Past poems for the lonely present

Jeremy Irons (Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images).
Jeremy Irons (Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images).

By Amit Roy

HEARING Jeremy Irons read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in his rich, deep voice last week took me back to my boyhood days at St Xavier’s School in Patna. We were made to learn bits of it by heart and some lines – And ice, mast-high, came floating by,/ As green as emerald – have remained with me down the years.

The 18th-centu­ry poem by Sam­uel Taylor Coleridge tells of a friendly albatross that follows a ship, only to be killed by a mari­ner in an act of wanton cruelty – With my cross-bow/ I shot the Albatross.

He is made to wear the large sea bird around his neck by way of penance. The killing of the crea­ture brings only bad luck to the ship, whose crew perish one by one, leaving only the mariner as the sole survivor. He also has to suffer the agony of thirst, though there is Water, water, every where,/Nor any drop to drink. Hence the poem is said to speak to the isolation and loneliness that has been engendered by the lockdowns imposed throughout the world.

The poem’s 150 verses have been divided into 40 easily manageable seg­ments, with Irons being followed day by day by the likes of authors Hilary Mantel and Lemn Sissay, actress Tilda Swinton, playwright Alan Bennett and singer-songwriter Iggy Pop. The mari­ner’s heartfelt cry – Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide wide sea! – was recorded by the singer Marianne Faith­full before she fell ill with coronavirus.

The readings, available to audiences worldwide, are accompanied by works of art. The project was commissioned by the Arts Institute at Plymouth Uni­versity and co-curated by author Philip Hoare who said of the Ancient Mariner Big Read: “It’s the first modern work of literature to address the idea of isola­tion, in the most intense and visceral and scary, but yet strangely uplifting way. The Mariner’s cri de coeur of ‘alone, alone’ is part of us now.”

One of Hoare’s co-curators is the art­ist Angela Cockayne, a lecturer at Bath Spa University, who observed: “Al­though written 200 years ago, the Mari­ner is more pertinent than ever, fore­warning us at our own peril about the abuse of nature, and how we are all in­terconnected.”

The readings can be heard on www.