Water, Water

Water, Water

In this week’s instalment of the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a curse is laid on the ship. The crew begin to suffer its effects and they attempt to shift the blame onto the ancient mariner.

Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772—1834)

Poem 171. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part 2

‘The sun now rose upon the right:
Out of the sea came he,
Still hid in mist, and on the left
Went down into the sea.
And the good south wind still blew behind,
But no sweet bird did follow,
Nor any day for food or play
Came to the mariners’ hollo!
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averr’d I had kill’d the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averr’d I had kill’d the bird
That brought the fog and mist.
’Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow follow’d free;
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
’Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white.
And some in dreams assurèd were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathoms deep he had follow’d us
From the land of mist and snow.
And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was wither’d at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.
Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

In the second part, the ancient mariner’s companions are initially horrified by his casual murder of the albatross, saying that he has killed the bird that brought the wind that drove them out of the icy regions. At this point, the sun rises and the mists dissipate, and the sailors change their tune as one man, saying that he had done right in slaying this bird that had brought the sea fog. This, as we shall see, is unwise (to put it mildly).

The wind drops, and the ship is becalmed, and we get one of the most quoted lines in English poetry: “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” commonly misquoted as, “…and not a drop to drink.”

This is an eighteenth-century story: there is no engine in the ship—they are completely dependent on the wind and the ship isn’t going anywhere. The sun slowly roasts the crew and ship by day and strange fires torment them at night as the ocean surface is broken by the writhings of slimy serpentine creatures and a great silence falls on them.

Some sailors are convinced that they are beset by a spirit, and eventually hang the body of the albatross around the mariner’s neck attempting to shift all the blame onto him. The malefactor ends this part of the poem ostracised by his shipmates and charged with the murder of the bird and endangering the crew and ship.

I like this part of the poem because it tells the story so graphically. We are shown the searing heat of the sun “all in a hot and copper sky” as it slowly mummifies the ship and its crew: “And every tongue, through utter drought, was wither’d at the root” and “As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean” is such a clear picture in the mind’s eye.