Politicians quoting Coleridge on water get the meaning wrong

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 21, 2011 


An albatross stands its ground.

LAURIE GOERING — Laurie Goering / Chicago Tribune / MCT

WASHINGTON — The 19th-century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge could never have guessed how he'd be conscripted into California's partisan water wars.

This week, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., became the latest lawmaker to summon Coleridge while lamenting irrigation water shortages. The chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee, McClintock was denouncing the Obama administration as not delivering enough water to farms in California's Central Valley.

"This is insane," McClintock said on the House floor Wednesday. "Coleridge's lament, 'Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink,' appears to have become the policy of this administration."

It turns out, though, that the lines adapted from the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" invite a different interpretation from the one McClintock intended. If anything, the famous line could be construed as a warning to heed the Endangered Species Act, the very law that Valley farmers loathe.

More on that momentarily. Point being, politics can turn poetry upside down.

"I'll leave you to judge whether the politicians have it right," Coleridge scholar Frederick Burwick, an emeritus English professor at UCLA, said Friday.

Plucked from a sprawling poem of nearly 4,000 words, the "water, water" phrase has become the go-to literary reference for politicians.

"There is literally water, water everywhere in Alaska," Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski once said, speaking of an Alaskan water project.

"If we follow down the path the Republicans are leading us, there will be water, water everywhere, but not a drop of it to drink," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi once said, speaking of environmental legislation.

"Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink; that's my biggest fear," a Rhode Island town council member named Dale Grogan once said, discussing a proposed port.

Here's the real, literary deal:

In 1798, when he was 26, Coleridge and William Wordsworth published a joint collection titled "Lyrical Ballads." Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was the volume's longest poem, and its greatest hit.

The poem tells of a wedding guest who's accosted by a man with a "long gray beard and glittering eye." This is the Ancient Mariner, who drones on about his sorrowful fate.

The mariner, while sailing amid "mist and snow," had come to shoot with his crossbow an albatross that had been guiding the ship through its dangerous passage. Bad move. He had done "a hellish thing," dooming the ship and its crew.

The wind died. The water stilled. The sun beat hot. It was a total maritime bummer.

Or, as Coleridge put it:

"Water, water, every where,

"And all the boards did shrink;

"Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink."

The water, water isn't quite what McClintock and others suggest.

"When the lines are quoted out of context, I've heard them misrepresented as if they referred to want in the presence of abundance," said Burwick, who edited The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Rather, he explained, "the Mariner is deprived of fresh water and is surrounded by undrinkable salt water."

The Ancient Mariner, moreover, had brought his parched fate upon himself through his slaughter of the innocent albatross. Elusive water couldn't simply be tapped through renewed political will. He'd put it beyond his reach through his own heedless act against another species.

The modern-day, short-tailed albatross found near Alaska is listed under the Endangered Species Act. So is the Delta smelt, whose population has shrunk in part because of irrigation water being sucked out of California's Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. To protect the smelt, farmers get less.

So in this oft-mistold morality tale, who is the Ancient Mariner, what is the albatross and when will the "water, water" quote find its proper rhetorical place?


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