Orson Welles Narrates Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner in an Experimental Film Featuring the Art of Gustave Doré

Water, water, every­where / Nor any drop to drink. Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge—poet, crit­ic, opi­um addict—wrote his Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798, a time when long poems still began with a short syn­op­sis called the “Argu­ment.” I have always loved Coleridge’s weird poem, with its archa­ic lan­guage recall­ing medieval trav­el sto­ries, and its glo­be­trot­ting nar­ra­tive reach­ing back to Odysseus and the recent tales of Cap­tain Cook, and for­ward to the impe­r­i­al age to come. In sub­se­quent edi­tions, Coleridge would edit out some of the antique lan­guage, bow­ing to pres­sure from adher­ents of his friend and col­league William Wordsworth, who promised the world a people’s poet­ry in the pref­ace to Coleridge and Wordsworth’s sem­i­nal Roman­tic col­lec­tion Lyri­cal Bal­lads.

Even lat­er edi­tions of the poem appeared with mar­gin­al gloss­es that over-explained the text. This is unfor­tu­nate. Much of the poem’s charm comes from its strange­ness. It is, after all, about an ancient mariner, a key point mod­ern­iz­ing crit­ics seemed to miss.

The poem, which immor­tal­ized the alba­tross as a fig­ure of speech, has recent­ly been mod­ern­ized in much more inter­est­ing ways, through the Brook­lyn Acad­e­my of Music’s “Record Your Rime,” an open read­ing by over two-dozen indi­vid­u­als in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion’s Record-a-Poem project. The video excerpt below sets snip­pets of the read­ings to ani­ma­tion by Nathan Gel­gud and Katie Positer­ry. Lis­ten to all of the “Record Your Rime” read­ings here.

“Record Your Rime” coin­cid­ed with Irish actress Fiona Shaw’s cur­rent dra­mat­ic inter­pre­ta­tion of the poem at BAM, which the Finan­cial Times calls “a riv­et­ing, vir­tu­oso per­for­mance.” Coleridge’s poem has inspired its share of mod­ern artists, from Fleet­wood Mac to Iron Maid­en, but, despite its inher­ent­ly dra­mat­ic nature, few actors have tak­en it on as a the­atri­cal piece. Next to Shaw, and Richard Bur­ton, we have a ren­di­tion from the great Orson Welles. The video of Welles’ read­ing (top) ani­mates a set of 1896 engrav­ings from 19th cen­tu­ry illus­tra­tor Gus­tave Dore.  The 1977 film, made by avant-garde ani­ma­tor Lar­ry Jor­dan, fus­es these two great inter­preters for per­haps the first and only time, and gets the tone of Coleridge’s poem just right.

Ver­sions of Coleridge’s poem can be found in our Free Audio Books and Free eBooks col­lec­tions.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Richard Bur­ton Reads Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1965) 

Watch an Ani­ma­tion of Orson Welles’ Famous Frozen Peas Rant

Gus­tave Doré’s Exquis­ite Engrav­ings of Cer­vantes’ Clas­sic, Don Quixote

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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