Literary daybook, Nov. 13

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published November 13, 2002 5:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Nov. 13, 1942, Caravaggio is interrogated by Muller.
-- "The English Patient" (1996)
by Anthony Minghella, writer and director

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in literary history
On this day in 1797, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge began a several days' walk in the Quantock Hills of Somerset, during which they would conceive "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner." The original idea was to produce a gothic potboiler, something to suit the popular magazines, and to help pay for their vacation. "Much the greatest part of the story was Coleridge's invention," Wordsworth later wrote, though among his own contributions was the idea that the inciting incident should involve the killing of an albatross in the South Sea, for which "the tutelary Spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime." Wordsworth soon realized that "the style of Coleridge and myself would not assimilate," and left the fate of the "Old Navigator" in his friend's hands. Here it evolved from a quick money-maker to a consuming, five-months' labor; and if potboiler on the surface, within lay many of Coleridge's philosophical and psychological concerns, roiling up as ghostly vision, tortured soul and the need to expiate:

"... 'Is it he?' quoth one, 'Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low
The harmless Albatross.

The spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.'

The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honey-dew:
Quoth he, 'The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.' ..."

Biographer Richard Holmes (two volumes, 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year) says that up to the time of writing the poem, Coleridge's only experience at sea was a crossing on the Chepstow ferry, but that at some instinctive level "the image of the lonely sea-voyage runs through all Coleridge's thought," and influences much of the 'tortured Romantic' legend. Holmes says that Wordsworth's eventual criticism of the Mariner as a vague, passive, overdone character were so taken to heart by Coleridge that they became his own criticism of himself as being too fond of fanciful visions and talk, and lazy: "In plain and natural English," wrote Coleridge to a friend, "I am a dreaming & therefore an indolent man. I am a Starling self-incaged, & always in the Moult, & my whole Note is, Tomorrow, & tomorrow, & tomorrow."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal