Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Rime of the Ancient Mariner

by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Publisher: SeaWolf Press
Print-on-demand paperback, 120 pages
Current Retail Price: $6.99
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One of the finest poems in English, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is universal in the sense that modern poetry seldom is. At face value it's the story of a ghostly sailor whose horrific experiences at sea have left him a wandering wreck. Good poems are seldom what they seem, however, and beneath the supernatural account is an exploration of man's rebellion against God, the nature of sin, and the emptiness of self-redemption. A lot of poems are crystallizations of highly subjective individual experience, but Coleridge captures the human condition in all its tragedy and hope.

The poem begins in front of a church three young men are entering to attend a wedding ceremony. An old man stops one and tells the story of a ship's voyage gone awry, turned disastrous by a storm and ultimately doomed entirely by a meaningless act of violence. The Mariner kills an albatross (signifying both the Mariner's soul and Christ, but somehow also the Mariner's sin), and all winds stop. The ship drifts aimlessly until the crew makes the Mariner wear the dead bird around his neck in recompense. Eventually they pass a ghostship, on the deck of which Death and Death-In-Life are gambling for the crew of the Mariner's ship. Death wins the crew, Death-In-Life wins the Mariner.

After losing his soul to Death-In-Life the Mariner is doomed to wander, telling his story, weighted by the memory of his crime and guilt. The poem has been interpreted as a criticism of the misuse of nature, an analysis of higher criticism, a mystical treatise on religion, and a supernatural horror story. Given Coleridge's Christianity, however, it seems more reasonable to understand the poem as an exploration of human sin and suffering, its causes, and the ways people attempt to escape its effects.

The final stanza seems heavy with despair. The young wedding guest to whom the story is told goes home without attending the ceremony, zombie-like. Yet he rises the next day "A sadder and a wiser man," not the careless youth he was before encountering the Mariner. It's no accident Coleridge frames the narrative with a marriage setting.It introduces an almost frivolous atmosphere starkly contrasted to the darkness of the Mariner's tale—when the youth turns from it we sense it is not in despair but self-realization. His rejection also evokes images of the men in Christ's parable excluded from the wedding feast because of their lowly position, but later welcomed when the original guests refused to attend.

Regardless of your interpretation, this poem is elegant and beautiful, one of the truly great works in the history of literature. Coleridge's spare lines and haunting evocation of mood are as frighteningly lovely as the spectre of Death-In-Life herself.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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