Language, Verse Form, and Loss in The Mariner
”To account for life is one thing; to explain life another” – Coleridge (Norton p.596)
One of the most easily definable of Coleridge’s Mariner’s losses is his loss of a concrete existence. Coleridge’s mariner exists in a liminal space in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. He is neither dead nor alive, his soul has been won by ‘Life-in-Death’ and he has lost normal human mortality. He wanders, looking for an outlet to purge him of his guilt and offer a final outcome to his predicament, but finds no lasting solution. The duality of his existence is further illustrated by the poet through his choice of language and form, while the loss that the mariner is subjected to, and offered no resolution from, mirrors the lack of a concrete and definable ‘meaning’ in the poem.
‘It is an ancient mariner’ begins the poem and immediately Coleridge is treating his protagonist as ‘otherworldly’; by not offering him a personal pronoun, but instead referring to him as ‘it’, he is separated from the narrator and from the wedding guest, to whom he is speaking. The Mariner’s movement away from humanity continues in lines 21-24 as the poet describes the mariners descent away from what is normal; ‘Merrily we did drop / below the kirk, below the hill / below the lighthouse top.’ Which could be said to represent a move away from what is good and ‘godly’, the ‘kirk’ and what is human, ‘the lighthouse’. The anaphora at use in this stanza quickens the narrative and the descent.
Anaphora is used in frequently in the poem. At times to speed the narrative, or slow it down. It is also used to emphasise a point, as seen in the stanza that details ‘Life-in-Death’s’, (who won the Mariner’s soul) appearance.
‘Her lips were red her, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold’
The strong caesura between lines two and three in this stanza also illuminates the strikingly contradictory nature of her appearance and serves to divide the stanza into human and non-human. This duality presented in Coleridge’s stanzas is, for Seronsy, a major driving force in the narrative. (Seronsy, Dual Patterning in RAM) Focusing on the syntactical division in stanzas he links this to the thematic duality at work in the poem; joy and sorrow, innocence and guilt. He doesn’t, however, place importance on the link between the ‘dual patterning’ (Seronsy) and the duality of the mariners existence between natural and unnatural, life and death.
Much critical attention has been paid to the contradictory nature of the poem and the state of the mariners existence. Critics themselves seem to be divided into two rough groups. Those who champion an allegorical Christian reading or another moral outcome, or those who, like Stillinger, accept the lack of a clear cut resolution to the moral issues raised, as an intrinsic part of the text. (Stillinger: How Many Mariners did Coleridge write?) Wordsworth described the mariner as a man continuously ‘acted upon’ (Wordsworth: The prelude) and for L.M Grow, ‘the Rime’ presents us with ‘not an answer to the question ”what is real”. But a vivid illustration of the problem itself’. This vivid illustration of the contradictory state of the mariners existence is similar to Coleridge’s treatment of the sun and moon as oppositional forces.
As Warren points out, the sun is (mostly) presented as a negative in the poem. The sun makes frequent appearances throughout the story, as does the moon. While the sun is ‘bloody’ and ‘his’ appearance often coincides with supernatural events; the moon, female, (usually) offers the Mariner respite and calm. In the 1834 marginal gloss, the ‘imaginary editior’ (H.Brown) explains lines 263-266; ‘In his loneliness and fixedness he yearneth toward the journeying moon’. That the moon is female and the sun masculine presents another element of duality to the poem, and another in-between space for the Mariner to be ‘acted upon’.
Some critics have noted the ‘flatness’ (Ferguson) of tonal variances at points in the poem. Perhaps the tonal flatness and the mostly consistent ABCB rhyme scheme provide Coleridge with a canvas to attempt to ‘explain life’ (Coleridge). The musicality of the ballad format (which Coleridge puts to good use, as seen in lines such as, ‘Alone, alone, all all, alone’) could be said to allow the poet more time and length to develop his theme. Not that Coleridge offers any final definitive explanation of life, or clear cut moral outcome. Though he sums up the Mariners experiences with theses lines in the third to last stanza;
‘He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.’
After these lines, which some critics have called ‘banal’ (CITE), he goes on to describe the wedding guest ‘turned from the bridegroom’s door’, as, ‘stunned’, ‘forlorn’ and ‘sadder’. This doesn’t exactly balance with the stanza above, particularly as the wedding guest is involved in a celebration of love at, presumably, a church. As Coleridge said, ‘poetry is best when only partly, not perfectly understood’. Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining the contemporary reception the poem received. Abrams defines a sub genre, ‘the greater Romantic lyric’ (Abrams) and cites Coleridge as inaugurating the form. One of the features he identifies in his classification of this lyric, is the mind confronting nature. Perhaps,’ the wedding guest’s mind, after being confronted with the Mariners wild tale of nature as unstable is struggling to situate himself.
Surely, the Mariner’s mind confronting nature is a frequent feature of the poem. As nature gives way to the supernatural, taking the Mariner with it. At times, nature is beautiful; ‘And ice, mast high, came floating by / As green as Emerald’. In these lines, the frequent commas slow the cadence and add to the musicality of the iambic beat. This assists with the presentation of the ice at this point as beautiful, not yet frightening. However, at other times, nature turns;
‘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!’
The repetition adds to the notion of being surrounded by ice, while the onomatopoeic words describe the sound of the ice as that akin to what one might hear in a faint (swound). This creates an unnatural element to the ice, preparing the scene for the supernatural events to follow. It is in this unstable world that the mariner exists, having lost his human existence and existing as another supernatural element in the poem.
His lack of explicit motive and lack of subsequent resolution is mirrored by the thematic treatment of nature as fluid and subject to change. This duality is further illustrated by the poet’s frequent use of anaphora and the two part structuring of many of his stanzas (Cecil) . While internal rhymes such as, ‘the guests were met, the feast was set’ and punctuation provide Coleridge with a way to speed or slow the narrative. This treatment of form, to further thematic elements of duality, gives Coleridge a fluidity to match the unstable situating of his Mariner, in a world where nothing can be said to be entirely ‘real.’
Perhaps this was Coleridge’s aim with the poem. In offering a protagonist who has, essentially, lost it all, and situating him in a volatile space between natural and supernatural, the poet had a canvas for questioning the nature of existence.
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