Samuel Taylor Coleridge presents a complex web of themes and symbols within the seemingly simple plot line of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The story of the seafarer with the ‘glittering eye’ (1.13) and his puzzling tale at sea told to an unwilling listener, the Wedding Guest, unfolds into a multifaceted array of planned sequences, heavy religious undertones, and hints at a biographical account of Coleridge’s past. If one reads The Rime of the Ancient Mariner simply as a tale at sea, the poem stands as a remarkable one with its continuous simple rhyme scheme and easy flow of speech.
And if one reads deeper into the intricate symbolism, themes and significant subject matter, Coleridge’s masterpiece becomes even more brilliant. An examination of the poem on both levels proves Coleridge’s genius.
The plot line is told in the third person and is about the Mariner’s first person account of his trip at sea. A narrative effect is accomplished with this choice, and although it takes away from the poetic feel, it gives the poem a more story-like flow.
Characters include a protagonist, the Mariner, and a listener, the Wedding Guest, presumed to be the audience. Coleridge introduces his tale by describing the 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. At first the intrusion is resented, but the sailor’s story becomes remarkably compelling. The listener falls captive to the building suspense, responding with fear, and later with horror as the tale unfolds.
The Mariner tells of a storm at sea, how he and his crew were blown off course towards the South Pole, and how a good omen, an albatross, came to guide them back to the north. But the good omen soon turns into a nuisance. The Mariner shoots it, bringing bad luck to the ship and crew, as he showed no regard for living things. Death and his mate, Life-in-Death, come to the ship and battle over who will control. Death wins the ship; Life-in-Death wins over the Mariner, sparing his life, but giving death as the crew’s fate. For seven days and seven nights the Mariner is forced to confront the open, accusing eyes of his dead shipmates. He curses the sea creatures that squirm around him, proving to Life-in-Death that the Mariner has not learned his lesson. Only when the Mariner praises the living things, when he “blessed them unaware”, (1.285) is the curse broken. Spirits then fill the bodies of his dead crewmates, and the ship sailed homeward.
Soon the spirits depart and are replaced by “A man all light, a seraph man”(1.490) that shines light on the homeland. A small rescue boat comes alongside the Mariner’s ship and a loud noise rushes through the water, splitting and sinking the boat, throwing the Mariner into the sea. He is brought into the boat and the sight of him terrified everyone in it. The rescue boat reached shore and the Mariner runs to the Hermit of the Wood to beg for forgiveness from his sin. “What manner of man art thou?” (1.577) said the Hermit, which sparked a recount of the Mariner’s story in order to free him of the sin. The Mariner concludes his account to the Wedding Guest by saying 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.
Basic analysis of the poem classifies it as a lyrical ballad. Although it can be seen as an almost miniature epic, the stanza form and meter follow that of a ballad. Coleridge uses four line stanzas with rhyme scheme “acbc” in the seven part poem and rotates the number of syllables in each line of the stanza, starting with a multiple of four, then three, and four, then three. Although there are a few irregular meters, as the 12th stanza in Part I and the 3rd in Part II have six lines each, there is a continued simple rhyme and flow throughout. Heavy usage is on a more complex internal rhyme, for example “And through the drifts the snowy clifts” (1.55) and “A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!” (1.153).
Coleridge uses repetition often in the poem as well. The repetition can be seen clearly in the first few stanzas of Part III, where “weary” is used three times in the first stanza, “wist” is repeated (II. 152, 153), “When throats unslaked, with black lips baked” (II.157, 162), and “A sail! a sail!” is cried in line 161. Often, the repetition is used for completion of the line’s allotted syllable number, as in the case of “See! see!” in line 167, but other instances Coleridge uses the repetition to add to the effect. The seafarer is completely alone in the beginning of Part IV, and in the third stanza this is expressed by the reiteration of “Alone, alone, all alone” / “Alone on a wide wide sea!’ (II.232, 233), which emphasizes the solitary scenery.
The poem has hints of alliteration throughout, often intertwined within the internal rhyme. “Hold off! Unhand me, graybeard loon!’ / “Eftsoons his hand dropped he” (II. 11, 12) and “The western wave was all aflame” (1.172) are examples. Furthermore, Coleridge uses these techniques of rhyme, repetition and alliteration to set the pace and the passing of time. “For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky” 91.250) reads slowly, expressing a slowing down of time, as the Mariner’s weariness seems to last forever. The rhetoric used is plain statement, as the Mariner is telling his ‘true’ tale of his trip at sea. Literally, the poem is a story, with descriptive details. Figuratively, however, deeper meanings can be observed.
Religious connotations, mainly those found in Christian belief, are abundant throughout the poem. From the specific numbers used to show passage of time to the many symbols and representations, biblical references abound. First in the poem, the ship symbolizes the body of man. It is affected by the trials and tribulations of the sea, as humanity is affected by life’s trials. But is can also be steered, by the Mariner, who represents one’s soul. However, the fate of the ship is ultimately determined by the wind and currents in the sea.
The resurgence of the ship after the death of the albatross, a skeleton ship this time, represents man’s emptiness without Christ. In Christianity, the body is dead and empty without accepting Christ; the ship that appeared carried Death and Life-in-Death, an obvious corollary. The wind represents the Holy Ghost, also guiding the ship on course. Even deeper into Christian beliefs is the possibility that the Mariner exemplifies Cain, a man found in the Bible in the book of Genesis. Cain killed his brother, as the Mariner killed the albatross, and both had to deal with the consequences of their actions.
The most apparent symbol, however, is the albatross’ representation of Christ. The albatross is killed by a cross-bow, symbolic of the cross that Christ died on. And the Mariner wore the bird around his neck, much like a crucifix: “Instead of the cross, the Albatross” / “About my neck was hung” (11.141, 142). Acceptance of Christ in Christianity is the one chance of getting to heaven; the albatross was the ship’s one chance at finding the way from the icy death of the sea. With the absence of the albatross, the ship came upon stagnant water. Nothing was directing the ship. Continuing this symbolism is the South Pole as a representation of Hell.
The albatross was leading the aimlessly drifting ship from the South Pole’s direction, as Christ leads man to heaven. Therefore, the Mariner’s “own countree” (1.468) represents heaven, the final destination. When he reaches home( heaven), the body (ship) must die, therefore the ship sinks. When the Pilot and his boy see the ship sinking, they act as angels to retrieve the newly departed soul and carry it to heaven. Since the albatross is dead, representing Christ as one of the three parts of the Trinity, the Hermit is the “resurrected” Christ that comes to take the sin away from the Mariner. The symbolism of Christ is recurrent throughout the poem.
God is also seen through the Sun and Moon. The Sun acts as God’s law constantly over the Mariner: “Nor dim nor red, like God’s own head” / “The glorious Sun uprist” (II. 97, 98), and the Moon is symbolic of the redemptive, loving God that comes to help the Mariner, as is seen with the Hermit and his forgiveness. Other significant Christian symbols are the numbers 7 and 3 used throughout the Bible and in Coleridge’s work. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is told in seven parts. Seven is the number of days it took God to create the earth in Genesis. The Mariner also “lay afloat” (1.553) for seven days until the Pilot’s boat picked him up. And, for seven days the Mariner saw the curse in his dead crewmate’s eyes. Three represents the Trinity and the number of days after Christ died before His resurrection. When Death-in-Life wins the battle over Death in Part III, she “whistles thrice” (1.198). The saviors of the Mariner from the sea, namely the Pilot, his boy and the Hermit, represent the three bodies of Christ: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
All of these symbols add to the theme of guilt and repentance in the poem. Coleridge is portraying the struggle within oneself after committing a crime, and the lingering question of when the guilt will pass. By telling the story to another, even an unreceptive audience, the removal of guilt and heavy burden is realized. The Wedding Guest leaves at the conclusion of the poem “A sadder and a wiser man” (1.624), proving the Mariner’s tale had an effect on him. And the Mariner was able to rid himself of the guilt of his sin by following the Hermit’s request to tell his story.
Just as obvious is the theme that relates the Mariner to the story of Adam and Eve and their realization of the knowledge of good versus evil. Anthropological discussion of the dualistic mindset of humans (“us against them”) that begins with the story of Adam and Eve can be used to describe the theme in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Mariner’s act of killing the albatross is symbolic of his belief that humans are above animals; animals are the ‘other’ and thus easily disposed of. Although Adam and Eve did not actually physically ‘kill’ anything in the Garden of Eden, their eating of the Forbidden Fruit removed them from the group of animals that knew neither good nor evil thus eliminating their sense of well-being and happiness.
Another parallel can be drawn from the fact that all the crewmates suffered from the Mariner’s lone mistake, as all mankind is said to suffer from the mistake of Adam and Eve. Another important comparison is the role of the snake in both the poem and in Genesis. The snake is considered to be the reason for the fall of man, as Adam and Eve fell from God’s grace in the garden after taking the snake’s advice. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Mariner must bless the snakes (“loving and forgiving them that spitefully use you”) before the curse is removed. The Mariner had to stoop to the lowest level, ironically praising the means associated with man’s fall, in order to ascend.
The theme of newly found independence can also be seen within the poem. Still within religious connotations, it is clear that the Mariner made a transition from dependence to a new, enlightened independence. His act of killing the albatross removed him from the dependence on the ship and the bird. However, all alone, he realizes that some sort of dependence is necessary, and acknowledges the importance of spiritual guidance. The characterization of the Wedding Guest, as he is about to engage in a dependent relationship before being stopped by the effects of the Mariner’s story, imparts the message that independence is more desirable than dependence. “He went like one that hath been stunned” / “And is of sense forlorn:” / “A sadder and a wiser man” (II.622, 623, 624) show that the Wedding Guest, although saddened by the knowledge, was enlightened by the Mariner’s truth, and chose to walk away from the bridegroom’s door.
Critics question whether Coleridge wrote this poem in response to occurrences in his own life. He was known to have an addiction to opium, the onset of which began when he was a patient at Christ’s Hospital, as it was the administered pain medication. He was said to be haunted by this addiction, the guilt possibly being the same guilt felt by the Mariner. Following the theme of dependence in the poem, Coleridge may have presented himself as the Mariner, initially needing the ship and the crew as he needed the opium. “Help” from the albatross, which he turned away, could have been early rehabilitation efforts. The struggle to deal without the albatross was finally thwarted as Coleridge accepted the addition (blessing the snakes) and thus accepted help from the Hermit and longed for forgiveness. The haunting and continuous guilt seems to be the lifelong knowledge that he could never truly be free from the addiction to opium, just as the Mariner had to share his story to rid himself of the guilt.
Regardless of the many critical analyses of Coleridge’s lyrical ballad, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner proves to be a moralistic story. All can agree that the plot has a lesson to teach, and the Mariner’s rough struggles at sea, and at life, leave him with the burden to inform readers of what life’s lessons he learned. He is troubled by guilt, and has to find someone to listen, to teach. The religious roots run deep within the poem, however Coleridge constructed it so that an in depth study of Christian symbolism is unnecessary to understand his message. Neither is the focus on the significance of numbers or themes needed. In structure alone, the ballad is an impressive piece.
Its’ simplicity and flow make the story of travel an interesting read. Maybe Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself was following his “Hermit’s” order to release his guilt by writing this poem, and telling it to his readership for his own personal penance, or maybe it is just a lyrical ballad created from his vivid imagination. Nonetheless, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner succeeds in making the extraordinary believable; creating graphic word-pictures, some fraught with horror, others piercing with brief visions of exquisite beauty, but all evoking images so clear and deep they impact the reader’s senses and emotions.
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