On a long walk last year I took the opportunity to learn The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and as I listened to its rhythms I fell in love with it – its drama, its imagery, and its contemporary relevance. Written more than two hundred years ago, Coleridge's poem remains one of the most iconic texts in the English language. Artist and poet Nick Hayes has managed to rework it in a way which stays faithful to the original, whilst showing the particular ways which man's hubris manifests in the twenty-first century.
His stunning pen and ink drawings, that feel more like woodcuts, capture both the fear and arrogance of man and the grace and power of the environment, lending to it a sacred quality. The story begins not with the wedding guest of the original, but a divorcee, meeting the modern mariner on a park bench on a blustery day at the end of autumn. The mariner spins his tale, setting out on his voyage with the intention of bringing back whale bones with which to make dominoes. Bored at sea, he starts taking pop shots at plastic bottles, before sending “a bullet heavenwards” and killing an albatross. The “superstitious, simple” sailors believe that the death will bring bad luck upon them, and they hang the albatross about the mariner's neck in punishment, in place of a cross.
A series of disasters befall the ship – they are becalmed in an endless sea of plastic and asphyxiated jellyfish; they are visited by a leaking oil rig, ridden by an enraged Gaia. The monsters of Coleridge's poem have become monsters of plastic in Hayes' work, for what monster is more persistent, or takes longer to die?
As the rage of the sea increases he is washed from the boat into the waters. There are echoes of Jonah here – man has angered God in his arrogance, and nothing but sacrificing himself to the waves can restore the balance. Tumbling through the depths he comes face to face with a whale, and finally, in the enormity of this creature, in its hidden and humble life, he comes to understand his own insignificance:
“Two hundred tonnes of living flesh, / The queen of all creation, /And me, this mote within its eye / Too long above my station.”
He is rescued by a Roger Deakin-esque fisherman in a small coracle, the hermit of Coleridge's original. He takes him to recuperate in the forest, where, in an Edenic paradise, with his head on a bed of cicely and aniseed, he comes to fully appreciate that all is connected, and that man is part of a much greater whole. He leaves with a message to impart, but one that will not be heard.
This is a less hopeful work than the original. For us, it seems, it might be too late to be saved. At the end of the Ancient Mariner, the wedding guest who has heard the tale is a “sadder and a wiser man”. But two hundred years later, nothing has been learnt at all. The divorcee takes the mariner for a “bearded park bench loon”, and tossing him a few pennies, brushing his styrofoam coffee cup to the ground, he dismisses the tale as “just a nursery rhyme”. The mariner is left alone, with nothing but the wind for company. The ever present spiral throughout Hayes' artwork suggests a fatalistic path towards an inevitable conclusion. By setting it in the context of Coleridge's poem he suggests that, whilst the outcomes may change, man's hubris has forever been a constant. He has always attempted to control his world, and in the end it has always controlled him.
Yet for all that, there lingers a sense the world is still benign, for those that can see it. As he lies in the grove, he realises that “nature is nowhere near its death”. There is still beauty in the world, there are still magnificent creatures in its depths. The question is rather, if man is unable to learn, does he still have a place within it?
Published in Third Way