Saturday, March 23, 2013

Death Poetry: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

An English poet, Samuel Coleridge wrote a poem in 1798 entitled, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Experts have picked apart and overanalyzed this poem for two centuries. 

Christians state this poem is one of redemption where through prayer man becomes closer to God. 

Scientists state this poem reflects the higher power of the physical or natural world, which dominants man. 

Others state it is a tale of crime and punishment. 

Coleridge’s poem does reflect the elements above but from a spiritual perspective, this poem has two realms, one being reason and the other imagination.

Coleridge’s assigns his main character the “Ancient Mariner” the role of storyteller. This mariner is doomed to share his tale with those who will listen. He imparts or teaches a moral lesson that cannot be ignored--describing his own terrible misdeed-- he warns that man must not forsake the spiritual or natural world for the pursuit of pleasure. His tale is poignant for his mistake caused the agonizing deaths of 200 souls. In retribution, he wanders the earth telling his tale of woe as a warning.

Side by side with this theme is a very compelling story that entertains and draws the reader in. Coleridge uses old-fashioned spelling, the ancient belief that “gods” have the power to meddle in men's lives and the sense that this tale was passed down through the generations. He used these devices to ingeniously give the reader the flavor of bygone days. 

But it is the supernatural elements in his poem that attract many readers. For the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a tale of superstitions, curses, ghosts, and a ghost ship.

The poem begins with the Ancient Mariner telling his story to a “wedding guest” he detains. He captures this man’s attention by describing a storm that drove his ship off course into dangerous waters. Then an albatross--a sea bird-- saves his ship. It leads his ship away from the icy waters of the Antarctic. But even as his crew praises this bird, the Mariner shoots and kills it without regret:

“With my cross-bow
I I shot the Albatross.”

This angers the crew for they believed this albatross had bought the south wind that led them out of danger. But they soon forget their ire as the weather warms.

Unbeknownst to the crew, the killing of the albatross has caused the wrath of the gods who send spirits to chase the ship. The south wind calms, and the vessel and crew are stranded:

“Water, water, everywhere, 

And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

The crew, tormented by thirst is again angry with the Mariner, so they place the dead Albatross around his neck. * Their ship now encounters the spirits on the ghostly ship that followed them--on board is a skeleton- who is “Death” and a deathly pale woman:

“The Night-Mare Life-in-Death was she,

Who thicks man's blood with cold.”

These two spirits roll the dice for the souls of the crew. Death wins. Life-in-Death wins the soul of the Mariner--a prize she considers more valuable. The Mariner will now face a fate worse than death for he is cursed--he is made to watch each crew member die one by one:

“Each turned his face with a ghastly pang,

And cursed me with his eye.”

The Mariner finds himself stranded and alone:

“Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide, wide sea!”

“The many men, so beautiful!

And they all dead did lie:

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I.”

This curse is temporarily lifted and the Mariner who once saw all sea creatures as “slimy things” now can see their beauty:

“O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.”

As he blesses them, the albatross falls from his neck:

“The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off and sank

Like lead into the sea”.

The Mariner is partially redeemed:

“The man hath penance done,

And penance more will do.”

The bodies of the dead crewmembers rise and steer the Mariner’s ship back home--where it then sinks in a whirlpool. The Mariner has survived, but he knows he must do penance for shooting the albatross:

“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.”

He wanders the earth, driven by guilt, knowing he has to tell what he has learned. The “Wedding Guest” listens as he states:

“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.”

In the end, the “Wedding Guest” wiser for the telling finds himself sad and pondering his own life.

Here is a link to the poem.

Since the poem is long, here is an excellent audio version --told by Orson Welles:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

* One standard idea or saying taken from this poem is to have an “albatross around your neck.” This means you have a constant reminder of a mistake you made.

Samuel Coleridge’s poem was not well received in the late 1700s. But today, parts of this poem are found in every form of popular culture. Books, games, comics, music, film, television and even the military all reference "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

The recent film, Life of Pi uses many elements from this poem in its storyline.

One good example of this is the British band, Iron Maiden. Steve Harris, the band’s bass player, wrote his own version of Coleridge’s poem. It became a thirteen and a half minute song on their “Powerslave” album in 1984. Here is the song… 

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