The Intermedial Hermeneutics of Dore’s Illustrations to Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Plate #9
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is without a doubt considered to be a lyrical masterpiece and a cornerstone in Coleridge’s writing career. The epic seven part poem was originally published in 1798 as a part of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems collection.  Originally The Rime of the Ancient Mariner featured archaic language and was somewhat criticized for its ambiguous writing. This in turn led to a revised version of the poem being printed in 1817. In his revisions Coleridge added marginal glosses to the poem which aid in guiding the reader’s interpretation of the work. Today it is the 1817 version of the poem that is the most prevalent, and it is this version that Gustave Doré created illustrated plates for in 1876. Doré made 38 plates depicting scenes from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which were published in the 1876 edition.
By adding illustrations to the poem new intermedial modalities were introduced. The poem by itself is descriptive and paints iconic imagery through its flowery lyrics, making good use of invoking the reader’s senses. Doré’s illustrations further enhance, primarily, the sensorial and semiotic modalities already present within the poem by adding physical iconic signs. Because of this the reader is given a clearer image of the narrative throughout the poem and by viewing the iconic depiction they create new hermeneutic deductions from the plates presented alongside the text. This paper will be focusing upon analyzing one of these plates, namely plate # 9 “I had done a hellish thing” and how it relates to the poem. However in order for this to be done some context is needed.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a tale of an old wizened mariner retelling the story of his youth to a young wedding guest. As such the retelling of the tale acts as a framing device for the main narrative; how the young mariner and his shipmates committed a heinous act against nature and how he sought redemption. On a voyage the mariner’s ship was flung far south where they became lost in a sea of ice. Fortunately for them, an albatross helped guide them out. But upon escaping the icy waters the mariner kills the albatross, thinking that it is a bird of ill omen. At first his crewmates condemn him, but seeing as the weather actually does improve they change their mind and applaud him instead. Not long after they realize the error of their ways and the ship is becalmed as punishment for killing the albatross. The mariner is kept alive by unnatural forces as one by one the crewmen die cursing him. While in the depths of despair and torment the mariner finds beauty in the creatures of the sea and in blessing them also begins to redeem himself from his deed. Benevolent spirits then aid him in returning home, where he now must travel and share his tale to those deserving.
Plate # 9 “I had done a hellish thing” depicts a scene shortly after the mariner has killed the albatross and his crewmates condemn him for killing the bird “That made the breeze to blow”. In this plate Doré depicts the mariner standing high upon the mast, facing outwards with arms suspended between a pair of rope ladders. The mariner’s head is downcast, his face cast in shadow. His posture suggests a deep introspection or regret over the hellish thing he had done. In the background we see a sea of tumultuous waves, their own churning and restlessness mirroring the mental state of the mariner who is now condemned by the crew. This is further implied as the title for the plate is quoted from the first line in the following verse:
“And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay
That made the breeze to blow!”
The woe of his crew mates plagues the mariner, and the accompanying marginal gloss continues to drive this home. The gloss is very clear in conveying the ire of the other sailors.
But Doré’s plate also conveys an aspect that Coleridge’s lyrics lack. In the plate we see the ancient mariner standing in an iconic pose, reminiscent of the crucifixion of Christ. This adds a new dimension to the poem and opens the door to a religious aspect that the lyrics alone lack. But this raises questions as well, should this religious interpretation be so prominent? In order to answer this it is important to consider the poems wirkungsgeschichte, its previous interpretations and how they have influenced later interpretations. As such Jauss’ concept of a horizon of expectations could be relevant to keep in mind, where the reader should consider how the text relates to its history of reception both diachronically, synchronically and in relation to other literature of its time. Taking this into consideration the religious aspect that Doré enhances with his plate can be examined closer. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner does originally contain religious overtones, but it speaks of them in relation to romantic ideals that both Coleridge and Wordsworth had begun ushering in with their poetry. One such message that the poem conveys is implying that the life of a bird is of equal value to that of a man, as both are God’s creations. Thus one can ponder if Doré’s interpretational contributions are predicated upon the poem’s synchronic views or if they are in fact an iconic projection of Doré’s own society and times. The illustrations accompanying The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are primarily based upon diachronic interpretations perpetrated by Doré. And this is neither something good nor bad, but it is important that this be kept in mind by the reader who is seeking their own interpretations of Coleridge’s work. Doré’s plates lend the poem new avenues of interpretation, but they also unconsciously pass a history of interpretation upon the reader, thereby influencing future attempts at decoding its messages.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems, London, 1798. Wikipedia,”Early Critisims” on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rime_of_the_Ancient_Mariner#Early_criticisms on 2016-11-12. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Illustrations by Gustave Doré, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner [ebook], University of Adelaide, South Austrailia, 2014 , retrieved from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/coleridge/samuel_taylor/rime/ on 2016-10-24. Lars Elleström,”The Modalities of Media: A Model for Understanding Intermedial Relations” from Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, 2010, pg. 35ff. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Illustrations by Gustave Doré, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner [ebook], Part the Second, 3rd verse, 3rd line. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Illustrations by Gustave Doré, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner [ebook], Plate # 9 “I had done a hellish thing”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Illustrations by Gustave Doré, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner [ebook], Part the Second, 3rd verse. Hans Robert Jauss and Elizabeth Benzinger, ”Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory”, from New Literary History, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1970, pg. 19. Hans Robert Jauss and Elizabeth Benzinger, pg. 23.
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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is without a doubt considered to be a lyrical masterpiece and a cornerstone in Coleridge’s writing career. The epic seven part poem was originally […]