Coleridge's inspiration: a heroic explorer

Ancient Mariner: The Arctic Adventures of Samuel Hearne, The Sailor Who Inspired Coleridge's Masterpiece, by Ken McGoogan. Carroll & Graf. 336 pages. $25.

Who was the Ancient Mariner? Ever since the publication of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic ballad "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in 1798, literary scholars have debated the real-life inspiration for the poem's haunting narrator -- a lone seaman tormented by his shooting of an albatross.


It might sound a little stale -- the stuff of dissertations or serious academic argument. But in the hands of author Ken McGoogan, the age-old debate has been given new life in the form of Englishman Samuel Hearne, a skilled seaman and the first European to trek the Arctic coast of North America.

McGoogan argues that Hearne, who shared his adventures with a young Coleridge when he spoke at London's Blue Coat School for boys in 1791, sparked an idea in the dreamy poet. As Hearne shared "the awful magic" of his journey -- wiping the tears from his eyes as he told his tale -- McGoogan contends Coleridge was "swept away."


Who wouldn't be? Hearne's life story, to which McGoogan devotes the majority of his book, is a page-turner: a rousing, real-life adventure complete with comedy, tragedy and fascinating facts.

Although it gets off to a semi-slow start, Ancient Mariner takes off when Hearne joins the Royal Navy at age 12 -- smack in the middle of the Seven Years' War. A mere child, Hearne bore witness to the horrors of early naval life: hangings, near-starvation and disease.

Still, Hearne hungered for adventure. In 1766, at the age of 21, he was hired by the Hudson Bay Company to travel to the Great North (now Manitoba), a vast territory inhabited only by fur traders and Indian tribes. The company gave Hearne a tall order: find a fabled copper mine and navigate the Northwest Passage.

In his quest to do so, Hearne walked more than 3,000 miles over a period of three years. Fortunately, the Voltaire-inspired explorer kept a detailed journal, later published in a collection called A Journey to the Northern Ocean.

Hearne successfully carried out HBC's orders, traveling to the Northwest Passage and the mouth of the mythical mine. Along the way he encountered treacherous weather conditions, suffered injuries and almost starved. He trekked with a tribe of Dene Indians, who helped to guide him, but offended him with their barbaric ways. He fell in love with a beautiful young settler and befriended a legendary Indian chief named Matonabbee.

Like so many heroic tales, however, Hearne's takes a turn for the worse. When he finally returns to England, his celebrity is short-lived, leaving him lonely and tormented by his own tragedies.

McGoogan, a long-time journalist in Canada and author of Fatal Passage, the award-winning story of explorer John Rae, writes with the clarity and distance of a serious scholar. He does little to hide his enthusiasm for Hearne, and his desire to restore the mariner to his rightful place among the world's greatest explorers.

In the end, one can't help but wonder why McGoogan centered his work on the age-old question of the Ancient Mariner. His case is convincing, but the heart of this book is not the relationship between a mystical poet and an ancient mariner. Instead, it is the mariner himself -- and a journey that will forever be etched in the mind of those readers who dare to take it.


Molly Knight is a reporter in The Sun's Annapolis bureau and former assistant to the books editor. Before joining The Sun, she wrote for publications including The Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times.