When the Ancient Mariner Was in Style

AND now again a quiz show on TV has offered instant prosperity, and again the contestant has flubbed. No, children - ``swan'' is not the answer to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Wouldn't it be well to put the Ancient Mariner back in our schools so next time a quiz show asks everybody can shout, ``Albatross!'' and win all that money? Why was the Ancient Mariner kicked out of school? It may well be that in a nation where everybody can get a diploma, the Ancient Mariner is the most flunked test.

Did I ever tell you about my schoolmate, Clifford Collins, who memorized The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for Friday after-noon speaking exercises and recited it for four consecutive Fridays? It was along about the eighth grade and every Friday afternoon each pupil was expected to be ready to ``recite.''

There was a philosophy about such things then, and ease and comfort of communication were supposed to keep pupils from saying ``you know'' all the time, as well as other things. Memorization is out of style now, but it had a value while it was legal.

The trick was to learn a piece and then sit back and be ready; nobody knew just when his name would come up. Once you recited, it was prudent to learn your next piece. We did have books called ``speakers'' in which we could find acceptable things to recite, and most of the pupils hunted for shorties like ``Abou Ben Adhem'' or ``Breathes there the man'' from Walter Scott.

My friend Clifford disdained the easy way and perfected himself in ``The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.'' I remember the afternoon well. Education, then, was hardly Big Business, and we made do in our own room. The idea of having a separate room, or complex, for each ``activity'' hadn't been advanced. Mr. Tooker, whose first name was improbably Thomas, was our teacher and he supervised the elocutions from his desk at the rear of the room. He now called, ``Clifford Collins!''

Clifford moved in confidence to the front of the room, faced us all, took a deep breath, and began: ``The Rime of the Ancient Mariner - how a ship having passed the line.... ''

None of the rest of us had ever given the slightest thought to memorizing that, and we scarcely believed anybody would take it on. Mr. Tooker was heard to say, ``Good grief!'' and he reached to pick down a poetry book so he could follow along. Clifford never missed a word.

I saw Clifford not long ago at L.L. Bean, where for years he was the catalog photographer, and I asked him if he thought he could still ``do'' the ballad. He said yes, he thought he could, all right.

I believe him, because during World War II he was a draftee headed for the Orient on a troop ship in convoy, and as his vessel slogged along he recited it to amuse the troops cramped for airing on deck with nothing to do but touch elbows. After that, Clifford was brought topside for all shifts, and did his stint several times before landfall.

On that Friday afternoon in the eighth grade, Clifford didn't complete all 625 verses of the Coleridge classic. He had just begun Part V with ``Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing....'' when Mr. Tooker interrupted. ``I'm entranced, Clifford,'' he said, ``and I'm reluctant to stop you in full canter, but time is up and we'll have to hear the rest next Friday.'' Then Mr. Tooker rang the bell.

On the next Friday we settled ourselves for speaking, and Mr. Tooker said, ``All right, Clifford, are you ready to resume?''

Clifford went to the front, faced us, took his deep breath, and began where he left off:

Beloved from pole to pole! To Mary Queen the praise be

given! She sent the gentle sleep from

Heaven That slid into my soul.

Two weeks later Clifford finished.

It is indeed revealing that erudition has declined until we have a population well provided with diplomas that cannot say ``albatross'' when the TV mentions the Ancient Mariner.

Clifford told me that those soldiers riding to battle were entranced by the narrative and the flow of verse. True, there was no competition at the time, but attention was complete and Clifford said, ``They hung on every word!'' They were also incredulous that Clifford could keep it up. In a manner of philosophy quite his own, Clifford said there's more than one way to be a war hero. And it never hurts to know something.

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