The Disorderly Notions of Gustave Dore: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I got some books out of the library focussing on a particular text that Dore illustrated. This post will look at ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The edition that Dore illustrated came out in 1875 and featured forty-two engravings. It was one of Dore’s later works and he himself remarked that it was, “his best and most original work”.┬áThe poem begins with the Mariner narrating his tale to a wedding guest; with his vessel swept towards Antarctica by treacherous winds all hope seems lost for him and his crew.

We can see the silhouette of the moon rising above the doomed ship surrounded on all sides by impossible ice formations. The dark, turbulent background gives an eerie atmosphere but, flying above the ship, the albatross can be seen following like a protective guardian.

The albatross symbolises the Christian soul and is welcomed by the desperate crew. However, the Mariner destroys their good omen with one shot. At first the crew despair over this but, with the lifting of the dark fog, they start to think that he was in the right. This ultimately seals their fate.

The ship is then pursued by nightmares and sea beasts. This is probably my favourite engraving from ‘Rime…’ due to the intricate detail of the waves morphing into mythical figures and the winged demon rising out of the depths.

The Mariner encounters a rotting hulk with two figures onboard; Death and Life-in-Death who are playing dice over the souls of the Mariner and his crew. The outcome of the game has Death taking the souls of the crew instantly while Life-in-Death gives the Mariner an even worse fate- that of living on eternally while everyone else onboard dies.

This is another great, subtle engraving. Rather than show the actual moon, Dore instead has engraved its reflection on the water instead. This means the sea takes up the whole composition making the lonely vessel seem even more insignificant.

Overall, Dore’s sense of epic scale and endless space make the nautical illustrations of ‘Rime…’ very impressive. They really complement the poem well, giving it more visual depth and atmosphere.