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In a revision of his enduring poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Coleridge added a pointed Latin epigraph, perhaps to clarify what he hoped the poem would convey upon his readers. The added lines ask us to reevaluate our perceptions of man and nature, as what is easily perceived by man is far from the full truth. The epigraph seems to be a challenge to the poet, to lead us into the truth: “I easily believe that in the universe the invisible Natures are more numerous than the visible ones. But who will clarify for us the family of all these natures, the ranks and relationships and criteria and functions of each of them? What do they do? In what places do they dwell?” In the poem, Coleridge provides us a stunning narrative in which supernatural elements and awesome illustrations of natural beauty come together to explore such “invisible Natures,” but the poem stands out as much for its stellar use of narrative strategies as its inspiring aesthetic. Coleridge provides a gripping exploration of the questions proposed in the epigraph by giving the reader multiple perspectives on the Mariner’s tale, particularly from the eyes of the Wedding-Guest, the Mariner’s shipmates, and the Mariner himself. By employing these perspectives, Coleridge allows us to experience the full revelation of the Mariner’s tale, to identify the effects of those invisible Natures, and, ultimately, to compel us to redefine our relationship with the natural world.
Coleridge begins The Rime of the Ancient Mariner quite deliberately, setting up the reader for intense retrospection and reevaluation. Focus is put on the Mariner’s secret knowledge, suggested by the constant focus on the Mariner’s “glittering eye” (3, 13) by which he holds the Wedding-Guest transfixed. The Mariner is also referred to as “bright-eyed” twice early on (20, 40), a conspicuous detail that gives us the sense he sees or has seen something crucial that he must share. The image of the wild-eyed Mariner is a physical expression of the urgency with which the Mariner forces his tale upon the unwitting Wedding-Guest, who must listen despite wanting to partake in the ceremony. By making the first conflict of the poem that of the Wedding-Guest, a bystander struggling to escape the ravings of a “gray-beard loon” (11), Coleridge invites us to assume the Wedding-Guest’s perspective in our own consumption of the Mariner’s tale. While such a narrative strategy risks removing the reader somewhat from the tale itself, Coleridge makes clear that the thoughts of one who has yet reevaluate his or her relationship with nature, as the Wedding-Guest does, is a crucial aspect of this poem. Later, we will be able to experience the Mariner’s tale from the perspective of the Mariner himself, but Coleridge allows us to imagine ourselves first as the Wedding-Guest because it is our place as readers to experience the epiphany of invisible Natures second-hand.
The narrative strategy of placing the reader in the shoes of the Wedding-Guest affords Coleridge the luxury of immersing his audience in a richly calculated extended metaphor. We are aware that the Mariner only “stoppeth one of three,” suggesting that the message he is to impart is rare and in this way special. This rarity is, in fact, confirmed near the poem’s end, as the Mariner exclaims, “That moment that his face I see, / I know the man that must hear me” (588-89). Furthermore, at the wedding ceremony, we are drawn in by the glittery superficiality of the “merry din” (8), festivity that we will soon find nave and superfluous aside the wizened Mariner’s grave tones. It is precisely this kind of frivolity that is referenced in the Latin epigraph: “it is from time to time useful mentally to picture in the mind, as on a tablet, the image of a larger and better world, so that our minds, preoccupied with trivial matters of everyday life, does not shrink excessively and subside entirely into petty ideas.” Coleridge illustrates such pettiness with a depiction of the carefree procession: “The bride hath paced into the hall, / Red as a rose is she; / Nodding their heads before her goes / The merry minstrelsy” (33-36). The mindlessly nodding wedding-goers provide a stark visual contrast to the wild-eyed Mariner, for whom the mysteries of man and nature have been revealed, and who clearly knows a fuller reality than our own Wedding-Guest. Still, even in the face of his clueless guest, Coleridge provides clues as to the gravity of the Mariner’s tale of man and nature, as the Wedding-Guest “cannot choose but hear” not only because as he is held by the Mariner, but also as he “sat on a stone” (16). The mention of the stone in this extended metaphor begs us to think of the Mariner’s tale in the context of the relationship between man and nature, as such a detail suggests the two are inseparable.
As we follow the Mariner’s tale through the Wedding-Guest’s eyes, we are compelled to imagine the Mariner’s tale as a received revelation. Thus, when the Wedding-Guest finally is allowed to speak, we understand his words as an expression of apprehension regarding his new knowledge: “I fear thee, ancient Mariner! / I fear thy skinny hand! / And thou art long, and lank, and brown, / As is the ribbed sea-sand” (224-27). The Wedding-Guest identifies the Mariner as innately connected to nature, signified by his sandy appearance. We also remember here that the Mariner originally held the Wedding-Guest with force in order to keep his audience captive, but now the Wedding-Guest makes reference to the Mariner’s “skinny hand.” What is significant about this observation is that it is clear the Wedding-Guest is seeing the world anew, as we are by following the shift from focus on the Mariner’s beard and eyes to his skin and hands. At the poem’s conclusion, we are more than just witness to the Wedding-Guest’s transformative moment: “He went like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn: / A sadder and a wiser man, He rose the morrow morn” (622-25). Clearly, it is the intent of the poem to allow us to take part in such a revelation, and to leave the poem with a different perception of man and nature “the morrow morn.”
A second perspective that Coleridge presents us is that of the Mariner’s superstitious shipmates. This perspective helps us to more directly reevaluate the relationship between man and nature than that of the Wedding-Guest, whose function seems primarily to help us understand the epiphany. These men strain to comprehend their own relationship with nature, and the idea of “invisible Natures” becomes first apparent in the their reactions to the Mariner’s slaying of the albatross. At first, they suppose the unjust killing of the “good omen” to likely end their good rapport with the winds: “Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, / That made the breeze to blow! (95-96). However, when the fog subsides, they ally themselves with the Mariner’s crime. Coleridge writes, “Nor dim nor red like God’s own head, / The glorious Sun uprist: / Then all averred, I had killed the bird. / That brought the fog and mist” (97-100). These shifting attitudes suggest a desire to understand what is referred to in the epigraph as “invisible Natures,” and how one is to react to conflicts with the natural world. Unlike the Wedding-Guest, who can only experience the Mariner’s revelation vicariously, the Mariner’s shipmates are held directly responsible for the Mariner’s transgression, and their chosen allegiance with or against nature holds immediate consequences. By allowing the reader to imagine the inner conflict of the Mariner’s shipmates, Coleridge gives us a perspective of the Mariner’s revelation that balances the objectivity of an outside observer with the accountability of a direct participant.
The perspective of the Mariner’s shipmates also helps us understand how man is inevitably immersed and inseparable from nature. Often the Mariner and his shipmates find themselves surrounded by nature and find their senses overcome by nature, as when the ship approaches mountains of ice: “The ice was here, the ice was there, / The ice was all around: / It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, / Like noises in a swound! (59-62).” We are compelled to imagine the reactions of fear of and even submission to nature that overcomes the shipmates as they realize their fate is no longer fully in their hands. Later, we again see the Mariner’s shipmates in helpless opposition to nature, engulfed in its fury: “Water, water, every where, / And all the boards did shrink; / Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink” (119-22). The ice and water in these images are not so much passively oppressive, but brought alive by their action: the ice cracking and growling, and the water shrinking the boards of the ship. There is a sense of man’s being abandoned by nature in both situations, as if the shipmates were suddenly forced to contend with a parent who no longer cares for them. By allowing us such perspectives from the eyes of the Mariner’s shipmates, Coleridge gives us a sense of the detached, uncaring aspect of the natural world.
But the perspective of nature taken by the Mariner’s shipmates is not always about abandonment from nature. In describing the storm driving their ship to the South Pole, Coleridge gives us imagery of the wrestling match between ship and winds that suggests a subservient relationship of multiple layers. “And now the Storm-blast came, and he / Was tyrannous and strong: He struck with his o’ertaking wings, / And chased us south along” (41-44). In these lines, we imagine ourselves as part of the crew of the ship, awed and humbled by the raw power of the stormy winds. Here, it is not enough that we merely respect the storm as a person, a “he,” but, in fact, we envision the storm as being tyrannical like a king, and battering the boat with wings like those of a great flying beast. The impersonality of the shipmate’s perspective of nature here gives us a sense of the human element being dwarfed by nature, resulting in an awe and respect one imagines of one’s distant superiors.
Finally, we are shown the perspective of the Mariner himself, who displays a more personal, individualistic relationship with nature. After the Mariner’s shipmates die, the Mariner finds himself alone and burdened with nature’s looming anger at his misdeed. The Mariner exclaims, “I closed my lids, and kept them close, / And the balls like pulses beat; / For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky / Lay like a load on my weary eye, / And the dead were at my feet” (248-52). The repetition of the images of sky and sea emphasizes that the Mariner’s crime was one that pitted him against the natural world, and that the world is at his eye and the men at his feet suggests man is suspended in both the world of nature and the world of man. Furthermore, these lines once again focus on the Mariner’s eye, at this point describing it as “weary.” Coleridge uses this focus to make the perspective of the Mariner, as witness to such events, a main concern. As the tale progresses, the Mariner’s faculties for perception are reduced, and he can only hear the voices of the spirits discussing his fate. The ship glides northward at a supernatural speeds, and a voice tells us such motion is dependent to the Mariner’s state: “Fly, brother, fly! more high, more high! / Or we shall be belated: / For slow and slow that ship will go / When the Mariner’s trance is abated” (426-29). By focusing on the connection between the Mariner’s trance and the motion of the ship, and by furthermore giving us an understanding of the Mariner’s sin and the penance he does for the sin, Coleridge allows us to envision the more personal, intimate aspects of the relationship between man and nature.
By giving us three distinct perspectives of the Mariner’s tale, that of the Wedding-Guest, that of the Mariner’s shipmates, and that of the Mariner himself, Coleridge allows us to more fully experience the revelation of discovering “invisible Natures.” Through the Wedding-Guest, we are able to observe the receipt and second-hand experience of the revelation. The perspective of the Mariner’s shipmates gives us images of the impersonal, detached nature of the natural world, and the Mariner’s own perspective allows us to understand the more personal connection between man and nature. Through these perspectives, we are better prepared to approach the questions and challenges proposed in the poem’s epigraph.
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