The Illustrated Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I was fascinated by all of the books and manuscripts we got the chance to look at today, but the one that most absorbed me was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge with engravings by Gustave Doré. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt this way, not just because I saw a bunch of other people sitting down to read it, but because the engravings were such an engaging mix of beautiful and grotesque.

More importantly, they let me experience the poem in a way I hadn’t before. I have seen it before, I’m pretty sure– I know a couple famous lines from it– but I didn’t remember what actually happened in it, and I probably found the antiquated language a little distancing. The intricate engravings closed this distance for me. Interestingly, they seemed like the illustrations were more central to the volume than the text, which was printed small beneath full-page spreads of Doré’s illustrations. I think I could have gotten as accurate an impression of the prom from the illustrations alone as the text alone, and that has to speak to a job well done.

Zooming out a little, I can’t decide if this kind of book is a step closer to an illuminated manuscript (in that the pictures successfully illuminate the message of the text) than, say Diderot’s encyclopedia, or a step further (since the text is actually de-emhpasized in a way, in favor of spelling out events in illustrations). What I’m pretty sure of is that these illustrations weren’t really metapictures. The scenes and characters are contained in their frames, without any apparent awareness either that they are acting out a poem or that they have an audience. It’s funny, because the poem is really a poem about someone telling a story. It’s a meta text without meta pictures.

What do you think?

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