Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

It's one of the foundational tales of the Romantic movement, an exemplar of horror ('the nightmare life-in-death was she') and grim irony ('water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink'). Its also one of the few of the Lyrical Ballads to actually be a ballad (there are a few others in ballad stanza, but only one or two -- perhaps "We are Seven" -- that really embody the ballad's mixture of lyricism and repetition). And it's proven very durable, still an engaging read in which the combination of the words 'narrative' and 'poetry' elicits a sense of dread -- not of the horror of the tale but the tedium of the form.

Coleridge originally wrote the poem in mock-antique orthography, with "ancient" spelled old-style as "antient" and "mariner" with a completely unnecessary final e as "marinere." Happily, he abandoned this in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, and added helpful side-notes, an early instance of a poet annotating his own work. He chose for its setting the extremes of the ocean, evoking both the Sargasso Sea (a mid-ocean area with much floating vegetation where ships were often becalmed) and the Antarctic (the mariner's headlong careening south is a journey revisited by Edgar Allan Poe (both in "MS. Found in a Bottle" and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym). The natural sublime, in the form both of the sea's teeming with unknown life, and the sterile and hostile cold of the realm of ice, is perfectly framed here, and the supernatural elements are perfectly integrated into the natural ones. And of course the mariner shoots the albatross, which is later hung about his neck by the superstitious sailors -- giving us a metaphor that's still in political use today.

1 comment:

  1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” tells the tale of a sailor on a journey who sees many supernatural creatures and spirits on his way. He snaps in and out of reality telling the tale of a his journey to a groom at a wedding and then going back to his journey at sea. It is definitely true that the mariner combines both the natural and supernatural world when telling his tale, along with expressing all of the sea’s creatures and how overwhelming the sea actually is. The poem is broken up into 7 parts, but they all connect and work with one another. In part 1, the mariner is a part of the natural world, speaking of a wedding scene where he is talking to the groom. The poem moves into the supernatural side of things when the mariner begins to hypnotize the man so that he will listen to his story. This sets the tone for the rest of the ballad. He speaks of the harshness and coldness of the sea, and moves right into the Albatross, a bird of the sea that the mariner eventually kills and feels extremely guilty about throughout the entire poem. This bird is a major symbol that leads readers into the supernatural world the narrator has created for this poem. In part 2, the mariner again stresses the desolate and silence of the sea, and how he ultimately feels alone. He speaks of “slimy things with legs” and the bird is further spoken about because it gets hung around his neck, so that he will feel entirely guilty for killing it. As the poem goes in parts 3 and 4, the mariner seems to hallucinate, seeing a sail of another ship, but then moves into the natural world when all of the shipmates around him die. This leaves the mariner alone in his own thoughts, furthering his guilt about the death of the bird and the anxieties that take place being alone at sea, famished and thirsty, seeing things in a supernatural way. Coleridge also brings religion, God, and angels into this poem. When he prays at the end of part 4, the albatross falls off of his neck, almost like he is being absolved from his sins. Despite the mariner’s hallucinations of all his crew members coming back to life, he is alone. He sees spirits who question him as the one who killed the bird, but then they explain that he has received penance. In part 6, the natural parts of the world, aka the wind, awake him again. He sees his dead crew once again, along with angelic spirits. Once again, this part ends with the quote, “He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away/ the Albatross’s blood” (443) which should further help the mariner see that he is absolved from any sins he committed. Finally, part 7 ends with his ship sinking, but he gets saved by a Pilot, which goes to show the mariner that he truly is absolved from sin, because if he was not, he would not have been saved by anyone. However, every time he tells this tale about his journey, he feels agony. The poem ends with him moving out of the supernatural world of the sea and moving back to reality, where he finishes telling the tale to his guest. The mariner is clearly very sorry for killing the bird but learned a lot about his beliefs, the creatures of the sea, and the toll that the depth and isolation of the sea has had on him.