The Wandering Jew by Gustave Doré

Sources for the ideas in the poem have been exhaustively investigated by John Livingston Lowes in The Road to Xanadu. In this famous tour-de-force of literary criticism first published in 1927, Lowes follows up clues in Coleridge’s notebooks and letters and sets himself the task of reading everything that Coleridge was known to have read before writing the poem, as well as books he probably read or even might have read. This immense literary detective work paid off handsomely, for it turns out that Coleridge had borrowed heavily, often exact words and phrases, not only from the leading sea travel books of his time, but from much more obscure literature. For example, in the gloss to line 345 of the 1834 version, Coleridge explains that the ship is not navigated by dead men, but by a troop of angels who reanimate the bodies. It may have been Wordsworth’s suggestion (as indeed he claimed) that the ship be navigated by dead men, but Coleridge was also probably influenced by a letter written in the fourth century by Paulinus, Bishop of Nola. Paulinus tells the story of a ship abandoned in a storm by everyone in the crew except an old man who had been below operating a pump. For six days the old man is alone on the ship, terrified, lone, and longing for death. The Lord takes pity on him and sends an angelic band to operate the ship and steer it back to harbour. There are no reanimated bodies in this tale, but many of its details correspond with details in Coleridge’s ballad [see Lowes, Chapter XV section iv for more details]. Or again, an old Dutch sea tale recounts how a murderer named Falconberg is doomed to wander until Judgement Day on a crewless ship, while two spectral figures –one black, one white– dice for his soul [Lowes, Chapter XV section iii]. Note that Coleridge’s female figure, Life-in-Death, has leprous white skin, and her mate, Death, has (in a stanza in the 1798 version) a jet-black skeleton. And naturally he would have been familiar with the legend of the Wandering Jew, a figure from Christian folkore, who according to legend taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the second coming. The figure of the doomed sinner, forced to wander without the hope of rest in death till the second coming of Christ, impressed itself upon the popular imagination and has been widely treated in many works of literature (see Wikipedia).


Of course, all these borrowings, and doubtless many others, are but the ingredients which have been transformed by the magic cookery process of Coleridge’s own imagination to produce the poem we know and love today.