Samuel Taylor Coleridge (21 October 1772 – 25 July 1834) was an English poet, Romantic, literary critic and philosopher. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, as well as for his major prose work Biographia Literaria. Throughout his adult life, Coleridge suffered from crippling bouts of anxiety and depression; it has been speculated that he suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental disorder which was unknown during his life.  Coleridge chose to treat these episodes with opium, becoming an addict in the process. This addiction would affect him in the future.
His poem “The rime of the Ancient Mariner” was published in 1798 in Lyrical Ballads, then revised and published in 1817 in the version that is popular today. The characters are the Ancient Mariner: Old sailor who roams from country to country to tell a strange tale. Wedding Guest: Man on the way to a wedding reception with two other men. The mariner singles out the wedding guest to hear his tale. Two Hundred Crewmen: Ill-fated members of the ship carrying the mariner. Pilot: Boatman who rescues the mariner. (A pilot is an official who guides ships into and out of a harbor. ) Pilot’s Boy: Pilot’s assistant.
Hermit: Holy man who absolves the mariner and hears his story. Albatross: Large, web-footed sea bird with a hooked bill. Most species of albatrosses wander the southern seas, from tropical regions down to Antarctica, drinking sea water and feeding on squid, cuttlefish, and other small sea creatures. Sometimes, they follow ships to feed on their garbage. Albatrosses have an astonishing ability to glide in the wind, sometimes for hours, but have difficulty staying aloft without a wind. In the latter case, they sit on the water to rest or sleep. When it is time to breed, they go ashore.
An old superstition says killing an albatross brings bad luck, although sailors have been known to kill and eat them. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has helped make this superstition common knowledge throughout the world among landlubbers as well as sailors. In modern parlance, a person or an event that brings bad luck is often referred to as an albatross. The poem is rich in figures of speech like Alliteration By thy long grey beard and glittering eye (line 3) He holds him with his skinny hand (line 9) The Wedding-Guest here beat his breast, For he heard the loud bassoon. lines 31-32) The merry minstrelsy (line 36) The furrow followed free (line 104). Anaphora The ice was here, the ice was there, The ice was all around. (line 59-60) With throats unslaked, with black lips baked (line 157)
Without a breeze, without a tide (line 169) Her lips were red, her looks were free, Her locks were yellow as gold: Her skin was as white as leprosy (lines 190-192) They groan’d, they stirr’d, they all uprose, Irony Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink ; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink. lines 119-122) Water is everywhere, but there is none to drink. Metaphor Each turned his face with a ghastly pang, And cursed me with his eye. (lines 215-216) Comparison of the appearance of the eye to a curse They coil’d and swam; and every track Was a flash of golden fire. (lines 281-282) Comparison of the wake left by the sea snakes to fire.. Onomatopoeia It crack’d and growl’d, and roar’d and howl’d (line 61). Personification The Sun came up upon the left, Out of the sea came he ! And he shone bright, and on the right Went down into the sea. (lines 25-28) Comparison of the sun to a person.
Simile [E]very soul, it passed me by, Like the whizz of my crossbow! (lines 223-224) Comparison of the passing of a soul to the sound of a shot arrow [T]he sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky Lay like a load on my weary eye (lines 251-252) Comparison of the sky and sea to a weight on the eye Her beams bemocked the sultry main, Like April hoar-frost spread (lines 268-269) Comparison of reflected sunbeams to frost The bride hath paced into the hall,Red as a rose is she (lines 33-34) Comparison of the bride to a rose The water, like a witch’s oils, Burnt green, and blue and white. lines 129-130) Comparison of water to witch’s oils Day after day, day after day, We stuck, nor breath nor motion; As idle as a painted ship Upon a painted ocean. (lines 115-118) Comparison of the motionless ship and ocean to paintings. Synecdoche The western wave was all a-flame (line 171) Wave refers to the ocean. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was the opening poem of the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1798), published anonymously with William Wordsworth, as a joint volume of poetry.
The construction of the Ancient Mariner is that of a narrative-based medieval ballad, conforming to the genre’s traditional rules of metre, of fairly regular quatrains, with a 8 syllable tetrameter structure, creating the impression that it is a product of oral tradition rather than a written culture. The use of short sentence structure and internal rhyme, as in, ‘The ship was cheered, the harbour cleared’, the use of simile, ‘And listens like three years child:’ and repetition as in, below the Kirk, below the hill, below the lighthouse top’, reported speech, “By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, Now wherefore stopp’st thou me? , and punctuation to create emphasis, ‘I shot the ALBATROSS. ‘, ‘And now the STORM BLAST came. ‘ and contracted verbs, ‘May’st’, enjambment, alliteration and half rhyme. All these techniques assist Coleridge in setting the mood and the genre of this poem and the varying of it’s pace. The subject-matter is the encounter of a wedding guest with what appears to be an Ancient Mariner. It is an ancient Mariner. ‘
In this opening line, Coleridge uses the impersonal, ‘It,’ to describe this entity which may or may not be of this world. The wedding guest is there to attend his next of kin’s wedding. However, the Ancient Mariner alludes later in the poem, to the fact that they were drawn to this meeting, as in, ‘I pass, like night, from land to land; I have strange power of speech; that moment his face I see, I know the man that must hear me; to him my tale I teach. As if the wedding guest was pre-selected as the student. Some of the recurrent themes he has used throughout include references to, nature, both in it’s beauty and horror, ‘the ice was here, the ice was there, the ice was all around: it cracked and growled, and roared and howled, like noises in a swound! ‘ Others have been water and clouds, mist, sky and the Sun and Moon and the stars, and snow, his use of light and dark, good and bad, partially symbolised by the woman.
He has used references to human activities, music, ‘the merry din’, ‘for he heard the loud bassoon,’ whistling and voices, flutes, angels song and birdsong, and also addresses the loss of faith, ‘I looked to heaven and tried to pray: but or ever a prayer had gusht, a wicked whisper came, and made my heart as dry as dust. ‘Coleridge description of the state of the ship and it’s sorry crew, is in such a way to almost drain the reader into feeling weary, ‘the weary time, a weary to find’, like a load on my weary eye’.
I fear thee ancient Mariner, and the look from the eyes of his dead ship mates, the wedding guest’s fear of his skinny hand, and the penalties for the curse, build the feelings of dread and foreboding in the reader. Coleridge, however, despite the nature of the rhyme, subtly crafted humour into the beginning. The reported speech of the wedding guest, contains a sense of rhythm and timing which is almost comical. “By thy long grey beard and glittering eye, Now wherefore stopp’st thou me? “The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide, And I am next of kin; The guests are met, the feast is set: May’st hear the merry din. Almost Dad’s Army.. The Ancient Mariner commences with his tale, the mood of which starts optimistic, ‘the ship was cheered, the harbour cleared, merrily did we drop below the kirk, below the hill, below the lighthouse top’, ‘The Sun came up upon the left, Out of the sea came he! And he shone bright, and on the right Went down into the sea. ‘ This quatrain is the poet’s first use of personification, giving the sun masculine qualities, which help donate this work to the romantic genre. It also gives direction to the ship, rising from the left, from the east, helps orientate the reader, to the fact that the ship is heading south.
The poet has given further references to the rising and setting of the Sun and its position over the ship’s mast through out. In the quatrain following, the wedding guest momentarily loses his patience, ‘The wedding guests here beat his breast, for he heard the loud bassoon’, and the humour of the poem returns, and also reinforces to the reader, that this is a tale being recounted, bringing us back to the space and time in which this tale is being told. It appears that the central role of this poem is the tale itself, which needs to be both told and heard.
Coleridge then uses repetition and internal rhyme to bring the attention of the reader from the Wedding Guest and back to the Ancient Mariner, ‘The wedding guest he beat his breast, Yet he cannot chuse but hear; and thus spake on that ancient man, the bright eyed Mariner’. Here Coleridge is giving us a picture of a man torn between a call of his family to the celebration, and the spell cast by this strange old being. Description of the ships race with the storm. ‘And now the STORM BLAST came, and he Was tyrannous and strong: He struck with his o’ertaking wings, And chased south along.
With sloping masts and dipping prow, As who pursued with yell and blow Still treads the shadow of his foe And forward bends his head, The ship drove fast, loud roared the blast, And southward aye we fled’, and he goes on to give us a vivid picture of the environment which the Mariners now encountered, ‘And now there came both mist and snow, And it grew wondrous cold: And ice, mast-high, came floating by, As green as emerald’. In this quatrain Coleridge gives us a sense of scale and dimension, the mist and snow, cutting off the ship from the outside world, the ice as tall as the ship’s mast. And through the drifts the snowy clifts Did send a dismal sheen: Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken-The ice was all between,’ the ship, at risk from being crushed by the ice, the terrifying noises as the ice moved upon the surface of the sea.
‘The ice was here, the ice was there, The ice was all around: It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, Like noises in a swound! ‘, Coleridge adds further tension to the poem. ‘At length did cross an Albatross:,’ the first living creature they had encountered, ‘Thorough the fog it came; As if it had been a Christian soul, We hailed it in God’s name’. It ate the food it ne’er had eat, And round and round it flew. The ice did split with a thunder-fit; The helmsman steered us through! ‘ Such was the joy of the Mariners at the sight of the albatross, a sign of life in this lifeless environment, a symbol of hope and renewal to the sailors, happy for it to take their food and responding to their calls without fear of man, they took it as a good omen for their journey, and blessed it in the Name of God. Here Coleridge provides a break from the early tension created in the poem.
After the albatross is killed, the changes in the fortunes of the sailors, for good or ill, are laid at the feet of the Ancient Mariner, culminating in the act of replacing a religious icon, the cross, with the body of the bird. ‘Ah! well a-day! what evil looks Had I from old and young! Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung. ‘ The predicament that Coleridge placed the Ancient Mariner in, by including into the poem, an unthinking act of indifference, places the Ancient Mariner’s spirituality under threat, and the trials and struggles needed to be redeemed.
Coleridge is again building the tension, like a wave upon the ocean. Coleridge changes the sailors relationship with nature here, as the ship becomes becalmed, this is a dramatic and fundamental change. The meaning of the Sun changed from a symbol of optimism to a symbol of fear and dread. ‘All in a hot and copper sky, The bloody Sun, at noon, Right up above the mast did stand, No bigger than the Moon. ‘ It’s heat, drying-out the ship and the bodies of men, who were too parched to speak.
He continues these feelings of being becalmed in the third part of the poem too, ‘There passed a weary time’: keeping the sense of the urgent, but slow passing of time, and time weighing heavy upon the crew by his use of punctuation and repetition, ‘A weary time! a weary time! How glazed each weary eye’, of a thirst that robs them of the ability to laugh or wail, ‘Each throat Was parched, and glazed each eye. ‘ The a-spying of the ship, which at first would have seemed a blessing, giving the reader it also seems, a symbol for he release of tension, ‘When looking westward,’ ‘the west’ is a symbol in many cultures as the land of the dead however, ‘I beheld A something in the sky. ‘ And the poem goes on to use another powerful symbol, the blood sacrifice, ‘I bit my arm, I sucked the blood, And cried, A sail! a sail! ‘, but as the ghost ship draws alongside, all are thrown into despair, ‘Are those her ribs through which the Sun Did peer, as through a grate? And is that Woman all her crew? Is that a DEATH? and are there two? Is DEATH that woman’s mate?
‘The Night-Mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she, Who thicks man’s blood with cold. ‘ Then Coleridge brings about the awful fate of the crew, looking their last upon the Ancient Mariner, they fall dead, a fearful image is created by the poet in this series of quatrains. ‘The souls did from their bodies fly,-They fled to bliss or woe! And every sole, it passed me by, Like the whizz of my CROSS-BOW! ‘ In this quatrain, Coleridge gives an indication to a belief in the Judgment and reward of man after death, ‘they fled to bliss or woe! and again, this gives another reference to the poet’s religious knowledge and to the themes common to the Romantic period. After the crew had perished, the poet brings us back to the present and provides some relief from the tension created, by the use of reported speech by the wedding guest, “I fear thee, ancient Mariner! I fear thy skinny hand! And thou art long, and lank, and brown, As is the ribbed sea-sand. “I fear thee and thy glittering eye, And thy skinny hand, so brown. “-and in this quatrain, he uses simile by comparing the physical aspects of the Ancient Mariner to the ribbed sea-sand.
The poet repeats this technique several times throughout the poem. In the following quatrain Coleridge again used repetition to convey how utterly alone and without faith the Ancient Mariner had now become, ‘alone all, all alone, Alone on a wide wide sea! ‘ and Coleridge gives further emphasis to how unworthy the Ancient Mariner felt about himself, wishing he could die, and looking upon nature with revulsion. ‘The many men, so beautiful! And they all dead did lie: And a thousand thousand slimy things Lived on; and so did I. This theme continues for the seven days and nights he spent looking into the eyes of his dead shipmates, ‘Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse, And yet I could not die’. and neither could the things that the Ancient Mariner feared, ‘Within the shadow of the ship I watched their rich attire: Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, They coiled and swam; and every track Was a flash of golden fire’. Yet out of this hell and purgatory which Coleridge has placed this poor fellow, to help resolve this tension, he throws his principle character a life line, an unconscious blessing comes from the Ancient Mariner, ‘O happy living things! o tongue Their beauty might declare: A spring of love gushed from my heart And I blessed them unaware: Sure my kind saint took pity on me, And I blessed them unaware. ‘ on the things he had loathed lay the key to his salvation, and salvation is brought in an instant, ‘The self same moment I could pray; And from my neck so free The Albatross fell off, and sank Like lead into the sea. ‘ The crew become animated once more, by good spirits, manning the ship and getting under way, and Coleridge concludes the fourth part of the poem with again a reference to the wedding guest.
After heavenly inspired sleep, the Mariner awakens to find his thirst is quenched, and there are heavenly voices and bird song in the air. These are devices typical to the Romantic poets, symbols of healing and forgiveness, and Coleridge’s knowledge of their hidden meanings is apparent. The Mariner also discovers the crew are all gathered and are looking at him, so giving the impression of some tension remaining within the poem’s tale. The Mariner turns and discovers that he is off the coast of his own country. The Mariner turns again to find the crew are guiding, with lights, the pilot to the vessel.
The Ancient Mariner turns again and sees the hermit good. Coleridge again gives his principal character another medium of salvation. ‘He’ll shrieve my soul, he’ll wash away The Albatross’s blood. ‘ Coleridge then gives us back ground on the hermit, where he lives, and what he does, his devotions, and conversations with other Mariner’s. Then the poem switches back to the Ancient Mariner, of the conversations between the pilot and the hermit, which the Ancient Mariner is able to a overhear, the reservations of the pilots and the cheerfulness of the hermit.
Suddenly the ship goes down, and the Mariner finds himself in the pilot’s boat, which is being pulled into a maelstrom. And with a combination of the hermits devoutness and the last of the ancient Mariners strength, the pilots ship is able to pull free of the whirlpool and they reach dry land. Here the Mariner beseeches the hermit to save him from his curse. And the Mariner finds that to tell the hermit his tale, gave him relief and eased his troubled mind. However the Mariner has to recant his tail again, hence why he cannot remain in one place for any length of time, that he wanders from land to land to teach his ale. And thus is Coleridge’s rather lengthy tale reaches it’s conclusion, the Ancient Mariner bids goodbye to the wedding guest, ‘Farewell, farewell! but this I tell To thee, thou Wedding-Guest! ‘ and gives him what advice he can, ‘He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast. ‘
‘He prayeth best, who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us He made and loveth all. ‘ and the effect of his tale is shown by the manner of the wedding guest, ‘The Mariner, whose eye is bright, Whose beard with age is hoar, Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest Turned from the bridegroom’s door. ‘He went like one that hath been stunned, And is of sense forlorn: A sadder and a wiser man, He rose the morrow morn. ‘ The poem opens with the Wedding Guest and the Mariner, and resolves itself by showing the Mariner has been successful in his mission, the tale has been heard by the Wedding Guest, the build-up of tension is released by this and resolves the tale. Having progressed from ignorance to despair to knowledge and wisdom. It is a tale within a tale, a moral story of fear, guilt, blame and salvation. Is this the process which Coleridge sees himself going through?
It is also a very lengthy composition, the references to nature and and spirituality and man’s relationship to them, demonstrates the poem’s romantic origins. The modern reader, of which I am, would find a poem of this length rather daunting, as I have, its use of language is somewhat archaic and many of the religious aspects could be missed. It was difficult to write an essay upon as there are so many techniques and examples which could be referenced and deeper meanings left to explore that I am afraid that I have not done the rime justice.
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