My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great - something one and indivisible - and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns give to me the sense of sublimity or majesty.
S.T. Coleridge in a letter to John Thelwall, 16 October 1797
Coleridge's flight to Malta
Coleridge's tour of Scotland with the Wordsworths became stranded on mutual irritation. The attempt to get rid of the opium proved fruitless, only worsening the nightmares. At home in Keswick, Coleridge returned to the quagmire of problems he had left on departure including his bad marriage. Living with an addict was an intolerable burden for his wife. Quarrels were the order of the day. Moreover, Coleridge suffered from a hopeless, unconsumed love for another woman in which at times, due to his immoderate personality, he could completely lose himself.
Then there were financial troubles. Coleridge's poetry did not pay the bills. He proved a brilliant journalist and political commentator, but lost a well-paid job at a London newspaper due to lack of discipline. To make matters worse, drug use helped to ruin his poetic creativity. He was unable to concentrate and inspiration was lacking. To cap it all the wet climate of the Lake District added to his rheumatism increasing his suffering. In this misery, Coleridge saw only one solution: a temporary flight, preferably to a warmer region, far from his problems, a place where he could also make an ultimate attempt at withdrawing from laudanum. His only salvation, he thought, lay in a new beginning.
First sea voyage
On 9 April 1804, a fleet of thirty-five merchant ships departed from Portsmouth Harbour with an escort of eleven naval ships to Malta, the then British colony in the Mediterranean. Coleridge sailed on one of the trading ships named Speedwell. It was his first sea voyage, five years after the completion of The Ancient Mariner. All the descriptions in that poem of Arctic fog and snow, of fierce winds and scorching sun on the equator he had not drawn on his own experience, but from reading numerous books about voyages of discovery. Now, for the first time at sea, Coleridge had The Ancient Mariner constantly in mind, projecting its fictional scenes onto real life at sea.
Two days after leaving Portsmouth, he saw a young ship's mate taking his meal up the main mast. He was immediately reminded of the ancient mariner, who had thoughtlessly shot an albatross from the sky. This is what he noted in his notebook:
Saw, a nice black faced bright black-eyed white-toothed Boy running up to the Main Top with a large leg of Mutton swung, Albatross-fashion about his neck.
What Coleridge had written in The Ancient Mariner he saw reflected in the reality at sea. He also wrote a number of new impressions back into a second version of the poem, published thirteen years later. For example, on the third day of the voyage Coleridge observed how the light of the compass and the helmsman's lamp cast shadows on the mainsail in the dark night. His note reads thus:
Light of the Compass & rudderman's Lamp reflected with forms on the Main Sail.
In the revised version this became:
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steerman's face by his lamp gleamed white.
Coleridge was constantly observing and reporting on what he saw. On the fifth day he filled eleven pages with observations of the hull, masts and sails of the ships around him: their diverse shapes, the 'harmony of Lines – the ellipses & semicircles of the bellying Sails & of the Hull, with the variety from the permanence of the one & the contingency of the other'. Every detail 'forming an interesting part of a common whole', expressing 'a phantom of complete visual wholeness'.
Toiling to windward
Like the ship of the ancient mariner, the vessels of the English squadron were flogged by storm and paralysed by wind. The first half of the journey - to Gibraltar - went smoothly. It lasted ten days. The second half, in the Mediterranean, was expected to last seven days. That became twenty-eight. A week after departure from Gibraltar, the fleet floated a second time near Cartagena, on the southeast coast of Spain, in fog and oppressive weather. Coleridge:
Tuesday Afternoon, one o'clock, May Day – We are very nearly on the spot where on Friday last about this same Hour, we caught the Turtles – and what are 5 days' toiling to Windward just not to lose ground, to almost 5 years! Alas! What I have been doing on the Great Voyage of Life since my return from Germany but fretting upon the front of the wind – well for me if I have indeed kept my ground even!
Two weeks later, the squadron sailed in sight of Sardinia and something happened that made a deep impression on Coleridge.
Hawk with ruffled Feathers resting on the Bowsprit – Now shot at & yet did not move – how fatigued – a third time it made a gyre, a short circuit, & turned again / 5 minutes it was thus shot at / left the Vessel / flew to another / & and I heard firing, now here, now there / & nobody shot it /but probably it perished from fatigue, & the attempt to rest upon the wave! – Poor Hawk! O Strange Lust of Murder in Man! – It is not cruelty / it is mere non-feeling from non-thinking.
Coleridge must have seen the similarity between the fate of the hawk and the fate of his albatross. It is equally obvious that, like the hawk, the albatross in the poet's eyes was the victim of 'non-feeling from non-thinking', or of lack of feeling due to thoughtlessness. That assumption may be part of the answer to the question of what drove the old sailor to his cruel act. We find no explicit explanation for this in The Ancient Mariner. Coleridge never spoke publicly about it either. But beyond the notebook entry on the hawk, there is more evidence to suggest that 'non-feeling from non-thinking' underlies the old sailor's senseless act and, ultimately, all human error. As an innate tendency to evil, as a kind of original sin. ►