I took the oars: the Pilot's boy,
Who now doth crazy go,
Laughed loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro
"Ha! Ha!" quoth he, "full plain I see,
The Devil knows how to row."
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner recounts the tale of a young mariner's supernatural adventures at sea. This watercolor is a study for one of thirty-eight images that artist Gustave Doré created to illustrate editions of the poem published in 1875 and 1876.
This scene takes place near the end of the poem (lines 564-569), after the Mariner is forever cursed for shooting an albatross. This slaughter triggers a curse that causes the death of the Mariner's entire crew, forcing him to navigate the seas alone for seven days and nights.
This image illustrates the moment the masts of Mariner's ship disappear into a mighty white froth, shown at the center left. A pilot and his son have just rescued the Mariner, but thought him dead. When the Mariner instead takes the oars, as seen here at center, the men think he is the Devil and go insane. Doré depicts one of them slumped at the base of the picture frame, behind the Mariner. The other lolls over the right side of the boat. The dark, austere figure of the Holy Hermit, looms at the top right of the boat, perhaps signaling the misery awaiting the Mariner on shore, where he will be doomed to wander the earth for eternity to tell his story as penance.
Doré's varied watercolor techniques and the work's large size both serve the drama of the poem.
The waves, in their gloomy palette and multiple washes of brown, grey, black, and white, offer a convincing sense of depth and foreboding. White heightening evokes a splash of foam that ribbons up in the air like lightning on the front right of the boat. The Mariner is shown with his back to us, faceless, bracing his weight with his right leg against the churning waves, as if to emphasize the struggle of humankind against the wilds of nature.