“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in Dutch

Oskar Wellens

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Summer 2003, pp1-8)




s soon as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” won general acclaim as a major poem in England, translations abroad started rolling off the presses.  The first German rendition of the ballad was made by E. Freiligrath in 1831, followed in 1837 by a French one from the pen of J.A.X. Michiels.  By the end of the century translations circulated in Italian (1889), in Latin (1889), in Russian (1893), and in Dutch.  This essay seeks to provide some background information on the several Dutch versions of Coleridge’s poem published so far, as well as to briefly assess their merits.

       The first Dutch translation of the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, entitled De Oude Zeeman (The Old Sailor), was volunteered by Gerrit Berent Kuitert in 1895 and published the following year by the minor publisher Erven B. van der Kamp from Groningen, bearing as an apt motto on the title page “He could behold Things manifold,/ Which have not yet been wholly told”, taken from Longfellow’s “Rain in Summer” (lines 70-73).  Little is known about Kuitert.  Born in Groningen in 1855 as the son of a schoolteacher, he became a professional language tutor of French, German, Spanish, and English, furnishing various translations, especially of English works, including Arden of Feversham (1592), A Yorkshire Tragedy (1606), and E.A. Poe’s “The Raven” (1845).  He nursed poetical aspirations, and actually published a collection of poems under the title Oud en Nieuw (Old and New; 1903) as well as a play De droom van een kamerlid (The Dream of a Member of Parliament; 1893), in addition to contributing voluminously to local periodicals.  He died in his home town in 1927.

       Interestingly, Kuitert prefaced his translation of “The Ancient Mariner” with a memoir of Coleridge’s life, offering in passing some critical lucubrations on the poem.  Because these constitute some of the earliest Dutch responses to Coleridge and his “Ancient Mariner”, they are worthy of some attention.

       In the opening paragraph of his prefatory essay, Kuitert rather oddly ranks Coleridge among the Lake Poets as “having the greatest attraction and charm to the reader”,[1] despite Wordsworth’s towering stature as a poet in the nineteenth century.  Kuitert then sets out to range over Coleridge’s chequered career, providing an overview of his most important publications, both in poetry and prose.  In his account, Kuitert chooses not to address the issue of Coleridge’s intimacy with Wordsworth in the late 1790s and the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798) which was to be its tangible result.  Nor does he bring up Coleridge’s miserable private life, including his opium-addiction.  He succinctly summarizes Coleridge’s poetical genius in the following words: “His poetical




works charm by tenderness and loveliness, by a rich, luxurious imagination and mastery in the execution”.

       After a sketchy genesis of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, which he deems to be Coleridge’s “most original and most striking… poetical composition”, he describes the poem as “having a haze of supernaturalness, while we are constantly surprised by touches of moving tenderness and a forceful painting.  Written in irregular verse, in the tradition of old ballads, the poem captivates the reader by a lively, original presentation, and a rich measure of imaginative power”.  Kuitert then addresses the controversial issue as to whether the mariner’s punishment and penance are proportionate to his crime, and whether, therefore, “the poet has not disturbed the symmetry by making the old sailor suffer so terribly for killing a bird”.  There is no disproportion between the penance and the crime, Kuitert argues: not only was killing the bird a “motiveless deed” of “unaccountable cruelty” which was neither profitable nor favourable; it also displayed “the blackest ungratefulness” towards an animal sent as a harbinger of deliverance by a benevolent higher power.

       Finally, Kuitert dwells on his own translation.  He asserts he has avoided mere “imitation” and has tried, “with the severest respect for the text” to “unite melodiousness with fidelity”, adding: “The prosodic idiosyncrasies of Coleridge’s poetic talent and the way he knows to enchant with rhyme, present diifficulties which require patience and devotion”.  There is reason to suppose that Kuitert used for his translation A.L. Simpson’s edition of the poem, published in 1883, for in his Introduction Kuitert twice refers to this version and its illustrations by David Scott, which were originally published in 1837.

       As to the merits of Kuitert’s rendition of the ballad, I refer to G. Kuikert who has examined G.B. Kuitert’s translation.[2]  His conclusion is that the translator used an old-fashioned language in the tradition of “the clergymen’s literature”, which prevailed in nineteenth century Dutch literature until the 1880s.  Because the translator had announced that he would adhere to Coleridge’s text as closely as possible, his rendition, “though distinctly meritorious, is poetically speaking not always successful with odd moments of stiffness.”  Kuikert goes on to write that “The measure in the original composition has the tendency to be based on eight syllables, but at times swings out; the rhythm is a promenading movement which the translator has tried to imitate, although the suppleness of Coleridge’s poem with its flexible syllables cannot always be counterbalanced in Dutch.  As a result, the Englishman’s quick step stiffens with the Dutchman to the prudent tread of a Sunday afternoon stroll.”

       The second translator who ventured a Dutch version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, was Anthonie Donker, pseudonym of Nicolaas Anthony Donkersloot, scholar, critic, novelist, and poet.  Born in Rotterdam in 1902 from liberal-protestant parents, he revealed an early penchant for literature. 




He read Dutch at the universities of Leiden and Utrecht, where he graduated in 1929.  In 1936 he was appointed Professor of Dutch literature at the University of Amsterdam.  Because of his resistance to the German occupation, he lost his chair and was imprisoned.  From 1956 he again taught Dutch literature at the same university until his death in 1965.[3]

       Donker published his translation of Coleridge’s poem entitled “De Ballade van den Ouden Matroos”, subtitled “Coleridge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, in the  January 1928 issue of the De Stem (The Voice), a monthly literary journal founded in 1921 by the prominent Dutch critic Dirk Coster and the painter and art critic Just Havelaar, as an ethical-humanitarian and religious-socialist reaction against the general spiritual dislocation prevalent in the aftermath of the First World War. The paper invited contributions from more traditionally orientated Dutch and Flemish literati, including Nijhoff, De Merode, Buning, Van de Woestijjne, Vemeylen, etc., all ambitious young men of considerable qualifications who were to rise to prominence in modern Dutch literature.  After Havelaar’s death in 1930 Donker himself became Coster’s editorial assistant.  De Stem expired  in 1942.

       Donker’s translation of Coleridge’s ballad, which he dedicated to his friend, the leading expressionst poet Hendrik Marsman (1899-1940), went unprefaced and did not include Coleridge’s associated prose glosses first included in Sibylline Leaves (1817).  There is no need here to look at Donker’s performance in detail.  Suffice it to say that Donker offers an extremely free translation both in wording and versification.  At times his version deviates so far from the original that it seems as if the translator has contented himself with mere paraphrases, thereby disregarding Coleridge’s terseness of expression and haunting imagery.

       Despite this fundamental lack of respect for the poetic qualities of the original text, Donker’s translation of Coleridge’s poem must have created some impression, for the prominent publisher, A.A.M. Stols from Brussels and Maastricht, decided to bring it out in book format in 1931 as number 3 of Kaleidoscoop, a small but prestigious series in which Stols issued well-known original and translated belletristic works between 1930 and 1937.  In Kaleidoscoop Donker’s “De Ballade van den Ouden Matroos” was preceded in 1930 by Dutch translations of, respectively, Rainer Maria Rillke’s Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (1906) and Marcel Schwob’s La croisade des enfants (1896). Again Donker’s rendition was presented without an introduction; the dedicatee remained Hendrik Marsman.  From Stols’s corrrespondence with Donker in the early 1930s we learn that  Donker was to receive only ten per cent of every copy sold of “De Ballade van den Ouden Matroos”,[4] because the poem had already appeared in a magazine and was therefore not considered as original work by Stols.  Unfortunately, we do not




know how many copies of Coleridge’s poem Stols printed in Kaleidoscoop.

       After De Stem’s demise in 1942 Donker chose to continue this journal’s cultural and political policy, albeit in a more radical vein, in The Nieuwe Stem  (The New Voice), which he established in 1946, attracting a plethora of leading, chiefly leftist, contributors such as J. M . Romein, J. H. Pos, O. Noorderbos and others.  In the December 1949 issue Donker inserted a radically reworked version of his earlier rendition of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, which, as he acknowledged in a Postscript to his second translation, he had composed in 1944, declaring that in this new translation he had tried “to follow as faithfully as possible the measure, rhythm, rhyme and text of the original poem”.  Let us briefly examine Donker’s second venture at offering a Dutch “Ancient Mariner” to the readers of his De Nieuwe Stem.

       In marked contrast to his earlier attempt, which was little more than the produce of a fledgling poet, the new version, with its many corrections and rephrasings, reflects the skill of an experienced versifier with a firm grasp of metrical and rhythmic modulations.  This is no matter for surprise, for in the 1940s Donker had emerged as a significant and wide-ranging poet in his own right with several published collections to his name.  The new text, written in a much more current language, with few strained expressions to accommodate Coleridge’s idiosyncratic diction, reads smoothly.  Yet, despite this attempt at readibility, Donker renders the original with a far greater idiomatic and metrical alertness to Coleridge’s diction and imagery. Here is Donker's modernized rendition of the Ballad's first four stanzas:


Daar komt een oude zeeman en

Houdt een van het drietal aan.

'Bij je grijze baard en glinsterend oog,

Waarvoor? laat mij toch gaan!


De bruigom opent wijd zijn deur,

Ik ben er kind aan  huis.

De gasten staan; het feest vangt aan:

Hoor 't feestelijk gedruis.'


Zijn taange hand laat hem niet los,

'Er was een schip,' sprak hij.

'Die hand weg, laat mij, ouwe paai!'

Daar liet de hand hem vrij.


Maar 't glinsterend oog hield hem nog vast.

De bruiloftsgast hield in,

Hij staat te luisteren als een kind,

De zeeman heeft zijn zin.


These lines, composed in eminently readable Dutch, forcibly suggest the mariner's mesmerizing hold upon the wedding-guest.  Donker even succeeds in




inserting internal rhymes in his verses.

       This new translation by Donker was again published in book form by the famous publishing company J.M. Meulenhoff from Amsterdam as number 33 of The Ceder ( The Cedar), a series, founded in 1945, which brought out shorter literary works and translations as well as original Dutch compositions.  Meulenhoff reproduced a verbatim rendition of Donker’s “The Ancient Mariner” as printed in De Nieuwe Stem, but for the first time Donker also  furnished a translation of Coleridge’s marginal prose glosses.

       A few years after Donker’s death, his new translation of “The Ancient Mariner” was once more selected for a separate issue published by De Roos from Utrecht in 1967.  This bibliophile Foundation was launched in June 1945 by Christiaan Leeflang, Charles Nypels and G.M. van Wees “with the purpose of bringing out printed matter solely for the disinterested or non-commercial devotion to fine typography and art in all conceivable forms in which they can be combined.”  The Foundation was exclusive in that it was restricted to 150 members and for years there was a long waiting list to become a member.  Every year about 3 or 4 numbered editions were printed in a run of 175.  For the design, illustrations, printing and binding a diverse range of people and companies were employed so that the editions as a whole reflect the contemporary Dutch possibilities in this field.  Clearly, De Roos’s purpose was always to issue shorter literary foreign, native and translated works designed for an elect Dutch readership.  Even a short list of the foreign titles among which Donker’s translation appeared will give a fair idea of the range and variety of De Roos’s editions: Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1949), Alfred Jarry’s Ubu roi (1949), Thomas de Quincey’s The English Mailcoach (1950), Honoré de Balzac’s L’ elixir  de longue vie ( 1951), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (1957), and Thomas Dekker’s The Guls Hornbooke (1960).  Many of these, including Donker’s translation, have become much sought after titles by Dutch and Flemish bibliophiles.

       De Roos’s edition of De ballade van de oude matroos, was finely printed in a Van Dijck letter type (font) on Habnemüble-Bütten paper by Hooiberg, a house specialising in typographic production.  The volume was bound by the reputable house Proost and Brand in Amsterdam.  For the first time a Dutch “Ancient Mariner” featured original drawings made by Mart Kempers (1924-19933), a well-known and prolific typographer, painter, and engraver who was also much in demand as a book-illlustrator.  Kemper’s style is described as figurative-impressionistic.  His 34 illustrations for De ballade van de oude matroos are singular pen-and-ink drawings, which reduce the poet’s narrative to a deliberately simplified, almost childlike pictorial idiom, which clearly seeks to de-dramatise the mariner’s ordeal (see fig1 and fig2). 

       The latest attempt to date to provide a Dutch version of the “Ancient Mariner” was made in 1979 by Henk Cornelissen, a.k.a. Rik van Steenbergen, (1916-2001), a primary schoolteacher also active in publishing and translating.  He produced, notably, translations of The Divine Comedy (1987), the fairy-tales




of Hans Christian Andersen (1989) and the Grimm brothers (1989) and A History of the Crusades (1987).  His version of Coleridge’s ballad called Het lied van de oude matroos (The Song of the Old Sailor) was published jointly by Ridderhof from Rotterdam and Deka Boeken from Antwerp, who specialised in children’s books such as translations of Uncle’s Tom Cabin, A Children’s Bible, Favourite Classics, Fairy Tales, etc.  Both houses have ceased to exist.  The outward appearance of Van Steenbergen’s translation is by far the more attractive than all the previous translations of “The Ancient Mariner”, for the 87page work boasted 42 of the famous engravings made by Gustave Doré for A Barnier’s French translation of the poem published in 1877.  The full cover of Van Steenbergen’s book featured a turquoise coloured copy of Doré’s engraving of the mariner’s confession to the hermit.  Obviously the publishers aimed at a wider or more popular Dutch and Flemish readership.  This edition opens with a Preface, written by an unidentified editor, which briefly relates Coleridge’s life up to the publication of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in Lyrical Ballads as well as a circumstantial account of Doré’s career.  Of Van Steenbergen’s translation the editor says that it has succeeded in fully expressing “the subtle melodies, the psychological depths and the unbearable fears so characteristic of Coleridge’s composition—a unique achievement only possible because Van Steenbergen was so gripped by Coleridge’s art”.  As to Van Steenbergen’s performance, it is of all the Dutch translations so far discussed the most modern in terms of diction and imagery.  It reads fluently and avoids archaisms or strained expressions.

       Van Steenbergen’s translation, including Dore’s illustrations, was again published in 1987 without any changes either in outlook or text, by Rebo Productions from Sassenheim, a now international publishing firm specializing in all sorts of subjects, except belletristic work.

       In addition to these “literary” translations into standard Dutch, we must finally turn to three other translations—one in a different medium, and two in a different, albeit related, language.  In 1970 Coleridge’s ballad was brought out as a strip cartoon as number 192 in the popular series Illustrated Classics published by the Bussum-based Classics Nederland (see fig3 and fig4).  As its title suggests, the series aimed at visually popularizing well-known  literary works such as Virgil’s Aeneid, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.  Publication of these strip stories ceased in the mid-70s.  As to Coleridge’s ballad, the text here takes the shape of balloons, within which some verses are loosely based on Donker’s translation first published in De Nieuwe Stem, but most of them contain prose paraphrases.  While Coleridge’s text has been badly mangled in the process, the loss of literary quality is largely made up for by the pictorial component.  Unfortunately, the identity of the artist who designed the scenario and the finely coloured drawings remained anonymous.  The cover for this remarkable album displays a drawing of a vessel being dragged under the sea by a green-skinned giant with white flowing hair and fierce eyes, while six angels pulling




strings try to prevent him from doing so.  At the top of the second page we find the Dutch title of the strip—“De ballade van de oud-matroos”—attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, followed by the following introduction: “A strange story about an English ship that crossed the Equator in those days when few ships had done this.  A story also about a ship’s voyage to the mysterious land of the South Pole, about which little was known.  And about the mystical incidents that took place in the South Sea in the warm waters of the southern Pacific Ocean.  It was the time that sailors saw gigantic watersnakes, when the belief in monsters of the deep and in strange ghosts was still strong”.

       It remains to consider two notable translations of “The Ancient Mariner”, not into Dutch, but into its related language Frisian.  The first, entitled “De ballade fen d’ald-matroas”, was made by André Roelof Scholten (1910-1944), a theologian who zealously advocated the Frisian language and its literature.  His rendition of Coleridge’s poem was published in four instalments in the April 1935 issues of Sljucht en Rjucht (Simple and Straightforward), a popular weekly magazine established in 1890 to promote the cause of Frisian culture.  The whole poem was reissued as a separate booklet in 1935 by Willem Arnoldus Eisma, a printer from Leeuwarden who brought out Sjucht en Rjucht and several works in Frisian.  Scholten’s translation contained on the backside of the title-page a screenprint of a sailing-vessel with a huge bird seen flying away from it, made by the artist Johannes Mulders (1899-1989), who earned his living chiefly by engraving illustrations for books.

       The second Frisian translation of Coleridge’s poem with the title “It lied fan de ald matroas” was provided by Klaes Dykstra (1924-1997), a graduate of the University of Amsterdam and member of the Frisian Academy, who supported Frisian culture and was a poet in his own right.  His attempt was published in 1962 in “Reiddomprige”, a sequel brought out by Laverman from Drachten since 1949, offering only original modern Frisian collections of poetry. In fact, Coleridge’s poem was the only translation of a foreign work ever to appear in the series.  The publication of Dykstra’s rendition also included the poem “It Slaveskip”, a Frisian translation of the Brazilian poet Antonio de Castro Alves’s Navio Negreirro by G.N. Visser, also an advocate of the Frisian cause.  As I am unfamiliar with the Frisian language, I cannot assess these Frisian translations.

       In retrospect, then, judging from the several attempts at offering “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner “ in Dutch, and especially from the reissues of these original translations in the last century, it seems fair to say that the interested Dutch reader, if he had not already read the poem in English, could easily relish Coleridge’s celebrated composition in a version which reflected the changing linguistic and stylistic evolution of the Dutch language in the twentieth century.  No doubt, Van Steenbergen’s rendition is the most readable from the style and tone of a modern point of view, but not necessarily the one that captures Coleridge’s mesmerizing ballad.  The fact that “The Ancient




Mariner” was turned into a strip-cartoon published in the extremely popular Illustrated Classics must have contributed to its familiarity with many youngsters. Then too, the fact that “The Ancient Mariner” was twice translated into Frisian, a language only spoken by about half a million people, Frisians and non-Frisians in the Netherlands, testifies to the unflagging attraction the poem has exercised in the Low Countries.


© Contributor, 2003-2006


[1]          This and  the subsequent translations from the Dutch are my own.

[2]          “Tweemaal Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner  in het Nederlands”, De Nieuwe Taalgids  1958, 36-39.

[3]          On Donkersloot, see  Winkler Leicon van de Nederlandse Letterkunde  (Amsterdam- Brussel, 1986), p. 119.

[4]          Letter from A Stols to Donkersloot, dated 14 November 1930, preserved at the Letterkundig Museum at The Hague.