Thursday, 11 September 2014

Cook’s Second Voyage and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Portico has a copy of Captain James Cook’s Voyage towards the South Pole and round the world: 1772, 1773, 1774, 1775, illustrated by the expedition’s artist, William Hodges.  Cook’s two ships, The Resolution and The Adventure, sailed from Plymouth on the 13th July 1772, the same year that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born. The expedition was charged with searching for the Southern Continent and testing a version of the John Harrison chronometer for longitude determinations. The expedition sailed further south than any mariner had ever done, and it must have been inspiration to many young men of Coleridge’s generation.

One of the book’s illustrations is entitled The Ice Islands, seen the 9th January 1773, and on seeing this, my first thought was that it must have been the inspiration for the crucial incident in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the Mariner shoots an albatross, albeit with a crossbow:
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald

 . . . with my crossbow
I shot the ALBATROSS.

The Princeton Library also has a copy of the book, and you can see the engraving on the Princeton website:

Richard Holmes’s biography, Coleridge, Early Visions, confirms that Cook’s Voyage was one of the sources for the Mariner and also that throughout his life Coleridge ‘was obsessed with travel books’. However, I think Cook’s voyaging was more than just one source among many, for in his 1956 paper Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Cook’s Second Voyage [Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 19, No. ½ (Jan.-Jun., 19560], Bernard Smith notes that William Wales, the astronomer and meteorologist on the Resolution, taught mathematics at Christ’s Hospital when Coleridge was there.

In a long and fascinating paper, Smith deduces from a copy of the manuscript Journal Wales kept during his time on the Resolution that the course of the Ancient Mariner’s voyage was determined to a large extent by Coleridge’s recollections of accounts of Cook’s second voyage, either as they were told to him by Wales, or read in books at the school, and that the precision and clarity of Coleridge’s atmospheric imagery derives much from the precision and clarity of Wales’s astronomical and meteorological observations.  Smith concludes:

But perhaps the most remarkable feature of all is the preservation in the poem of the broad pattern of the Resolution’s voyage, so that, to some extent, the order of sequence of events in the poem follows the order of sequence of the relevant events of the voyage. The fair passage of the N.E. Trades, the squally passage of the S.E.Trdaes, the mast-high ice, the glint of the ice, the noise of the ice splitting, follow the same order in the poem as in Wales’s Journal; and later in both the poem and the journal accounts of the heat, the calm, and the sea-snakes agree in their sequence.”

Neither Smith nor Holmes mention an illustrated edition of the Voyage, but, knowing that a poem needs not only sources, but also a trigger, I wonder if sight of Hodge’s illustration, perhaps in Tom Poole’s library at Stowey, triggered the writing of The Rime?

Sheila Wild, Chair, Book Committee