This Week’s Art: Dore’s Death, Life-In-Death, and the Ancient Mariner


I read a lot of poems, and one of my very favorite poems is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It’s a dream made for an illustrator, filled with such great visions, and it’s probably one of the reasons that it’s been a popular poem for so long. I have a Dover edition of the poem featuring Gustave Dore’s engravings, 42 of them, which I love to look at.

Of all of the great images in the book, my favorite is the scene where Death and Life-In-Death are playing a game of dice for the souls of those on board. Here’s that image, in all of its glory (click on it for a larger version).

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

I love that the composition works with the contrast of the image so well. The light sky and left side of the image give way to such a dark area around Death. It’s not just that Death itself is so dark, but it seems like everything around it that it touches is in the darkness as well.

There’s a nice sense with each character too that a decision really is being made. That fits with the part of the poem very well, despite there being no real information about their surroundings. Here’s what the lines say:

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare 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 trick with illustration work (which I, AHEM, have done for awhile now) is to capture the story as best as possible, to give a visual identity to the words around them. In this case, I think the image perfectly captures that part of the poem.

It’s also a piece that can stand on its own, an illustration that just begs the viewer to find the story within. In that, it succeeds beautifully, and it’s always one that I’ll remember.

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