The theme of the allegorical “The Ancient Mariner” has been described as one of guilt and expiation, obliteration and regeneration and the conflict between individual love and universal love. The paranormal atmosphere, one of awe and mystery suits perfectly the setting for crime and nemesis that follows the sinner. The poem ,the longest of Coleridge’s major poems is a ballad and is therefore in the oral tradition .It lends significance to the theme as at the end of the poem, the mariner is commanded to recite his tale to generations. The coherent and convincingly contrived imagery lends visual appeal to the poem. Coupled is the lyricism and internal rhyme that add to its resonant sound effect.

The poem may have been inspired by James Cook’s second voyage of exploration (1772-1775) of the South Seas and the Pacific Ocean; and more importantly as Coleridge’s tutor, William Wales, was the astronomer on Cook’s flagship and had a strong association with Cook. As per William Wordsworth, the poem was inspired while Coleridge, Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy were traversing 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.

The poem may also have been motivated by the legend of the Wandering Jew, who was compelled to roam around the Earth until Judgement Day, for taunting Jesus on the day of the Crucifixion. The crime of having shot the albatross the Mariner coerces him to wear the bird about his neck as an emblem of guilt. Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung. This stresses the concept of the Wandering Jew, who is branded with a cross as a symbol of guilt.

 The poem opens with the ancient mariner confronting a wedding guest and compelling him in to listen to his story of culpability and remorse. The wedding that is the unioun of two individuals echoes the unioun and harmony in all the things in the universe. But as the ship arrives at the ‘land of mist and snow’ these values do not suffice. The mariners are reassured at the appearance of the albatross, a symbol of Christ’s redemption and reverence. However, the mariner, by “mere non-feeling through non-thinking” shoots the bird with his cross bow.

It does not dawn upon the Ancient Mariner that the bird is an integral part of God’s universe, one of the facets of the undivided harmony of life. The other mariners express disapproval of the killing as a ‘helling thing” merely because the bird was a good omen and not owing to any moral consideration. They then uphold that “Twas right”to slay the albatross and also become accomplices to the crime. The true concept of ‘right’ transcends their narrow understanding.

It takes as much as a dream to make them reflect on their wrongdoing to “such birds” revealing a callous disregard of its individuality. The dream may signify their collective unconscious. The mariner too is provided with true insight only in the form of visions as ‘trance’, ‘swound’, ‘dream’ and ‘sleep’ The dreadfulness of the sight of the spectre ship with its appalling passengers, Death and life-in-Death makes the Mariner summon ‘Ave Maria’ or the Hail Mary full of grace. This grace is a key to the understanding of the poem.

The Mariner is claimed by life-in-Death while his comrades are conquered by death and they all drop down dead with accusing eyes fixed on the Mariner. This is a device to dramatize to Mariner’s consciousness, his transgression and bring home to him the horrifying fact that he is responsible for the death of the albatross as well as his comrades. His “chalice” of fear does not contain the redemptive blood of Christ but the guilty blood of his comrades. Though his sin is concretized in the form of the cross which the Albatross makes, when round his neck the poem is not embraced by the doctrinal theology of Christianity alone but includes Neo-Platonism, Daemonology and a number of others.

The Mariner is tormented by thirst, the fetter around his neck and the blazing heat of the sun. Nevertheless, he is packed with sympathy only for himself and “despiseth’ the slimy water snakes. But the moonlight which the ‘kindly saint” flashes on the water, makes him suddenly comprehend the beauty of the snakes and unconsciously bless them. When the mariner is alone, even poisonous creatures become a source of amity to him. As he is alienated in a non-human world, the slightest living creature grows to be endearing to him. Eventually, the albatross falls off and the mariner sets off towards personal reintegration with the world.

This integration is manifested through the harmonious collaboration of the spirits, the elements and the world of man in impelling forward the becalmed ship. The emphasis on music is emblematic, the ‘sweet jargoning of the birds”, the ‘sweet” sounds of the angels, the “pleasant” noise that the sail makes are suggestive of harmony and the “One Life” in “Eolian Harp” and the ‘Frost at Midnight”. The difference between ‘The Lime Tree Bower My Prison,” Frost’ and this poem is that the former two portray the shape objects take when touched by imagination and in the latter two objects as they are mistuned to vision and later to a spirit full of benevolence.

The Mariner is endowed with a spiritual insight into the oneness of the universe and thus by realizing it, his spirit is soon absolved of sin. But he still hast to submit himself to atonement that the spirit of the North Pope demanded. The awe-inspiring events that follow are not merely dramatic events but signify the vast cosmic energy latent everywhere. Time and space are given merely a spatial dimension and all considerations are subordinated to creating the atmosphere. As the Mariner eventually approaches his native land, he exclaims “Oh! Dream of joy.” The Mariner is vacillating here on the fact whether it is a reality or dream. The line between reality and dream is blurred by the poet by shuttling between the two. The supernatural is rendered natural here and the natural supernatural.

The Mariner’s prison is the most vindictive of all Coleridge’s for it is a floating “charnel house” and when reminded of his solitary confinement, the Mariner seeks human company to pray for” man and bird and beast.” The unioun of two individuals echoed by the wedding now becomes hopelessly inadequate and is relegated to the background to foreground universal love .For, a marriage celebration is a social institution, but humanity is a natural instinct. The mariner discovers refuge in prayer; and the Wedding Guest is a sadder but wiser man at the end of the poem.

Therefore, Coleridge accentuates that- if rationality sets human beings apart from other living creatures, it is empathy that renders them essentially human. The treatment of solitariness is typically Coleridgean and has autobiographical overtones remniscent of the poet’s own desolate state and self-reproaches that characterized his life at the time he penned this poem. In the last stanza however Coleridge rises above the personal level and voices his verdict on the consequence of misdeed on the human soul. The poem also serves to illustrate that creation and destruction are two inevitable aspects of life: a must for Rejuvenation, Regeneration and Revival.


© Rukhaya MK 2009

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