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The Ancient Mariner as Late Twentieth Century Artist

by John Harbison

Ever since I was very young I have loved Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for reasons I had long thought unfathomable, as the poem itself is. More recently, as lines and moments from the poem recur in my memory at almost any provocation, it has occurred to me to examine my fascination with this mysterious poem, whose hypnotic hold is only trivially explained by its composition under the influence of opium.

The Rime, for those who may have forgotten or even escaped it, begins this way:

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
"By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st though me?

The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din."

He holds him with his skinny hand,
"There was a ship," quoth he.

Then the Mariner begins his harrowing, fantastical, supernatural tale, a tale so interruptive of everyday life, and such an intensification of it, that it has always been for me a metaphor for the dislocating, transforming potential of art.

This poem has been interpreted in many ways, by the best literary minds. It is my intention here only to trace a personal, involuntary, no doubt unoriginal interpretation. I have always identified with the ancient mariner, not by virtue of being ancient myself (though I have been composing now for forty-five years, and certain of my pieces still performed with some frequency are from thirty years ago). My identification with this unlikely hero has much to do with my experience as a composer in a time when concert music is outside the experience or interest of most of my fellow citizens.

A few years ago my Second Symphony was the curtain-raiser for a performance by the then child-prodigy Midori of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. It was my not surprising fate to be seated, on each night of the tour, in a gaggle of Midori fans, who regarded my piece as a seemingly interminable and incongruous barrier between them and the familiar pleasure they had come to experience. My piece is twenty-three minutes long and has a dark tale to tell. As I restrained these wedding guests with what I believed was something like a mysterious sea voyage, I tried to find among their faces, and in their remarks, a candidate to listen to my piece. The Mariner stops one of three. This would be a very high percentage, one of thirty is more realistic, but I live as a composer with the certainty that a constituency is there, even among those who chafe to get to the wedding or the Tchaikovsky Concerto, if the story is told clearly and vividly enough, and if that person's receiving soul has a place, wittingly or unwittingly set aside for it.

Now as then the call of other things — more practical or pressing or simply more amusing — is strong, and even the most urgent stories have difficulty competing with the exigencies and distractions of supposedly civilized life. Coleridge's close colleague Wordsworth, in the year of the composition of the Rime, described the situation this way:

A multitude of causes, unknown in former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind... unfitting it for all violent exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.

In fact, the competition for our attention, especially from the popular arts and media, is of dazzling force, and the gaze of the mariner must be especially riveting to command attention. As he warms to his tale he encounters powerful counterforces:

"The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

Higher and higher every day,
Till over the mast at noon—
The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.

This curious and unforgettable interruption comes to mind often as the loud bassoons of our culture play their siren calls, MTV, Schwarzenegger movies, beauty pageants, fast food restaurants, all the irresistible addictions which provide so much more gratification, titillation, or simple escape than the story the Mariner wants to tell.

And here we come to a problem, because his story is not exactly a pleasant one. In fact, it keeps bringing up subjects we might rather forget. To summarize, for those who may have forgotten, the ship is driven by a storm into frozen seas and seemingly certain destruction when, with the appearance of an Albatross, comes a warm southern breeze and salvation. But the Mariner shoots the Albatross, and thereafter all fortune departs. As symbol of his wanton act, the Mariner is forced to wear the Albatross around his neck. When the entire crew dies, only the Mariner is condemned to live on. The Albatross drops off only as the Mariner matures to a reverence for all living things. Even then he is haunted by the spectral resurrection of his phantom crewmates, and condemned to wander endlessly telling his story.

In my angle of the story, the adventures of the Mariner seem very like some of the stories artists must tell at least some of the time. As artists we have been guilty, with the rest of society, of a lack of regard for the balances of nature, a disdain for simplicity, directness, and grace. And we have committed violent acts, some because art cannot go on without them (everything valuable destroys something valuable) but some because we felt above all normal restraints. The Mariner has seen what few, if any of us, will ever see — the pure action of forces of good and evil, the embodiments of those forces in the physical world. That is what the best art needs to deal with, and his driven sense of mission is redeemable on that basis.

The tale is not reassuring or comforting, but it is enspiriting. We have reassurance and comfort enough in many of our TV series, in the tribalism of teen rock, in tone of voice of the good morning shows. And we need it. But we need more tales of the sea, of things we can't understand, of distances we can't travel.

At the end of the poem, the Mariner and Coleridge describe a kind of epiphany in the transaction between artist and receiver.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

He has forgotten the wedding, the loud bassoon, and he is rapt in new possibilities. He is not cheerful (cheerfulness being easier of access than a deep and productive melancholy). Music and art in general can and must produce joy and euphoria some of the time. But their special claim on us is widening of vision that only confrontation with the most challenging realities can bring. Fewer than one in three will actually be "stunned" by anything we do, but this is the transaction we must seek to make it worth what it costs.

The above address was delivered at the ceremony at which an honorary degree (Doctor of Humane Letters) was conferred on the composer at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, on September 11, 1991. John Harbison won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Music and became a MacArthur Fellow in 1989.

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