Mark Helprin, interviewed by James Linville
, Paris Review
, issue 126 (Spring, 1993):
Twenty years ago, I was for a time a graduate student at Princeton. In a seminar I was forced to attend that I think was entitled Variations of the Romantic Self (now you see why they had to force me), we read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and after we reached the line that reads, "The water, like a witch's oils, / Burnt green, and blue and white," the professor said, Here we have to pay particular attention to the symbolism, for the obvious reason that the sea cannot look like that.
Yes it can, I said. Of course it can. How do you mean? some epicene students asked, though not in those words. They must have asked this question in snaky, coily, slimy words, of which any ten in a row would put me to sleep like a tank truck full of chloroform. The sea sometimes looks like that, I said, and sometimes writers forswear symbolism and ingenuity for the sake of description and conveyance, which is a perfectly fine thing to do, for the world is a miraculous and beautiful place. But the sea, they maintained, does not glow. Oh yes it does, I insisted, and proceeded to describe the bioluminescence of the Sargasso Sea. I don't think they knew much science and they seemed to be unacquainted with bioluminescence. How did I know about this? I've seen it, I reported. Where? In the Sargasso Sea; I was a sailor in the British Merchant Navy. Come to think of it, just like the ancient mariner! It was the season of hurricanes and we had diverted the ship into the doldrums to escape a storm . . .
Hat tip: Daniel Orazio.