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Water Water Everywhere

Have you ever heard this saying ...? 

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink? 

It's one of those quotes which has made itself into the English language and into the culture of the world. It slips off the tongue!

But do you know where it comes from and who wrote it?

It's actually an adapted form of words from a poem called "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who died on this day - July 25 - in 1834. He was a poet, philosopher, theologian and literary critic who, along with his friend William Wordsworth,  was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and one of what became known as  the 'Lake Poets'- they hailed from and/or lived in the beautiful Lake District in northwest England.

Coleridge  apparently coined many common sayings which have made it into our culture, and not just 'water water everywhere....'

If you've ever used the phrase 'suspension of disbelief' you can thank Samuel Taylor Coleridge! He was a major influence not just on other poets, but also on writers and culture down the ages, and, I discover, even on philosophical movements like American transcendentalism.

But, like many creatives, he furrowed his own distinctive path in life. And he was controversial.

For most of his life Samuel Taylor Coleridge was not a well person and in adulthood suffered an addiction to drugs - laudanum and opium - which it's reckoned came about because early on he was treated with laudanum for his physical ailments, including rheumatic fever and other childhood illnesses. It's also been speculated that the poet had bipolar disorder, which of course was not recognised in his lifetime.

Coleridge's  imagination worked overtime and the result was often surreal and  misunderstood literary and poetic creations.  In fact, his most famous works  - 'Kubbla Khan',  'Christabel' and 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' – all featured supernatural themes and exotic images, which some have put down to his use of the drugs. He was inclined to be unreliable and to leave projects unfinished. He was often plagued by severe debts. But his originality and creative genius means he and his work have gone down in history.

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'  is Samuel Taylor Coleridge's longest poem and it was written in 1797–98 and published in 1798 in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads. This iconic collection of poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge  is considered to have marked the start of the English Romantic movement in literature, with a shift to what was then is now recognised as 'modern poetry'. 

But what is 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'  all about?

Well, it tells the story of a sailor who has returned from a long sea voyage. He stops a man who is on his way to a wedding and begins to narrate a story of a sailing voyage he took long ago.

The wedding guest at first reacts as many of us may do when hearing 'old tales' from elderly people, and he becomes impatient with the old sailor. But then he gets sucked into the story and is captivated with the man and his tale of life and woes.

The mariner explains that his travels have taken him to many places, even to the icy waters of the Antarctic, where an albatross eventually pulls the ship out of the pack ice where it has become stuck. Sadly the sailor kills the albatross and then unfolds a series of very unfortunate events.

The spirits chase the ship "from the land of mist and snow". The south wind that had initially blown them north now sends the ship into uncharted waters near the equator, where it becomes becalmed. Going nowhere.

Water water everywhereAnd here's were that famous line comes in ... 

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

The mariner is blamed for the torment of the crew and their thirst. They are furious so they force the mariner to wear the dead albatross around his neck, so that he always carries that burden and regrets it.

And it's this part of the story which gives us the idiom 'an albatross around one's neck' which refers to a heavy burden we may be carrying, and which torments us.

Did you know that?

The ancient mariner's adventures continue but although in time the albatross falls from his neck, the torment continues for the old sailor. Eventually, as punishment for shooting the bird and driven by his guilt, the mariner is forced to  wander the earth, telling his story over and over, and teaching a lesson to those he meets. Hence the meeting with the Wedding Guest and the re-telling of his life story.

It's an absolute classic!

However, initially the poem didn't go down that well. It was criticized for being obscure and difficult to read. There are so many layers to poems like this that very clever people have, down the years, devoted much time to unravelling it's meanings, mysteries, interpretations, language and various versions, because Coleridge actually 'tweaked' it over the years for new editions of poetry collections. It was always a work in progress.

But just because it's difficult to understand doesn't mean we shouldn't give it a go. That's part of the problem with lots of us, isn't it? We have such a limited attention span. We don't want to spend too much time on anything. Too little time, too much to do.

And, just like the Wedding Guest, maybe we haven't got time in our lives for our older relatives and friends. As I grow older and feel I want to share MY stories more, I'm aware I haven't listened well to the stories of people in my family who I maybe thought repeated themselves, and their tales.

That's something I need to work on still!

And maybe I'll take time out today ... or in the next few days ... to read 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner', in full.

If you want to join me ... please click on the link below ...

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Full Text - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Seven Parts

And let's all celebrate the legacy of a genius!


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