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Comparison of The Rime of The Ancient Mariner and Heart of Darkness

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Two orphaned boys grow up to be politically-concerned authors, one a poet and one a novelist, who use their maritime literature to speak out against the prevailing ills of European society, specifically the wrongful treatment of African people. These are only a few of the similarities between the lives and works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Joseph Conrad, both British citizens though one through birth and one through immigration. Despite the fact, however, that Coleridge’s famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness share vast similarities, surprisingly few scholars have approached any sort of comparison. Perhaps the explanation for this oddity is simple: no one wants to be the one to answer an obvious question; though this reasoning does not seem to hinder anyone from joining the ranks of those who have written about the anti-imperialistic sentiments of Conrad’s most famous book. Regardless of the cause for the lack of scholarship on the subject, a comparison of Coleridge’s Rime to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness will expose the kindred beliefs espoused in these two works, as well as the stylistic and thematic reflections.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the time in which Heart of Darkness was written when the British Empire was “at its Victorian zenith” (Maier-Katkin 585), Europe had some very specific ideologies about the African continent and its inhabitants. As writer M. van Wyk Smith described Victorian impressions, “…sub-Saharan Africa…is the true Africa of Renaissance exotic myth and wild hordes, the lost civilization and the elusive paradise, and it is the Africa which became the great beckoning continent for the explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  This idea that the continent was “beckoning” the British makes several assertions: first, that the land was available—nay, even existed—for their taking; second, that the “lost” inhabitants of the continent were lesser beings, incapable and undeserving of maintaining their resources.

Because the British believed the Africans had not evolved past their “primeval state,” they viewed them as inferior—closer associated to the natural world than to the realm of human beings, and they had no qualms about “mining” this old continent “for slaves to send to the new world” (Wyk Smith 13). Victorian sensibility dictated that Africa—in all its resources—could and should be exploited to develop newer civilizations. Therefore Africans were used to do the grunt work wherever Europeans or Americans needed—be that on sugar-cane plantations in the tropical Pacific or for ivory or rubber excavations in the Congo.

Although they lived and wrote at different times—Coleridge was born in 1772 and published The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798, and Conrad was born in 1857 and published Heart of Darkness in 1902, over a century after Coleridge’s best known work—there is convincing evidence that Coleridge and Conrad were both responding to Europe’s guilt in exploiting the African continent and its people. And because both men were actively involved in human rights discourses and revolutionary thinking outside their writing, as well as within their other works, the possibility that Rime and Heart would contain elements espousing their beliefs is strengthened.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was on the revolutionary forefront in many human rights arenas. In 1794, he and two friends composed a play that was sympathetic to British radicals who were reeling after the great bloodshed of the guillotines in 1793, and he had rejoiced when the French Revolution took place in 1789 . According to Debbie Lee, in her convincing article “Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade: Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge “was thoroughly engaged in social and political issues of the day, from the latest theories of epidemic disease to the debates on abolition and slavery.” Lee also informs that Coleridge “was an active abolitionist in Bristol from 1795 until at least the year he wrote The Ancient Mariner . At one point during his career, he even gave a lecture on “Origins of the Human Race” in which he disagreed with a prevailingly popular British idea that Africans were closely related to and resembled apes .

Interestingly, according to one biographer, Paul Fry, Coleridge’s highest aspiration was not to be a poet—he did not even consider this his main vocation; Coleridge wanted more than anything to “produce a major work of moral and religious philosophy” . As Lee and Fry, and “many readers” would agree, this highest “major work” was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—a poem in which many readers have found an allegory of imperial expansion and the slave trade” . This probability will be discussed further momentarily.

Like Coleridge one hundred years before, Joseph Conrad was also very politically involved and had a soft spot in his heart for oppressed people. Having “entered into British society at a moment when its political landscape was being radically redrawn,” Conrad, like Coleridge, had the opportunity to champion multiple causes, including—intriguingly—women’s suffrage (Simmons 114). Conrad’s concerns for the oppressed, however, hit closer to home, as most of them had stemmed from personal experiences. While Coleridge had been born a subject of the British Empire, Conrad had been born in Russian-occupied Poland and considered himself only “the spoiled adopted child of Great Britain and even of the Empire” (Simmons 111).

Born in a country that had been taken over by another, to parents who were “ardent nationalists” and eventually died for their revolutionary beliefs, Conrad knew first-hand the evils of imperialism . His dislike of the practice was augmented during his time serving in The British Merchant Marine, when he witnessed the “full horror of colonial excesses”  . This experience no doubt led him to the conclusion that “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much,” a comment that comes from the mouth of the main character of his novella Heart of Darkness (Conrad 4). His most famous work was a testament to the fact that Conrad was specifically disturbed by the practices endorsed by Belgian King Leopold II in the Congo Free State, which he described as “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration”  .

Having established that both Coleridge and Conrad were actively involved in the human rights struggles of their respective days, especially where the treatment of Africans was concerned, the next step to comparing the similarities between The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Heart of Darkness is to explore the common messages in the two works. Fortunately, while few scholars have conducted research comparing both works, many studies exist which explore the issues pertaining to each of the works individually. By looking at what others have said about each individual work to supplement and support my own findings, I intend to expose the vast similarities between Conrad’s novella and Coleridge’s poem.

First, one of the major similarities between Conrad and Coleridge’s works is that they both addressed one of the aforementioned primary colonial European beliefs about Africans: the belief that Africans were part of nature but not necessarily human beings. This concept is the most obvious in Heart of Darkness, as Conrad gives numerous direct examples throughout his story in which Africans are portrayed and described as an extension of nature. In one example, after an African is beaten for supposedly setting fire to a grass hut where European goods are stored, “he arose and went out—and the wilderness without a sound took him into its bosom again” (Conrad 20). There are other instances of Africans “clinging to the earth” , “moving about like ants , “walking on…hind legs” like “a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat”  , “appearing, as though they had come up from the ground”, and many other references blending Africans with their surroundings.

Many scholars believe that Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an allegory for the slave trade; and if this is true, then Coleridge too addresses the colonial perception that Africans are more closely associated with the natural world than with the human world. Pyeaem Abbasi and Alireza Anushiravani, in their article “The Ancient Mariner: Colonizer or Colonized?” state that “the mariner’s transatlantic voyage begins with the killing of the albatross—colonial act of killing natives—that exposes him to the colonial world and turns him into an unwilling victim of the slave trade” . Likewise, Debbie Lee agrees that Coleridge’s poem is about the slave trade, though she bases her argument in her research that the consequences of the “murder” of the albatross was the infliction of Yellow Fever upon the Mariner and the crew . Although Lee does not directly identify the albatross as a representation of an African slave, she does so indirectly by giving more than sufficiently convincing evidence to show the connections between the slave trade in Africa and the Caribbean and Yellow Fever. Her choice of the word “murder” to describe the killing of the albatross also seems to suggest a symbolism of the bird as a human being. Furthermore, Coleridge himself, in the argument that introduces the poem, blames the “many and strange Judgements” that befall the ship on the fact that the Mariner “cruelly…killed a Seabird” “in contempt of the laws of hospitality” .

The concept of the African continent as “beckoning” the Europeans could shed some light on a possible interpretation for Coleridge’s inclusion about being “in contempt of the laws of hospitality.” If the Mariner was indeed on a slave trading ship, there is an assumption that the slaves were at one time taken from their home, that same African continent that welcomed the Europeans. In light of these ideas, the probability that Coleridge meant the killing of the albatross to symbolize the African slave trade seems likely, in which case Coleridge is addressing both the colonial perception of Africans as an extension of nature, as well as the idea that Africa welcomed Europeans.

A second major similarity between Rime and Heart of Darkness is that both authors wrote their pieces of literature to combat and punish the colonial mindset that mistreating Africans was acceptable. At the time that Coleridge was writing, slavery was a staple in Europe’s economy and Africa and the Caribbean were the main places where this type of exploitation was occurring (Lee 675). In his argument at the beginning of “The Rime,” Coleridge traces the geographical path that the ship takes, and it is not coincidence that the ship “made her course to the Tropical Latitude of the Great Pacific Ocean” . Although the poet never explicitly states the purpose for the voyage, many scholars believe that the poem is clearly an allegory for the slave trade. Debbie Lee, who also believes the poem to be Coleridge’s warning to Europeans for the consequences of slavery, argues that the author meant for readers to understand that Yellow Fever was the natural punishment for the wrongs inflicted on African slaves. In her article, she gives much information regarding the historical facts of British susceptibility to this tropical disease, “a plague that attacked like an army during the height of British colonial slavery” and “accounted for nearly seventy-one percent of all European deaths in the Caribbean” .

Lee also gives a plethora of textual examples that support her belief that the death of the crew on the Mariner’s ship, as well as the Mariner’s symptoms, would have been understood by European readers to have been caused by Yellow Fever, which was a greatly-feared epidemic at the time the poem was published. Indeed, the Wedding Guest would have had reason to “fear thee, ancient Marinere,” whose “skinny hand so brown” and “long and lank and brown” body smacks of the appearance of one who has suffered Yellow Fever (Fry 46). Because Yellow Fever was such a highly contagious and deadly disease, anyone suspected of carrying the pathogens would have been a pariah, as the Mariner seems to be in the poem.

Both Coleridge and Conrad use nature as the force that punishes the European characters in their literature. It is important to note that before the crimes are committed, nature is depicted as a friendly force. In Rime the sun “shone bright” and “a good south wind sprung up behind” before the shooting of the albatross (Fry 32). After the Mariner has committed his ghastly crime, however, Coleridge uses “The silence of the Sea,” “a hot and copper sky,” “the bloody sun at noon,” an idle ship due to an absence of breeze, “slimy things,” “Death-fires,” and a “horned Moon” that curses the sailor “with his eye” , and—arguably—Yellow Fever to punish the Mariner and the crew. And in Heart of Darkness, before Marlow ventures too deep into the horrors of the Congo, “the voice of the surf” was described as “a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother.” Yet, once Marlow begins to encounter and become more involved in the ivory exploiting business, the attitude of nature begins to grow menacing. For example, almost immediately after the positive comment about listening to the surf, Marlow sees a “man-of-war anchored off the coast” that was “shelling the bush” (Conrad 11). Nature does not respond kindly to this carelessly destructive “firing into a continent” and it is only fair that in the next paragraph the reader finds out that “the men in that lonely ship were dying of fever at the rate of three a day” (just as in Coleridge’s poem, Conrad reports fever as a consequence of the wrongs committed against Africans).

Conrad gives many other images of nature as a punishing force. Nature is described as trying “to ward off intruders” . Marlow recounts that at one point during the journey “a grass shed full of calico, cotton prints, beads, and I don’t know what else burst into a blaze so suddenly that you would have thought the earth had opened to let an avenging fire consume all that trash” . The “great wall of vegetation” that lines the sides of the river along which the boat descends is described as “a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over…to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence” . And in the ultimate description of nature in the entire novel, Marlow states: “the earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free”.

Not only does nature become a punishing force in Heart of Darkness, but it becomes personified. Marlow says that nature “looked at you with a vengeful aspect” . The very mist seemed to scream . “The face of the forest was gloomy,” at one point .

Not only is nature portrayed as a punishing force in both Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Heart of Darkness, it cannot be defeated. In Conrad’s novella, there are several instances in which nature clearly bests men. One example is when the grass hut catches fire; even when one of the Europeans is running to and forth from the river with water to extinguish the flame, Marlow notices that “there was a hole in the bottom of his pail” . In another instance:

There was an old hippo that had the bad habit of getting out on the bank and roaming at night over the station grounds. The pilgrims used to turn out in a body and empty every rifle they could lay hands on at him. Some even sat up o’ nights for him. All this energy was wasted, though. That animal has a charmed life.

And just as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the ingenuity of technology and civilization in Conrad’s story is at the mercy of nature. In both works, the movements of the ships are subject to the whims of their environments.

If nature is a punishing force that cannot be defeated, then the only way in both pieces of literature to survive nature is to bless it. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, after the Mariner has suffered “alone on the wide wide Sea,” his “soul in agony,” he looks upon “the water-snakes” and “a spring of love gusht from his heart/And he bless’d them unaware” and—behold!—“the self-same moment he could pray and from his neck so free. The albatross fell off, and sank/like lead into the sea” (Fry 49-50). If parts of The Rime are ambiguous, Coleridge is clear about one thing: the moral of his story. The end of the Mariner’s tale leaves the listener with what the reader assumes to be the nugget of truth that the poem is meant to convey: “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” .

Ironically, the moral of Heart of Darkness is perhaps the one area in which Conrad’s story is more ambiguous than Coleridge’s poem. Still, the juxtaposition between the way Marlow views and treats the Africans and the way his European peers do, and the fact that Marlow survives to tell his tale—not sharing the fate of his predecessor or Kurtz—certainly stands for something. Marlow has realized from his experiences in the Congo that “the conquest of the earth…is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much” (Conrad 4). And though it is difficult at times to discern the way Marlow felt about colonialism while he was participating in the act of aiding in exploitation, he does have some shining moments in which he recognizes the value—even the humanity—of the Africans.

These moments, as they progress throughout the novel, show Marlow’s increasing separation from the typical European views of Africans during the time in which he was writing. In the first instance in the novel that Marlow recognizes the possible humanity of the Africans, he uses uncertain wording. He states: and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.

As Marlow comes into closer relationship with the Africans, however, he begins to not only accept their humanity, but marvel at it. When contemplating the fact that the cannibalistic members of his crew must be starving, as they had long run out of dead hippo meat and had not yet resorted to eating the Caucasians aboard, Marlow “looked at them as you would on any human being, with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities” and “weaknesses…” . Even further into the story, after Marlow has witnessed “the horror” of what colonialism has turned the European Kurtz into, Marlow goes so far as to value the life of one of the Africans over that of Kurtz. While he “can’t forget” Kurtz, he is also “not prepared to affirm the fellow was exactly worth the life…lost in getting to him;” Marlow is referencing “his late helmsman” who he “missed…awfully…even while his body was still lying in the pilot house” . To give more value to the life of an African than a European would certainly have been unheard of for those holding the Victorian ideologies of Africa and Africans.

Given that their European readers would largely hold the views expressed previously, that Africans were extensions of Africa and nature, and whose justification that the “European exploitation of native peoples [followed] the same logic as exploitation of nature,” the concept of nature punishing Europeans for the wrongs of colonialism was cleverly appropriate on the parts of Coleridge and Conrad (McCarthy 626). The idea of nature as avenger would have stuck out especially during the time when Conrad was writing, says Jeffrey Mathes McCarthy in his article “A Choice of Nightmares: The Ecology of Heart of Darkness,” because “British readers” at this time “encountered nature” as “the passive object of imperial commerce” . Furthermore, most of the nature writing during the later nineteenth century showed humans engaging with “nature as a space for relief from time and a place of contemplative beauty” . McCarthy points out that “Heart of Darkness does something different: it challenges the familiar representations of nature with a natural world that is anything but comforting.”

A third major similarity between The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Heart of Darkness is that both deal heavily with the human psyche. According to Alan Perlis—one of the two scholars who have conducted research that compares elements of these two works—in his article “Coleridge and Conrad: Spectral Illuminations, Widening Frames,” both Conrad and Coleridge wrote in the chiaroscuro style—a style focusing on the contrast between light and dark shades—which was used “to depict the configurations of consciousness and to suggest relationships between appearance and truth” . Perlis further argues that: “these two works might be regarded as prototypes of a particular kind of descent literature in which progressively deeper and less accessible levels of consciousness are conveyed not only through more deeply buried narrative frames, but also through the technique of chiaroscuro composition.”

And indeed both works do rely on the juxtaposition of day and night, bright and dark, and black and white, and often describe the psychological state of the main character—the Mariner and Marlow, respectively—as each makes progress along his psychological journey. According to Birgit and Daniel Maier-Katkin, in their article “At the Heart of Darkness: Crimes against Humanity and the Banality of Evil,” Conrad especially achieves a story that can be psychoanalyzed by “blending elements of realism with dreamlike states and environments” in order to explore “the heart of darkness in the primitive recesses of the human soul and of life itself” .

Some of the major psychological elements that are addressed in both The Rime and Heart of Darkness are feelings of loss, isolation, and disconnection. In Conrad’s story, Marlow describes his psychological state at a point in time as “the idleness of a passenger, my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil a mournful and senseless delusion” . Marlow does not understand his surroundings, and this is a frustration that reoccurs throughout Conrad’s novella, whether because he cannot see through the thick vegetation which acts as a barrier, or because he does not understand the cries and noises he hears coming from the natives. The Mariner’s feelings of loss, isolation, and disconnection, on the other hand, are both explicitly stated and implied through the poem. After he has shot the albatross, there is a strong sense of disconnection from the other crewmembers, who hang the albatross around his neck as punishment . The sense of disconnection grows into isolation when the Mariner’s two hundred crewmates die, and he is “alone, alone, all all alone” with the “million million slimy things” that he does not understand and cannot identify .

Although both Conrad and Coleridge included psychological elements of isolation and disconnection in their works, readers should not assume that their authors were necessarily experiencing these emotions while writing their works, nor should readers ever assume that the narrators of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Heart of Darkness were biographical representations of their authors. Marlow should be seen as only a character in Conrad’s complex story, not as Conrad’s spokesperson, and the same is true for the Mariner of Coleridge. If a main character always spoke verbatim their authors’ viewpoints, it would be easy to understand the message in any given book, no message would be ambiguous, and these obvious messages could be easily compared against one another. However, this is not always the case, and the important thing to consider when determining an author’s true intent is to look for reoccurring themes in a work, and to observe how these themes are treated. For example, in Heart of Darkness, instead of listening solely to Marlow’s spoken words, listen to the observations he makes about his surroundings—his initial perceptions of Africa and the Africans—and the way his observations and judgments change over the course of the novel. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, likewise, do not judge the poem’s message by the relationship between the Mariner and nature in the beginning of the work alone.

By observing holistically the various elements of both Coleridge’s poem and Conrad’s novella, and considering the types of political debates in which these men were involved, and acknowledging what social and political events and practices each author was likely responding to in his work, a clear message of both The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Heart of Darkness will rise to the surface. Hopefully, scholars will begin to recognize the similarities bobbing on the surfaces of these maritime tales, and by conducting other angles of research they will draw new conclusions and add to the spare body of knowledge that currently exists on an inter-textual relationship between the most famous works of these two authors. Looking at familiarities and common threads between countless other literary works has provided illumination, and further research comparing and contrasting the elements of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner against Heart Darkness could shine even more light on the social and political discussions taking place during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Works Cited

  1. Abbasi, Pyeaam, and Alireza Anushiravani. “The Ancient Mariner: Colonizer or Colonized?” Journal of Gender and Peace Development 1.1 (2011): 1-7. Web.
  2. International Research Journals. 3 Dec 2011.
  3. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover Publications, 1990.
  4. Fry, Paul H. ed. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Boston: Bedford, 1999.
  5. Lee, Debbie. “Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade: Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” ELH 65.3 (1998): 675-700. Web. JSTOR. 10 Nov. 2011.
  6. Maier-Katkin, Birgit and Daniel Maier-Katkin. “At the Heart of Darkness: Crimes Against Humanity and the Banality of Evil.” Human Rights Quarterly 26. 3 (2004): 584-604. Web. JSTOR. 10 Nov. 2011.
  7. McCarthy, Jeffrey Mathes. ‘“A Choice of Nightmares”: The Ecology of Heart of Darkness.’ Modern Fiction Studies 55.3 (2009): 620-648. Web. JSTOR. 10 Nov. 2011.
  8. Perlis, Alan D. “Coleridge and Conrad: Spectral Illuminations, Widening Frames.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 12.3 (1982): 167-176. Web. JSTOR. 10 Nov. 2011.
  9. Simmons, Allan H. “Conrad and Politics.” A Historical Guide to Joseph Conrad. Ed. John G. Peters. New York: Oxford University Press. 2010.
  10. Van Wyk Smith, M. “The Origins of Some Victorian Images of Africa.” English in Africa 6.1 (1979): 12-32. Web. JSTOR. 10 Nov. 2011.

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