A 21st century mariner updates Coleridge


GRAPHIC POETRY: KATHERINE FARMARreviews The Rime of the Modern Marinerby Nick Hayes Jonathan Cape, 336pp. £18.99

THE COMBINATION of poetry and comics doesn’t seem natural, at first. Comics are adapted into films all the time, and vice versa; the same with novels. But perhaps because comics have typically been branded as “low” culture while poetry has been “high”, the two media don’t often cross over. Not many poets can draw, and not many comics artists are interested in poetry. The Rime of the Modern Marineris thus, as the title implies, something new and unexpected, even though it takes its inspiration from the past.

Based on the similarly titled poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Modern Marineris not a straight adaptation of Coleridge’s text but an updating and recasting of its story and themes in a modern setting, through both verse and images.

Appropriately for a story mostly set at sea, Hayes uses shades of blue to depict the wanderings of his 21st-century mariner. His style is stark and pared-down at times, complex and decorative at other times, but always with the same iconic quality, reminiscent of old woodcuts or lino prints.

The non-naturalistic style underlines and reinforces the allegorical and occasionally surreal elements of the tale, whittling away distracting and unnecessary detail and honing in on what is significant. At times, however, the style does the story a disservice. Hayes has no great facility for drawing faces, and not only do all of the Mariner’s fellow sailors have essentially the same face, but the many repeated panels featuring the Mariner reacting to what he sees with awe or horror almost look as if they have been copied and pasted over and over again.

The story itself has been changed a little in being brought into the modern age. The Mariner is speaking to a divorcee rather than a wedding guest – a cynical note that hints at an underlying pessimism about humanity not found so strongly in Coleridge.

One of the original’s most central themes is the importance of compassion for nature and a sense of connection to all living things, which the Mariner repudiates by shooting the albatross; Hayes expands that, with the benefit of modern scientific understanding of evolution and awareness of the damage done to the natural environment as a result of human endeavours. In place of the ice and snow of the Antarctic the sailors run into a vast patch of pollution in the North Pacific gyre. (It’s worth noting that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch actually exists, although it’s not quite as visually dramatic as Hayes draws it here.)

In place of Death and Life-in-Death the Mariner is visited by the mournful and vengeful spirit of Gaia. The hermitage where he recovers from his ordeal is a grove whose trees have been tended so as to intertwine their branches – an embodiment and symbol of a harmoniously human approach to nature.

As far as the verse is concerned, there are places where it is a little too pat, or lacks the simple lucidity of the original, but by the same token there are lines that seem to channel the spirit Coleridge drew on when composing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,filtered through Hayes’s modern sensibility and knowledge:

Shafts of light were visible

High above my head

That lit the gentle carbon snow

Of the ocean’s newest dead.

Poetry and comics have seldom been seen together, but The Rime of the Modern Marinerproves that this is not because the two media are incompatible. There are parallels between the way poetry allows the metaphorical and the literal to co-exist in the same thought, or even the same word, and the way comics can allow multiple levels of reality to inhabit the same image.

With this pioneering work Nick Hayes has made a bold foray into hitherto uncharted seas. The result is flawed but compelling, and I can only hope it inspires future artists and poets to follow in his wake.

Katherine Farmar is a freelance writer and editor. She blogs about comics and other arts at katherinefarmar.com