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Poets in the Romantic period were not preoccupied with reason, unlike most of the intellectuals in the Eighteenth Century. Rather, they were able recognize the importance of non-rational processes in the mind. S.T. Coleridge was particularly interested in the supernatural. As a result, the supernatural is a common theme in many of Coleridge’s poems. Scholar John Beer comments that Coleridge incorporated “magic” in his poetry, asking readers not to question its practicality. This is apparent in his poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, where Coleridge asks the readers to suspend disbelief in order to see the significance behind the supernatural or magical elements.
The power of hypnosis or mesmerism is one of the main supernatural themes in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The mariner is able to hold the wedding guest against his will, as if he has the power of hypnosis. “He holds him with his glittering eye– The Wedding-Guest stood still, And listens like a three years’ child: The Mariner hath his will” (1.13-16). The wedding guest is compelled to listen, as if he is under a spell. A three year old child does not have much say over what happens in his or her life, and likewise, the wedding guest does not have a choice over whether he stays to listen to the mariner’s story or not. He would prefer to go to the wedding, but is held by the mariner’s gaze. “He cannot choose but hear” (1.18 and 38). Mesmerism was the word they used for hypnosis in the Eighteenth Century because it had to do with the inner mind and perhaps the unconscious, subjects that Coleridge was very interested in. Not only is the wedding guest forced to listen to the story; but the Mariner is also forced to tell it. “Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched with a woeful agony which forced me to begin my tale; and then it left me free” (7.578-581). The mariner must tell his tale otherwise he will remain in agony. “I pass, like night, from land to land; I have strange power of speech; That moment that his face I see, I know the man that must hear me: To him my tale I teach” (7.586-590). When he relates his tale, it releases his agony, but it adds to the agony of the listener, who “is of sense forlorn: A sadder and a wiser man” (7.623-624). The mariner’s tale is so vivid and magical that it captures the reader’s attention as well, as if they too are mesmerized. Once the mariner has begun his tale, neither he, the listener, nor the reader can stop.
Coleridge presents The Albatross is presented as Christ- like and returns to it frequently throughout the poe to illuminate the elements of supernaturalism. “Through the fog it came; as if it had been a Christian soul” (1.64-65). The Albatross is a good omen, especially when it is following the mariner’s ship and watching out for the crew’s safety. “And a good south wind sprung up behind; the Albatross did follow” (1.71-72). The fog and mist and the wind the albatross brings imply that it has some sort of divine power. When the mariner shoots the albatross it is symbolic of breaking the bonds between humans and nature. Only after the albatross is gone does the mariner realize how much he needed it. “And I had done a hellish thing, and it would work ’em woe: For all averred, I had killed the bird that made the breeze to blow” (1.91-94). This calm that ensues is an eerie stillness, a mariner’s worst nightmare, because they were reliant on the wind for movement. “Instead of the cross, the Albatross about my neck was hung” (2.141-142). Coleridge portrays the albatross as Jesus, and many painters of this time actually depicted the albatross as being crucified. As Coleridge writes later in the poem, the albatross loved the Mariner, just like Jesus once loved the people who crucified him. The albatross hanging around the Mariner’s neck separates the him from the rest of the crew because it is a visual symbol of his sin. Once the Mariner realizes the beauty of the world and his connection to nature, he unknowingly blesses the creatures he once saw as cursed. “The self-same moment I could pray; and from my neck so free The Albatross fell off, and sank like lead into the sea” (4.288-291). The albatross falling off the mariner’s neck is a symbol of his redemption. The mariner has learned to love and to see beauty in nature. It is as if some higher power has lifted his burden lifted from him. However, once the albatross is gone, the mariner can never forget his sin. The curse that comes from the death of the Albatross is inexplicable, and Coleridge requires the reader to suspend disbelief and look beyond the events to unearth symbols of punishment and redemption.
One of the most ghastly events in the poem is when the ghost ship arrives, bringing Death and Life-in-Death to gamble for the souls of the crew. At first, the mariner and crew are excited, “And [The mariner cries], a sail! a sail” (3.161). As the ship draws nearer, however, the chilling realization dawns on them that “Without a breeze, without a tide, she steadies with upright keel!” (3.169-171). The fact that this ship is moving while their own is stuck provides a frightening contrast between the two. The movement without wind is scary because it is logically impossible. This, however, is exactly the reason Coleridge chose to include the ghost ship, because he is exploring the supernatural in his work. The calm atmosphere also signals some strange goings-on. The sailors are are cursed, not able to move, the mariner’s is not able to die. The “ghost ship” is a traditional mythical/ supernatural element. The crew of this ship is made up of only 2 “people,” Death and his mate, Life-in-Death. Coleridge describes the ghost ship as having “ribs,” an image that parallels the mariner who is old but unable to die. “The naked hulk alongside came and the twain were casting dice” (3.195-196). Death and Life-in-Death are gamble for the souls of the crew, which also a very traditional myth, similar to the myth of Davy Jones. Death takes the souls of all the crew members; but Life-in-Death wins the soul of the mariner, signifying that the he will live, but his life will be like death, which is a worse punishment than Death itself. Leaving life to chance shows the lack of control human beings actually have over our own lives. In this way, Coleridge uses the supernatural element of the ghost ship to represent the fragility and unpredictability of human life.
The abrupt changes in weather are strange and unnatural, and show the presence of a higher power who controls it all. When the Albatross comes, it brings fog and mist to cover up the bright sun. It also brings a vital breeze to keep the ship moving. Upon the bird’s death by the Mariner’s hand, the blessings immediately cease. “All in a hot and copper sky, the bloody Sun, at noon” (2.111-112). The scorching sun turns red, the sea changes color and all kinds of strange slimy sea creatures come out at night. These occurrences cannot be explained though nature. It would not seem so unnatural if it had happened slowly, over time, but the fact that this happened right after the albatross died makes it seem less coincidental. As soon as the Mariner recognizes the interconnectedness of nature, he is able to sleep. However, another change happens in the weather, he says, “And when I awoke, it rained” (5.300). Not only does the rain come only when the mariner’s mindset is changed, but the wind also abruptly returns, “And soon I heard a roaring wind” (5.309). This weather pattern is explicable through science, but the fact that it happens directly after the Mariner’s repentance gives it a supernatural quality. It is as if some higher power is creating pathetic fallacy in the poem, only because of the circumstances the rain and wind are considered to be good. Even though the Mariner is “rescued” at the end of the poem, he still has a curse upon him. This would explain his happiness when he sees the rain. It is bittersweet. At the time it comes the mariner is overjoyed to feel it, but he knows it is only a temporary pleasure, because he is now forced to walk the earth telling his tale. Likewise, the Mariner and the crew definitely do not appreciate the heat and intensity of the sun while they are parched. However, a nice balance between sun and rain, wind and calm would be best. When the mariner shoots the albatross, it is as if he ruins the balance of nature and can only restore it through his prayer and repentance.
Spirits, which Coledridge uses to personify certain aspects of nature are perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of supernaturalism in the poem, at least for the Mariner. The first spirit is “the Spirit that plagued us so; nine fathom deep he had followed us from the land of mist and snow” (2.132-134). Spirits also take the form of ghosts in the grotesque figures of Death and Life-in-Death. For the Mariner, some of the most scary spirits are those of his dying crew, who each curse him as they die. “Each turned his face with a ghastly pang, and cursed me with his eye” (4.214-215). The Mariner uses a simile for the souls passing by him, comparing their movement to the whizz of his crossbow. This is significant because this is the same tool the Mariner used to kill the albatross. The wedding guest fears the Mariner might be a ghost himself due to his strange powers and skeletal look, but the Mariner assures him that he is not. However, the Mariner might prefer being a ghost over this fate. When he first awakens after his soul is taken, he thinks “that [he has] died in sleep, and [is] a blessed ghost.” By referring to a ghost as blessed, the Mariner insinuates that he would consider that fate a better option than the one he is saddled with. When his dead crew all rise up as ghosts and begin to steer the ship, the Mariner is frightened. “’Twas not those souls that fled in pain, which to their corpses came again, but a troop of spirits blest” (5.347-349), he tells the frightened wedding guest. Although the Mariner is scared by the ghosts’ harmonies, he recognizes the beauty of it all.
When the Mariner overhears two spirits talking about him and the suffering he has endured and has yet to endure is an allusion to the Holy Spirit, which the Mariner would receive upon his salvation. Spirits represent an element of supernaturalism and fear, but also personify forces of nature like life, death and retribution. When the spirits all harmonize, their sound signifies that the universe has been put back it is right, natural order again.
Overall, the elements of supernaturalism in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” force readers to suspend their disbelief in order to fully comprehend the symbolism and meanings behind the magical scenes. The Albatross has many magical, divine aspects to it, with its ability to bring the fog, mist and wind, and its love for the Mariner reflects a love of Christ as well as the interconnectedness of nature. The ghost ship is one of the most pure mythical elements in this poem, symbolizing the lack of control human beings have over our own lives. The weather is another important component of supernaturalism, signalling the imbalance that the Mariner creates in nature by the shooting the albatross and the subsequent restoration of that balance by a divine power. The final elements of supernaturalism are the various spiritual beings. These add an element of fear, and yet symbolize the order of the universe and remind the Mariner and the reader of the impending afterlife.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Comp. Joseph Black, Leonard Conolly, Kate Flint, Isobel Grundy. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2007.
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