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Friday, 3 October 2014

This ain't the Love Boat, Captain!

Looks, it's the Knave of Knives, or Page of Swords, from Robert Place's Vampire Tarot. She's called the Nightmare of Life in Death, and she comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner,' first published in 1798 in Coleridge's pivotal collection 'Lyrical Ballads.' It only ushered in the Romantic Period! It's from this poem that the phrase 'albatross around my neck' originated. But it also happens to be the very first appearance in English literature of a vampire. (The first vampire in English prose was Lord Ruthven. Nightmare Life in Death came earlier.)

You probably read 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' in high school, unless you went to a state school in the UK after GCSEs came in, in which case you probably only read Simon Armitage and whatever other bits and bobs were in your AQA handbook. (I'm no fan of the  methods and curriculum of English teaching in the UK, which is why I quit.) If you're American (or went to a grammar school), you may have vague memories of reading a LONG, sing-song poem with the words 'Water, water everywhere nor any a drop to drink.' That's the one.

In the poem, an 'ancient mariner' (or old sailor) interrupts a wedding guest on his way into the church and insists on telling him a very long story about how the mariner got his entire crew killed by doing a stupid and impulsive thing while on a journey in distant lands (or seas in this case). He now, apparently, is more or less doomed to wander the earth telling his story to everyone who looks like they need to hear it.

The mariner and his mates sail off and get lost in some ice and an albatross flies in and seems to lead them out. All the men see the albatross as a good luck symbol. It brings the good winds. For some stupid, unknown, impulsive reason, the mariner shoots the albatross. The winds immediately die away and the ship gets stuck on a flat sea. The heat is oppressive and they are not moving. They run out of water. The men blame the mariner and hang the body of the dead albatross around his neck.

Now here's the important bit (for us). When all the men are lying around him dead or good as, the mariner spots a boat approaching. He cannot make a noise because his lips, mouth and throat are too dry. So he bites his arm and sucks blood to get some moisture in there so he can croak out 'A sail! A sail!' Unfortunately, the two 'people' on the boat are not a rescue party but Death and Life-in-Death:

Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the sun,
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the sun
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that woman all her crew?
Is that Death? and are there two?
Is Death that woman's mate?

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

The naked hulk alongside came, 
And the twain were casting dice; 
'The game is done! I've won! I've won!' 
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.

The sun's rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark;
With far-heard whisper, o'er the sea,
Off shot the spectre bark.

Well, if that wasn't weird enough, after the Dreadful Duo streak off into the horizon, all the mariner's mates drop dead with a thump and their souls shoot away, leaving the mariner alone with all those dead bodies and the stagnant, slimy sea.  For seven days and seven nights the mariner longs for death while the dead eyes of his mates stare at him accusingly. The loathesome water snakes writhing in the sea which he has hated and feared are the only other living things, and at last he sees their beauty and blesses them. Ta da! The albatross falls off his neck and he falls into a restful sleep. When he wakes up, it is raining. All the mates get up and begin to pilot the ship -- but they are silent zombies, animated by angels, and the ship is moved along by supernatural forces from under the sea. The mariner (understandably) passes out, and in his coma hears voices having a conversation about how the mariner must live on to complete his penance. When they get back to port, the mariner sees the angels leave the bodies of the shipmates. A rescue boat approaches and the ship abruptly sinks. A hermit mans the rescue boat, and when the mariner sees him, he feels an intense pain caused by the need to tell his tale. This pain continues to haunt him, and so the mariner goes around telling the tale to everyone who brings on this pain in him. The lesson apparently is to love all creatures great and small. The Wedding Guest goes home, no longer in the mood for a party, and rises the next day 'a sadder and a wiser man.' 

Now might be a good time to reveal that Coleridge liked his opium. 

It's a very, very strange tale and the link to Life-in-Death and vampirism is weak -- the mariner sucks blood from his arm, and she represents the curse of being alive but dead at the same time. On that basis, she is generally accepted to be the first vampire in English literature. 

In 'Interview with a Vampire' there is a passage in which Louis compares Claudia to the Nightmare Life-in-Death and quotes from the Coleridge poem. It wasn't until I read that passage that I personally realised there was a vampire in 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner.' My high school English teacher never pointed it out, though I certainly did when I became a teacher myself. :) There's no reason to believe the mariner is a vampire. It would be supremely ironic if he was, given that the mission of his prolonged life is to share the need to love and care for all creatures.

What do you think? Would you class her as a vampire?


  1. Well, I studied English before GCSE's came in, but still didn't read this. As for your question, not sure I'd classify her as a vampire. Could be a necromancer who makes zombies, from the description... I'm also not sure of her connection to the Knave of Knives - I guess she did cut souls from bodies in a fearsome manner, but overall she doesn't seem to have the charging in energy or the intellectual ferocity I'd associate with this Court card. :)

    1. It's true the court cards in this deck defy tradition, but actually so do nearly all the pips. :)

  2. aaaaargh I left a long comment and lost it when it asked me to sign into Wordpress... UGH!

    In brief, I felt that the mariner was a bit of an energy vampire, I think the life in death critter was possibly more vampire like in the original version of the poem, which may have been inspired by German literature at the time. I have a feeling Wordsworth had something to do with the revision which edited that part. I could be misremembering all of this.

    But this post has made me homesick, for the UK, for Cumbria, for Grasmere. IOt has also made me want to get my deck out and see what Mr Place has to say!!

    1. Oh don't you hate that!!! Every time it happens and I throw a fit, my husband always says ' You should have typed it in Word first and then copied it,' which then makes me want to hit him as well as the computer. :)

      I'd like to hear more about this revision advised by Wordsworth, as I am not familiar with that. :)

  3. Just tried twice to post and lost two posts because it wont accept that I a signed into Wordpress, asks me to sign in and then bang, post gone :( Anyway I had a Google for the Mariners....check here:


    If you scroll down there is mentiojnof the 1798 and the 1917 version, however I cannot find a copy of the 1798 one online to compare the two. By the way have you seen the movie Pandaemonium? It was made in 2000, and it is about the lives of Coleridge and Wordsworth at the time of the French Revolution... I loved it, I cant remember too many details as it was a few years back, but I know it made me homesick for England and Grasmere!

    Scroll down and there is mention of the two versions

    1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGH4p4z4s5A