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As a time that marked radical changes in the way that poetry was written, the Romantic period of English Literature produced many works still celebrated and studied today. It was during this period that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote one of the most noteworthy works of English literature, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The following paper will explore the structure and subject matter of this chilling ballad of supernatural penance for atrocities committed at sea as they relate to the Romantic period of English literature. It will also reveal the two major themes of the work, equal treatment and guilt, and how they relate to the poet’s own life, as well as to the political and social changes taking place during this turbulent period in English history.
The structure of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is similar to other Romantic poems in several ways. First, it is a ballad, a poetic genre that rose to a major literary form during the Romantic period. Coleridge combines strong end-rhymes, primarily following an abcb rhyme scheme with internal rhymes, with a ballad meter of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This causes the poem to be read much as traditional oral ballads were sung. The following stanza provides an example: “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” (25-28). The musical quality provided to the poem through its rhyme and meter keeps the reader’s attention by setting it apart from the dull rhythm of everyday speech. It also makes the poem flow smoothly, thereby making it easier to read.
Coleridge’s removal of the archaic spellings that dominated the work when it first appeared in “Lyrical Ballads” also adds to its reading ease (Abrams 1580). Coleridge may have originally used these spellings in accordance with the Romantic theme of Medieval Revival, and then later deleted them because their difficulty detracted from the poem’s meaning. He also added glosses written in 17th century English, as demonstrated by his attachment of the “-eth” suffix to the verbs in the following line: “And lo! The Albatross proveth a bird of good omen, and followeth the ship” (71-73). The language of these glosses does not detract from the poem’s meaning, as the lexicon and syntax of this language would have been familiar to Coleridge’s audience. However, it does fulfill the author’s original intention with the archaic spellings by placing the reader in a faraway place and time, adding credibility to the supernatural and imaginative elements that are introduced later.
Romantic poets also frequently wrote using first-person narratives. For the majority of Coleridge’s poem, the mariner offers a first-person account of what he faced at sea. Coleridge does, however, stray slightly from this format by providing us with a listener in the poem and a separate third-person story that allows us to witness this listener’s reactions. The addition of the story context may be attributed to Coleridge’s need to place the reader in the familiar joyful setting of a wedding, a setting that contrasts significantly with the dark tale he reveals. It also allows Coleridge to identify both narrator and listener, while allowing the reader, to whom the moral of Coleridge’s poem is addressed, to identify with the latter. The reader can identify with this listener’s feelings of fear towards the narrator and discomfort at his tale, as well as sympathize with his irritation at being taken from an atmosphere of joy and placed in a sobering atmosphere of vicarious misery. The mariner only stops one of three potential listeners, but doesn’t reveal the reason for his choice until the poem has nearly ended: “That moment that his face I see, / I know the man that must hear me: / To him my tale I teach” (588-590). This man has been individually singled out, and the reader consequently feels singled out to receive Coleridge’s moral as a consequence of his or her earlier identification with this character.
Like its structure, the subject matter of the poem is common to the period in which it was written. During the Romantic period, poetry began to include less pure imitation, and more imagination (Abrams 1319). Coleridge’s poem demonstrates this imaginative quality by lacing a nautical tale with supernatural characters and events. He reveals the supernatural nature of his poem early on by having the mariner hypnotize the wedding guest, as demonstrated in the following lines: “The Mariner hath his will…He cannot choose but hear” (16, 18). Other supernatural elements, including a skeleton ship driven by Death and Life-in-Death, vengeful spirits and seraph-men, and curses continually appear throughout the remainder of the poem. In the following example, Coleridge describes the dead crew rising like zombies to aid their shipmate: “They raised their limbs like lifeless tools–/ We were a ghastly crew” (339-340). This example demonstrates Coleridge’s ability to describe these imaginative elements with what seems to the reader as chilling accuracy, relying on simple but colorful language to give these elements credibility.
Another subject frequently treated by Romantic poets is that of nature: the landscape as a whole is personified, and parts of it are granted great significance on spiritual and other levels. By setting the poem at sea with major roles given to the weather and animals, Coleridge immerses his reader in the natural world. The following stanza shows Coleridge’s use of descriptive language to help his reader envision that landscape: “And now there came both mist and snow,/ And it grew wondrous cold:/ And ice, mast-high, came floating by,/ As green as emerald” (51-54). The descriptions of weather throughout the poem frequently set the mood and dictate events. The reader can envision the danger that awaits the narrator and his crew by the description of the ice and mist. Later, the hot sun and burning sea play a role in the agony and dehydration of the crew. The sea, depicted as expansive and silent, adds to the narrator’s isolation after he alone is chosen for Life-in-Death as payment for his crimes.
Coleridge demonstrates the important role that nature plays in his poem by giving it human characteristics. Early in the narrative the sun is described as “he” rather than “it”: “Out of the sea came he!” (26). While it appears as though this personification may have been a consequence of merely needing a word to rhyme, it is continued throughout the poem, even where it does not offer that advantage. A few lines later, Coleridge compares the sound of the storm to that of a roaring beast. Through his use of personification, we are able to see the significance of nature, its effects on us, and our interactions with it.
Animals, in particular, are granted a spiritual significance. The Albatross, when first described, is hailed by the characters “as if it had been a Christian soul” (65). This bird dines with, plays with, and keeps company with the members of the crew as if it too were human. This bird is loved by the spirit of the South Pole, who seeks revenge when it is killed. The reader views the Albatross not only as a bird, but also as an emblem of innocence representing all of God’s loving – but defenseless – creatures. Its death represents the destruction of nature, and the vengeance of the spirit represents the consequences of such destruction.
While the poem corresponds in both structure and subject matter to other writings of its time, one of its two major themes relates not only to Romantic writing, but also to other major political and social events of the period. This theme presents the moral of the tale and allows Coleridge to take on the role of “Poet Prophet”: a poet who “puts himself forward as a spokesman for traditional Western civilization at a time of profound crisis” (Abrams 1320). Romantic authors who wished to better society through their writing frequently took on this role. The profound crisis of the Romantic period addressed by Coleridge in this poem was the poor treatment of the working class and the general disregard for the destruction of nature that followed the English Industrial Revolution. Many early Romantic writers sympathized with the French revolution, supported greater equality for the poor working masses after the English Industrial Revolution, and held nature in high regard (1316-1318). Coleridge shows his sympathy for these principles in the solution he presents to the problem: “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” (612-617). This clearly pronounced moral asks the reader to consider how each man and beast is made equal, by the same creator, and to treat them accordingly. Although the main plot of the story reflects this moral by having the main character cursed for killing one of God’s creatures with no provocation, Coleridge still chooses to state it directly. This was perhaps intended to ensure that all readers receive his message, and that no one views the tale as merely an interesting story.
Other elements of the story line support this contention. For example, the mariner’s feelings towards the water snakes within the poem change as he learns this lesson. Before he kills the albatross, he describes them as merely a cursed part of a rotting landscape, “The very deep did rot: O Christ!/ That ever this should be!/ Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon the slimy sea” (123-126). After the curse is put upon him for the bird’s death and he is forced to endure the deaths of his shipmates, he begins to relate more to these creatures, comparing them to himself by stating, “And a thousand slimy things/ Lived on; and so did I” (238-239). In his final account of these snakes, he no longer regards them as filthy creatures of no significance: “I watched the water snakes/ …O happy living things! No tongue/ Their beauty might declare:/ A spring of love gushed from my heart,/ And I blessed them unaware” (282-285). Directly after this realization, his curse is lifted. It is clear that the mariner has learned his lesson, and is finally able to regard these creatures as a glorious part of the world around him.
A final description from the narrator of the sky-larks brings the moral full circle, as the very type of creature that he first harmed is now regarded as something beautiful and spiritual: “I heard the sky-lark sing/ …and now it is an angel’s song” (359, 365).
The deaths of the crew members also serve to further the moral, as Coleridge states in one of his summaries that “when the fog cleared off, they justified the same, and thus make themselves accomplices to the crime” (97-100). This part of the story reminds the reader that it is not enough to merely keep oneself from harming the innocent. Although the punishment the mariner receives – he is doomed to an existence of Life-in-Death in which his sins must constantly be accounted for – seems much worse, the crew also receives punishment for their acceptance of his crime. The reader is thus compelled to take a stand against others who would oppress the poor and harm God’s creations.
Just as bystanders are not exempt from blame Coleridge’s poem, neither are those who consider themselves morally pure Christians. Coleridge underscores his characters’ religious beliefs through numerous references to Christ, God, angels, and the cross. The mariner also references the Holy Mother, frequently prays, and seeks to relieve the burdens of his sins through confession. The religious are capable of injustices towards nature and mankind, and Coleridge reminds them of this fact by forcing them to identify with the characters while providing them with a moral that speaks directly to their conscience through repeated references to God.
While the theme of equal treatment is quite obvious, there is another theme that, while never directly stated, underlies the entire poem: the theme of guilt. Romantic poems employing the first-person narrative frequently reflected the poet’s own life and state of mind (Abrams 1319). This poem does as much for Coleridge, who is described as having “manifested early in life a profound sense of guilt and a need for public expiation” (Abrams 1575). The main character of this poem, like Coleridge, is racked with guilt for his cold-blooded killing of the innocent Albatross and the subsequent events that led to the death of his crew and the destruction of his ship. Also like Coleridge, our narrator is never fully freed from this guilt. When discussing the mariner’s fate, the latter of two spirits notes that “The man hath penance done,/ And penance more will do” (408-409). Even after the mariner is rescued and returned to his native land as a wiser, more loving man, he is still forced to pay penance to the spirit of the South Pole by relating his ghastly deeds and their consequences again and again. Perhaps writing this tale provides Coleridge with a similar experience – a continual expiation of his guilt through a written narrative. But even in this theme of guilt we are reminded of what caused it, for the narrator and the reader are both repeatedly forced to face the need for the equal treatment of all.
In this tale, Coleridge combines elements of his own guilt-ridden life, the supernatural, and the natural world into a dark first-person narrative lyrical ballad. The elements of his work closely parallel the elements of other major literary works of the Romantic period, but also make a statement to his readers about a major crisis arising out the Industrial Revolution: the poor treatment of God’s creations.
Abrams, M. H., et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Ed. M. H. Abrams, et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 1580-95.
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