Words for Living in Pandemic
Updated: May 27
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
Those bleak lines, from Part IV of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," fit well the planet that lives in pandemic. Quarantine, social distancing, self-isolation---all are bywords for the way we live now. Yes, Yes, I know---things are beginning to re-open, but the sense of peril, of danger unseen, remains, and likely will for some time to come.
But that old traveler, the Ancient Mariner, can perhaps offer a glimmer of hope, words of comfort even, despite the graphic travails caused by his own heedless actions. Coleridge's words can now move us in an online reading of the poem called "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Big Read." Perhaps you are already aware of it and have been following along since its inception in mid-April.
Commissioned by the Arts Institute of Plymouth University, the Big Read provides an unusual way to read and hear the poem. Several actors, singers, authors, and others---among them Jeremy Irons, Hillary Mantel, Marianne Faithfull (whom the coronavirus now has infected), Iggy Pop, Tilda Swinton---each read three to four verses of the poem, then the next reader voices his or her part. As you listen, you can read the verses the performer reads. The readings are also accompanied by works of art, from paintings and photographs to soundscapes and scientific research on the environment.
Where's the hope in a 200-year-old poem about an ancient mariner's detaining a wedding guest to speak a tale of suffering and woe? These words may suggest it:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Postscript: With reading #40 by Alan Bennett, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Big Read" concludes today (5/27/20). If you've been following along, as I have, its end does not disappoint. Added bonus: you can go back to any of the forty individual readings to listen again. A personal favorite: #10 by Beth Gibbons. Her plaintive singing of her verses elicits a melancholy portent. One can only touch his heart for the parched crew, and pity the ancient mariner and the lifeless albatross hanging from his neck.