The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the first poem in Lyrical Ballads, the collaborative effort of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth designed to explore new directions in poetic language and style, and move away from the formal and highly stylized literature of the eighteenth century. This collection is considered by many critics to be the first expression of what has come to be the Romantic movement in English poetry. Coleridge’s contribution, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” was written in imitation of the form, language, and style of earlier ballads, but it embodied Romantic characteristics with its use of supernatural and Gothic imagery. The first publication of the poem in 1798 was received with little enthusiasm. Several critics objected to Coleridge’s misuse of Old English, and (Wordsworth included) the over-extravagance of his supernatural imagery. Subsequently Coleridge, for the 1800 edition of the work, eliminated many Gothic elements and antiquated words. However, in an 1817 edition of his collected poems, Sybilline Leaves, Coleridge replaced some of the language he had previously deleted. Since the plot and theme had been considered confusing, he also included a marginal gloss, or set of notes, explaining the action of the poem. This is the version of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” that currently appears in most anthologies and textbooks.
On its simplest level, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a tale of crime, punishment, and redemption: a Mariner shoots an albatross (a bird
of good fortune) and is gravely punished by an extraneous force for this act. By learning to love, however, the Mariner partially redeems himself: for his penance he must wander the earth and retell his tale, explaining to people he encounters the lessons he has learned. Beyond this basic level of comprehension, critics seldom agree on a standard interpretation of the poem. With the richness and variety of the imagery, the complexity of the symbols, and the multiple levels of meaning, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” still retains its magic for the reader.
Coleridge was born in 1772 in the town of Ottery St. Mary, Devon, England, the tenth child of John Coleridge, a minister and schoolmaster, and his wife, Ann Bowdon Coleridge. Coleridge was a dreamy, isolative child and read constantly. At the age of ten his father died and he was sent to Christ’s Hospital, a boarding school in London where he was befriended by fellow student Charles Lamb. In 1791 he entered Cambridge University, showing promise as a gifted writer and brilliant conversationalist. He studied to become a minister, but in 1794, before completing his degree, Coleridge left Cambridge. He went on a walking tour to Oxford where he became friends with poet Robert Southey. Inspired by the initial events of the French Revolution, Coleridge and Southey collaborated on The Fall of Robespierre. An Historic Drama (1794). As an outgrowth of their shared belief in liberty and equality for everyone, they developed a plan for “pantisocracy,” an egalitarian and self-sufficient agricultural system to be built in Pennsylvania. The pantisocratic philosophy required every member to be married, and at Southey’s urging, Coleridge wed Sarah Fricker, the sister of Southey’s fiancee. However, the match proved disastrous and Coleridge’s unhappy marriage was a source of grief to him throughout his life. To compound these difficulties, Southey later lost interest in the scheme, abandoning it in 1795.
Coleridge then moved to Nether Stowey in England’s West Country. Lamb, William Hazlitt, and other writers visited him there, making up an informal literary community. In 1796 William Wordsworth, with whom Coleridge had exchanged letters for some years, moved into the area. The two poets became instant friends, and they began a literary collaboration. Around this time Coleridge composed “Kubla Khan” and the first version of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; the latter work was included as the opening poem in Coleridge and Wordsworth’s joint effort, Lyrical Ballads, with a few Other Poems, which was published in 1798. That same year, Coleridge traveled to Germany where he developed an interest in the German philosophers Immanuel Kant, Friedrich von Schelling, and the brothers Friedrich and August Wilhelm von Schlegel; he later introduced German aesthetic theory in England through his critical writing. Soon after his return in 1799, Coleridge settled in Keswick near the Lake District, which now gained for him—together with Wordsworth and Southey who had also moved to the area—the title “Lake Poet.” During this period, Coleridge suffered poor health and personal strife; his marriage was failing and he had fallen in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sarah Hutchinson—a love that was unrequited and a source of great pain. He began taking opium as a remedy for his poor health.
Seeking a more temperate climate and to improve his morale, Coleridge began a two-year trip to Italy, Sicily, and Malta in 1804. Upon his return to England Coleridge began a series of lectures on poetry and Shakespeare, which are now considered the basis of his reputation as a literary critic. Because of Coleridge’s abuse of opium and alcohol, his erratic behavior caused him to quarrel with Wordsworth, and he left Keswick to return to London. In the last years of his life Coleridge wrote political and philosophical works, and his Biographia Literaria, considered his greatest critical writing, in which he developed artistic theories that were intended to be the introduction to a great philosophical work. Coleridge died in 1834 of complications stemming from his dependence on opium.
Part the First
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide, 5
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May’st hear the merry din.”
He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship,” quoth he. 10
“Hold off! unhand me, graybeard loon!”
Eftsoons his hand dropped he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child: 15
The Mariner hath his will.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner. 20
“The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared,
Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.
The Sun came up upon the left, 25
Out of the sea came he
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
Higher and higher every day,
Till over the mast at noon—” 30
The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast,
For he heard the loud bassoon.
The Bride hath paced into the hall,
Red as a rose is she;
Nodding their heads before her goes 35
The merry minstrelsy.
The Wedding-Guest he beat his breast,
Yet he cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner. 40
“And now the storm-blast came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o’ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.
With sloping masts and dipping prow, 45
As who pursued with yell and blow
Still treads the shadow of his foe
And forward bends his head,
The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast,
And southward aye we fled. 50
And now there came both mist and snow
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts 55
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around: 60
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
At length did cross an Albatross:
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul, 65
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through! 70
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariners’ hollo!
In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud, 75
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white,
Glimmered the white moonshine.”
“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends that plague thee thus!— 80
Why look’st thou so?”—“With my crossbow
I shot the Albatross.
Part the Second
“The Sun now rose upon the right:
Out of the sea came he,
Still hid in mist, and on the left 85
Went down into the sea.
And the good south wind still blew behind,
But no sweet bird did follow,
Nor any day for food or play
Came to the mariners’ hollo! 90
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, 95
That made the breeze to blow!
Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,
The glorious Sun uprist:
Then all averred, I had killed the bird
That brought the fog and mist. 100
’Twas right, said they, such birds to slay,
That bring the fog and mist.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free;
We were the first that ever burst 105
Into that silent sea.
Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
’Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea! 110
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day, 115
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink; 120
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs 125
Upon the slimy sea.
About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white. 130
And some in dreams assurèd were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow.
And every tongue, through utter drought, 135
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than if
We had been choked with soot.
Ah! well-a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young! 140
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
Part the Third
“There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time! 145
How glazed each weary eye!
When looking westward, I beheld
A something in the sky.
At first it seemed a little speck,
And then it seemed a mist; 150
It moved and moved, and took at last
A certain shape, I wist.
A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it neared and neared:
As if it dodged a watersprite, 155
It plunged and tacked and veered.
With throats unslaked. with black lips baked,
We could not laugh nor wail;
Through utter drought all dumb we stood!
I bit my arm, I sucked the blood, 160
And cried, A sail! a sail!
With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
Agape they heard me call:
Gramercy! they for joy did grin,
And all at once their breath drew in, 165
As they were drinking all.
See! See! (I cried) she tacks no more!
Hither to work us weal;
Without a breeze, without a tide,
She steadies with upright keel! 170
The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well-nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly 175
Betwixt us and the Sun.
And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face. 180
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres!
Are those her ribs through which the Sun 185
Did peer, as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a Death? and are there two?
Is Death that woman’s mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free, 190
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
The naked hulk alongside came 195
And the twain were casting dice;
‘The game is done! I’ve won, I’ve won!’
Quoth she, and whistles thrice.
The Sun’s rim dips; the stars rush out:
At one stride comes the dark; 200
With far-heard whisper, o’er the sea,
Off shot the spectre-bark.
We listened and looked sideways up!
Fear at my heart, as at a cup,
My life-blood seemed to sip! 205
The stars were dim, and thick the night,
The steersman’s face by his lamp gleamed white;
From the sails the dew did drip—
Till clomb above the eastern bar
The hornèd Moon, with one bright star 210
Within the nether tip.
One after one, by the star-dogged Moon,
Too quick for groan or sigh,
Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,
And cursed me with his eye. 215
Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.
The souls did from their bodies fly,— 220
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my cross-bow!”
Part the Fourth
“I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
I fear thy skinny hand! 225
And thou art long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand.
I fear thee and thy glittering eye,
And thy skinny hand, so brown.”—
“Fear not, fear not, thou Wedding-Guest! 230
This body dropt not down.
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony. 235
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
I looked upon the rotting sea, 240
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
I looked to Heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht, 245
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea and the sea and the sky, 250
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
The cold sweat melted from their limbs,
Nor rot nor reek did they;
The look with which they looked on me 255
Had never passed away.
An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is a curse in a dead man’s eye! 260
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.
The moving Moon went up the sky,
And nowhere did abide:
Softly she was going up, 265
And a star or two beside—
Her beams bemocked the sultry main,
Like April hoar-frost spread;
But where the ship’s huge shadow lay,
The charmèd water burnt away 270
A still and awful red.
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water-snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light 275
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track 280
Was a flash of golden fire.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware: 285
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank 290
Like lead into the sea.
Part the Fifth
“O sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole!
To Mary Queen the praise be given!
She sent the gentle sleep from Heaven, 295
That slid into my soul.
The silly buckets on the deck,
That had so long remained,
I dreamt that they were filled with dew;
And when I awoke, it rained. 300
My lips were wet, my throat was cold,
My garments all were dank;
Sure I had drunken in my dreams,
And still my body drank.
I moved, and could not feel my limbs: 305
I was so light—almost
I thought that I had died in sleep,
And was a blessèd ghost.
And soon I saw a roaring wind:
It did not come anear; 310
But with its sound it shook the sails,
That were so thin and sere.
The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about! 315
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.
And the coming wind did roar more loud,
And the sails did sigh like sedge;
And the rain poured down from one black cloud; 320
The Moon was at its edge.
The thick black cloud was cleft, and still
The Moon was at its side:
Like waters shot from some high crag,
The lightning fell with never a jag, 325
A river steep and wide.
The loud wind never reached the ship,
Yet now the ship moved on!
Beneath the lightning and the Moon
The dead men gave a groan. 330
They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
It had been strange, even in a dream,
To have seen those dead men rise.
The helmsman steered, the ship moved on; 335
Yet never a breeze up blew;
The mariners all ’gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew. 340
The body of my brother’s son
Stood by me, knee to knee:
The body and I pulled at one rope,
But he said nought to me.”
“I fear thee, ancient Mariner!” 345
“Be calm, thou Wedding-Guest!
’Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blest:
For when it dawned—they dropt their arms, 350
And clustered round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies passed.
Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun; 355
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mixed, now one by one.
Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the skylark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are, 360
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!
And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song, 365
That makes the Heavens be mute.
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June 370
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
Till noon we quietly sailed on,
Yet never a breeze did breathe:
Slowly and smoothly went the ship, 375
Moved onward from beneath.
Under the keel nine fathom deep,
From the land of mist and snow,
The Spirit slid: and it was he
That made the ship to go. 380
The sails at noon left off their tune,
And the ship stood still also.
The Sun, right up above the mast,
Had fixed her to the ocean:
But in a minute she ’gan stir, 385
With a short uneasy motion—
Backwards and forwards half her length
With a short uneasy motion.
Then, like a pawing horse let go,
She made a sudden bound: 390
It flung the blood into my head,
And I fell down in a swound.
How long in that same fit I lay,
I have not to declare;
But ere my living life returned, 395
I heard and in my soul discerned
Two voices in the air.
‘Is it he?’ quoth one, ‘Is this the man?
By Him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low 400
The harmless Albatross.
The Spirit who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.’ 405
The other was a softer voice,
As soft as honeydew:
Quoth he, ‘The man hath penance done,
And penance more will do.’
Part the Sixth
‘“But tell me, tell me! speak again, 410
Thy soft response renewing—
What makes that ship drive on so fast?
What is the ocean doing?’
‘Still as a slave before his lord,
The Ocean hath no blast; 415
His great bright eye most silently
Up to the Moon is cast—
If he may know which way to go;
For she guides him smooth or grim.
See, brother, see! how graciously
She looketh down on him.’ 420
‘But why drives on that ship so fast,
Without or wave or wind?’
‘The air is cut away before,
And closes from behind. 425
Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high!
Or we shall be belated:
For slow and slow that ship will go,
When the Mariner’s trance is abated.’
I woke, and we were sailing on 430
As in a gentle weather:
‘Twas night, calm night, the Moon was high;
The dead men stood together.
All stood together on the deck,
For a charnel-dungeon fitter: 435
All fixed on me their stony eyes,
That in the Moon did glitter.
The pang, the curse, with which they died,
Had never passed away:
I could not draw my eyes from theirs, 440
Nor turn them up to pray.
And now this spell was snapt: once more
I viewed the ocean green,
And looked far forth, yet little saw
Of what had else been seen— 445
Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend 450
Doth close behind him tread.
But soon there breathed a wind on me,
Nor sound nor motion made:
Its path was not upon the sea,
In ripple or in shade. 455
It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring—
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.
Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship, 460
Yet she sailed softly too:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze—
On me alone it blew.
Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
the lighthouse top I see? 465
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
We drifted o’er the harbour-bar,
And I with sobs did pray—
O let me be awake, my God! 470
Or let me sleep alway.
The harbour-bar was clear as glass,
So smoothly was it strewn!
And on the bay the moonlight lay,
And the shadow of the Moon. 475
The rock shone bright, the kirk no less,
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness
The steady weathercock.
And the bay was white with silent light, 480
Till rising from the same,
Full many shapes, that shadows were,
In crimson colours came.
A little distance from the prow
Those crimson shadows were: 485
I turned my eyes upon the deck—
O, Christ! what saw I there!
Each corse lay flat, lifeless and flat,
And, by the holy rood!
A man all light, a seraph-man, 490
On every corse there stood.
This seraph-band, each waved his hand:
It was a heavenly sight!
They stood as signals to the land,
Each one a lovely light; 495
This seraph-band, each waved his hand,
No voice did they impart—
No voice; but oh! the silence sank
Like music on my heart.
But soon I heard the dash of oars, 500
I heard the Pilot’s cheer;
My head was turned perforce away,
And I saw a boat appear.
The Pilot and the Pilot’s boy,
I heard them coming fast: 505
Dear Lord in Heaven! it was a joy
The dead men could not blast.
I saw a third—I heard his voice:
It is the Hermit good!
He singeth loud his godly hymns 510
That he makes in the wood.
He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away
The Albatross’s blood.
Part the Seventh
“This Hermit good lives in that wood
Which slopes down to the sea. 515
How loudly his sweet voice he rears!
He loves to talk with the marineres
That come from a far countree.
He kneels at morn, and noon, and eve—
He hath a cushion plump: 520
It is the moss that wholly hides
The rotted old oak-stump.
The skiff-boat neared: I heard them talk,
‘Why this is strange, I trow!
Where are those lights so many and fair, 525
That signal made but now?’
‘Strange, by my faith!’ the Hermit said—
‘And they answered not our cheer!
The planks look warped! and see those sails,
How thin they are and sere! 530
I never saw aught like to them.
Unless perchance it were
Brown skeletons of leaves that lag
My forest-brook along;
When the ivy-tod is heavy with snow, 535
And the owlet whoops to the wolf below,
That eats the she-wolf’s young.’
‘Dear Lord! it hath a fiendish look—’
(The Pilot made reply)
‘I am a-feared’—‘Push on, push on!’ 540
Said the Hermit cheerily.
The boat came closer to the ship,
But I nor spake nor stirred
The boat came close beneath the ship,
And straight a sound was heard. 545
Under the water it rumbled on,
Still louder and more dread:
It reached the ship, it split the bay;
The ship went down like lead.
Stunned by, that loud and dreadful sound, 550
Which sky and ocean smote,
Like one that hath been seven days drowned
My body lay afloat;
But swift as dreams, myself I found
Within the Pilot’s boat. 555
Upon the whirl, where sank the ship,
The boat spun round and round;
And all was still, save that the hill
Was telling of the sound.
I moved my lips—the Pilot shrieked 560
And fell down in a fit;
The holy Hermit raised his eyes,
And prayed where he did sit.
I took the oars: the Pilot’s boy,
Who now doth crazy go, 565
Laughed loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro.
‘Ha! ha!’ quoth he, ‘full plain I see,
The Devil knows how to row.’
And now, all in my own countree, 570
I stood on the firm land!
The Hermit stepped forth from the boat,
And scarcely he could stand.
‘O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!’
The Hermit crossed his brow. 575
‘Say quick,’ quoth he, ‘I bid thee say—
What manner of man art thou?’
Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale; 580
And then it left me free.
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns. 585
I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach. 590
What loud uproar bursts from that door!
The wedding-guests are there:
But in the garden-bower the Bride
And Bride-maids singing are:
And hark the little vesper bell, 595
Which biddeth me to prayer!
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ’twas, that God Himself
Scarce seemèd there to be. 600
O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
’Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!—
To walk together to the kirk, 605
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends,
And youths and maidens gay!
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell 610
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small; 615
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest 620
Turned from the Bridegroom’s door.
He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn. 625
The poem opens with a simple factual statement: An old sailor stops one of three men walking by who are on their way to a wedding. The fact that he chooses only one individual out of the three will be mentioned again at the end of the poem. The dialogue begins at line three with the guest asking the old man why he has stopped him. He also comments on the Mariner’s glittering eye, a detail that will be repeated twice more in the first six stanzas. Lines 2 and 4 are exemplary of Coleridge’s use of archaic words: “stoppeth” and “stopp’st.”
An Ancient Mariner meeteth three Gallants bidden to a wedding-feast and detaineth one.
The focus of these lines is on the guest’s desires and responsibilities. He is the groom’s closest relative, so it is his duty to attend the wedding and the feast that follows.
Coleridge uses the following two stanzas to illustrate the power of the Mariner’s gaze. Although the Mariner physically restrains the guest in line 9, he drops his hand quickly when challenged. Line 13 explains that his true power thus lies in the hypnotic quality of his gaze and not in his physical strength. The guest is transfixed like prey held fast by the unblinking stare of a predator; his will is surrendered to the Ancient Mariner.
The Wedding-Guest is spell-bound by the eye of the old sea-faring man, and constrained to hear his tale.
Like many Gothic tales, the story opens with an ordinary setting—the wedding guest is on his way to a joyous, but ordinary, function—when suddenly he is trapped by the Mariner and his tale. The Mariner’s own story begins in a very ordinary, and somewhat similar, manner—the ship sets off, and the entire town celebrates the joyous occasion. Soon, however, the Mariner’s tale changes from the realm of everyday activity into the world of spirits and the supernatural. In this retelling, he will bring the guest along on his journey.
The sun, which will later be shown to be an important symbol, is used to convey geographic details accurately. Coleridge’s note reinforces this point. Because the sun rises on the left side of the boat, the reader knows the vessel is heading south. Coleridge’s details about geography and nature are frequently quite specific and for the most part accurate. Thus, the farther south the ship goes, the more directly overhead the sun will be. For Coleridge, the “line” always refers to the equator.
The maniner tells how the ship sailed southward with a good wind and fair weather, till it reached the line.
The focus of the poem returns to the world of the ordinary, to the wedding, with its music and celebration. The wedding guest beats his breast, symbolizing his frustration and longing to attend the wedding as he hears the music playing.
The Wedding-Guest heareth the bridal music; but the Mariner continueth his tale.
Repetition is often an important poetic element in ballads. Here, Coleridge uses it to reinforce the power of the Mariner’s gaze. The wedding guest is trapped by a power he cannot resist. Line 37 repeats line 31; although he beats his breast, he cannot break the Mariner’s spell. Lines 38 to 40 are also a repetition, of lines 18 to 20.
Up to this point, the voyage has been normal, but then a storm sets in. Coleridge uses personification, attributing human characteristics to that which is not human, when he describes the storm as a tyrant chasing the ship. The feeling conveyed is such that it seems that a malevolent force has deliberately targeted this ship.
The ship drawn by a storm toward the South Pole.
Varying the stanza length and rhyme scheme, Coleridge makes the lines of poetry flee just like the ship.
In these stanzas, the ship enters a totally new and frightening world of mystery and cold. The strangeness of the environment is developed with a series of vivid images: emerald icebergs, ice that moans and cries, lifeless vistas. While these may sound fantastic, even to a modern reader, John Livingston Lowes, in his The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, reinforces the accuracy of Coleridge’s details by providing several sources on which he based these descriptions. In addition, the development of an atmosphere of uncertainty and imminent danger in an unnatural setting is a common element in Gothic literature.
The land of ice, and of fearful sounds, where no living thing was to be seen.
Line 58 indicates that the ship is surrounded by ice. The next line reinforces it. Coleridge repeats the word ice four times in lines 58 to 60, so that the lines themselves are filled with ice.
Coleridge stages a dramatic introduction by making the albatross materialize out of the fog. It soon becomes apparent that the albatross plays a key role in the poem, though many critics differ on its importance. He is seen by some as merely a bird, while others view him as a Jesus-like figure. In lines 65 and 66 the albatross is greeted as a Christian soul, hailed in God’s name.
Till a great sea-bird, called the Albatross, came through the snow-fog, and was received with great joy and hospitality.
These lines further discuss the special relationship between the bird—the only living creature seen in the land of ice—and the crew. They offer the bird hospitality and encourage it to remain with them. Shortly thereafter there is a split in the ice. Coleridge’s marginal gloss explains that the bird is a good omen.
And lo! The Albatross proveth a bird of good omen, and followeth the ship as it returned northward through fog and floating ice.
Coleridge emphasizes the loyalty of the albatross that comes each evening to sit on the ship. Vespers are evening prayers said by Catholics, but they also may refer to the evening.
Coleridge introduces the moonlight in this line. The moon will later assume an important symbolic role in the poem.
Without any apparent motive or reason, the Mariner shoots and kills the albatross. Part 1 of the poem ends very abruptly, as it began, with this event. It is possible to interpret the Mariner’s act in many ways: a simple violation of hospitality, a symbolic act of murder, a recreation of Adam’s fall in the Garden of Eden, or a reenactment of the crucifixion of Christ.
The Ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen.
In these lines, Coleridge reverses lines 25 to 28 as to indicate a change in the ship’s direction as it heads north. The reader is now as aware as the Mariner of the details of the voyage. The ship has passed Cape Horn, the southernmost part of South America. The word “Sun” is now capitalized, indicating that it is symbolically important.
The second stanza in this section reiterates the details of lines 71 through 74. The contrast, however, now has a far more important emotional meaning, for the sense of joy in the earlier lines has been destroyed. The crew is once again alone on the empty seas, and the bird’s absence constantly reminds them of their isolation; there are no other living creatures around.
These two longer stanzas that describe the crew’s changing attitude are very important because they implicate the crew for the Mariner’s sin. Although the crew at first denounces the Mariner, describing his deed as hellish, they applaud the killing of the albatross after the sun shines through the polar mists. The marginal note explains that with the crew’s betrayal, they participate in the Mariner’s sin.
It is ironic that the appearance of the sun causes the change of attitude of the crew. Although Coleridge describes the sun as glorious in line 98, it will soon change.
His shipmates cry out against the Ancient Mariner for killing the bird of good luck.
But when the fog cleared off, they justify the same, and thus make themselves accomplices in the crime.
In these lines, Coleridge describes the ship’s passage into the Pacific Ocean using sound to reinforce his meaning. The alliteration in this stanza begins a light “f” sound: “fair,” “free,” “flew.” It is then accompanied by the more forceful “b” sound: “burst,” “blew.” The words themselves convey the airy, floating sense of the breeze. Lines 103 to 105 describe the ship as returning to normal conditions, but the description of the silent sea in line 106 hints at the impending disaster. Though it is unclear in the poem, the marginal note informs the reader that the ship continues north until it reaches the equator.
The fiar breeze continues; the ship enters the Pacific Ocean and sails northward, even till it reaches the line.
The wind stops and leaves the crew motionless, indicating that their punishment is close at hand. Coleridge also alliterates the “s” sound.
The ship hath been suddenly becalmed.
Coleridge provides many powerful images to convey the ship’s plight. He describes the sky, for example, as hot and copper. Copper is an excellent conductor of heat, and thus magnifies the waves of heat that are beating down upon the crew. The sun has now turned bloody instead of glorious.
Coleridge repeats the phrase “day after day” to emphasize the passage of time. A simile in lines 117 and 118 reinforces the stillness; the ship has no more movement than a ship in a picture.
This powerful image emphasizes the lack of fresh water. The boards are shrinking because the heat and absence of fresh water to moisten them. It is ironic that the crew virtually dies of thirst while they are surrounded by an endless expanse of undrinkable saltwater.
And the Albatross begins to be avenged.
Coleridge evokes a nightmarish description of rot and decay. Water is typically a life–giving force, but in line 123 it decays. Later, in lines 129 and 130, it burns. The repetition of “slimy” adds to the unpleasant imagery. Coleridge chooses the word “things” to describe the crawling creatures. The very vagueness of the term indicates that these are so unpleasant that they have no name. Lowes, seeking the source for such creatures, found travel books that mention seas rotting with sea weed, slime fish, and burning water. This description, however, is used for its nightmarish quality rather than its accuracy.
Coleridge emphasizes the supernatural quality of the burning water by using the simile “like witch’s oils.”
The punishment is given by a spirit from the land of the albatross. The marginal note discusses at length the nature of these invisible spirits.
A Spirit had followed them; one of the invisible inhabitants of this planet, neither departed souls nor angels; concerning whom the learned Jew, Josephus, and the Platonic Constantinopolitan, Michael Psellus, may be consulted. They are very numerous, and there is no climate or element without one or more.
Coleridge vividly describes the suffering of the entire crew.
The cross is apparently a symbol of Christ. The cross around the Mariner’s neck is replaced by the albatross, a highly symbolic action. Again, there are many different interpretations of this act. First, the Mariner may no longer deserve to wear the cross of Christianity and must replace it with the symbol of his sin. Second, he figuratively carries the albatross around his neck as Christ carried the cross. The marginal note explains that the crew wishes to throw the guilt totally on the mariner. Thus, like Christ, he bears the guilt for all.
The shipmates, in their sore distress, would fain throw the whole guilt on the Ancient Mariner: in sign whereof they hang the dead sea-bird round his neck.
Part 3 is the most Gothic section of the entire poem, full of nightmarish images and supernatural beings. The stanzas themselves are the most varied here, as the unsettling images distort everything, including the structure of the poem itself. The six lines in the first stanza emphasize the words weary and glazed. Everything is dull and devoid of hope unlike the glittering gaze of the Mariner in the opening stanzas. Coleridge’s marginal notes in this section are particularly helpful in comprehending the poem.
The Ancient Mariner beholdeth a sign in the element afar off.
Repetition is used to signal the Mariner’s growing hope as the dot in the distance draws closer.
Because there is no water, the crew cannot speak. The Mariner sacrifices himself by biting his arm and drinking his own blood and notifying the crew of the approaching ship.
At its nearer approach it seemeth him to be a ship; and at a dear ransom he freeth his speech from the bonds of thirst.
Coleridge contrasts the initial joy of the crew at the thought of rescue with the fear that follows when they realize that the ship is moving by some supernatural power.
A flash of joy;
And horror follows. For can it be a ship that comes onward without wind or tide?
Coleridge’s vivid description of nature reinforces the mood as the sun lights up the western sky with flames. This red backdrop highlights the ghostly ship that approaches. In the next four stanzas and accompanying note, Coleridge will repeat “Sun” six times as he describes the ship that has appeared between the Mariner and the sun.
The note stresses the skeletal nature of the ship. Although the Mariner begs Mary for grace here, he will soon discover himself unable to pray.
It seemeth him but the skeleton of a ship.
Coleridge continues to develop Gothic visions as he further describes the skeleton ship. As the vessel approaches, the Mariner wonders about its inhabitants. In the marginal note, Coleridge answers the Mariner’s questions.
Coleridge’s description of the woman is puzzling. Red lips, golden hair, and fair skin are considered signs of beauty, and the phrase “Her looks were free” implies sexual awareness. The woman on the vessel, however, is hideous. Contrast the use of color in this description with that of the bride in line 24. While the bride’s redness is compared to that of a rose, the white of Spectre-Woman’s skin bears the decay of leprosy.
And its ribs are seen as bars on the face of the setting Sun. The Spectre-Woman and her Deathmate and no other on board the skeleton ship.
Like vessel, like crew!
It is necessary to read the note here in order to understand the nature of the stakes in this dice game between death and death-in-life. The victory of death-in-life explains the Mariner’s unique fate. He is condemned to suffer endlessly, without ever having death to end the suffering.
Death and life-Death have diced for the ship’s crew, and she (the latter) winneth the Ancient Mariner.
Night falls suddenly, as Coleridge’s note explains, since there is no period of twilight at the equator.
No twilight within the courts of the Sun.
Coleridge’s vivid images render this night as particularly mysterious and dark. His use of the metaphor “thick” to describe the night magnifies the fearfulness and darkness of the waiting. When the crescent moon rises, it appears with one star: the planet Venus.
Coleridge stresses the death of each crewman, “one after one,” in order to intensify the devastating effect this has on the Mariner. Although each dies without a word, they turn to curse the Mariner with a look. When the spirits leave the dead bodies “one by one,” each spirit reminds the Mariner of his sin as they pass “like the whizz of my crossbow.”
At the rising of the Moon,
One after another,
His ship-mates drop down dead;
But Life-in Death begins her work on the Ancient
Coleridge begins Part 4 with the Mariner pausing his tale of horror and returning the focus on the confounded guest. This has the effect of lessening the tension after the extremely dramatic, supernatural life and death quality of Part 3.
The Wedding-Guest feareth that a spirit is talking to him;
But the Ancient Mariner assureth him of his of his bodily life, and proceedeth to relate his horrible penance.
Repetition of the word “alone” reinforces the Mariner’s sense of isolation.
In this stanza, Coleridge contrasts the beauty of the men while they were alive with the multitude of slimy creatures in the sea. Because he lives, the Mariner feels that he is a part of the world of slime and decay that surrounds him. Several critics stress the importance of Coleridge’s note that the Mariner’s despising the sea creatures and himself indicates that he despises nature itself, and thus has learned nothing.
He despiseth the creatures of the calm.
And envieth that they should live, and so many lie dead.
With this stanza, Coleridge emphasizes a key Christian symbol: souls that are damned are unable to pray. The Mariner’s soul, too, is rotting like everything else around him.
Coleridge describes the Mariner’s torment, again using the image of the weary eye. He cannot avoid the eyes of the dead men, and accepts their curse as he feels that he is the one who brought about this destruction.
- English Romantic Poetry, read by Sir Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom, Sir Anthony Quayle, and Frederick Worlock includes “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge, Harper Caedmon.
Many of Coleridge’s poems are accessible on the World Wide Web. The S.T. Coleridge Home Page URL is http://www.lib.virginia.edu/etext/stc/Coleridge/stc.htm A very comprehensive listing of other Samuel Taylor Coleridge resources on the Internet is available at http://www.lib.virginia.edu/etext/stc/Coleridge/internet.html
But the curse liveth for him in the eye of the dead men.
Coleridge fills this section with contrasting images: the moon travels gently in its path, welcomed everywhere, while the ship is trapped in the burning water; the moon is described as cool and restful, while the ship is described as red and filled with heat. Again the color red is used, but this time it connotes hell-fire and terror.
In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth towards the journeying moon, and the Stars that still sojourn yet still more onward; and everywhere the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointeed rest, and their native country and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival.
Coleridge continues contrasting images with vivid descriptions in the next two stanzas. Beyond the shadow of the ship, the water snakes seem to shimmer in the moonlight that reflects off of them as they move.
By the light of the Moon he beholdeth God’s creatures of the great calm.
In the ship’s shadow, however, the water snakes take on an even more beautiful aspect as they glow with color and light. This is a large contrast from the ship’s presentation as a place of desolation and despair after the death of the albatross. The color red had previously conveyed images of fire and death, but in line 281, the tracks of the snakes flash with “golden fire,” a phrase that is warm and comforting. This shift foreshadows the change which will occur in the Mariner himself in the next stanza.
Part 4 ends with the freeing of the Mariner’s soul. He blesses the snakes, “unaware” of the forgiveness bestowed on him.
Their beauty and their happiness. He blesseth them in his heart.
Once he is forgiven, the Mariner can pray again. As he prays, the enormous weight of the albatross and his crime is released. Coleridge uses the simile “like lead” to convey the enormous burden which is now lifted.
The spell begins to break.
As Part 5 begins, Coleridge uses a series of images to convey the peace and comfort that comes to the Mariner; he is finally able to sleep.
When the Mariner dreams of rain, it rains. He feels light in his body and soul. This atmosphere is in contrast to the previous section where there was a predominance of weariness, loneliness, and decay.
By grace of the holy Mother, the Ancient Mariner is refreshed with rain.
The calm and quiet of the last verses disappear as the Mariner is surrounded by strange sights and sounds. The fires in the sky, which make the stars seem pale in comparison, sound like the Aurora Borealis. It would make geographical sense if this were the case, since the ship must leave the Pacific and round Cape Horn at the tip of South America again in order for the Mariner to return home. Coleridge does not stress the geography, but his awareness of it in other parts of the poem makes this a possibility. The fires may also be seen as a manifestation of the spirit world.
He heareth sounds and seeth strange sights and commotions in the sky and the element.
Coleridge uses vivid imagery to describe the supernatural phenomena in this storm.
The bodies of the ship’s crew are inspired, and the ship moves on;
These lines demonstrate more examples of Gothic influences on the story. When the dead return to life and the Mariner assumes his place beside them, there is a deep sense of terror and oppression.
Coleridge adds a very poignant quality to the tale with these lines. Perhaps more than any other in the poem, they serve to remind the reader of the normal world to which the Mariner once belonged. It is ironic that he is seen as having a family only after he is forced to work next to his nephew, with whom there is no longer any possibility of love or communication.
The ghastly quality of the story frightens the guest. When the Mariner reassures him that the spirits who possessed the dead are “blest,” it contrasts the picture of them in line 340 as “a ghastly crew.”
but not by the souls of the men, nor by daemons of earth or middle air, but by a blessed troop of angelic spirits sent down by the invocation of the guardian saint.
The contrast continues in these lines. When the dead first rose, they groaned (a typical Gothic detail). As the day dawns, the spirits become music, creating a marvelous mixture of sounds and notes. In these lines, sound and music are used to create a sense of peace. Another interesting contrast is with the spirits that gather around the mast at dawn: before its death the albatross perched there every evening.
Coleridge uses natural and musical imagery to convey the beauty of the music the Mariner hears.
After the music of the spirits ceases, Coleridge continues using sound imagery, creating a simile: the sails sound like a hidden brook providing a lullaby to the wood. Interestingly, Coleridge uses sound to convey a sense of quiet.
Coleridge supplies details about the voyage itself in these two stanzas and in the accompanying note that explain how the ship moves without a breeze. The Spirit of snow and ice is carrying the ship from below. The note makes it clear that this spirit resents helping the Mariner and wants him to receive further punishment for the murder of the albatross.
The lonesome Spirit from the South Pole carries on the ship as far as the Line, in obedience to the angelic troop, but still requireth vengeance.
Coleridge once again reestablishes clear geographic details with a metaphor. The sun, straight above the mast, pins the ship to the water at the equator. When the ship moves again, the motion causes the Mariner to faint.
When the Mariner regains partial consciousness, he hears the voices of spirits. Coleridge uses these voices to review the details of the poem. The note identifies the speakers as fellow daemons of the Polar Spirit. The word daemon is not the same as the modern word, demon. Rather, daemons are invisible spirits, living in the world. They may be patterned after similar spirits in Greek mythology who lived in nature, serving as messengers between the gods and man. The first voice restates the Mariner’s sin. The gentle albatross loved and trusted the Mariner, who shot him. The reference to Jesus in line 399 serves to reinforce the Christian symbolism of the albatross.
The Polar Spirit’s fellow daemons, the invisible inhabitants of the element, take part in his wrong; and two of them relate, one to the other, that penance long and heavy for the Ancient Mariner hath been accorded to the Polar Spirit, who returneth southward.
This final stanza in Part 5 foreshadows the rest of the poem. The peace of this section is only transitory; the Mariner will suffer more.
Coleridge continues to use the spirit voices to clarify the poem for the reader. In lines 411 through 439, they explain how the ship is moving.
The second voice points out the still ocean that is waiting for directions from the Moon. Line 414 contains a simile in which there is a slave before a master, that is used to illustrate the calm.
Since the moon controls the tides, it gives the ocean its direction.
The Mariner hath been cast into a trance; for the angelic power causeth the vessel to drive northward faster than human life could endure.
In answer to the repeated query, the second voice explains that the ship is being driven by a power that parts the air so that it may pass through. The marginal note adds that this is an angelic power, and that the ship is moving so swiftly that the Mariner could not survive if he were fully conscious.
Coleridge returns to the Gothic imagery of Part 3, providing a distinct contrast to the peaceful descriptions of Part 5. As the Mariner wakes, he finds the dead men staring at him. He describes them as fit for a “charnel-dungeon”—a place where dead bodies are kept. The moonlight, usually peaceful, is reflected in their eyes. As the guest is trapped by the Mariner’s stare, so too is the Mariner transfixed by the dead men. These lines also recall Part 4 when the Mariner finds himself momentarily unable to pray.
The supernatural motion is retarded; the Mariner awakes, and his penance begins anew.
The spell is broken and the Mariner can look to the ocean.
The curse is finally expiated.
Coleridge uses a powerful extended simile that continues throughout the six-line stanza to describe the Mariner’s fear about what may lie ahead of him.
The wind returns, but now it is a supernatural force that touches only the Mariner and not the objects around him.
There is an alliteration of “swiftly” and “sweetly” in lines 460 and 462. In fact, the entire stanza contains many instances of alliteration.
The Mariner sees his home. For consistency, Coleridge is careful to mention the landmarks in the reverse order from which he first described them during the ship’s farewell in lines 23 and 24.
And the Ancient Mariner beholdeth his native country.
In these lines, the Mariner’s questions emphasize his disbelief that he is truly home. He prays that if this is only a dream, it will be one from which he will never waken.
The moon provides a benevolent guiding light revealing to the Mariner his home in a series of vivid images.
The crimson shapes filling the bay in the moonlight seem to be living, supernatural creatures. They may be the daemons or spirits of the Mariner’s own land. Nevertheless, these beings have played a prominent role in the Mariner’s voyage all along.
The angelic spirits leave the dead bodies, and appear in their own forms of light.
The spirits within the crew leave and the Mariner sees that they are angels. They bid the Mariner farewell and, in their silence, bless the Mariner. The phrase “By the holy rood” refers to the crucifix.
With the sound of oars, Coleridge reintroduces the ordinary world. The Mariner recognizes the voices of people he knew, and the supernatural realm vanishes. His happiness is so great that even the realization that he, alone, is returning from the voyage cannot diminish it.
Coleridge includes the hermit as the third passenger in the boat. Part 6 ends with the Mariner’s hope that this good man will forgive his sins.
Coleridge opens Part 7 with a description of the hermit: a good man who lives in harmony with God, man, and nature. These characteristics are important since the Mariner has been out of harmony with all three.
The Hermit of the wood
approacheth the ship with wonder.
The lights from the seraph band had drawn the men toward the ship. Now that the angels have departed, the ship lies in darkness.
As the three men approach the ship, they are shocked by its ragged condition. Coleridge uses a simile comparing the ship’s sails to leaves in the winter.
In these lines, Coleridge contrasts the fear of the pilot with the open-hearted optimism of the hermit.
For the last time, the world of the supernatural intrudes. There is a sound under the water and the the bay splits open. The ship then disappears exactly as the albatross disappeared: “like lead.” Gothic literature is filled with similar visions where the earth splits so that people and objects can be dragged down beneath the earth.
The ship suddenly sinketh.
The Mariner, thrown clear, is rescued by the boat as the hills reverberate with sound. The little boat is caught up in the whirlpool created by the sunken ship.
The Ancient Mariner is saved in the Pilot’s boat.
The three rescuers thought the Mariner was dead, and are horrified when he begins to speak and move.
On land, the Mariner begs the hermit to forgive him.
The Ancient Mariner earnestly entreateth the Hermit to shrive him; and the penance of life falls on him.
The Mariner is handed his punishment: he is forced by an uncontrollable urge to tell his story.
The Mariner is forced to travel from land to land searching for certain individuals to whom he must relate his story. This is why he stopped the guest. It was his destiny was to hear the tale and to learn from the Mariner’s suffering.
Critics have found parallels between the ancient Mariner and Cain, who was forced to wander the earth after the murder of his brother, Abel. He has also been compared to the legendary figure of the Wandering Jew, who was supposedly so cruel to Christ during the crucifixion that he is forced to wander the earth forever.
And ever and anon throughout his future life an agony constraineth him to travel from land to land,
The poem returns to the present, where the wedding ceremony is over. It is the Mariner who mentions this, now that his tale has been told. The guest offers no protests and seems unaware of the wedding feast.
The Mariner repeats line 234 to remind the guest of the terrible isolation that he went through, where he was separated from all other living things. Even God seemed absent from him.
The Mariner reminds the guest of the simple pleasure that comes in prayerful company.
In these lines, Coleridge states the moral of the poem: that one must necessarily love all living things. Many critics object to this simple message, Coleridge, himself, being among them.
and to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth.
The Mariner, his eye still bright, disappears, leaving the last stanzas of the poem to the wedding guest. No longer interested in the wedding feast, he holds still within the trance of the Mariner’s gaze. The poem ends with the guest having learned the Mariner’s lesson.
The poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” revolves around a single action, the killing of a bird, known as the albatross, and its horrible consequences. The repercussions of the Mariner’s crime are puzzling at first. However cruel the killing might have been, why should two hundred men die and the Mariner himself be driven nearly insane as a result?
But the Mariner’s action cannot be judged in these simple terms, for it is far more than a secular crime, like robbing a bank or even killing a man. That the murder is deeply religious in nature is shown when the dead albatross is equated with Christ: “Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung,” the Mariner says. Killing the bird was more than an ordinary crime because it violated the sacred natural order, an order encompassing the visible and the invisible, the spiritual, the natural, and the human. It included the Polar Spirit and other spirits, the albatross, the ice and sea and sun and moon, as well as the men on the ship. All are bound by an intricate series of connections, of which the Ancient Mariner is completely unaware. He is able to kill the albatross without a thought. But like Adam’s sin, the simple act of eating an apple, the Mariner’s violence calls for a harsh punishment.
Like the biblical Adam, who ate the apple because he wanted to be like God himself, the Mariner places himself on a par with God above nature. As far as he is concerned, humans are the measure of all things. In such an order, he can kill the bird without a second thought; to him, there is no deeper moral order. It is clear after the other sailors have died that the Mariner feels mankind is better than the rest of nature. Looking at the sea, he regrets the deaths of “the many men so beautiful” while “a thousand thousand slimy things,” the ocean creatures, still live. The Ancient Mariner will not begin atoning for his sin until realizes that he is not master of the world, but part of it.
Like the story of Adam and Eve, the Mariner’s sin is eventually followed by redemption. Gazing at the ocean, he sees schools of sea snakes glistening in the moonlight. They are no longer “slimy things,” they are bathed in beautiful “golden fire.” “A spring of love gushed from my heart, / And I blessed them unaware.” This moment is the poem’s turning point and it mirrors the casual, ignorant murder of the bird.
It might seem odd that such a moment could save him. What is important is that his essential nature has changed, the nature that led him to kill the albatross in the first place. The Mariner realizes that he had nothing to do with that change—it was a gift from a higher power. “Sure my kind saint took pity on me / And I blessed them unaware,” he says. No one can choose to love. Love is a gift that springs from the heart; we either love or we do not.
The instant he blesses the water snakes, he is saved and can return home. His punishment has been severe: the death of his crew, thirst, and fearful visions. But he continues to carry his guilt with him, even after his redemption. When the Mariner returns to his country, he turns to the hermit. “He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away / The Albatross’s blood.” He confesses his guilt to the hermit. But after he has been forgiven, the Mariner’s atonement continues. By the end of the poem, he “hath penance done and penance more will do.” So the Mariner wanders the earth telling his story, to “teach” others.
Imagination plays a special role in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” In the poem imagination has transformative powers. It is a special form of knowledge more true and insightful than other forms. The sailors employ a scientific approach to life and therefore misconstrue many of the spiritual events and their consequences.
When the Mariner kills the albatross, for example, and the ship begins to drift through the fog, he says, “all averred, I had killed the bird / That made the breeze to blow.” But the next day the “glorious sun” rises and the sailors change their tune. “Then all averred, I had killed the bird that brought the fog and mist.” Their reasoning is superficial and fails to go beyond their own limited momentary self-interest. It lacks any broader moral basis.
The Mariner and his men have unwittingly sailed into a universe full of spirits and ghostly ships and roaring ice that cannot be known by the common modes of perception. No one on the ship is aware of the deeper realities that surround the ship. The Mariner does not realize the albatross’s place in the mysterious unseen order and he kills it. He does not understand his own place in the world. The world he finds himself in cannot be grasped by mere reason. It has the shape and feel of a dream where the rules of logic no longer apply. It can only be grasped by the imagination.
In the poem imagination is represented by wind blowing and moonlight shining down on the sea. The first sign is the appearance of the albatross, “the bird that made the breeze to blow.” The Mariner kills the bird, and his punishment is to be eventually left alone on a rotting ship, the rest of the crew dead.
The world without imagination is a dead world, and it is a world the Mariner chooses because of his murder of the bird. The spirit of imagination is there, in the form of the Polar Spirit deep below the water. The Polar Spirit is like the creative spirit; it comes unseen and may be benign or destructive. The Mariner is like a dead man himself, doomed to “death-in-life.” The Mariner finally turns in disgust from the empty world around him. “I closed my eyes, and kept them closed … for the sky and the sea and the sea and the sky / Lay like a load on my weary eye / And the dead men at my feet.”
The doors to imagination open for the Mariner when he turns his back on the superficial world of sensory perception. The moon rises, new light shines, and a different world is revealed. The creatures of the sea look so different that normal, logical speech does not describe them. They can only be experienced directly. “Oh happy living things! No tongue / Their beauty might declare.”
After his experience in the moonlight, the Mariner realizes that there is a moral order in the universe. He knows that that order encompasses him and every other creature.
When the spirit of the air says “the Spirit who bideth by himself / In the land of mist and snow, / He loved the bird that loved the man / Who shot him with his bow,” it is describing an unending
Topics for Further Study
- The Mariner of this poem is sent out to travel the world and teach about love and reverence. Imagine this happening now. What occupation, other than mariner, might be given a person responsible for this chore? Since albatrosses are rare today, what other crime against nature might a contemporary person commit to bring this punishment upon him or herself? Write a scenario that would retain the emotions of guilt and redemption from this poem, but transfer them to the world in which you live.
- The third section of the poem concerns the approach of the skeleton ship, with Death and Death-in-Life coming to meet the Ancient Mariner. To what extent is he glad to see them? Has his loneliness increased his interest in the macabre? How can you tell? What do the details of their appearance tell the Mariner he can expect out of life in the future?
chain of love that binds all beings. The Mariner’s senseless murder broke that chain. Afterward, wandering the earth, he remains intensely sensitive to this awareness and tries to communicate it to the Wedding Guest. The most important thing, he asserts, is to worship God.
Alienation and Loneliness
The Ancient Mariner is an outsider. He leaves his countrymen to sail off into the unknown. He is confronted with real isolation for the first time when ice traps the ship in the south polar seas. “Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken / The ice was all between.” The spell of isolation is broken by the arrival of the bird. The seamen greet it “as if it had been a Christian soul” and share their food with it. It remains with them and breaks up the ice, eventually enabling the ship to sail free. Once free, the Mariner murders the bird. He is the ultimate outsider, an anti-social outlaw who has violated the most basic rules about hospitality toward guests.
The Mariner’s isolation deepens. His shipmates hang the dead bird around his neck as a mark of his exclusion. All communication on the ship ceases and the Mariner is alone in his own thoughts. “Through utter drought all parched we stood.” After he hails the ship that bears Death and Death-in-Life, his alienation is total, “alone, alone, all all alone / Alone on the wide wide sea.”
The Mariner remains alone on the sea, in a condition one critic has described as schizophrenic. He is on the edge of madness, in such a deep existential crisis that he is alienated from himself as well.
After his mystical experience with the water snakes, he begins to recover from his psychotic trance. Suddenly he is no longer alone, life is everywhere around him and the revelation saves him. “The upper air burst into life!” Suddenly the air is full of music “like all instruments / Now like a lonely flute; / And now it is an angel’s song.” Even the dead men move again as if they were alive.
The Ancient Mariner is a changed man after his experience but remains alone. He tells the Wedding Guest he values nothing more than the company of other people, yet he wanders the earth alone. He does not join the wedding feast. The effect of the story is to make the Wedding Guest a more lonely, solitary person. He does not join the wedding celebration although he was he was anxious to do so. He simply leaves, “stunned.” And it is surely significant that his new-found knowledge not only makes him “a wiser man,” but “a sadder” one as well.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is mostly written in the traditional ballad stanza: a series of fourline verses, the first and third of which are written in iambic tetrameter, and the second and fourth written in iambic trimeter.
In order to analyze the rhythm or meter of a line of poetry, the line must first be divided into syllables. An iamb is a metrical unit consisting of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. In Coleridge’s poem, for example:
In mist / or cloud / on mast / or shroud
It perched / for ves / pers nine
When the iambs above are read aloud, the emphasis falls on every second syllable. The meter of the first line is in iambic tetrameter because it contains four iambic units in each line (totalling eight syllables), whereas the meter of the second line is in iambic trimeter because it contains only three iambic units (totalling six syllables).
Ballad stanzas also employ a set rhyme scheme. In the traditional schematic form, the second and the fourth lines rhyme, whereas the first and third lines do not. Coleridge followed this pattern, frequently adding additional rhyming elements. In the lines above, “cloud” and “shroud” are examples of internal rhyme, because they rhyme within a single line. Furthermore, the line contains alliteration, a rhyming element that repeats the beginning sounds of words (e.g. “mist” and “mast”). Coleridge also uses the rhyming element assonance, in which there are repeated verb sounds within words (e.g. in the second line: “per,” “ves,” “pers”).
Although most of the verses follow the four-line stanza, Coleridge deliberately varies the poem’s pattern to illustrate certain points or to help develop an idea, because it calls the reader’s attention to a particular section. For example, the first eleven stanzas of the poem follow the basic pattern very closely. In the twelfth stanza, however, both the number of lines and the rhyme scheme change. Of the six lines that form this stanza, the first two employ eye rhyme—“prow” and “blow”—where the words’ endings are spelled similarly but differ in their pronunciation. Moreover, Coleridge uses internal rhyme—“fast” and “blast—in the fifth line of this stanza. In this passage, Coleridge also describes the ship as fleeing before the storm. These variations serve to move the poem along more quickly, i.e. the lines of poetry themselves speed up or “flee.” Coleridge also utilizes stanzaic changes throughout the poem to emphasize his meaning.
The poem is divided into seven parts that are written in dialogue form, with occasional descriptive comments added by the poet. Another important detail in the poem’s organization is the inclusion of a series of marginal notes which were added in the 1817 version of the poem. These notes provide a great deal of information—some of which appearing exclusively in the notes—that may help a reader to better understand the poem’s sense or meaning.
In 1798, England was still reacting to the ideas and events of the French Revolution. The French ideology and army both continued to threaten England at that time. The slogan Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite—Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood—that inspired the French masses to overthrow, and eventually kill, the French king and queen led the ruling houses of Europe to oppose the French Republic. Bitter opposition to royalty and church, an integral part of France’s liberal political philosophy, concerned the conservative rulers of Britain. These radical ideas, it was feared, could lead to unrest in the British lower classes.
France was also a real military threat to Britain. The fear of a French invasion was constant through much of the 1790s. Revolutionary France had threatened to invade neighboring Holland earlier in the decade. In 1796, a French force set out to assist Irish rebels planning an uprising against the English government and only a bad storm kept French troops from landing in Ireland. In 1798, Napoleon massed troops just across the English Channel in preparation for an invasion that never took place.
French intentions seemed clear. England’s suspicions spurred many to support the old traditional English values and oppose the new France.
The Irish Rebellion
Britain faced the prospect of revolution in its nearest colony in the second half of the 1790s. Irish Roman Catholics had been demanding religious freedom and reform of the Irish parliament for a few years; and when they went ignored, Irish radicals and members of the working class joined forces to form United Irishmen in 1795. The group was secret, organized along on military lines, and dedicated to radical action in order to reform Ireland. It was also militantly Catholic and targeted its attacks exclusively against Protestants.
Between 1796 and 1798 the situation grew very serious. In 1796, the French attempted an unsuccessful expedition to Ireland with the Irish radical leader Wolfe Tone. As a result of the growing trouble, the English government instituted a series of draconian measures. In 1796 the Insurrection Act was passed, followed by the suspension of the right of habeas corpus. The following year the English attempted to seize all private arms in Ireland and suppressed publication of a radical newspaper in Belfast.
In 1798, as the United Irishmen prepared an armed rebellion, the English authorities arrested the main rebel leaders. Local uprisings erupted and a number of battles were fought. In the end, the Irish were defeated at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. Following their victory, the English government abolished
Compare & Contrast
- 1798: Napoleon Bonaparte conquers Egypt on July 22, but on August 1 the British navy under Admiral Horatio Nelson destroys the French fleet and strands Bonaparte and his army in Africa.
- 1798: Irish resistance to British rule is brutally broken at the Battle of Vinegar Hill.
- 1798: Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, develops a system for producing firearms from interchangeable parts. The invention sets the stage for the industrial revolution in America.
Today: Personal computers, based on the mass-production of silicon chips, are a multibillion dollar industry.
the Irish parliament completely. They allowed the Irish to be represented only in the English parliament.
The publication of Lyrical Ballads, a book written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, is considered the beginning of the Romantic movement in English literature. The idea to collaborate on a book of poetry was conceived by Wordsworth and Coleridge at the same time they formulated the idea for the Ancient Mariner, a work which was initially planned as a collaboration.
The project was forgotten for three or four months, only to be raised again by Coleridge in 1798. He proposed that they, along with Wordsworth’s sister, travel together to Germany in order to learn German, study natural science, and explore German philosophy. The book was intended first and foremost as a way to raise money for the long trip. When Lyrical Ballads was published, it opened with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; all but four of its poems were written by Wordsworth.
Lyrical Ballads was revolutionary because it used the language of the working classes. In his preface to the second edition, Wordsworth argued explicitly that this was necessary. He maintained that the language of the lower classes was superior to the elevated, self-consciously poetic language of English poetry. In plain, straightforward language, Wordsworth wrote, “the passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity … and speak in plainer and more emphatic language.”
That essay became a manifesto for other Romantic poets. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the essay and the poetry in Lyrical Ballads was viewed as incendiary and dangerous by some critics. It was dangerous because by leveling the language of different social classes, the book implied a similar leveling of all class distinctions. It was perceived to oppose to the age-old English system of noble and subject. Wordsworth wrote that through the ability to feel the “great and simple affections” of human nature—an ability this common language conferred—“one being is elevated above another.”
Nineteenth-century critics had somewhat mixed reviews regarding “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” They lauded the poem’s brilliant imagery, but found the story unconvincing, the language distracting, and the theme incomprehensible. Twentieth-century critics cannot agree on a standard interpretation of the poem. In The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston Lowes argues that the moral of the poem only has validity within the special world that Coleridge created. He notes, however, that the death of an entire crew is a rather harsh punishment for the death of a bird. Lowes contends that the poem operates on three “interlocking” levels: the voyage, the spirit world, and the tale of crime and punishment. He fails, however, to regard the poem’s effectiveness as a tale of salvation and redemption. Nevertheless, Lowes’s greatest contribution to the study of “The Ancient Mariner” is his intensive investigation into Coleridge’s sources that sparked a renewed interest in his poetry.
In “A Poem of Pure Imagination,” Robert Penn Warren disagrees with Lowes’s views on the triviality of the Mariner’s act, contending that the poem’s primary theme is one of sacramental vision; of “One Life” for all creatures. The Mariner’s crime represents humankind’s fall from grace, like original sin. Warren also points out that “the bird is hailed ‘in God’s name,’ both literally and symbolically, and in the end we have, therefore, in the crime against Nature a crime against God.” For Coleridge, then, God is nature, and in doing this act, the Mariner separates himself from nature and ultimately from God. In Coleridge: The Clark Lectures, Humphry House discusses the importance of Coleridge’s use of natural imagery in developing the poem’s main theme. He points out that the elements of nature not only provide key insights into the Mariner’s spiritual state, but they also provide “the link between the Mariner as an ordinary man, and the Mariner as one acquainted with the invisible world, which has its own sets of values.” House cautions the reader against wholeheartedly adopting any single interpretation of the poem, as he contends that any such action may limit, and ultimately prevent, the reader from gaining valuable insight from issues that he may have overlooked.
Jhan Hochman is a writer and instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following stylistic and thematic analysis of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Hochman focuses on the role of the albatross in the poem.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is one of the most scrutinized works in English poetry. A multi-volume set could be devoted to commentaries and criticism alone. Why such an abundance of commentary when the poem, at least as a story, seems in so little need of explanation?
There are many reasons this poem is worth our attention. First, there is the fact that the poem has been changed and appended since its first appearance in Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). The original poem’s archaic language and derivative poeticisms, such as “Or my staff shall make thee skip” and “Like chaff we drove along,” were updated for publication in 1800 due to the urgings of Coleridge’s closest peer, Wordsworth, who felt “the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on.”
Another major change to the poem appeared in 1817 when marginal glosses (summations of the action) were added. Regarding these, William Empson has written extensively; he casts a suspicious eye on their reliability since Coleridge’s mental condition was supposed to be of dubious clarity.
The point is that change to a major literary work produces interest and work for scholars. Comparisons made between earlier and later versions, and an addition of notes or glosses become a major preoccupation and reason for publication.
A second reason for the amount of criticism on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is to determine the various works that contributed to the poem’s composition. Inspirations for the poem are though to include travel narratives such as Shelvocke’s A Voyage Around the World by the Way of the Great South Sea and Bligh’s A Voyage to the South Sea, both of which recount killings of albatrosses.
Poems that influenced Coleridge include those in Percy’s collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. In addition, one scholar believes an influence on Coleridge was an ancient Indian work translated from Sanskrit, The Laws of Manu, a work describing punishments for killing birds.
Finally, another reason for the large body of commentary is that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” provides fertile ground for the study of literature, philosophy, and psychology: from arguments for less poetic language and syntax in poems; to a defense for animal rights and of Christian devotion to God’s great accomplishment, nature
What Do I Read Next?
- In later years, when he was no longer writing poetry, Coleridge commented on his work as an author in his Biographia Literaria.
- Some biographers have blamed Coleridge’s decline as a poet on his long addiction to opium. Thomas de Quincey, a friend of Coleridge’s, described his own opium addiction in the fascinating Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
- Coleridge was inspired by his readings on voyages of exploration made at the time. Captain James Cook describes his voyages around Antarctica and the South Seas in Voyages of Discovery.
- The Ancient Mariner was partially intended to capitalize on the interest in Gothic literature at the time. The craze for the Gothic was set off by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, a novel that retains many of its eerie qualities today.
- Nearly one hundred years after Coleridge wrote this poem, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a long prose-poem, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, about another lonely man searching for meaning in life.
One could say that ever since its appearance in 1798, the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” itself has been on a long voyage through English literature.
The poem is a ballad, a narrative song form written primarily in four-line stanzas (quatrains) of alternating lines of tetrameter (four accented beats per line) and trimeter (three accented beats). In the quatrains, second and fourth lines end-rhyme. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” depicts a ship captain’s odyssey, as does its much earlier predecessor, the anonymous ballad “Sir Patrick Spens,” also a ballad of sea and death.
Two stories dominate the action in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the frame story describing an ancient mariner telling a story to a guest at a wedding, and the internal story about the mariner’s bizarre tale of murdering a sea bird and suffering the consequences.
Perhaps it would be best to start with the frame story. The most obvious question that the reader might ask is, Why does the mariner’s telling take place at a wedding? A likely answer is that weddings are declarations of love often made in a church. As the internal story is about Christian love for “all things both great and small,” a church wedding is perhaps the closest ceremony expressing the sentiment of love between beings. The mariner’s story expands the mutual declaration of love for two people into a declaration of love for all animals. At the wedding, the mariner is seized with the urge to tell his story. The mariner’s glittering eye spots the correct listener, because at the end of the poem the wedding guest awakes the morning after the mariner’s tale “a sadder and a wiser man.”
What makes the wedding guest sadder and wiser? Of course, the tale of the mariner’s unexplained murder of an albatross and his explained punishment for killing the sea bird. The reader might be prone to reflexively see this albatross as white. However, in Shelvocke’s travel narrative mentioned above, the albatross is black. Further, Coleridge does not specify the bird’s color, which in fact does vary. The absence of described color—especially whiteness—is telling: less is the sea bird an analogue of the Christ-dove (recall the lines, “as if it had been a Christian soul”), or a white bird symbolizing purity, than it is, plain and simple, a bird.
If the albatross is anything, it is a synecdoche, a concept or figure of speech by which a part is used to stand for the whole. In this case the albatross stands for all animals. By coupling the absence of described color with the unexplained murder, the killing can be viewed as a synecdoche for all killing of animals apart from that of killing to eat. That is, killing an animal apart from the purpose of survival, Coleridge seems to say, is a crime, i.e., murder, not only against the animal but against all of nature, especially one policed by spirits.
The crew cannot quite make up its mind whether the bird brings favorable or unfavorable sailing weather. First it blames the mariner for killing the bird that brought good weather, then praises him for killing the bird that brought bad weather, then finally blames him again, hanging the albatross around his neck like a punishing millstone or crucifix. What is the reader to think about the connection of the albatross to the weather?
Since the weather itself is both favorable and unfavorable for sailing immediately after the mariner kills the albatross, readers are left to form their own interpretation. It is most likely that the bird is neither symbol nor portent, but meant as a representative of nature, and for killing a representative of nature, the weather eventually turns bad. Coleridge might have thought that while people should not kill animals except for food (he was not a vegetarian), animals should be used for human gain, despite occasional cruelty since animals are of a lower order. Coleridge was, after all, a Christian, a religion that was not exactly consistent in its views of animals.
Whatever the finer points of Coleridge’s view of animals, the mariner is indeed punished for his murder—though it might be said that it is the crew who suffers most since they all die. Are they killed simply for having thought for a brief moment that the mariner had done the right thing killing the albatross? Is not the death of all these men a rather heavy penalty to pay for thinking a wrong thought?
But asking this question seems to lead us astray. Instead, the death of the crew is better understood as a punishment directed at the mariner more than the crew: “The souls did from their bodies fly,—They fled to bliss or woe! And every soul, it passed me by, Like the whizz of my crossbow!” The whizz of souls punishes the mariner for his doubly fatal act. Still the expendability of the crew does seem severe, perhaps even a flaw despite the explanation that the punishment comes about due to a game of chance between death and death-in-life in Part III.
The last bit of penance the mariner must do before finishing his odyssey is confess to the hermit in Part VII. The threesome of the pilot, pilot’s boy, and the hermit suggest an earthly holy trinity. If so, the hermit might be the analogue of the Holy Spirit, a kind of breath or voice from God, especially that voice manifested in sages and prophets. While the hermit of the poem makes no contact with serpents, one tradition of the hermit dictates that if he finds serpents, a symbol of the instincts, in his path, he is not to harm them but instead charm them into swirling around his walking staff like one hermit, Aesculapius, did (the image of staff and coiling snakes has become a Western symbol for medical science). Aesculapius not only marshalled the instincts/serpents to heal the sick—serpents were thought sacred to Aesculapius—but could bring the dead to life.
The hermit is therefore a fitting choice to rescue—with the help of the pilot and his son—the mariner after his death cruise, and finally to “heal” the mariner by hearing, as a priest would, the mariner’s confession. The hermit, it seems, is the first of those the mariner must tell his story to in order to expiate his sinful killing of the albatross.
After the crew dies, the mariner himself becomes a wise hermit of the sea, for whom eventually serpents, or in this case, water snakes, become sacred (recall Aesculapius’s ability to revive the dead). While the mariner did not revive the revenant crew himself, the crew revives following a lightning storm in which the moon is strangely visible. The constant references to moon, sun, the mariner’s own glittering eye, and the evil one-eyed gaze of the crew in Part IV might remind readers of the one-eyed cyclopes. The cyclopes fashioned thunder and lightning for Zeus, the chief sky god who used them to kill Aesculapius. The mariner is not killed but somewhat punished by the terror of the crew being reanimated.
In the most important ways, however, the evil eyes of sun and moon become good ones after the mariner understands his mistake and the albatross falls from his neck. Even the reanimation of the crew is favorable in that the dead crew sails the ship that gets the mariner home. The mariner’s change of heart regarding animals makes evil eyes turn good, the sun less hot, and the moon less cold.
With the mariner’s new understanding—or perhaps better, his new vision—he is also able to pray. Ancient Egyptians defined the eye as the sun within the mouth. They were on target, for the mariner’s new improved vision not only turns sun and moon hospitable, but transforms his fearful glittering eye into a wise one—a kind of third eye—that allows him to pray and, more importantly for this poem, to tell his story to those needing to hear it. Perhaps Coleridge was a little more astute than even the ancient mariner since Coleridge decided that not just certain people, but most everyone would wake up a little sadder and wiser after reading the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following essay, Modiano investigates “some aspects of the discrepancy between the experiencethe Mariner is likely to have undergone and his subsequent account of it.”
With its first appearance in Lyrical Ballads (1798), The Rime of the Ancient Mariner emerged as a perplexing and highly controversial poem. To Coleridge’s contemporaries it seemed a “rhapsody of unintelligible wildness and incoherence,” occasionally redeemed by passages of unusual craftsmanship. To modern readers the poem is neither absurd nor spoiled by “great defects” of diction, character, and morality, and certainly no one today would want to call it a “Dutch attempt at German sublimity,” as Southey mockingly described Coleridge’s venture [in] Coleridge: The Critical Heritage. Yet although readers no longer dispute the coherence and quality of the poem, they hardly agree on what it means. The Ancient Mariner has been variously interpreted as a sacramental vision of crime, punishment, and salvation; as a nightmarish tale of senseless suffering; as a discourse on prayer; as a parody of the Christian doctrine of atonement; as an elaborate structure of occult symbolism; as a poetic workshop for Coleridge’s later metaphysics; and as a prophetic allegory of Coleridge’s personal life.
The myriad of critical interpretations points to a fundamental center of ambiguity in the poem. In his narrative the Mariner conspicuously relies on Christian rituals and beliefs, and yet the Christian doctrine fails to explain his world of excessive suffering and irrational events. Much of the Mariner’s fate seems bleakly absurd, and yet he moves in an ordered universe where crime leads to suffering, however disproportionate, and blessing brings about redemption, however temporary. Natural forces such as the sun and the moon appear to form unified symbolical patterns, but contrary to what [American novelist and poet] Robert Penn Warren once tried to demonstrate, not everything good happens under the moon and everything bad under the sun. The poem teasingly gravitates toward coherent systems of thought, and yet no mythic or philosophical tradition, be it Christian, Egyptian, Neoplatonic, or the like, is large enough to contain it.
The Ancient Mariner raises special problems of interpretation because while it involves us in a series of captivating incidents and continuously tempts us to decipher some meaningful order which holds them together, it draws its dramatic action not from events as such which correspond to any one particular world view, but from the manner in which a deeply troubled character, laboring under various delusions, fears, and anxieties, is able to reconstruct a painful episode of his past. The poem does not offer an objective account of an adventurous voyage at the time when it originally occurred, but merely a later version of that voyage told by an old and lonely man who can neither explain nor fully describe what happened to him on a “wide wide sea.”
From Coleridge’s own statements about the composition of The Ancient Mariner and from the testimony of his contemporaries, it appears that Coleridge intended to explore precisely the discrepancy between actual experience and the recounting of experience by a character with a “most believing mind.” Until late in his life Coleridge maintained his view that the true subject of a supernatural poem is the mentality of its narrator and the circumstances that cause him to confuse reality with his distorted apprehension of it. In a notebook entry written in 1830, Coleridge points out that, to insure the credibility and success of a supernatural tale, the poet “of his free will and judgement” must do “what the Believing Narrator of a Supernatural Incident, Apparition or Charm does from ignorance and weakness of mind,—i.e. mistake a Subjective product (A saw the Ghost of Z) for an objective fact—the Ghost of Z was there to be seen.” The poet must also take into account the psychological forces that play upon the witness of an unfamiliar object, namely, [as noted in Inquiring Spirit, edited by Kathleen Coburn] “the magnifying and modifying power of Fear and dreamy Sensations,” the “additive and supplementary interpolations of the creative Memory and the inferences … of the prejudiced Judgement,” which tend to slip into and are “confounded with the Text of the actual experience.”
My interest here is to investigate some aspects of the discrepancy between the experience the Mariner is likely to have undergone and his subsequent account of it. I shall pay particular attention to the Wedding Guest’s controlling influence on “the additive and supplementary interpolations” of the Mariner’s “creative Memory” and the inferences of his “prejudiced Judgement.” I would also like to show that language itself, although it is the only means by which the Mariner can relive his past, finally binds him to an inaccurate view of it. In many ways The Ancient Mariner draws our attention to the distance between private history and its narratives, between attempted “texts” and [as noted in The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume III, edited by Kathleen Coburn] “the thousand indescribable things that form the whole reality of the living fuel.” The poem tests the limits of man’s power to convey through language the inner life of self which is intrinsically mysterious, prerational, and mute; it points to “the inadequacy of Words to Feeling, of the symbol to the Being” (Notebooks, II).
For the moment I would like to mention two hints by which the poem alerts us to this question. When the Mariner kills the Albatross, he not only alienates himself from nature, his shipmates, and God, but also loses his speech:
And every tongue, through utter drought,
Was withered at the root;
We could not speak, no more than
if We had been choked with soot.
Consequently, the Mariner remains silent during most of the action recorded in his tale. In Part III, upon apprehending the oncoming bark, he performs a sacrificial gesture to regain speech, biting his arm to draw blood. But the words he is able to utter (“A sail! a sail!”), words of hope and salvation, so blatantly conflict with the events that follow that the Mariner immediately reverts to his mute mode of perceiving, dreaming, enduring.… [T]he Mariner is cursed with the extinction of language. Indeed, how is one to name and encode that most bizarre apparition of a spectral bark with a deathly crew on it? The Mariner’s world is full of sights “to dream of, not to tell.” But although the Mariner, … suffers the pain of inexpressible solitude after the contact with an unfamiliar world, he carries an even greater burden: all his life he must tell a story about an experience that has deprived him of a corresponding language, a story that will inevitably disclose its limitations.
This is one of the central paradoxes of the Mariner’s situation. He can relieve himself of his inner agony and retain his sanity after his return from the vast solitudes of the ocean only by shaping an otherwise formless, incomprehensible, and unbearable past into a structured narrative with a beginning, climax, ending—and a moral lesson as well. Despite its inadequacies, language provides the Mariner with the means of expression and conceptual categories by which he can make sense of his experience and share it with an auditor. But through the very process of turning his recollections into a tale that must account for his endless wandering, and must also be credible to an auditor, the Mariner endows his past with a coherence and meaning which it did not originally possess. At an uncertain hour, the narrative that has temporarily given form and value to the Mariner’s life is doomed to disintegrate, and his labor to “bring back fragments of former Feeling” begins anew (Notebooks, III).
Coleridge gives us yet another clue to the poem’s concern with the disparity between discourse and experience. In 1817, when he revised The Ancient Mariner for Sibylline Leaves, he added an explanatory gloss which, allegedly, was meant to clarify the poem’s geographical and moral directions. Wordsworth regarded the gloss as a superfluous afterthought, and later critics have likewise had difficulties in defining its function. Recently, William Empson [in Coleridge’s Verse: A Selection] has made a strong case against the inclusion of the gloss in modern editions of The Ancient Mariner, for he believes that it is nothing but a “parasitic growth” which makes nonsense of the poem. It is true that, as Empson demonstrates, the gloss tends to misrepresent the poem by translating its ambiguities into simplistic equations. For example, the speaker of the gloss attributes the persecution following the killing of the Albatross to the Mariner’s breach of the laws of hospitality, which hardly explains the cause of the Mariner’s torment. To justify the presence of spirits in the Mariner’s narrative, the speaker pedantically refers the reader to a scholarly source, and later he conveniently identifies the spirits animating the dead crew as a “troop of angelic spirits, sent down by the invocation of the guardian saint.” Are we to agree with Empson that the gloss should be discarded as an entirely mistaken frame of reference for the poem, composed by a poet who had fallen out of sympathy with his earlier ideals and grown more conventional in his old age? I think not, for one good reason: the incongruities between the gloss and the Mariner’s tale are much too obvious not to become suspect. It is hard to imagine that Coleridge could have misunderstood his own work to such a degree or that he would have compromised this artistic standards in order to suit the orthodox norms of the public of his time. Clearly, Coleridge did not want us to take the moralistic judgments proposed in the gloss at their face value. Rather, he uses the gloss to show what can happen to a work if clarity and secure moral explanations replaced its vastly nebulous universe.…
It would, however, be a simplification to regard the gloss merely as Coleridge’s answer to contemporary critics and reviewers who found The Ancient Mariner offensively obscure and lacking in moral sentiments. For one thing, the speaker of the gloss is not hopelessly unperceptive; in some instances he understands quite well the psychic factors that influence the Mariner’s acts. Perhaps we can gain a fuller sense of the persona of the gloss through a comparison with [Scottish essayist and historian Thomas] Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. Like Teufelsdröckh’s editor, the narrator of the gloss approaches a strange piece of imaginative literature from a rational position which is bound to be inadequate and is exposed for its inefficiencies. And like Carlyle’s editor, the speaker of the gloss shows a capacity for imaginative growth and is drawn into the center of the hero’s world to the point of stylistic imitation. And yet, very much like Carlyle’s editor, the speaker can grow only so much in the direction of the hero’s values, so that his distinctive sensibility is always in view.
The gloss, in effect, duplicates and is meant to highlight a particular situation dramatized in the poem. Within the narrative the Mariner tries to communicate to a conventionally-minded auditor a deeply personal experience of his past; in the gloss an editor tries to make that same experience accessible to readers who may share the biases of the Wedding Guest. Although the editor is often entranced by the strange fortunes that befall the Mariner, his responsibility toward the public makes him adopt a more sensible and ethical approach to the Mariner’s story, an approach that results in gross misrepresentations. But the Mariner’s need to maintain a dialogue with the Wedding Guest forces him to adopt the same approach with similar disadvantages. It is the Mariner who winds up his tale with a perfectly orthodox moral which contrasts with the pain and inexplicable suffering he had described all along. Thus, the editor’s overt practice of translating the Mariner’s narrative into a public language of familiar beliefs reflects a less perceptible process by which the Mariner gradually produces a socially acceptable account of his voyage. This process has as its source the Wedding Guest’s resistance to the Mariner’s tale.
The confrontation between the Mariner and the Wedding Guest is one of the most obvious features of surface plot in the poem, so obvious, in fact, that few critics have cared to discuss its significance at any length. The Mariner’s unusual character has so absorbed critics that the minor appearance of the Wedding Guest has slipped by unattended. A few have tried to rescue him from neglect, showing that he, like the Mariner, is capable of conversion and changes from a stubbornly conventional man to a “sadder and wiser” member of his community. But no matter how generous we want to be with the Wedding Guest, it is the Mariner who engages our interest, and although one might want to know to what extent he influences the Wedding Guest’s life, it is more important to investigate whether the Wedding Guest affects the Mariner in any way or, rather, whether the Mariner is affected by his own compulsion to speak to the Wedding Guest.
Critics have not sufficiently recognized the Mariner’s vulnerable susceptibility to the Wedding Guest, in part because they have mistakenly seen their relationship as one of the master-pupil kind. The Mariner is often taken to be the impersonated figure of the artist-missionary who wants to inform the Wedding Guest about a different, more problematic reality beyond the kirk, hill, and lighthouse top of the shore. From this perspective the Wedding Guest is reduced to a frivolous and naive man who must be taught that there are more things on earth than marriage feasts. But the Mariner does not simply have a mission; he has a fate as well. When he meets the Wedding Guest, he has one possession; a story. His monomania, his sole mode of being, is an oral recapitulation of a devastating experience of his past. Unless his ghastly tale is told, he can never escape, not even momentarily, the most “woful agony.” The Mariner desperately needs the Wedding Guest, because through his confession he hopes to wrench himself free of his painful loneliness and find some continuity between the chaos of his past life and the Wedding Guest’s world of communal rituals. His need for the Wedding Guest is so urgent that at the beginning he resorts to physical force to make him listen to his tale. His dependence upon the Wedding Guest’s continuous attention will significantly influence the very way in which he shapes his narrative, as I shall show in the following discussion.
To my knowledge, no critic has noticed that an abrupt shift takes place in the Mariner’s story when the Wedding Guest interrupts him in Parts IV and V of the poem. In each case, and more prominently in the latter, the Mariner interpolates calm scenes of beauty in a context that does not assimilate them. Preceding the Wedding Guest’s intervention in Part IV, for instance, is the scene of the Mariner’s shipmates dropping dead one by one, each turning his face with a “ghastly pang” and cursing the Mariner “with his eye.” This gruesome moment is followed, after the Wedding Guest’s outburst of fear and the Mariner’s haunting cry of loneliness, by a return to the scene of death which, surprisingly, becomes quite attractive to view:
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.
Having previously witnessed the pang of death in the sailors’ eyes, one would expect to see ugly faces distorted by pain rather than serene bodies merging quietly with the general calm of life. The incongruity of this scene is intensified by the fact that in the stanzas immediately following, the beauty of death vanishes completely and in its stead terror creeps in. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about the sight of a “rotting deck” on a “rotting sea,” or of “cold sweat” melting from dead limbs. What is it, then, that causes the Mariner’s brief and rather unnatural perception of beauty? It is possible to speculate that, given the proximity of this scene of restful calm to the Wedding Guest’s intervention, it might be in some way related to it. This suggestion gains support from the fact that, with the next intervention of the Wedding Guest in Part V, a parallel though much more emphatic change occurs in the Mariner’s narrative from supernatural horror to humanized beauty.
Before the Wedding Guest interrupts him in Part V, the Mariner relives one of the most frightening episodes of his past. The dead sailors suddenly rise like ghosts, without speaking or moving their eyes. They begin to work the ship as “they were wont to do,” but their motions are lifeless and their silence eerie. The sailors are indeed “ghastly,” as the Mariner describes them, and their miraculous reanimation is even more horrifying than their previous dying. At this point the Wedding Guest breaks in, voicing his anxiety; to placate his fears, the Mariner provides him with the following explanation:
’Twas not those souls that fled in pain,
Which to their corses came again,
But a troop of spirits blest.
Although the Wedding Guest might buy this explanation, the reader will not and should not. The metamorphosis of the “ghastly crew” into a disembodied troop of angelic spirits is much too obvious a tour de force to be credible. It looks like a “supplementary interpolation” prompted by the Mariner’s need to respond to and pacify the Wedding Guest. It is important to note that the lines just quoted were not part of the original composition of The Ancient Mariner; Coleridge inserted them in 1800 when he revised the poem for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Empson, [in Coleridge’s Verse,] uses this example to demonstrate how Coleridge manages to ruin his work by trying to cover up its unchaste strangeness. But to read the passage this way is to lift it out of its dramatic context and forget that it is the Mariner who speaks it, not Coleridge. When Coleridge added these lines in 1800, he made another important change in the original text: in the second version, the Wedding Guest addresses himself to the Mariner just before the blest spirits enter into the Mariner’s tale. Viewed from this perspective, the lines do not emphasize Coleridge’s orthodox leanings; rather, they identify the Wedding Guest as a source for the Mariner’s orthodox vocabulary. They indicate that the presence of the Wedding Guest forces the Mariner to mold his unfamiliar past into a more conventional and communicable story. The lines also establish a link between the intervention of the Wedding Guest and the following episode of enchanting sights and sounds, a link that is vaguely suggested in the 1798 text.
Since this episode is central to my thesis, I shall quote it in full and examine it in detail:
For when it dawned—they dropped their arms,
And clustered round the mast;
Sweet sounds rose slowly through their mouths,
And from their bodies passed.
Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mixed, now one by one.
Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!
And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the heavens be mute.
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.
This is a beautiful reverie, but it remains a reverie nonetheless, a distorted apprehension of the Mariner’s existence on the ocean. It is difficult to believe with J. B. Beer [in his Coleridge the Visionary] that the episode marks the culmination of the Mariner’s process of regeneration, the completion of his vision of the ideal universe “which was only prefigured to him in the sight of the moon and the water-snakes.” Nothing happens to the Mariner himself at this time. He is able to apprehend harmonious sounds, but that does not transform him in the way the blessing of the water snakes did. The act of blessing had immediate and major psychic effects on the Mariner: “the self-same moment” he could pray, the Albatross fell off his neck, he was able to sleep, and he was released from thirst. No such positive consequences follow from the Mariner’s entranced vision of sweet sounds. The ship moves on quietly for a while, “Yet never a breeze did breathe”—a statement with an ominous ring in view of previous scenes of terror when motion took place “Without a breeze, without a tide.” Indeed, no sooner does the sun fix itself upon the bark than the Mariner is knocked down senseless by the ship’s sudden bound.
There is a fundamental difference, both in the manner of the Mariner’s composition and in its content, between the scene of blessing and that of divine music. In the former instance the Mariner’s experience takes in beings which inhabited his world all along: the slimy water snakes. He can therefore focus on them sharply and perceive them vividly. Although, as he declares, no human tongue could describe their beauty, he is able to represent in detail their shapes, colors, and movements. In the latter example, on the other hand, the Mariner has difficulties in identifying the things he perceives. Unable to determine the source of the sounds he hears or their exact quality, he proceeds to name them through a series of analogies, constantly shifting the terms of comparison. The sounds come to him now mixed, now one by one; they seem to originate from the song of a skylark or other little birds and resemble in turn the collective tune of “all instruments” or the individual voice of a lonely flute, an angel’s song, or a hidden brook. The whole scene is cast in an unreal light. Nothing is what it is but seems to be like something else. Moreover, all the terms of this rich metaphoric exchange come from a realm that is essentially foreign to the ocean. (There are no skylarks on the ocean.) It is quite apparent that the Mariner borrows the metaphors composing his aural reverie from a landscape that belongs entirely to the Wedding Guest’s shore world. Only in this world would one normally hear sounds of skylarks, lonely flutes, or hidden brooks, and would such time references as “the leafy month of June” have any significance. For the Mariner whose ship is stalled on a silent sea, time extends indefinitely, and conventional month-counts have ceased to matter.
It appears, then, that the Wedding Guest’s intervention in Parts IV and V of the poem occasions a sudden shift of narrative perspective in the Mariner’s tale which meliorates the horror of previous scenes. This shows that the Mariner’s story is a composite of his past and present, of the time of his voyage and the time of dialogue about it. At crucial moments the present invades the Mariner’s past, clouding his memory of what that past really was, giving him fantasies of little birds exchanging “sweet jargoning” in the midst of a grotesque spectacle of bodies that mimic the actions of live men. The episode of angelic sounds makes two important suggestions: one, that the Wedding Guest has a direct impact on the course of the Mariner’s story, and two, that the Mariner’s tale and the life behind it do not always coincide. The episode also reveals the Mariner’s particular habit of metaphoric expression which will eventually distance him from his own past, leaving him in the end with a dry moral that falls flat even on the Wedding Guest’s ears. As I shall show in the rest of the paper, the Mariner is subject to linguistic forces which finally defeat him, mocking the pride he takes in his “strange power of speech.”
A close look at the vocabulary of the poem indicates that the Mariner resorts to two modes of language which, though mixing with each other, remain relatively distinct. When he is deeply immersed in his past and oblivious to his auditor, he speaks in a language that is primarily sensorial and concrete. Objects and actions are named as they are perceived without taking on conceptual meanings external to their immediate experiential value. On the other hand, when the Mariner is influenced by a social situation—a debate with his shipmates, a dialogue with the Wedding Guest, or a discussion between two spirits apprehended from a trance—he tends to use a language that does not merely record objects but assigns them meanings dependent upon a system of shared mythology.
For convenience I would like to label the former type as the language of self and the latter as the language of social discourse. A complex process of transfer from one type of language to the other governs the development of the Mariner’s narrative. As the Mariner departs from the shore and advances toward the climactic event of his journey, the encounter with the specter-bark, his tale gradually empties itself of metaphors which link him to the safe public world he has left behind. After the intervention of the Wedding Guest in Part IV, this process reverses itself. The Mariner is increasingly tempted to find Christian equivalents in his mysteriously demonic universe and begins to draw upon orthodox analogies to characterize unique experiences. The language of metaphor, however, has dangerous pitfalls. By using metaphor, one may easily end up being used by it; that is, one may cease to distinguish between models of comparison and the reality they were meant to illustrate. This is, I believe, what happens to the Mariner. Having borrowed his terms of description from the Wedding Guest’s world in order to make himself understood to his listener, the Mariner soon begins to confuse it with his own world, and in the end he identifies himself completely with the public values represented by his auditor.
In Part I, the Mariner uses a mixed language which contains both vivid pictorial and auditory imagery and conventional perceptions of Christian heritage. To say that the ice is “As green as emerald” and sounds “Like noises in a swound” is to establish an analogy in which both terms belong to the same level of physical reality and which functions to intensify the sensory qualities of the objects perceived. On the other hand, to say that the ship drove fast “As who pursued with yell and blow / Still treads the shadow of his foe,” or that the arrival of the Albatross was “hailed … in God’s name,” as “if it had been a Christian soul,” is to build up a quite different kind of analogy which refers particular objects to concepts of a well-established tradition (“foe,” “God’s name,” “Christian soul”). When at the end of Part I the Wedding Guest invokes “God” to “save” the Mariner from the “fiends” that plague him, he expresses himself precisely in the language of that tradition.
These two types of analogy illustrate the linguistic trends I wish to trace here, one based on concrete perceptions of individual objects, the other on more abstract and conceptual interpretations of events. Both trends recur throughout the poem, but their frequency and distribution vary from part to part. In Part II, for instance, the action of sensory language is more intense than in Part I, where it frequently mixes with the language of social discourse. This mixture is due in part to the Wedding Guest’s interruption and in part to the circumstance that the Mariner still speaks collectively for himself and his shipmates. As the Mariner becomes an isolated voice after killing the Albatross, and his ship enters an unknown world (“We were the first that ever burst / Into that silent sea”), unusual events begin to happen, all demanding an acute sensory awareness. The ship is stopped in the midst of a “copper sky,” “As idle as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean”; an infinitude of water surrounds the crew only to remind them of their thirst; slimy things crawl upon the sea, and the water burns at night “like a witch’s oils,” “green, and blue and white.”
Despite the increase of sensory data, the language of social discourse is not extinct in this section of the poem. It occurs before the Mariner’s advent
“[T]he Mariner desires to make sense of chance and irrationality in terms of accepted myths in order to maintain control over an experience that borders on madness.”
into the silent sea, toward the beginning of Part II. Here the shipmates gather to discuss the Mariner’s act of shooting the Albatross. They refer to it in turn as “hellish” and “right,” appealing to conventional though opposite moral absolutes. In the midst of this debate the Mariner notices the rising of the sun: “Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head,/ The glorious Sun uprist” (my italics). There are many different suns and moons in the poem, some more symbolic than others. The sun that rose upon the right at the beginning of Part II is a merely physical sun engaged in its daily activities. But the sun of this passage is primarily a symbolic object; it is a Christian sun and glorious. The point I want to stress is that in the context of a social dialogue, the Mariner’s perception of the surrounding universe is conceptualized. As soon as the dialogue is over, the narrative turns to sensory objects and immediate experiences of physical suffering (unbearable thirst, the withering of speech organs).
The language of social discourse reasserts itself at the end of Part II, where the Mariner directs his attention to his shipmates. He detects “evil looks” in their faces and finds the Albatross hung around his neck instead of the cross. The exchange of the cross for the slain Albatross summons again the Christian doctrine as a mythological frame of reference. But this replacement does not simply establish a symbolic association between the Albatross and Christ; it also marks the Mariner’s separation from a world represented by the cross, a world of redemptive suffering and just order. In Part III, this separation grows wider. As the specter-bark approaches the ship from a distance, the Mariner’s universe becomes increasingly mysterious and its morality increasingly dubious. The fact that his fate is decided by an irrational fortune game played by frightening and alien figures undermines the logic of a Christian world view, as Edward Bostetter [in his “The Nightmare World of The Ancient Mariner”] convincingly demonstrates. The Mariner still attempts ritualistic invocations to protective powers (“Heaven’s Mother send us grace!”) and gestures of sacrifice to regain speech (the biting of his flesh), but these prove to be meaningless. Familiar assumptions about reality, such as “a sail is a ship which means people which means aid,” are no longer functional in a universe policed by Death and Life-in-Death. The very nature of knowing has become problematic.
By the time the Mariner encounters the specter-bark, he is completely divorced from communal ties: he has been separated from nature, from his shipmates, from God, and from language itself. Significantly, his narrative loses many of its conceptual referents to an established order and marks his immergence into a private world which has no correlation to reality as commonly understood. The episode of the encounter with the specter-bark is composed of a series of concentrated and fast-moving actions, and the Mariner uses strikingly unusual analogies to describe them:
A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!
And still it neared and neared:
As if it dodged a water-sprite,
It plunged and tacked and veered.
And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven’s Mother send us grace!)
As if through a dungeon-grate he peered
With broad and burning face.
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres?
And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my cross-bow!
Although they contain words that connote social or metaphysical concepts (dungeon, soul), these analogies are essentially concrete. The reference to a dungeon grate emphasizes the physical appearance of the sun. Likewise, the last analogy focuses not on the metaphysical status of the sailors’ departing souls, but on their movement and quality of sound.
After the intervention of the Wedding Guest in Part IV, a change in the Mariner’s use of language becomes noticeable. Although the narrative maintains stretches of sensory descriptions (the sight of the water snakes in the moonlight, for instance), a different mode of discourse begins to emerge. The narrative moves from a world commanded by Death and Life-in-Death to one where a “saint” is supposed to “take pity” on the Mariner, and finally does, as the Mariner interprets it, when he blesses the water snakes. The Mariner turns to traditional concepts, such as heaven, hell, and religious rituals of blessing and praying. He had previously described his experiences through the action of physical objects; now he resort to familiar metaphors (“My heart as dry as dust”) or to analogies that appeal to an orthodox mentality:
An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
This is not the way the Mariner projects horror in Part III. In this passage he insists that his experience is horrible through a conspicuous social rhetoric. He refers to “An orphan’s curse,” to “hell,” to spirits “from on high,” and uses conventional phrases such as “the curse in a dead man’s eye.” These lines do not advance the action of the narrative or add new descriptive details; instead, they offer an explanation that demands the exercise of a traditional imagination. The Wedding Guest, for example, might understand the Mariner’s situation if he were to think of an orphan’s curse and accept the fact that a curse in a dead man’s eye is even more horrible. As this example shows, there are parts of the Mariner’s narrative in which he does not describe anything new but reflects on his experience, and these parts tend to attract a social mode of discourse. The same thing happens at the end of Part IV, where the Mariner explains the blessing of the water snakes as the merciful act of a saint, and at the beginning of Part V, where he attributes the long-awaited sleep to “Mary Queen” of Heaven.
In Part V we are plunged again into the center of acute sensory perceptions and dynamic action. Refreshed by rain during sleep, the Mariner awakes to an animated landscape of explosive fire-flags, dancing stars, roaring wind, and torrential rain. He continues to observe the activity of nature and the ghostly reanimation of the crew until the Wedding Guest interrupts him. As the Mariner’s dream soliloquy is shattered (“It had been strange, even in a dream, / To have seen those dead men rise”), his narrative takes an orthodox turn which conceptualizes and tames his previous account of events. What follows is the episode of sweet sounds already discussed, where we find metaphors drawn from a common stock of religious vocabulary (“And now it is an angel’s song, / That makes the heavens be mute”), as well as from a hospitable shore landscape.
From this point on, the rich sensorial language and swift-moving narrative of earlier episodes give way to a more pronounced trend of social discourse. The end of Part V and the beginning of Part VI consist of a rather long dialogue between two spirits which recasts the entire sequence of calamities suffered by the Mariner in the light of Christian morality. The killing of the Albatross is related to the Crucifixion, and the Mariner’s subsequent punishments are interpreted as a trial of “penance.” The dialogue prefigures both the concepts and the conventional rhythms of the Mariner’s concluding moral; lines like “‘He loved the bird that loved the man / Who shot him with his bow’” sound close to
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.
The Mariner soon adopts the Christian explanation provided by the two spirits and believes that he is in a world where crime leads to punishment and penance to salvation. When he sees the hermit on the shore, he hopes to be released from his sin through the ritual of confession: “He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away / The Albatross’s blood.”
As the Mariner approaches the shore, elements of a familiar landscape and concepts of a familiar world begin to invade his narrative. The wind feels “Like a meadow-gale of spring,” and the sailors’ bodies, which were “flat, lifeless and flat,” are miraculously transformed into a “heavenly sight” of seraphs. Even when the Mariner concentrates on physical objects and actions, he uses a language that is more commonplace than before. Analogies such as “The harbour-bay was clear as glass,” “Like one that hath been seven days drowned / My body lay afloat,” or “But swift as dreams, myself I found / Within the Pilot’s boat” are pale and lack the unusual imaginative quality of previous images such as sails “Like restless gossameres” or souls rushing by like the whizz of the crossbow.
I do not mean to claim that the distinction between sensory and conceptual language has mathematical precision. My purpose has been to point out some linguistic strategies employed in The Ancient Mariner to show the modifications undergone by individual experiences during the process of their transfer into verbal structures which make possible the communication between speaker and listener. I have also tried to establish a critical perspective from which the Mariner’s concluding moral no longer appears as a feeble tag unconnected with the content of his story, as critics have often argued. The moral represents the culmination of a tendency that is apparent throughout the Mariner’s tale and is only given a more emphatic form toward the end. As I have shown, the Mariner erects orthodox structures out of unorthodox experiences when he interprets events or when the Wedding Guest claims his attention. The Mariner is in many ways a Wedding Guest himself, and his exchange with his auditor reflects an inner conflict. Like the Wedding Guest, the Mariner desires to make sense of chance and irrationality in terms of accepted myths in order to maintain control over an experience that borders on madness. In light of the changes that occur in the Mariner’s narrative when his auditor interrupts him in Parts IV and V, it is not at all surprising that the Mariner, when he reaches out for the Wedding Guest for the last time, utters a moral extracted from the codes by which the Wedding Guest leads his life. The irony of the Mariner’s fate is that, while trying to overcome the resistance of the Wedding Guest by exposing his auditor to a more imaginative way of thinking and at the same time by drawing closer to his values, the Mariner succeeds in alienating both himself and the Wedding Guest from their own respective worlds. When the Mariner delivers his closing moral, the Wedding Guest is “stunned” and “of sense forlorn,” a state hardly suitable for the wise lesson of love and prayer the Mariner tries to teach him. He has been initiated indeed into a universe where God “Scarce seemed … to be,” and naturally he goes neither to the marriage feast nor to the church. On the other hand, the tale which ends with the moral is a tale gone wrong for the Mariner too, and he is the first to feel it. The memory of green ice, slimy water snakes, and the revengeful specter-bark continues to haunt the mind and demands a new story. But every time the Mariner begins his tale again, trying to seize upon his past as firmly and urgently as he commands a Wedding Guest to listen, he is bound to fall into the same trap of dialogued experience and to construct a narrative that will provide a Christian abstract of a far more mysterious and in part untranslatable episode of his past.
The search for an adequate medium of expression that could accommodate the deepest demands of the self without sacrificing either the authenticity or the intelligibility of the artistic product has a long and tortuous history in Coleridge even prior to the composition of The Ancient Mariner, and it forms the subject of many reflections in his later work. Coleridge’s views on the suitability of language to self-expression and to the representation of fundamental intuitions gained through the imagination are not consistent, varying according to his moods and the specific purpose of his arguments. At times Coleridge regards language as a potent and elevated means of articulating the poet’s visionary perceptions of reality. As “the medium of all Thoughts to ourselves of all Feelings to others, & partly to ourselves,” language partakes of “the two things mediated,” participating in the unified entity which it represents [from The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge]. Coleridge agrees with his contemporary, [as noted in the preface to Aids to Reflection,] the philologist Home Tooke, that words are the wheels of intellect, “but such as Ezekiel beheld in ‘the visions of God.’ … Whithersoever the Spirit was to go, the Wheels went, and thither was their Spirit to go; for the Spirit of the living creature was in the wheels also.” But this great credit granted to language is often undermined by Coleridge’s gloomy awareness of the abstractness of words and their power to chain, distort, and impoverish the experiences of the self. In one notebook entry he says:
It is the instinct of the Letter to bring into subjection to itself the Spirit.—The latter cannot dispute—nor can it be disputed for, but with a certainty of defeat. For words express generalities that can be made so clear—they have neither the play of colors, nor the untranslatable meaning of the eye, nor any of the thousand indescribable things that form the whole reality of the living fuel. (Notebooks, III)
Like other Romantic writers, including Wordsworth and Shelley, Coleridge believed in the existence of a prelinguistic level of consciousness which cannot be fitted into any one objectified verbal structure. The poet’s innermost feelings and impressions are, as he puts it in a notebook entry, “languageless.” Words convey “generalities, tho’ some less than others,” and they “not only awake but really involve associations of other words as well as other Thoughts—but that, which I see, must be felt, be possessed, in and by its sole self!” (Notebooks, III). The stronger the desire to possess an emotion or image in its unadulterated form, the more frustrating it is to try to break through the abstract network of language. Who, Coleridge asks,
has deeply felt, deeply, deeply! & not fretted & grown impatient at the inadequacy of Words to Feeling, of the symbol to the Being?—Words—what are they but a subtle matter? and the meanness of Matter must they have, & the Soul must pine in them … O what then are Words, but articulated Sighs of a Prisoner heard from his Dungeon! powerful only as they express their utter impotence! (Notebooks, II)
To escape the prison of language, Coleridge tries out various means of nonverbal representation only to discover that while they supplement language, none of them is a fit measurement for the noblest parts of one’s nature:
Without Drawing I feel myself but half invested with Language—Music too is wanting in me.—But yet tho’ one should unite Poetry, Draftsman’s-ship & Music—the greater & perhaps nobler certainly all the subtler parts of one’s nature, must be solitary—Man exists herein to himself & to God alone /—Yea, in how much only to God—how much lies below his own Consciousness. (Notebooks, I)
If poetry, drawing, and music together fail to communicate the voice of self, what can one expect from language alone? Moreover, how does one share with readers or listeners impressions which they have never experienced in their own lives, “material Objects, Landscapes, Trees, … they have never seen”? “Assuredly, the impressions received by the words are very faint compared with the actual impression—it is but a dim abstract at best—and most often a Sort of tentative process now by this analogy, now by that, to recall the reader to some experiences, he must have, tho’ he had not attended to them” (Notebooks, III). The Mariner too draws upon the resources of analogies to make himself intelligible to the Wedding Guest, but what he offers his auditor is an imperfect copy of an inimitable original. The actual impressions and memories of his past cry out for words. The inner anguish generates the tale, and the tale once told perpetuates the anguish. The Mariner is trapped in a Sisyphean labor to articulate his solitary voyage on a “wide wide sea.”
Source: Raimonda Modiano, “Words and ‘Languageless’ Meanings: Limits of Expression in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, March 1977, pp. 40-61.
Boulger, James D., Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1969.
Empson, William, “The Ancient Mariner: An Answer to Warren,” in Kenyon Review, Winter, 1993, pp. 155-77.
House, Humphry, in Coleridge: The Clark Lectures, 1951-52, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1953, 167 p.
Knox-Shaw, P. H., “The Eastern Ancient Mariner,” in Essays in Criticism, April, 1996, pp. 115-35.
Lowes, John Livingston, in The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1927, 639 p.
Stevenson, Warren, “The Case of the Missing Captain,” in The Wordsworth Circle, Winter, 1995, pp. 12-18.
Warren, Robert Penn, “A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading,” in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946, pp. 59-117.
Watkins, Daniel P., “History as Demon in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, Winter 1988.
Williams, Anne, “An I for an Eye,” in PMLA, October, 1993, pp. 1114-127.
Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, Methuen, 1968.
Buchan, A. M., “The Sad Wisdom of the Mariner,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1969.
An accessible essay that considers deeper implications of the killing of the Albatross, and the guilt and loneliness it causes.
Discusses the world of chaos and chance in The Ancient Mariner.
Purser, J. W. R., “Interpretation of The Ancient Mariner,” in The Review of English Studies, Vol. VII, No. 31, August 1957.
Purser glosses the most important symbols in the poem in this readable article.
Radley, Virginia L., Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Twayne English Authors Series, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966.
A general introduction to Coleridge’s major work, including The Ancient Mariner.
Twitchell, James, “The World above the Ancient Mariner,” Texas Studies of Literature and Language, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 1975.
A study of the invisible world of spirits through which the Ancient Mariner sailed.
Whalley, George, “The Mariner and the Albatross,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1969.
Whalley discusses the symbolism of the Albatross and how the Mariner’s experience mirrored Coleridge’s own life.