The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Study Guide

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Context

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The Romantic Movement

The Romantic period in English literature spans the latter part of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Characterized by individual thought and personal feeling, the Romantics wrote about their own unique experiences, expressing their work through the lens of their own particularly intense emotional response to something (usually something in nature). While the Neoclassical period imitated the style of the Greeks and Romans, focusing on formality and artificiality, the Romantics believed that poetry should no longer focus on strict architecture but rather strive to be more organic in nature. Coleridge's descriptions of the ice, the storms, and the sea serpents in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are beautiful and powerful verbal depictions of the beauty of the natural world.

Another hallmark of the Romantic period was a focus on imagination, led by Samuel Taylor Coleridge who viewed it as the supreme poetic quality. The Romantics and their works expressed a newfound interest in the workings of human unconscious, dreams, visions, and the supernatural. Coleridge's Kubla Khan—a dream poem reportedly composed under the effects of opium—and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with its focus on the supernatural events and visions plaguing the Mariner, are examples of these ideas.

This change in subject matter signaled another change, this time in the use of language and expression. Gone was the stilted diction of the Neoclassical poets of earlier centuries, where order, accuracy, and structure were the general rule. The stale language and elite subject matter were not relevant to everyday folk. Wordsworth especially believed that poetry should be composed in the type of language spoken by ordinary people. This concept ties in with the more organic view of poetic composition. We see this change present in Coleridge's work: in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner he chooses to compose a ballad—a folk song more common to the medieval period—and in Kubla Khan he indulges in a fanciful dream narrative.

Religion and Coleridge

Coleridge wrote numerous works on religion throughout his career. When he returned to the Church of England, the state church of England, in the early 1800s, he continued writing his essays, composing some of his most significant religious essays during this time.

Coleridge believed that prayer was the pinnacle of what the human heart could express. Thus prayer plays an important part in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. For the Mariner to be deprived of the ability to pray is something that Coleridge considered horrifying. The Mariner is unable to reach God until he can accept nature's place under God's umbrella. Coleridge considered his worship of the natural world as a way of gaining a more profound relationship with God, something the Mariner cannot experience until he accepts all of the creatures of Earth as being part of the Creator.

The Wedding Guest also serves as a reminder of the power of religion. He wants to go in and enjoy the celebration and is less interested in the actual exchange of the marriage vows. A wedding mirrored Christ's relationship with the Church, and the ceremony and vows are meant to have the participants (bride and groom as well as those witnessing the event) form a closer bond to God. If the Wedding Guest is only focused on the merrymaking, he has missed the point of the service. The Mariner's tale serves as the Wedding Guest's touchstone to a deeper understanding of the Divine. The story the Mariner tells, and the admonition at the end of it, result in an awakening within the Wedding Guest, imparting a wisdom that wasn't present before. The Wedding Guest sees that not only are people connected but also every living thing: "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 sacrificed his selfish pleasures to think of the Mariner's final words to him.

Finally, there is the Albatross. It is nearly impossible to categorize, though many have argued a Christlike symbolism with regard to its death and the mark of sin that the Mariner carries when it is draped around his neck. However, the Albatross defies interpretation, much as God and nature do. They are all beyond the comprehension of mankind, and each time man (the crew, the Mariner) attempt to classify the Albatross, something terrible happens. The Albatross, like nature—and therefore God—are meant to remain unknowable.

Nested Narratives

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an example of a frame story. There is more than one "narrator" involved in the poem: the speaker who tells of the Mariner stopping the Wedding Guest and his reaction and the Mariner who tells his tale. The frame story allows readers to experience the Mariner's tale and to witness the Wedding Guest's response to it. Readers are privy to both stories. This is key to understanding why Coleridge has the Mariner tell his story to the Wedding Guest and thus to the reader. By including the frame story, readers see the Wedding Guest's reaction to the Mariner's tale as well as its aftereffect. The Mariner changes the way the Wedding Guest sees the world after hearing the Mariner's words—this is something that all Romantic poets hoped to do with their readers. They wanted to effect changes in their worldviews. In this way the Mariner is as much a stand in for Coleridge as the reader is for the Wedding Guest.

The Mariner's motivation comes from his guilt: he feels compelled to tell his tale of woe to someone, but not to just anyone. The Mariner will know the right listener when he sees his face. This is a person who, like the readers of the poem, will benefit from the sailor's tale of suffering and redemption, someone likely to be affected by his words. The Mariner and the speaker reflect each other as tale-tellers. They seek to enlighten, to warn, and to challenge the listener and reader to examine themselves and their relationships to the world. Unlike the Mariner, the speaker assumes readers want to hear the tale of the Wedding Guest, that there is a desire to listen. The Mariner's arresting of the Wedding Guest speaks of a need: the Mariner's to confess and the Wedding Guest's to hear and understand the moral so he can avoid the same pitfalls.

There is power in both the tale and the manner in which it is told. The Mariner is compelling as much as he is compelled—the Wedding Guest cannot look away from him because of his strange, almost supernatural intensity. The Mariner wants to tell as much as the Wedding Guest is called to listen, and the speaker dutifully records their meeting. Now the Mariner's narrative is no longer fluid. By recording the meeting—and the Mariner's tale—the speaker in the poem has trapped it in time. This is the only narrative that matters. But this is not the first time the Mariner has told his story. Not only do readers have the frame story but also they have the idea of multiple stories-within-stories when readers think of how many times the Mariner might have stopped a passerby before this one. If the Mariner tailored his tale of woe to accommodate the moral the listener most needed to hear, then the speaker has trapped the Mariner, silencing his voice as effectively as the thirst did when he was on the ship. The malleability of the story has become lost to readers with the framing. The frame is just that—it restricts the narrative to only encompass this one view.

Narrative Voice and Poetic Elements

The poem has two levels of narrative, a story within a story. The narrator uses a third-person limited voice. We and the Wedding Guest never know what the Mariner is thinking unless he tells us, which raises the question of the Mariner's reliability. The narrator gives us the internal conclusions of the Wedding Guest (who is a stand in for the reader), but the Mariner remains a mystery. This obscurity of narrative intent ties into the strange, supernatural feel of the poem. We don't know what it is the Mariner wants from us, we don't know if he is trustworthy, and we don't know why we have been chosen to hear his tale. These mysteries link the overall mystery of what really happened aboard that ship, which is something only the Mariner himself can answer. We, like the Wedding Guest, are left to make up our own minds as to whether we believe the tale the Mariner tells us and the tale Coleridge tells us.

The Mariner's voice is very distinct. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a ballad—a poem or song that tells a story in short stanzas—and Coleridge uses the tone and language of a traditional balladeer. The Mariner uses distinctive language, far older than the 19th century when Coleridge wrote the poem. He uses internal rhyme—when words inside the line rhyme as in line 69 with "The ice did split with a thunder-fit"—as well as end rhyme—when words at the end of lines rhyme as with "Of the spirit that plagued us so; / Nine fathom deep he had followed us / From the land of mist and snow"—to create a rhythm. Coleridge also uses repetition to reinforce the important information so that the listener will remember it.

This is a poem that is meant to be read aloud, much like the Mariner is performing his tale for his audience—the Wedding Guest. The Mariner practices anaphora—the deliberate repetition of the first part of a sentence in order to achieve the desired effect—with lines such as "Her lips were red, her looks were free, / Her locks were yellow as gold: / Her skin was as white as leprosy"—and alliteration, which is the repetition of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent words to keep the beat and hold the listener's interest: "The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, / The furrow followed free."

The Albatross in Maritime Lore

Albatrosses have been linked with sailors and maritime lore for many centuries. These birds can travel long distances in short periods of time because they fly using dynamic soaring—gliding along wind up-drafts above the waves for greater lift with little effort. During their journeys, albatrosses feed on organisms found on the ocean's surface; because of this habit they often follow along behind ships to feed on the fish waste thrown overboard. Because of their perceived symbiosis, both in the way ships and albatross travel and the link between the crew's disposal of food waste and the albatross's way of feeding, the albatross and sailors have become linked in maritime lore.

The albatross represents both good luck and bad omen in maritime superstition. Some sailors believe that albatrosses carry the souls of dead sailors. Other sailors believe the sighting of an albatross signals good luck: the soul of the dead mariner will protect the ship and crew or bring good winds for sailing. Others think that an albatross is an omen of death, predicting that a sailor will die soon. Both interpretations of an albatross's presence require a sailor to have died. The interpretation is dependent on the sailor himself and/or the crew's belief as to what type of omen the sighting of an albatross represents. Good or bad, sailors still believe that killing an albatross means a curse will befall the entire crew.

Coleridge draws upon this perceived maritime curse when composing The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and creating his cursed sailor and doomed crew. Readers see the differing reactions to the sailor's action of shooting the Albatross. The crew seems divided on what to think—at first they subscribe to the typical superstition that the Mariner did a horrible thing, damning them all. But when nothing bad happens, they praise the Mariner for killing a creature that caused them harm. The curse of the Albatross seems to hold only so much weight as the crew gives it. When they celebrate the killing of a harmless beast, this acts as an affront to nature, which then triggers the curse. It is only once the ship is calmed and the men are thirsty that they realize their mistake of cheering the death of an innocent creature. While the Mariner does the actual killing, the crew is complicit in reveling in the death and also receive their punishment. They try to distance themselves from it by tying the carcass of the Albatross around the Mariner's neck, but they are still guilty to a lesser extent.

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