Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Ancient Mariner drawings and The Wordsworth Trust

A fitting and permanent home for the fine drawings produced for Coleridge's masterpiece, The Ancient Mariner, has now been found in the most appropriate of settings. The Wordsworth Trust at Dove Cottage will now not only provide students of the work with a place where they can be viewed, but will also provide access for the public.

Such was the shortage of paper in 1943 that the then editor of Chatto & Windus suggested that both he and the author 'begin collecting old envelopes, bun bags and tram tickets'. 'God only knows' added the editor 'how we'll produce a book'. But the book appeared and the original eight illustrations; one went missing, never to be rediscovered, became seven again when 'Night-mare Life-in Death' , 'the leprous lady' was on reflection 'just too terrifying'. In subsequent editions the syphilitic, skeletal, whore-like female was included.

C.S.Lewis on receiving a copy of the first edition wrote to Mervyn Peake from Oxford: 'The Mariner himself has just the triple character I have sometimes met in nightmares - that disquieting blend of the venerable, the pitiable, and the frightful. But at the same time - thanks I suppose mainly to the position of the arms - the representation is a graceful thing (his italics).

In the current Vintage Classics edition Marina Warner writes of the illustrations...'Mervyn Peake's use of deep blacks, welling shadows and horrible phantoms captures shudderingly the Gothic atmosphere of Coleridge's poem, while the leprous lady is described as 'a noseless death's-head vamp, with a blond mane, lipsticked mouth and kittenish cross skeleton hands'. 'Mervyn Peake patterns the page with dramatic economy' she continues while 'his Ancient Mariner looms out in the first illustration a gaunt and prophetic greybeard loon gesturing with his long skinny fingers and fixing us, in the place of the Wedding Guest, with his uncanny gig-lamp eyes, while in the final image we see only the back of the spellbound Mariner as he walks on'.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech.


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