Introduction to 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.

Libanus Press special edition.

An empty room, a barren desert. These are places in the mind fit for ideas, crazy or ordinary, to stroll, tumble and cascade into. They arrive unfettered, sticking or fading according to the preoccupations of the artist and the uses to which they can be put. In the mind an alternative logic prevails, one where time and space do as they please. Yet these seemingly illogical dreamings are as credible as anything in the real world.

If one considers the time before a poem is born, it is like the beginning of the world when primeval ooze and gas swirled in a twilight of nothingness. The wonderful passage in 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' introducing the spectre-bark, could well illustrate the genesis of a work of art. The mist billows round an unknown '….something in the sky', out of which the ghost ship slowly emerges. This image parallels the workings of the artist's mind; we see the birth of ideas and the imagination's drive.

Coleridge uses Time and Space to move his poem in erratic and extraordinary directions. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are one. An entire day is disposed of in four lines - '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'. Vast distances and changes of weather flash by in an instant and yet small details of the story may merit several stanzas. In the poem, the crew exists in a dual state of life and death; spirits living under the ice or in tropical waters have no need to justify their existence; the Life-in-Death figure plays dice and whistles while possessed of a skeleton body. A conflict between reality and unreality rages in the strata of the poem and the reader's mind.

My father, Mervyn Peake, was commissioned in 1942 to illustrate 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. It was wartime and the restrictions that applied to most things might explain why only eight pictures were produced for the volume. In the first edition of 1943 one illustration was excluded, thought by the publishers to be too disturbing. In all subsequent editions this illustration of the Life-in-Death figure has been reinstated.

'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' proliferates in images and offers enormous potential for an illustrator. Mervyn Peake began illustrating books by writers other than himself in the early 1940s and the 'Mariner' illustrations are part of a rich history in which his best work was realised. He knew the poem well and would often quote passages in the house. He made a thorough search, choosing scenes and images with which to emboss his interpretation on the poem. When reading the poem, one is struck by images that spring up like flashing beacons and demand to be illustrated. The illustrations have an unreal, rather theatrical quality, as has the poem, and leave us bursting with unanswerable questions. The stage has been dressed and the viewer simply watches the proceedings.

Empathy is an essential requirement for an illustrator, who must in a sense 'wear' the text, by assuming the mental clothing of the author. He must imagine himself as the characters and events in the poem. 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' was one of many classics that Mervyn Peake had wanted to illustrate anyway. With his vivid sense of adventure and love of storytelling it is likely that he would have rehearsed the illustrations in his mind, even before he had been commissioned. Many of the images in the poem are 'felt' rather than 'seen' and are too obscure for illustration; the reader experiences them in a literary or psychological way. For example, the poem's many weather references or the '…crimson shadows…' in the bay, cannot be portrayed convincingly by black and white line illustration. Such an attempt would render them emasculated. Coleridge's poem and Mervyn Peake's illustrations hold hands in a dream world which reminds one of a play or film. The poem appears to be being performed by the drawings.

Light plays an important part in the drama of the poem, as it does in the accompanying drawings. Moonlight, sunlight or dusk in the poem are translated in Mervyn Peake’s illustrations with added intimations of arc lamps and other artificial lighting. In a tussle between tangibility and spirituality, these forms of light take turns in the unfolding scenes. In one picture, brilliant moonlight drenches the sailors, while in others the sun doubles as God. In the portrayal of the Mariner cradling the dead albatross, which appears to grow out of his loins, black sharp-edged shadows are cast across the deck. The light beams from an angle 'offstage' and suggests early evening. Even the vast spaces of sea and sky in the illustrations are ambiguous, as shown in the picture of the lone figure on the deck, viewed from the mast. The ragged sails hang like props above the stage and the expanse of sea is like a backdrop, deep yet shallow. The space in the illustrations seems to echo the intimacy of the events in the poem. As an illustration, The Life-in-Death figure stands apart from the others, employing an approach more akin to portraiture. One thinks of Rembrandt, Goya or even Archimboldo, all painters admired by Mervyn Peake.

At the close of the Second World War Mervyn Peake, in his capacity as a war artist, was sent to Germany to record the inhuman conditions in the concentration camp at Belsen , an assignment which left an indelible shadow on his mind. It now seems eerie that his drawings of the emaciated sailors in Coleridge's poem, stand as portents of the horrors that he was to face at Belsen , a reality wholly unambiguous.

With his recent experiences of illustrating Coleridge's poem and the shock of the war, Mervyn Peake was inspired in the mid 1940s to write a tribute in the form of a long narrative poem 'The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb'. It was modelled in form and rhythm on Coleridge’s and used idiosyncracies of style and deliberately similar words. The poem follows the fortunes of a sailor in wartime London who discovers a new-born baby in the ruins after an attack by a flying bomb. Both characters are able to communicate because, although only a day old, the baby is capable of speech and flight, an infant spirit of hope. The parallel between sailor and baby and Mariner and albatross is unassailable.

In this superlative new edition we see Coleridge's visionary writing and Mervyn Peake's assiduous eye brought together in a glorious poetic marriage.


© Fabian Peake