Monday, 22 April 2013

How drunk is the ancient mariner?

The opening of A drunk man looks at a thistle Hugh MacDiarmid's 1926 poem

I amna fou' sae muckle as tired - deid dune.
It's gey and hard wark coupin' gless for gless
Wi' Cruivie and Gilsanquhar and the like,
And I'm no' juist as bauld as aince I wes.

invites the reader to expect a poem in the tradition of Scots drinking stories. It is a witty playful start - the speaker is worn out by lifting the glass to keep up with his drinking companions and he is not as bold as he once was. This reader thought of Robert Burns' 1791 Tam o' Shanter - another drinker whose pleasure is offset by the subconscious knowledge of the long Scots miles between himself and home and his surly spouse...

When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An' getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

But at this point said reader - me - went off on a total tangent and thought about the start of the ancient mariner - all sailors love to drink - and how he grabs the wedding guest and won't let him get on because he is telling him an endless story; becoming in many ways himself the albatross around the wedding guest's neck.

Would Coleridge have known of Burns' work? And the usefulness of giving a poem a mischieviously drunken narrator or protagonist - a fabliau touch - that frees up the subject matter. He after all is more known for Kubla Khan like visions. Well first look at the dates. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Ancient Mariner as part of the Lyrical Ballads between 1797 and 1798. Just after Burns's death. Burns (1759 - 1796) was a little older than Coleridge 1772 – 1834 but not much. Burns' had been lauded as a poet a good ten years before that. And his subject matter, language, form and politics all spoke deeply to Coleridge.

Like MacDiarmid, Coleridge is then able to subvert expectations of where a drinking narrator will take you.

Coleridge himself explains:

The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural, and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life...With this view I wrote the 'Ancient Mariner'.

And a final thought on the well-known lines:

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

followed by hallucinations of slimy things may refer not to the mariners dying of thirst so much as them finding themselves without any alcoholic drink - sailors of this period would have a daily ration of a quarter pint of neat rum twice a day. Water stored in casks would have gone bad on long sea journeys - a fact well-known in the previous centuries of sea travel.

Read the poem here and more on drunken sailors here

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