Back to Reading No. 1Reading No. 39

Alan Bennett
Author + playwright
Recorded in North London

Angela Cockayne
Man, and Bird and Beast
Film loop

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

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.


Try reading it out loud. Feel the dreamy beat, the hypnotic hammer of the rhymes; it's an eighteenth-century rap. Coleridge composed it when he was 25. He'd never been to sea in his life. He called it a work of 'pure imagination', but who knows what it’s really about? It could be the result of one of Coleridge’s opium nightmares, or his whole life story, a secret confession. A grand cautionary tale of maritime crime and punishment, or a psychedelic disaster movie, of suns and moons and madness.

A ship sails down to the Antarctic, navigating through towering icebergs, but is becalmed on the Equator, and the entire crew, all 200 men, die horribly of drought. All except for one young mariner who returns, unhinged by survivor’s guilt. He keeps re-telling his story of dreams and hallucinations (a skeletal spectral ship, a sexy Life-in-Death, some sinister airborne spirits) until he is an old man.

Is this a brilliant account of post-traumatic stress disorder and its overwhelming mental health issues? Or something more subtle, a spiritual history of man’s sin and redemption? What happens when we thoughtlessly damage the natural world, when its mysterious powers, its 'Polar Spirit', begins to wreak revenge? The magic of the Rime lies in the mystery of it all. The choice of meanings is yours.

Richard Holmes,
Coleridge's biographer