Romanticism, ‘The Rime’, and Imperial Culture

Ancient world map created circa 1581, which purports to illustrate the expedition route of the explorer Sir Francis Drake.

From an ecological fable to a commentary on the artistic imagination, the interpretative possibilities of Coleridge’s poem partly help to explain its longevity and timeless allure.

Yet amidst these metaphorical interpretations, it’s also worth considering the “Mariner” as an actual mariner, particularly in the contemporary context of Britain’s imperial ambitions and continuing maritime domination of the transatlantic slave trade.

A steel engraving from 1881 illustrating black slaves being loaded onto a ship.

With the voyages of James Cook (who departed from Plymouth) and William Bligh still fresh in the public imagination, Coleridge’s account of the mariner’s guilt, retribution and trauma in unchartered territories would have resonated strongly.

In this context, the allusions to “black lips baked” and “dead men” groaning “Beneath the lightning and the Moon” as the “ship moved on!” takes on powerful resonances, particularly amidst the growing antislavery sentiment in 1790s Britain, the Mariner’s “own country”.

Coleridge’s poem has long been considered a central feature of the Romantic canon, and it has become clearer in recent years that British Romantic writing needs to be considered in the contemporary context of imperial culture.

Scholars have worked to disclose the long-obscured interrelations between canonical Romantic texts and colonialism, and recent work by Nikki Hessell (Romantic Literature and the Colonised World, 2018) and Manu Samriti Chander (Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century, 2017) points towards a more global definition of Romanticism by incorporating previously marginalised writers and indigenous texts.

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William Bligh. Getty Images<br></p>
<p>Sir Francis Drake. Getty Images</p>
<p>Death of James Cook. Getty Images</p>

Left to right: Naval officer William Blight cast adrift, 1789; Ships under the command of Drake attacking Spanish treasure ship, 1875; The death of Captain James Cook.

My research is similarly focused on the transatlantic movement and significance of Romantic literature in colonial, postcolonial, and global contexts. Following on from my first book, Robert Burns and the United States of America (2018), my current project, provisionally titled Romanticism and West Africa: Griots, Bards & Books, investigates the extent to which Romantic discourse shaped ideological assumptions about West Africa, and assesses how an examination of postcolonial West African writing can help us to redefine the borders of Romanticism. 

Interweaving analysis of travel narratives, essays, oral literatures and fiction, I not only assess Romantic ideology in relation to the region but also examine the literary and intellectual legacies of Romanticism as established by enforced British colonial education policy.

Dr Arun Sood, Lecturer in English

Assembly, 2019 by Mary Evans, The Levinsky Gallery. Commissioned as part of the Mariner: a painted ship upon a painted ocean exhibition. In Assembly Evans sees the figures as representative of many migration stories, whether from the Mayflower in 1620, a 20th century story such as the Windrush, or a recent Syrian migration narrative.

Ancient Mariner Big Read

Stars of the stage and screen, arts and music transform one of English Literature’s most celebrated poems, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

An epic tale of adventure, fear and fascination this 18th-century science fiction has prophetic messages for the natural world, climate breakdown and mental health globally relevant in the 21st century. Free to access, this online audio/visual work comprises 40 daily online broadcasts it is narrated by celebrity voices, paired with artwork by a renowned contemporary artist, and complemented by scientific, cultural and personal commentary.

Memory, place and decolonisation: discovering through writing what it means to remember

How do the stories of our past reshape our current collective memory? What impact does history, and the myths within it, have upon the cultural memory of a place? 

Using Plymouth and the Mayflower remembrance as an example Dr Arun Sood discusses the issue of decolonisation and cultural renewal, and the challenge to maintain an inclusive legacy. Calling upon his own his inspirations and influences of memory we hear from Arun as he explores place and space and what memory and identity means for him and his work.

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