Essay: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 – 1834)
Type of Work:
Lyrical fantasy balladSetting
A sailing ship traveling the seas; late Medieval period
The Ancient Mariner, a sailor-storyteller
The Wedding Guest, a listener
The Ship’s Crew
The Allbatross, a symbolic representation of God’s creatures – and Man’s guilt
The Hermit, a rescuer representing God
(Coleridge introduces his tale by describing an old gray-headed sailor who approaches three young men headed for a wedding celebration and compels one of them, the groom’s next-of-kin, to hear his story.
O Wedding-Guest! this sent both been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ’twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
At first the intrusion is resented, but the stor is remarkable indeed, and the listener – who, of course, represents you, the reader – soon falls captive to the building suspense, responding at first with fear and then with horror as the tale unfolds.)
There was little apprehension among the ship’s crew as they sailed clear of the harbor, bound for the open sea. Several days out, however, a storm arose and the vessel was driven before the wind in a constant southerly direction, headed toward the South Pole. As it entered the “land of ice, and of fearful sounds, where no living thing was to be seen,” a feeling of foreboding came over the helpless inmates; and so it was with great relief that the crew eventually greeted the sight of an albatross – a huge seabird – flying through the fog toward them.
(“As if it had been a Christian soul,” the Ancient Mariner tells his listener, “We hailed it in God’s name.”)
Everyone took this as a good omen, and the bird followed the ship faithfully as it returned northward. Then, one day, weary of the bird’s incessant and now unnerving presence, the Mariner shot the albatross with his crossbow – and brought the curse down upon them all.
The south wind continued to propel them northward, but somehow the old sailor realized he had done “a hellish thing”; retribution would soon follow, in the form of loneliness and spiritual anguish, like that of Adam when he fell from God’s grace.
The crew at first berated their mate for killing the bird that had brought the change in the breeze. But as the ship made its way out of the fog and mist and continued on, they decided it must be the bird that had brought the mist. Perhaps their shipmate had rightfully killed it after all.
The vessel sailed on northward until it reached the equator, where the breeze ceased and the craft became becalmed. After days without a breath of wind, it was decided by all that an avenging spirit had followed them from the land of mist and snow, leaving them surrounded only by foul water. With the unabsolved curse thus restored, the thirsting crew angrily hung the dead albatross around the Mariner’s neck, as a symbol of his guilt. Time lost all meaning. The lips of the men baked and their eyes glazed over for want of water.
I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
Then the old sailor saw a speck on the horizon, which, as it wafted towards them, became a sail. The men waited in silent dread. This could be no earthly ship – it moved along the water without the slightest breeze.
Wide-eyed and trembling, the crew looked on as this skeleton ship came alongside their own. On its deck the Mariner saw two spectres: a Woman, Life-in-Death; and her mate, Death himself. They were casting dice to see which of them would take control of the drifting ship. Death won the entire ship’s crew – all but the Ancient Mariner, who was won by the Woman; he alone would live on, to expiate his sin against Nature.
There followed a ghastly scene as the sun dropped into the sea and night came over the silent waters. One by one the two hundred men on board turned toward the Mariner, denounced him with a soulful stare – for they could not speak – and dropped dead upon the deck. As their souls flew from their bodies and sped past the old seaman, the sound was “like the whizz of my crossbow” when he shot the albatross.
(The Wedding Guest by this time is terrified of the Ancient Mariner, who he thinks must be a ghost; but assuring him he is indeed mortal, the old man proceeds with his story.)
The Ancient Mariner was by now in agony, as he looked upon all those whom Death had taken:
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did 1.
This, the Mariner’s heartsick and acknowledged disgust for non-human life, showed that he had not yet learned his lesson nor completed the penance that Life-in-Death had prepared for him.
For seven days and seven nights the wretched survivor was forced to confront the open, accusing eyes of his dead shipmates.
The pang, the curse, with which they died,
Had never passed away:
I could not draw my eyes from theirs,
Nor turn them up to pray.
Finally, suspended in utter loneliness, the horrified sailor stood watching out over the moonlit water. Sea snakes darted and swam nearby. He was startled to behold their beauty, and at once felt a rush of love for these creatures, blessing them as the only other living things in his damnable world. “O happy living things!”, he cried. And with those few words, the spell was broken. The Ancient Mariner could pray at last, and the albatross fell from his neck and sank “like lead into the sea.” With welcome release he fell into a deep sleep. When he awakened later, it was raining – and his body drank in the moisture.
Now gazing into the heavens, the seaman witnessed strange, never-before-seen sights. And stranger still, on the bloody deck of the ship, the bodies of his dead companions arose and went mutely about their mundane tasks of sailing, no longer transfixing him with their dead stares.
(Here the Mariner hastens to again reassure the Wedding Guest that the spirits animating the crew’s bodies were not those souls which had fled them at death, but “a blessed troop of angelic spirits” called down by his guardian saint.) At dawn the spirits left; but still the ship sailed on, with no help from any breeze. It was moved now by a spirit from the land of mist and snow – the Polar Spirit, still seeking cleansing repentance from the Mariner for having killed the albatross.
At noon the ship suddenly stood still, and then began moving back and forth in a bizarre, dancing tug-of-war. Was Death again trying to win the Ancient Mariner? Suddenly the ship leaped free of the unseen grapplers with such force that the sailor fell into a trance. He knew little of what transpired until he heard the voices of two spirits. Their conversation revealed that the ship was now being powered by angelic forces and traveling northward at such speed he could not have endured it in full consciousness.
When the dazed and astonished sailor again awoke, it was night, and the dead men stood together on the deck, the curse blazing anew in their eyes. What joy came to him when that spell finally broke and the ship sped homeward. At last he was among the dear and familiar landmarks he had thought never to view again.
Soon the angelic spirits departed from the bodies of the Mariner’s dead comrades, and standing on top of each lifeless form was a “man all light, a seraph man,” shining as a rescue signal to the land. But just as a small rescue boat came alongside the ship, a terrible noise rumbled through the water, splitting and sinking the vessel and throwing the sailor overboard. He was quickly pulled into the boat – but his gruesome adventure had taken its toll; the sight of the ravaged Mariner terrified everyone aboard. Once ashore, the penitent old sailor begged the holy Hermit of the Wood to bless him and cast off his sin. “What manner of man art thou?” asked the man of God, crossing himself. At this question, an agony of spirit prompted the Ancient Mariner to recount his story, freeing himself for a brief hour from the curse of remembrance.
(And so the Mariner concludes his story once again. He tells the Wedding Guest that ever since the Hermit’s blessing, he has been obliged to travel from land to land, never knowing when the agony of remembrance might return. But whenever the curse again darkens his soul, he recognizes the face of a man with whom he must share his message of love and reverence for God’s creation:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
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 Wedding Guest, incidentally, never does go on to the wedding. So moved is he by the mood of the Mariner, that when the old man vanishes, he also departs, “a sadder and a wiser man.”)
There are critics who contend that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is autobiographical in its strange, imaginative theme and storyline. Coleridge, even this early in his writing, was haunted by remorse for his addiction to opium, which he had first taken to relieve pain as a patient at Christ’s Hospital. But whether or not the poem actually served as a catharsis for its author’s guilt, it stands on its own merits.
Coleridge’s interests always lay with the exotic and the supernatural, which he hoped to make more real for his readers by employing simple, straightforward language in an archaic English ballad form. In this relatively brief poem, he succeeds in making the extraordinary believable; and his graphic word-pictures – some fraught with horror, others piercing us with brief visions of exquisite beauty – evoke images so clear and deep that they touch every one of our senses and emotions.