Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem feels, in some ways, like one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which may explain why it was dubbed by Robert Southey as a “Dutch attempt at German sublimity” (Source). Coleridge went on to compose works that were anything but imaginative poetry — highly intellectual essays that spoke well to his critical abilities; therefore it’s perplexing that he’s so remembered for this exercise in fantastical story-telling. His collaborator, William Wordsworth, came to dislike the poem, a feeling inspired by lackluster reviews, and so it is that time is once again the true arbitrator as to what can stand as a lasting, beloved phenomenon of literature.
The story is about a ship’s captain, the Mariner, who comes to suffer consequences after he shoots a bird with his cross-bow. The moment when he commits this act is tinctured by the temporal aspect of the poem; that is, we’re introduced to the Mariner, in the present, as a “grey-beard loon” with a “glittering eye,” only to learn about him as someone, in the past, who was capable of being in charge of a ship at sea, with the kind of impulses that would lead him to kill a harmless animal. The technique of introducing these contrasting versions of the mariner at the outset is masterful for the way it coaxes us into wanting to know more about how the change took place.
What follows comes the answer to our questions: the change took place because the Mariner has endured suffering, to which we are then forced to ask, rhetorically, “Why did the Mariner have to endure suffering?” The obvious answer is because he killed a bird, the Albatross, and it’s in this manner that the fairy tale touch steps in to play its role, the moral lesson. Which is odd if you look at it from the perspective of all the English land owners at the time — who shot pheasants regularly. Exactly what moral imperative is Coleridge trying to establish? Is an albatross to be distinguished from a pheasant? The poem certainly induces a sort of societal cognitive dissonance, that uneasy distinction we’ve come to make between dog and pig, horse and cow. The story has not only drawn us in to be entertained, it’s forced us to think.
Moral quandaries aside, it’s that the poem is, in fact, a story is why it has endured in its own unique way. It was published as part of a collection entitled Lyrical Ballads, With a Few Other Poems (1798), and stands in sharp contrast to the poem that follows it on the table of contents, “Lines written above Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth. Tintern Abbey contributes to the breakthrough in poetry characteristic to the age, but it has no plot; it provides a vivid display of the poet’s experience — “A worshipper of Nature, hither came,” — but there’s nothing interesting really happening. The Ancient Mariner, alternatively, feeds on that craving for experiencing the unknown. Remember the Virgin Queen’s comment to Sir Walter Raleigh (from the movie), where she’s jealous of him, how she desires to explore the ocean? Coleridge with incisive skill has tapped into this seemingly ever-pervading desire to explore the realms of the unknown, the kind we find nowadays in our vibrant need to explore the universe.
Coleridge fuses a sense of story-telling adventure with a setting that satisfies our craving with supreme effect. The Mariner’s crew traverses the wide open sea before a storm blows them into the “mist and snow” — “And ice, mast-high, came floating by, / As green as emerald.” To be sure, common English folk knew full well the sights described in Wordsworth’s poem, but the thought of ice mast-high has to be one of awe and intrigue. Following the Mariner’s crime, the fusion of story-telling and descriptive setting becomes intensified by the element certain to raise eyebrows: the element of the supernatural. Personifications of Death appear, spirits materialize, humans become zombies, and in the water, “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs / Upon the slimy sea.” It’s a brazen move for a poet to dive into this realm, but we’re very glad to this day that he did.
Of particular note, for my part, is a motif that is interesting for the way it appears twice, before and after the crime. Before, we are told that the ship drove fast, “As who pursued with yell and blow / Still treads the shadow of his foe.” Later in the poem the same sentiment is expressed as part of the Mariner’s submission to dread:
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
I can understand the second iteration, since the crime has been committed, which makes it essential to the Mariner’s punishment; the earlier iteration, then, must be a kind of foreshadowing. The feeling itself can be likened unto the feeling of, say, walking late at night alone through the downtown area, worse even if you have enemies. It makes sense to incur this feeling of intimidation onto the Mariner after he’s committed the crime, because he deserves it. But to observe the sentiment before the crime, however, injects the poem with some kind of subtextual foreboding which concerns a more generalized thought of walking alone in fear, whether a person has enemies or not. Either way, it creates the sensation that someone or something malevolent is watching us; it speaks to some sense of anxiety on behalf of the English social atmosphere of the day.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of those literary masterpieces that can be situated in the canon as being slightly above works like The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis, or Vathek (1786) by William Beckford, because of the intellectual prowess that Coleridge developed throughout his life, serving to polish his reputation; because of his collaborative effort with William Wordsworth, serving to establish the foundations of a new outlook on poetry; and because the work is, indeed, a poetic effort and not prose, allowing for a sense of mystique that prose may not have provided. The oddity of the situation is that the poem’s meter, combined with the element of the supernatural, make it a target for a certain range of critics. Consider the opening pentameter lines from Tintern Abbey:
Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Compared to Coleridge’s tetrameter:
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
‘By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?
Naturally the tetrameter has more of a nursery rhyme feel; combine this notion with plot elements of spirits and zombies, and the field is wide open for criticism, a load of “cock and bull” as one contemporary critic so eloquently put it. But it’s Coleridge who has the last laugh because, as Drew Barrymore would say, he “let his freak flag fly,” without even really realizing it. Like his other famous poem, “Kubla Khan” (1816), Coleridge hadn’t intended for these fantastical poems to stand as his trademark, and yet they’re mostly what we remember about him. It’s because of the response of readers through the passing of time that has shown us how interested we are in things we can’t explain or truly define, like spirits and zombies; the genre of the paranormal in the modern age, for example, is a never-ending source of income for those who know how to tap into it. The poem additionally has that readerly intrigue that couples with the ever-infamous stormy night, for who doesn’t love a good ghost story on a stormy night? And to aid in the atmosphere of the Mariner’s tale, I’ve created this video specifically for the purpose at hand, and I hope that whoever may’ve read this far may at some point in time, enjoy: