‘The guests are met, the feast is set’ and the Ancient Mariner Big Read

© Hayley Lee Madden

Over forty days, forty writers, actors, performers and artists are reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” — free for all online.  The project began on 18 April with its first instalment: the opening moments of “The Rime” read by actor and activist Jeremy Irons.

Included in the line-up are readings by the likes of Iggy Pop, Tilda Swinton, and the acclaimed author and Devon resident, Hilary Mantel.  Amazingly, I have also been afforded the opportunity to read alongside these monoliths of film, music, art and literature as well as contributing my own fiction to the project.

It’s an honour.  As a winner of the The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award in 2016, I’ve found myself reading “The Rime” alongside poets Kathleen Jamie, Lemn Sissay, Max Porter, and even the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, who is also a contributor.  Also featured in the project are unique works created by a plethora of international artists in response to the poem —including the acclaimed George Shaw, who lives in Devon – and indeed, a reaction to our strange times, even though the project has been in development for three years, hosted by The Arts Institute at University of Plymouth.

Coleridge, himself born in Devon, is one of the greatest Romantic poets  — and personal hero of mine.  “The Rime” features some of the most famous lines in poetry – so famous many people quote them, having no idea who wrote them.  ‘Water, water, every where / Nor any drop to drink’;  ‘He prayeth best who loveth best / All creatures great and small’.

And “The Rime”, with its fable of a shot albatross, long seen as an emblem of our disconnection from nature, now has a new relevance.  Coleridge could not have precisely foreseen our current situation but his words on loneliness are far more applicable than perhaps at any other time.  As the writer, Thomas de Quincey said of his fellow addict:  ‘Where is the man who shall be equal to these things? Is, indeed, Leviathan so tamed?  In that case, the quarantine of the opium-eater might be finished’.  He added, admiringly, ‘Whenever he spoke it was as if he were tracing a circle in the air’.

As we lie in our beds listening to the celebrated voices that have entertained and reassured us so often, we hear a voice that has never be forgotten, a man whose poetry speaks through us and shows the way.  In these days of isolation the transportive force of Coleridge is a welcome escape.  His story of nature’s retaliation is as relevant to our time as Coleridge’s own.

His mariners find themselves stranded in open water; so do we, caught in our very own doldrums.  I have spent the last month secluded in my bedroom, my garden and on my sofa trying to convince myself that we will return to the equilibrium we knew.  As the world changes unimaginably, Coleridge stands as our guide past this anti-social virus.  The stranded Mariner experienced enforced self isolation.  Art can allow us to deal with ours.

Author Philip Hoare is curating the project, alongside Cornish-based artist Angela Cockayne and Sarah Chapman of the Art Institute at University of Plymouth.  The South West is intrinsically bound to this project and to the poem itself.  Coleridge was born in Ottery St Mary – my reading was recorded, along with Dame Hilary’s, in the parish church of St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary, where Coleridge himself was baptised by his father, who was minister at the church.  It was strange to think we read in a space in which the infant poet may have cried over the baptismal font.  As a boy, Samuel floated his paper boats down the Otter past the jigsaw church that overlooks East Devon. The harbour at Watchet in Somerset is supposed to be a key inspiration for the poem, itself written in Somerset.  As a resident of Tavistock, where I spent my own childhood, I feel proud that my region has not only inspired this project, but supplied the modern voices to create it.

The forty days of the Big Read are not a desert wilderness, but be filled with the many voices of Coleridge himself.  The Ancient Mariner Big Read has been inspired by the same team’s previous project, the Moby-Dick Big Read of 2012 (www.mobydickbigread.com) in which I was also lucky enough to take part, reading a chapter with a former teacher at Tavistock College and providing my photography to the project. The Moby Dick Big Read has gone to have international coverage and over 10 million hits on its website.

Listeners to the new recordings can collect them, daily, building up a sound mosaic of the poem which will then be released as the complete work. At the end of those forty days, “The Rime” and its ancient mariner will emerge, like a ghost ship out of the internet mist – a digital tribute to Coleridge’s 200-year-old art.  As the water and wind of the high-seas stretch our sails, I hope these readings will give us all a sense of the wide open and free ocean that, I hope, lies ahead.

Listen to Cyrus’s reading here

Listen to “The Rime” here

Cyrus Larcombe-Moore, who lives in Tavistock, is Foyle Young Poet of the Year Award winner and has been longlisted in the National Poetry Competition.

7 May 2020