The Revenge of the Ancient Mariner

Before he retired from his professorship in English Literature, Gary Sloan wrote in the above named article (1977) of “The literal-minded student…a familiar nemesis to teachers of poetry.” He imagines an exchange during a lecture on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

“QUIDNUFF: (clearing his throat) Let us examine Part II. In this section, one finds a number of objective correlatives. For example, the “slimy things” crawling on the sea manifestly function as a correlative of the mariner’s tormented soul. (“Student” frowns and jiggles her hand.) Miss Pilley?

MISS PILLEY: What were they?

QUIDNUFF: It, you mean. An objective correlative is…

MISS PILLEY: Not that – the slimy things.

ANOTHER STUDENT: Eels, most likely.

MR BUMSTEAD: Eels don’t crawl. You’re talking about something with legs.”

And so on.

My own literal-mindedness – or should that be free association? – arises from my situation this evening, in a pew in St Mary’s Parish Church, Twickenham, a little way across the Thames from Eel Pie Island. We’re eagerly awaiting the arrival of Clive Francis and his performance of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”. I have taken note of Michel Faber’s comment on the story:

“……we are in the world of John Bunyan and mediaeval passion plays, and the sooner we accept this, the better we will enjoy the ride.”

Dickens spent some summer weeks staying in nearby Petersham in 1839. In a letter of 1840, he wrote to his friend John Forster:

“We are to be heard of at the Eel Pie House, Twickenham where we shall dine at half past five or thereabouts and where we will take care of you if you come.”.

At that time it was possible to arrive at the Island by steamer from Westminster Bridge. Eel pies, by the way, were just as they sound: imagine fruit pie with eels, then teeming in the Thames, in place of fruit.

Dickens gave his own phenomenally popular public readings of “A Christmas Carol” between 1853 and 1870. On the day of the reading he protected his voice by observing a strict dietary regime: for breakfast two tablespoons of rum flavoured with cream; for tea, one pint of champagne; thirty minutes before his performance, a raw egg beaten into a glass of sherry. Dickens kept a bag of raisins on his lectern. (Faber observes that A Christmas Carol is “as rich in symbols as Christmas pudding is rich in raisins.”) During the five minute interval he took a cup of beef tea, and at bedtime retired with a bowl of soup.

Tonight’s actor has undertaken, following his performance, to mingle with the audience over mulled wine and mince pies in the Church Hall across the way.

This parish has a rich history. British History Online records that in 1645 the royalist parishioners “damaged the property of John Browne, clerk of the parliaments, on the grounds that he was a Roundhead, and….assembled in arms to proclaim Charles II in 1649. In 1645 Parliament forbade the old parish custom of distributing two cakes on Easter Sunday, because of the profane scrambling and fighting it caused: how the parish received this is not recorded.”.

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