August 19, 2021
An old mariner stops a group on their way to a wedding. The leader of the group listens to the mariner’s story. The mariner’s tale starts out with calm seas and a happy crew, but a sudden storm and strange weather change the mood. The mariner’s actions upset the crew.
It is an ancient Mariner,
The conditions at sea improve, causing the crew to change their opinion of the mariner. When the conditions change for the worse the crew force the mariner to wear the dead albatross as a sign of guilt.
The Sun now rose upon the right:
The crew is overtaken with thirst. The approach of another ship causes the mariner to become hopeful. But as the ship gets ever closer, his hope turns to dread.
There passed a weary time. Each throat
As the Mariner’s tale continues, his appearance starts to alarm the wedding guest. The Mariner tells of the crew’s fate. After a period alone on the ship a prayer releases the weight of his guilt.
“I fear thee, ancient Mariner!
The weather once again changes for the better, quenching the thirst of the Mariner. The crew, although changed, continue to perform their assigned duties.
Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Phantom voices question the what is driving the ship forward. As the voices disappear, the Mariner awakes to find the crew glaring at him. The ship approaches shore.
“But tell me, tell me! speak again, 410
“Still as a slave before his lord,
“But why drives on that ship so fast,
“The air is cut away before,
The crew of an approaching boat is apprehensive about getting closer to the Mariner’s ship. The sudden sinking of the ship put everyone in harm’s way. The Mariner is compelled to share his story with the Hermit, and eases his own pain in the process.
This Hermit good lives in that wood
- In chapter 14 of the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge states his poetic objective is to achieve “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
Usually interpreted as either a contemporary gothic ballad or a revised medieval Christian allegory of the fall of man (see Bloom 2001, p. 15 and Bloom 2011, p. 5), Rime is a narrative of crime and punishment, of sin and redemption: of an act that breaks the harmony between a man and nature, and he must find his way through hell back to redemption. This idea is a tenet of Romanticism—the healing power of nature can bring an integral harmony to life. Also, the importance of the poet’s prism on life shows the necessity of storytelling in maintaining harmony in culture and community.
Notice, too, the other aspects of Romanticism that Rime exhibits: the outlaw man of feeling and exotic, gothic imagery rooted in a mythic past. Bloom calls it a “phantasmagoria of the unlived life” that taunts those who lack drive or imagination (Bloom 2001, p. 10).
- In the 1817 version of the poem, Coleridge amended a epigraph that he adapted from Thomas Burnet’s Archaeologie Philosophicae: “I readily believe that there are more invisible than visible Natures in the universe. But who will explain for us the family and relations and distinguishing features and functions of each? What do they do? What places do they inhabit? The human mind has always sought the knowledge of these things, but never attained it. Meanwhile I do not deny that it is helpful sometimes to contemplate in the mind, as on a tablet, the image of a greater and better world, lest the intellect, habituated to the petty things of daily life, narrow itself and sink wholly into trivial thoughts. But at the same time we must be watchful for the truth and keep a sense of proportion, so that we distinguish the certain from the uncertain, day from night.”
- Coleridge describes the origin of this poem in the opening section of Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria. In a note on his “We Are Seven,” in 1843, Wordsworth added some details. The poem, based on a dream of a skeleton ship by Coleridge's friend John Cruikshank, was originally planned as a collaboration between the two friends, to pay the expense of a walking tour they took with Dorothy Wordsworth in the spring of 1798. Before he dropped out of the enterprise, Wordsworth suggested the shooting of the albatross and the navigation of the ship by the dead men; he also contributed lines 13-16 and 226-227.
The version of Rime printed in Lyrical Ballads (1798) contained many archaic words and spellings. In later editions Coleridge greatly improved the poem by pruning the archaisms, and by other revisions; he also added the Latin epigraph by Burnet and the marginal glosses, which Empson (2010, p. 73) calls “misleading” and recommends removing them, which I do not include here.
- The mariner interrupts a wedding, one of the sacraments of the Catholic church, for one of the three guests only (l. 2) for reasons not explained (Bloom 2001, p. 16). A wedding is a union, and the importance of unity becomes a central theme in Rime. The mariner’s actions will show him to be a callous man who does not yet see the importance of the unity of all life; Perry reads Rime as a poem “poised between a blessed vision of unity and the catastrophe of chaos” (Perry 2010, p. 148).
- The Mariner has mesmerized the wedding guest: think of it like a kind of hypnotism. This is the first hint of the supernatural forces at work in the poem and the mariner himself. As Rumens (2009) points out, the narrative drive and almost motion-picture shifting between the mariner’s tale and festive wedding has an almost hypnotic effect on the readers, compelling us to read on. Indeed, the strong simple narrative, the haunting imagery, and the rhythm and sounds—like Poe’s “The Raven” has perpetuated this poem’s popularity, helping achieve Coleridge’s goal of a “willing suspension of disbelief.” And like Poe’s poem, this allows readers to both enjoy the poem on a visceral level, but also contemplate its reflections on life and death.
Rime seems to suggest the importance of storytelling in human community, as the mariner’s compulsion to tell his story to the wedding guest is centered in morality—in a drive to help others who might be lost find wisdom in his story. Here, the mariner acts as scapegoat for the betterment of humanity.
- A whole stanza to show the ship was headed south. Notice the weather is clement, showing that harmony still exists between the ship and nature.
- Whalley reads Rime as allegory: the Albatross is the bringer of the gentle southern wind and should be associated with poetic genius; the mariner is the poet himself who brings us in touch with “the most intense personal suffering, perplexity, loneliness, longing, horror, fear. . . . that nightmare land that Coleridge inhabited, the realm of Life-in-Death” (Whalley 1947, p. 382). Killing the albatross kills the poetic genius.
- The albatross is linked to Christianity with lines 65–66 above and here, as it participates in the evening devotion, so could be interpreted as a sacred bird (Bloom 2001, p. 16).
- Rumens (2009) states that Coleridge seems to associate his opium addiction with the transgression of the mariner. In a letter to his friend John Morgan, Coleridge writes: “What Crime is there scarcely which has not been included in or followed from the one guilt of taking opium? Not to speak of ingratitude to my maker for the wasted Talents; of ingratitude to so many friends who have loved me I know not why; of barbarous neglect of my family . . . I have in this one dirty business of Laudanum an hundred times deceived, tricked, nay, actually & consciously lied. —And yet all these vices are so opposite to my nature, that but for the free-agency-annihilating Poison, I verily believe that I should have suffered myself to be cut in pieces rather than have committed any one of them” (quoted in Rumens (2009)).
The mariner’s action, too, seems to be unprovoked and ambiguous, suggesting an evil motivated him to kill the bird and thus injure his community. Bloom writes that in medieval tradition, the benign stranger, here the albatross, must be offered hospitality and a warm reception, so by killing it, the mariner violates this social code and commits a mortal sin (Bloom 2001, p. 16).
James Parker (2020) calls the murdered albatross a “bottomless symbol” that “stands for everything you greedily grabbed at, everything you squandered or spurned, every ornament of the ego.” It severs the mariner from the harmony of his world, much like the current pandemic has all done to us, and we are all now drifting in a liminal zone between the old world and the new one that will replace it.
- The crew becomes like the chorus of a Greek tragedy, commenting on the mariner’s rash action and the increasing gloom as they travel toward an unknown destination (Bloom 2001, p. 17).
- Natural phenomena have become inverted, and below crawling, slimy things, suggest a vision of hell that gets worse as the ship progresses (Bloom 2001, p. 17).
- These are images of life-in-death, where “everything is devoid of motion and vitality” (Bloom 2001, p. 17).
- As the ship travels further, the senses are further depraved and time seems to weigh on their souls, offering no solace for their suffering.
- Bloom states: “Coleridge builds a ‘poetic’ collaboration between a distorted natural world and a vengeance-seeking spiritual world” (Bloom 2001, p. 17). The spirits begin to materialize below.
- This game of chance between Death and Life-in-Death, seems to be a metaphor for the mariner’s true transgression: going through life without experiencing life, carelessly, arrogantly and missing the joy of the natural world. Rumens (2009) reads this as further representing Coleridge and his additions, caught in a game between Death and Life-in-Death.
- I.e., the mariner attempts to reassure the wedding guest that he need not be afraid because the mariner survived his horrific ordeal.
- A margin note added by Coleridge in the 1817 version of the poem helps to illuminate this stanza further: “In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth towards the journeying Moon, and the stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward; and every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed 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.” This begins to break the spell of Life-in-Death and might be leading to the mariner’s redemption.
- The mariner’s attitude changes, as if he is seeing the “living things” for the first time. His heart seems to melt and he begins to feel a connection to them, resulting in the Albatross—the psychological weight—falling from his neck. Bloom suggests this is the beginning of the mariner’s spiritual transformation (Bloom 2001, p. 18).
- Bloom sees this as part of the mariner’s spiritual renewal: he is less concerned with his physical body as he begins to concentrate on the health of his soul (Bloom 2001, p. 18).
- Since the mariner seems to stay conscious, this might be more like a religious trance, where he is able to hear the two spirits talking below (Bloom 2001, p. 19).
- Wind is always significant to the romantic poet, usually connoting spirit that’s healing and benign (Bloom 2001, p. 20).
- Like an evil spirit has been exorcised from the mariner, the final step, states Bloom, toward spiritual redemption (Bloom 2001, p. 20).
- A careless man, perhaps, like one who might shoot an albatross for no reason.
- Indeed, a lesson we might need more today than Coleridge’s readers did: have respect for our world and all the creatures in it. Humans have grown careless in their arrogance, pushing out the mysteries and sublimity of the natural world that could teach us humility. The lesson here seems to be similar to Wordsworth’s in “The World Is too Much with Us.”
In 1830, Coleridge writes the following in response to poet Anne Barbauld’s criticism that Rime had no moral: “I told her that in my own judgment the poem had too much; and the only, or chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of such pure imagination. It ought to have had no more moral than the Arabian Nights’ tale of the merchant’s sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well, and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a genie starts up, and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant, because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie’s son.” (See Greenblatt 2018, p. 274.)
Barbauld’s comment seems pretty dense to me, as the heavy-handed Christian morality seems to smack us upside the head at the end.
- The ending is ambiguous, as the wedding guest does not participate in the wedding sacrament, but instead is still captivated by the imaginative tale of the mariner.
Notes and References
- The text and introductions are from Coleridge, S. T. (1798). The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. London: A. Arch, Gracechurch Street.
- The albatross is a symbol of good luck, but in Rime it becomes symbolic of a psychological burden.
- The ship has rounded Cape Horn and now heads north into the Pacific Ocean.
- This could be referencing the phosphorescence of the decomposing sea creature in line 123, or St. Elmo’s fire: an atmospheric discharge along a ship’s rigging—an ill omen.
- Sometimes called a water faery, a water-sprite is an elemental spirit associated with water.
- Gauze-like. Here the sail, like the ship, suggest a skeleton, or something worn down and decaying.
- The skeleton ship.
- The ghost ship. A “bark” is a ship.
- Another portent of evil.
- This might be a reference to St. Elmo’s fire (l. 261), or perhaps to the Southern Lights.
- Flowering plants, sedges may be found growing in almost all environments, many are associated with wetlands, or with poor soils.
- I.e., hear my confession and grant me absolution.
- He made the sign of the cross on his forehead.
- Bloom, Harold (2011). "Introduction". In Bloom, Harold. The Romantic Poets. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism.
- — (2001). Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bloom’s Major Poets. New York: Chelsea House.
- Empson, William (2010) . "The Ancient Mariner: An Answer to Warren". In Bloom, Harold. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views (New ed.). New York: Infobase Publishing. pp. 71–97.
- Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. (2018). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. The Major Authors. 2 (Tenth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
- Parker, James (May 13, 2020). "The 1798 Poem That Was Made for 2020". The Atlantic. Books. Retrieved 2021-08-20.
- Perry, Seamus (2010) . "Coda: The Incomprehensible Mariner". In Bloom, Harold. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bloom’s Modern Critical Views (New ed.). New York: Infobase Publishing. pp. 147–156.
- Rumens, Carol (October 26, 2009). "Poem of the week: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge". The Guardian. Books Blog. Retrieved 2021-08-20.
- Whalley, George (1947). "The Mariner and the Albatross". University of Toronto Quarterly. 16 (4): 381–398. Retrieved 2021-08-21.
- "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Big Read. The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth. April 18, 2020. Retrieved 2021-08-22.