While most readers of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner are struck by the way the Mariner clings to life while the rest of the crew die, they might be surprised to learn that the poem itself stubbornly refused to die. As the Mariner was doomed to retell his story time after time, so Coleridge revisited his stanzas year after year, revising, modernizing, and retelling the story until his death.
Before today, I had thought there was only one Ancient Mariner; needless to say, I was surprised (and a little concerned) this evening when I realized that I was reading from a different version from the rest of the Book Club.
My first thought was “Which version is right?!” Previously, I had only read the same online poem that I had linked to my friends, but when I came to discuss the poem with them at Book Club, I brought with me a hard copy, in a book of Romantic period verse that I recently bought from G. Davis, my favorite Cambridge book store. While reading out loud, I first noticed the “ancient” style of the language, which had been modernized in the version I previously read. But I just assumed that was the work of later editors, not Coleridge himself. Only when the actual content of the stanzas began to deviate did I start to wonder how the two versions came to be.
It turns out that both versions were “right”: in fact, Coleridge altered his poem at least 18 times, and that this was a common practice for him. The version I read today, published in 1798, was only the first that Coleridge wrote.
He surely isn’t making me feel any better about my reluctance to even proofread my class essays once!