Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, critic and a philosopher. He was born on October 21st at Ottery St. Mary, Devonshire. Coleridge is best known for his three great romantic poems: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Christabel. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is structured into balladic stanzas which is a rare piece in English literature. The poem is a very long poem depicting a tale of crime and punishment.
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POEM IN BRIEF:
Three young men were going to a wedding when they were stopped by a grizzly old sailor. The Wedding-Guest requests the Mariner to let go of him and the Mariner obeys. But the young man is stupefied by the Ancient Mariner’s ‘glittering eyes’ and is unable to do anything but listen to the old sailor’s strange tale. The Mariner begins his tale, he says that he sailed on a ship out of his native harbor- ‘below the kirks, below the hill/ Below the lighthouse top’-and into a sunny and cheerful sea. The Wedding Guest hears a bassoon music which is coming from the wedding. Although he realizes that the bride has entered the hall, he cannot escape from the Mariner’s tale. The Mariner continues with his story that a giant storm rose from the sea and turned the ship to southwards. The ship reaches rapidly to a frosty land ‘of mist and snow’ where ‘ice, mast high came floating by’; enclosing the ship into a maze of ice. The sailors come across an Albatross, a great sea bird which is considered as a good luck to sailors. As the bird flew encircling the ship, the ice cracked and released the ship from the frigid regions into a foggy stretch of water. The Albatross follows the ship, a symbol of good luck. The guest sees a upsetting look on the Mariner’s face. ‘Why look’st thou so?’ was the guest’s immediate query. The Mariner says that he killed the sea bird with his crossbow.
In the beginning, the other sailors were furious for killing the Albatross that made the ship get out of trouble. But when the fog was lifted, the sailors realized that the bird had actually brought the fog and not the breezes. The ocean soon became thicker and the men had no water to quench their thirst. Slimy creatures crawled on to the ship’s surface and the water started to turn green, blue and white with the fire of death. The sailors fancied that a spirit was following them from beneath the ship from the land of mist and snow. They blamed the Mariner for killing the Albatross and hung the corpse of the bird around his neck like a cross.
As time passed, the sailors became so thirsty and scorched; their mouths became dehydrated that they could not even speak. One day, the Mariner saw a tiny speck on the westward horizon. It turned out to be a ship, coming towards them. The Mariner was too dry-mouthed to speak up, so he bites off his arm, sucks his blood in order to moisten his tongue and cries out, ‘A sail! A sail!’ The sailors were relieved as they believed they have finally been saved. But as the ship comes nearer, they find out it’s a skeleton ship and the crew includes two figures: Death and Life-in Death in the form of a woman with golden locks and red lips. The woman throws dices and whistles thrice causing the ship to sink. As the moon rises, the stars also emerge and one by one, the sailors keep dying. Everyone dies except the Mariner who is being cursed by one of the sailors before dying.
The Wedding Guest declares that he is afraid of the Mariner with the glittering eye and his skinny hand. The Mariner tells the guest there is no need to be afraid, he was not among the men who died, he is alive and not a ghost. He says the he was alone on the ship with two hundred corpses and slimy creatures that crawled on the surface. He even tried to pray but was stopped by a ‘wicked whisper’ that made his heart ‘dry as dust.’ He was so afraid to see the dead sailors staring at him and cursing that he closed his eyes. The Mariner suffered for seven days and seven nights but was unable to die. Finally, the moon arises, casting the great shadow of the ship on the waters and turning them red. The Mariner finally finds himself able to pray and the Albatross falls from his neck into the water, sinking ‘like lead into the sea.’
Form: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is an exquisite example of a ballad bearing all the qualities of a ballad in a polished and refined form. It is composed in loose ballad stanza usually four or six lines long and occasionally nine lines long. The rhyming scale is also not definite, it changes in part 3.
Language: The language of the poem is very simple and lucid. The descriptions of Nature are very vivid and easy to understand. The poem has a scenic setting, a verbal music, a mystery and also a moral tone.
Theme of Supernaturalism:
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is a supernatural poem. The supernatural episodes begin with the appearance of the ghostly ship with the two figures, Death and Life-in death. The personality of the Mariner is also striking and appears a little mysterious in description. An old wrinkled faced sea farer with glittering eyes and a skinny hands. This description renders a sense of eerie feeling among the readers. The story of a normal sea voyage is also turned vigorous and adventurous by introducing heavy imagery describing the fast moving of the ship with the sloping masts and the frosty land of ice around. The introduction of the Albatross as a symbol of good luck is also noticeable. Killing the symbol of good luck shows the cruelty of human nature and commitment of a sin.
Theme of Retribution:
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is a tale of retribution, since the whole poem is about the Ancient Mariner paying for his sin of killing the Albatross. The spiritual world avenges the death of the Albatross by wreaking havoc and tormenting them from seeing water all around themselves but unable to quench their thirst. Eventually, the sailors pay for their sins, they all die. But the eternal punishment that is Life-in Death is reserved for the Ancient Mariner. He suffers and endures torture but he is unable to die.
Coleridge’s use of imaginative realism makes the poem more exquisite and magnificent in appeal. The protagonist of the poem is described in such a way; grey beard, glittering eyes, skinny hands; that it makes him appear like an entity from the world of phantoms and ghosts. Moreover, some simple situations are brushed with uncanny and mysterious tones blended with psychological truth. In between one will be horrified at the shrieks of the Wedding Guest comes occasionally and proclaims the presence of humanity in the world of phantoms.