. The mariner brings great misfortune on the ship and its crew by killing the albatross which helped to bring them to safety. Coleridge’s depression and own experiences of travel led to his increasing identification with the Mariner and he continued to revise the poem, first published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, at different episodes during his life.
A new temporary display in the Treasures Gallery brings together three of Coleridge’s manuscripts (a poem and two notebooks) and two 20th-century illustrated editions of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of the poet.
The first item on display is a handwritten poem titled 'Dura Navis' which Coleridge said he composed at the age of 15 while he was a pupil at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex. The poem shows the poet’s early preoccupation with the isolation of the traveller and the dangers of travelling by sea. The manuscript is an autograph fair copy written down by Coleridge many years after he first composed the poem. A 51-year-old Coleridge added a comment at the bottom of the first page saying that the poem ‘does not contain a line that any clever school boy might not have written’ (Add MS 34225, f.1r).
At the centre of the small display are two of the 55 of Coleridge’s notebooks purchased by the British Museum from the descendants of Coleridge’s brother James in 1951. Coleridge used pocket-sized notebooks to record thoughts, feelings, quotations, travel accounts, language learning (especially German), philosophical musings, poems and more. Notebook No. 9 (Add MS 47506) contains Coleridge’s impressions of a voyage to Malta in April 1804. In a brief moment of calm in the Bay of Biscay, the poet observes ‘the beautiful Surface of the Sea in this gentle Breeze’ (f. 33v). A reference to his friend William Wordsworth’s poem The Female Vagrant can be seen near the bottom of the page: ‘And on the gliding Vessel Heaven & Ocean smil’d!’ (f. 34r)
In October 1806, Coleridge drafted a new version of a short section of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in his Notebook No. 11 (Add MS 47508). While the opening lines, ‘With never a whisper in the main / Off shot the spectre ship’, are close to lines 198–199 of the poem published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, the following two lines do not appear in the first or the amended version published in 1817:
And stifled words & groans of pain
Mix’d on each trembling ^ murmering lip
Other images are altered but recognisable from part III of the poem published in Sibylline Leaves (1817). ‘The Sky was dull & dark the Night’ in the 1806 notebook becomes ‘The stars were dim, and thick the night’ in 1817.
Many artists have been drawn to the creative force and supernatural imagery of The Ancient Mariner. The first illustrated edition on display was designed, decorated and illustrated by Hungarian artist Willy Pogány (born Vilmos András Pogány, 1882–1955) and published in 1910. The illustration of the ship struck by a ‘storm-blast’ is reproduced from Pogány’s watercolour and corresponds to Coleridge’s words on the opposite page. In the poem, the ship is driven by a storm, ‘tyrannous and strong’, towards the South Pole. Pogány’s storm has a suggestion of wings like the winged storm which chases the ship in the poem.
The display concludes with Mervyn Peake’s stark image of a suffering and repentant Mariner in an edition published by Chatto & Windus in 1943. In contrast to Pogány’s deluxe edition printed on vellum, this edition with seven black-and-white illustrations reproduced from Peake’s drawings was designed to be affordable. In Coleridge’s poem, the crew hangs the albatross around the Mariner’s neck to mark his guilt for killing the bird of good omen. Peake’s image hints at the possibility of redemption for the Mariner.
The Coleridge display at the British Library (until 25 September) overlaps by a few weeks with the loan of the manuscript of Coleridge’s other famous poem, Kubla Kahn, and a 1798 edition of Lyrical Ballads to the Museum of Somerset for the exhibition In Xanadu: Coleridge and the West Country (until 25 June). The anniversary is also being marked at the British Library on 20 October with the Wordsworth Trust annual lecture by renowned Coleridge biographer Richard Holmes. Tickets will be available from mid-August.
Kathleen Coburn, Merton Christensen and Anthony John Harding, eds, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 5 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957–2002)
Seamus Perry, ed., Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)