Painted ships on painted oceans: Contemporary staging effects in The Rime

by Rebekah Owens


These days we think of Coleridge primarily as a poet, but when he was writing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he had playwriting very much on his mind. After collaborating with Robert Southey on the verse drama The Fall of Robespierre, in 1797, the year before the first version of the Rime appeared, Coleridge was commissioned by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the manager of Drury Lane Theatre to write a play. He began writing Osorio, an Elizabethan-style drama that eventually became Remorse. It was going to be published with Wordsworth’s drama The Borderers to raise money for a German tour. When that project failed, some of Osorio made it into Lyrical Ballads (‘The Dungeon’ and ‘The Foster Mother’s Tale’).


Given he was working on a drama that was to be presented (so he hoped) at an actual theatre, the stage and its various practices were not far from Coleridge’s mind as he began writing the Rime. He would have been mindful, for example, of how a story could be presented not just through the spoken word, but by the mechanics of stage effects. And those effects appear in the poem. The Rime is a series of ‘set pieces.’ It consists of visually arresting descriptions reminiscent of the decorative backdrops to performances at the contemporary theatre, such as the description of the Mariner’s ship which, when becalmed, becomes part of a scene painting: ‘As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean’. Images such as these are why Gustav Doré could produce powerful illustrations of the Rime in 1876 and why his work perfectly complements the poem. Because the whole tale is a series of tableaux, of vividly realised pictures against which the Mariner’s tale is set, it is easy to imagine his ship emerging into view upstage as painted flats of the ‘Ice mast high’ slide apart in front of it; or to envisage the hulk of the ‘Spectre-ship’ ship emerging from the wings, gliding on grooves past the doomed Mariner and his crew.


Such images in the poem are also, as in a theatre, mediated through light to mute or enhance colours to create the right ambience. The ‘dismal sheen’ of the surrounding ice, that subdued light that the Mariner describes is reminiscent of how atmospheric effects were created in the contemporary theatre when coloured silks or transparencies were dropped down in front of a scene and lit from behind. That feature would not just show the muted light of the ice cliff, but Coleridge describes the effect of these transparencies when he has the Mariner talk of the moon that shines through the fog as the albatross perches ‘on mast or shroud:’ ‘thro fog smoke-white / Glimmer’d the white moon-shine.’ That same effect, a gauze or silk hanging, would create the ethereal whites in the poem, such as when the moon ‘bemocked the sultry main / Like April hoar-frost spread’ and the light is diffused throughout the harbour that is ‘white with silent light’.


Coloured silks could create the ominous reds – that ‘moonlight bay’ so ‘white all o’er’ is punctuated by ‘dark-red shadows’ and there is the ‘still and awful red’ of the ‘charmèd water’. The same technique could produce the spectral greens that Coleridge describes – that wall of ice is ‘green as Emerauld’, and there is a ‘Burnt green’ that the Mariner sees dancing on the water’s surface as well as the ‘glossy green’ of the water snakes. Contemporary stage lighting could also reproduce some of the colour effects of the poem. The presence of all those greens is reminiscent of the oil lamps used on the stage in the days before limelight, lamps which produced a green-tinged light. There is even a suggestion of the iridescence that arises from a film of oil floating on water in the phrase: ‘The water, like a witch’s oils / Burnt green and blue and white.’ Perhaps, too, there is a hint of the notorious propensity of those lamps to smoke in the brief description of the ship’s crew whose ‘stony eyeballs glitter’d on / In the red and smoky light.’



There I might be stretching a point. But, even if subconscious, that the Rime had a certain staginess was obvious to one contemporary. William Wordsworth specifically criticised the poem for its performative and pictorial qualities. He described it as a series of happenings decorated with ‘too laboriously accumulated’ imagery. He considered it to be at odds with the philosophy of what was by now his Lyrical Ballads, that of creating poetry centred around emotions recollected in tranquillity in which he advocated a verse form that thinned out such pictorial, stagy mediation, in favour of a more direct connection with poet and reader. To that end, he placed Coleridge’s poem at the end of the first volume of the 1800 edition of the Ballads. He moved it upstage, if you like. In the middle, at the back where it could not properly be seen.