Unique releases mark conclusion of Coleridge classic for the 21st century

For almost six weeks, global superstars, scientists and leading literary lights have been reimagining one of English Literature’s most celebrated poems.

Famous faces from stage, screen and music have each read sections of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, transforming an 18th century classic for a 21st century audience.

Released online each day, the website of the Ancient Mariner Big Read – commissioned by The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth – has been visited more than 1.5 million times by people as far flung as the UK, United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The 40 readings have now been combined into one symphonic piece, giving existing and new fans the chance to enjoy a unique 40-minute rendition of a 200-year-old literary masterpiece.

The project has been curated by author Philip Hoare, artist Angela Cockayne and Dr Sarah Chapman.

They previously collaborated on the Moby-Dick Big Read, which has gathered over 10 million hits since first being broadcast in 2012 and will be taking part in a Curators' Conference talking about the project at 18:00 on Thursday 28 May.

Its conclusion is also being celebrated with the release of another reading – a recital of the poem by 87-year-old Lake District resident, Dr Robert Strachan.

He learned The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 10 years ago when in his mid-seventies, as a way of keeping his memory active, and recorded his own recital having heard about the Big Read project. It is being released today as he and wife Muriel celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary.

<p>The Hon. Samuel John Taylor Coleridge, sixth generation descendent of the poet, at St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary, Devon (Credit Philip Hoare)<br></p>
The Hon. Samuel John Taylor Coleridge, sixth generation descendent of the poet, at St Mary’s Church, Ottery St Mary, Devon
<p>Muriel and Robert Strachan at their home in the Lake District (Credit Strachan Family)<br></p>
Muriel and Robert Strachan at their home in the Lake District
<p>Muriel and Robert Strachan on their wedding day in May 1960<br></p>
Muriel and Robert Strachan on their wedding day in May 1960

Philip Hoare – author of Leviathan or, The Whale, winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize, and Professorial Fellow in English at the University of Southampton – says:

“These past 40 days have been a crazy adventure and it has been amazing to see how people have taken the project to their hearts. We have had amazing comments and feedback from both those involved and all sectors of society – writers, fishermen, scientists and members of the public. But from today, people will be able to see this extraordinary mosaic of voices, images and text in one piece, which I believe gives the project a unique new and exciting dimension.”

Angela Cockayne, Reader and Associate Lecturer at Bath Spa University, said:

“The Ancient Mariner Big Read has given us the opportunity to bring something we care passionately about to a wider audience. We never anticipated we would be in the middle of a pandemic when we started this, and listening to it now it takes on a new meaning. Coleridge was just 25 when he wrote this, but his prophetic vision of the future is absolutely relevant today and reinforces the message that we cannot look away when it comes to addressing the world’s many and varied challenges.”

Sarah Chapman, Director of the Arts Institute at the University of Plymouth, added:

“Coleridge’s imagination more than 200 years ago has given us a proactive and positive message for today. His work is a present day call to arms around the environment and climate change, and a demonstration of how art and culture can be used to amplify messages of scientific fact. The past 40 days have been an amazing journey, and the result of a real team effort, and I hope the final reading will continue to capture people’s imagination now and in the future.”

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a work of 18th century science fiction that has prophetic messages for the natural world, climate breakdown and mental health globally relevant in the 21st century.

Since its launch on Saturday 18 April, sections of its text have been read by:

  • Renowned actors Alan Cumming, Willem Dafoe, Rupert Everett, Jeremy Irons, Tilda Swinton, David Walliams, Samuel West and Jodie Whittaker;
  • Musicians Marianne Faithfull, Beth Gibbons, David Gray, Cerys Matthews, Iggy Pop and Neil Tennant;
  • Award-winning authors, playwrights and poets Alan Bennett, Robert Macfarlane, Hilary Mantel, Lemn Sissay and the current Poet Laureate Simon Armitage;
  • Naturalists Chris Packham and Chris Watson, and adventurers Horatio Clare and Peter Wilson.

It also included a reading by one of Coleridge’s direct descendants, Samuel John Taylor Coleridge, which was recording in at St Mary's Church, Ottery St Mary, Devon, where his famous ancestor was born.

The 40 readings have been accompanied by works from artists including Cornelia Parker, Marina Abramović, Linder Sterling, Mark Dion, Gordon Cheung and Gavin Turk, who have interpreted the themes through perspectives such as ecology and the environment, colonialism, morality, and human vulnerability.

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 narrated by celebrity voices. Each reading is paired with artwork by a renowned contemporary artist, and complemented by scientific, cultural and personal commentary.

Image: Raft of the Medusa (2019) Photography by Jonty Wilde and Studio Orta

The Arts Institute

The Arts Institute is the curated public arts programme of the University of Plymouth which plays a pivotal role in building culture and art in the city and South West region, supporting established, new and emerging artists from around the world.

It comprises The Levinsky Gallery, a space for engaging, contemporary artworks; the Jill Craigie Cinema which screens a diverse range of classic films and contemporary cinematic masterpieces; a cutting-edge theatre and dance programme in The House; musical performances and concerts, and a year-long series of fascinating talks that open up a world of art, literature and history.

Open to all – learn more about The Arts Institute