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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