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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (original: The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere) is the longest major poem by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge written in 1797–1798 and published in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads (1798). The modern editions use a later revised version printed in 1817 which featured a "gloss". Along with other poems in Lyrical Ballads, it was a signal shift to modern poetry, and the beginnings of British Romantic literature.

Plot Summary

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner relates the events experienced by a mariner on a long sea voyage. The Mariner stops a man who is on the way to a wedding ceremony, and begins to recite his story. The Wedding-Guest's reaction turns from bemusement to impatience and fear to fascination as the Mariner's story progresses, as can be seen in the language style, for example Coleridge uses narrative techniques such as personification and repetition to create either a sense of danger, of the supernatural or serenity depending on the mood of each of the different parts of the poem.

The Mariner's tale begins with his ship departing on its journey. Despite initial good fortune, the ship is driven south off course by a storm and eventually reaches Antarctica. An albatross appears and leads them out of the Antarctic, but even as the albatross is praised by the ship's crew, the Mariner shoots the bird - (with my cross-bow / I shot the albatross). The crew is angry with the Mariner, believing the albatross brought the South Wind that led them out of the Antarctic - (Ah, wretch, said they / the bird to slay / that made the breeze to blow). However, the sailors change their minds when the weather becomes warmer and the mist disappears: ('Twas right, said they, such birds to slay / that bring the fog and mist). The crime arouses the wrath of spirits who then pursue the ship "from the land of mist and snow"; the south wind which had initially led them from the land of ice now sends the ship into uncharted waters, where it is becalmed.

Day after day, day after day,
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;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

Here, however, the sailors change their minds again and blame the Mariner for the torment of their thirst. In anger, the crew forces the Mariner to wear the dead albatross about his neck, perhaps to illustrate the burden he must suffer from killing it (Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks / Had I from old and young! / Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung). Eventually, in an eerie passage, the ship encounters a ghostly vessel. On board are Death (a skeleton) and the "Night-mare Life-in-Death" (a deathly-pale woman), who are playing dice for the souls of the crew. With a roll of the dice, Death wins the lives of the crew members and Life-in-Death the life of the Mariner, a prize she considers more valuable. Her name is a clue as to the Mariner's fate; he will endure a fate worse than death as punishment for his killing of the albatross.

One by one all of the crew members die, but the Mariner lives on, seeing for seven days and nights the curse in the eyes of the crew's corpses, whose last expressions remain upon their faces. Eventually, the Mariner's curse is lifted when he sees sea creatures swimming in the water. Despite his cursing them as "slimy things" earlier in the poem (Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / upon the slimy sea), he suddenly sees their true beauty and blesses them (a spring of love gush'd from my heart and I bless'd them unaware); suddenly, as he manages to pray, the albatross falls from his neck and his guilt is partially expiated. The bodies of the crew, possessed by good spirits, rise again and steer the ship back home, where it sinks in a whirlpool, leaving only the Mariner behind. A hermit on the mainland had seen the approaching ship, and had come to meet it with a pilot and the pilot's boy in a boat. This hermit may have been a priest who took a vow of isolation. When they pull him from the water, they think he is dead, but when he opens his mouth, the pilot has a fit. The hermit prays, and the Mariner picks up the oars to row. The pilot's boy goes crazy and laughs, thinking the Mariner is the devil, and says "The Devil knows how to row." As penance for shooting the albatross, the Mariner is forced to wander the earth and tell his story, and teach a lesson to those he meets:

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 agony returns and his heart burns until he tells his story.

Background

The poem may have been inspired by James Cook's second voyage of exploration (1772–1775) of the South Seas and the Pacific Ocean; Coleridge's tutor, William Wales, was the astronomer on Cook's flagship and had a strong relationship with Cook. On his second voyage Cook plunged repeatedly below the Antarctic Circle to determine whether the fabled great southern continent existed. Critics have also opined that the poem may have been inspired by the voyage of Thomas James into the Arctic. "Some critics think that Coleridge drew upon James’s account of hardship and lamentation in writing The rime of the ancient mariner.

According to William Wordsworth, the poem was inspired whilst Coleridge, Wordsworth and Wordsworth's sister Dorothy were on a walking tour through the Quantock Hills in Somerset in the spring of 1798. The discussion had turned to a book that Wordsworth was reading, A Voyage Round The World by Way of the Great South Sea (1726), by Captain George Shelvocke. In the book, a melancholy sailor shoots a black albatross:

We all observed, that we had not the sight of one fish of any kind, since we were come to the Southward of the streights of le Mair, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black Albatross, who accompanied us for several days (...), till Hattley, (my second Captain) observing, in one of his melancholy fits, that this bird was always hovering near us, imagin'd, from his colour, that it might be some ill omen. (...) He, after some fruitless attempts, at length, shot the Albatross, not doubting we should have a fair wind after it.

As they discussed Shelvocke's book, Wordsworth proffers the following developmental critique to Coleridge, importantly it contains a reference to tutelary spirits: "Suppose you represent him as having killed one of these birds on entering the south sea, and the tutelary spirits of these regions take upon them to avenge the crime." By the time the trio finished their walk, the poem had taken shape.

The poem may also have been inspired by the legend of the Wandering Jew, who was forced to wander the Earth until Judgement Day, for taunting Jesus on the day of the Crucifixion. Having shot the albatross the Mariner is forced to wear the bird about his neck as a symbol of guilt. Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung. This supports the idea of the Wandering Jew, who is branded with a cross as a symbol of guilt.

It is also thought that Coleridge, a known user of opium, could have been under the drug's effects when he wrote some of the stranger parts of the poem, especially the Voices of The Spirits communicating with each other.

The poem received mixed reviews from critics, and Coleridge was once told by the publisher that most of the book's sales were to sailors who thought it was a naval songbook. Coleridge made several modifications to the poem over the years. In the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), he replaced many of the archaic words.

Coleridge's comments

In Biographia Literaria XIV, Coleridge writes:

The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural, and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life...In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least Romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith....With this view I wrote the ‘Ancient Mariner’.

In Table Talk, 1830-32, Coleridge wrote:

Mrs Barbauld tole me that the only faults she found with the Ancient Mariner were – that it was improbable and had no moral. As for the probability – to be sure that might admit some question – but I told her that in my judgment the poem had too much moral, and that too openly obtruded on the reader, It ought to have no more moral than the story of the merchant sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and the Genii starting up and saying he must kill the merchant, because a date shell had put out the eye of the Genii’s son.

Wordsworth's comments

Wordsworth wrote to Joseph Cottle in 1799:

From what I can gather it seems that the Ancient Mariner has upon the whole been an injury to the volume, I mean that the old words and the strangeness of it have deterred readers from going on. If the volume should come to a second Edition I would put in its place some little things which would be more likely to suit the common taste.

However, when Lyrical Ballads was reprinted, Wordsworth included it despite Coleridge’s objections, writing:

The Poem of my Friend has indeed great defects; first, that the principal person has no distinct character, either in his profession of Mariner, or as a human being who having been long under the control of supernatural impressions might be supposed himself to partake of something supernatural; secondly, that he does not act, but is continually acted upon; thirdly, that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other; and lastly, that the imagery is somewhat too laboriously accumulated. Yet the Poem contains many delicate touches of passion, and indeed the passion is every where true to nature, a great number of the stanzas present beautiful images, and are expressed with unusual felicity of language; and the versification, though the metre is itself unfit for long poems, is harmonious and artfully varied, exhibiting the utmost powers of that metre, and every variety of which it is capable. It therefore appeared to me that these several merits (the first of which, namely that of the passion, is of the highest kind) gave to the Poem a value which is not often possessed by better Poems.

The gloss

Upon its release the poem was criticised for being obscure and difficult to read. It was also criticised for using archaic words, not in keeping with Romanticism, the genre Coleridge was helping to define. In 1815 - 1816 Coleridge added to the poem marginal notes in prose that gloss the text to make the poem more accessible, with updated spellings. While the poem was originally published in the collection of Lyrical Ballads, the 1817 version was published in his collection entitled "Sibylline Leaves".

The gloss describes the poem as an account of sin and restoration. While some critics see the gloss as spelling out clearly the moral of the tale, others point to the inaccuracies and illogicalities of the gloss and interpret it as the voice of a dramatized character that only serves to highlight the poem's cruel meaninglessness. In particular, Charles Lamb, who had deeply admired the original for its attention to "Human Feeling," claimed that the gloss distanced the audience from the narrative, weakening the poem's effect.

Interpretations

There are many different interpretations of the poem. Some critics believe that the poem is a metaphor of original sin in Eden with the subsequent regret of the mariner and the rain seen as a baptism.

Although the poem is often read as a Christian allegory, Jerome McGann argues that it is really a story of our salvation of Christ, rather than the other way round. The structure of the poem, according to McGann, is influenced by Coleridge's interest in Higher Criticism and its function "was to illustrate a significant continuity of meaning between cultural phenomena that seemed as diverse as pagan superstitions, Catholic theology, Aristotelian science, and contemporary philological theory, to name only a few of the work's ostentatiously present materials.

In 1927, John Livingston Lowes published an exhaustive investigation of Coleridge's sources for the poem, as well as for "Kubla Khan," entitled The Road to Xanadu.

In his 1946-7 essay "The Mariner and the Albatross", George Whalley suggests that the Ancient Mariner is an autobiographical portrait of Coleridge himself, comparing the Mariner's loneliness with Coleridge's own feelings of loneliness expressed in his letters and journals.

Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.

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