Return of the Ancient Mariner


On the 15th May the iconic ship The Matthew of Bristol will be sailing into Cardiff Bay dressed as the ghost ship from the Rime of The Ancient Mariner.

It promises to be quite a day, with this historic vessel decorated by students from Cardiff Met University, people walking across Cardiff Barrage representing the 200 sailors who die in the poem as the result of an ecological crisis, the symbolic representation of a wedding preparations between two very different Welsh communities, a party in the WMC with leading welsh folk bands, a children’s orchestra, choirs, poets and a builder who learnt the Ancient Mariner poem at school  55 years ago and has offered to recite it to anyone who will listen.

We are describing it as a series of happenings. It’s definitely not theatre! There are no actors and there’s no theatre production team – only community volunteers, bringing together powerful symbols from the poem. It promises to be quite a spectacle. There are great offers from the institutions on the waterfront around Cardiff Bay and wonderful contributions from community groups, schools and individuals.

The whole spectacle has been made on a  tiny budget. The cost of bringing the ship into Cardiff and Barry has been met by Barry Town Council and Cardiff Metropolitan University. And in Swansea the ship has been supported financially by Swansea City Council and University of Wales Trinity St Davids.  We are very grateful for the vision and support of these institutions, and also ABP Ports who have made the ship’s visits possible. Everything else is volunteers, donations and community involvement.

The purpose of the day is to celebrate in style the launch of the Coleridge in Wales festival as it sets off on an 80 day tour around Wales following routes of the young Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His Rime of the Ancient Mariner is acknowledged as one of the great poems in English, but his wider interests and considerable influence seem to have been forgotten.

David Jones was one of a number of Welsh artists who saw Coleridge’s deep significance. R.S. Thomas was another. Jones wrote, elsewhere, that the 20th century had lost cultural understanding of what a symbol was, and how symbols operated.  He spent great care in the 1920s on a commission to illustrate The Rime of The Ancient Mariner choosing to make copper engravings – the first serious engagement with copper engravings since William Blake.  We’re delighted that Jones’s engravings for The Ancient Mariner will be on display in Gallery 1 of the National Museum of Wales this summer as a response to the Coleridge in Wales Festival.

I chose to approach the ship The Matthew of Bristol to take part in the Cardiff Bay spectacle because she looks like the ship in Jones’s engravings.  The celebrations in the bay point inland, to the display in Gallery 1 of the museum. David Jones understands that the poem is Brythonic mystery voyage of hyd a lledrith. In the brokenness of the Mariner and in the destruction that he wreaks, lie the seeds of a new offer, and new relationship with the natural world. This understanding is held in sparse lines etched on copper and in a few essays.  The 80 day festival takes that  theme for an exploration of modern Wales.

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