Annus Mirabilis to The Ancient Mariner: Oceanic Environments and the Romantic Literary Imagination.
Colin D. Dewey
Cornell University, Dept. of English
This paper examines the vexed relationship between Britain’s maritime empire and its literature, beginning with the Anglo-Dutch wars of the late seventeenth century and ending with the Atlantic revolutions of the 1790s. Well before it became fact, if it ever did, voyage narratives such as those of Haklyut, Dampier, Shelvocke, and Defoe informed Britons of the shape of their empire, but also helped to inscribe an oceanic imaginary, situating Britain’s “ship of state” at the head of maritime nations in commerce and naval power while placing individuals in a position from which to imagine spatial relationships across oceanic distances.
John Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis projects an aspirational history of the second Anglo-Dutch conflict, claiming England’s control over a “British Ocean.” He imagines the future of England as a glorious and profitable trade route From London to the Indies, sailed by a mighty British fleet. Yet Dryden’s verse suggests that the difficulties of establishing a productive oceanic empire are related to the elemental dangers of the sea; his poem wavers between celebration and warning.
Composed at the far end of the century, but set in a timeless sea, is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge employs the tropes of the voyage narrative and the mythic ballad to set his merry ship afloat on the British Ocean; I argue that their journey circumscribes the history of the English maritime empire, including the deadly moral and material consequences of colonial adventuring, slavery, and war. What results is a voyage of discovery and commercial promise that turns deadly when the crew meets a death ship conjured out of voodoo lore; the encounter transforms the crew into soulless automatons, who threaten to contaminate their homeland upon return.