The Lesson of the Albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells the story of a sailor and his perilous adventures. This tale follows the Mariner and his crew as they travel between the equator and the South Pole, and then travel back to England. On the surface this story seems to be just another tale of a sailor. If the reader delves deeper, he will discover not just a story, but a search to understand the place of man in the divine plan. Coleridge, like other Romantic poets, tries to find the right balance between reason and spirituality and uses his poem to show the complexities of free will, and the consequences of slighting divine influence. Also like other Romantic poets, Coleridge uses symbolism to connect the material world with the spiritual. The symbols Coleridge chooses helps him illustrate this theme of spiritual connection in a world overrun by reason, because “for Coleridge, symbolic vision is profoundly religious, lifting the symbol maker–the poet–into the Divine realm of the Symbol Giver” (Levy 225).
The Romantic movement can be seen as a reaction to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on logic and reason. In fact, the Romantic movement is an attempt to explore consciousness, imagination, and feeling. Major themes of the Romantic movement include the relationship between man and nature, contemplation of the divine or infinite in nature, reverence for the natural world, and the symbolic nature of liminal spaces. A typical theme of Romantic narratives is the protagonist’s transformation from a state of innocence or grace to a realization of human nature, usually achieved through some sort of spiritual intervention. Drawing from the Enlightenment’s focus on reason and evidence, the Romantics give great weight to the protagonist’s experiences and revelations.
Although “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” takes place in the physical world, it can be interpreted as an allegory of the dangers that one faces when contending against the divine. In the epigraph, Burnet weighs the need for man to understand the visible world against the ability to accept the invisible. The divine approaches man through the invisible world by presenting him with symbols and omens in nature. The Mariner is a mortal man who becomes intertwined with the supernatural. Since the Mariner is mortal, and part of the natural world, he can only accept the supernatural through physical occurrences in the natural world. Coleridge’s poetic world is a balance between the limitations and hardships of mortal man and the discipline and guidance of the divine. Coleridge illuminates the hidden workings of the spiritual world to draw attention to man’s inability to escape his connection to the supernatural. In his hubris the Mariner disregards the divine message and tries to assert his will over the natural world. Since it is man’s nature to question the divine plan and his place in the natural world, the Mariner’s sin can be punished and atoned for.
The poem begins with the Mariner outside of a wedding accosting the guests. The backdrop of the wedding is Coleridge’s way to root the tale in the mundane world. “Against this background the Mariner stands out as a ‘grey-beard loon’ – and epithet, however, that tells more of the ordinary man’s insensitivity than of the Mariner’s insanity” (Chandler 405), showing that mundane reason does not always allow one to see a person’s true worth. In the wedding guest, the Mariner finds the ability to learn a lesson from his plight. He feels the need to unburden himself on this hapless stranger. As he introduces his tale, the Mariner piques his listener’s curiosity. When the wedding guest exclaims, “God save thee, ancient Mariner! /From the fiends, that plague thee thus!- /Why look’st thou so?” (Coleridge ℓℓ 79-81), the Mariner knows that he has found the one to whom he must teach his lesson.
The Mariner begins his tale with the slaying of the Albatross, which is no common bird. This albatross brought with it a “good south wind” (Coleridge ℓℓ 87) to the ship beset by fog, and is taken by the crew to be a good omen. The Mariner shoots the albatross with his crossbow, and his shipmates curse him for the betrayal of their good fortune. When, upon the bird’s death, the fog lifted, his shipmates then hailed the Mariner as a champion. “’Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, /That bring the fog and mist” (Coleridge ℓℓ 101-102). The Mariner’s shipmates are not only superstitious, but are easily swayed as to what those superstitions mean. By slaying the object of the crew’s superstition, the Mariner has exerted man’s ability to reason over divine will. The Mariner shoots the albatross to prove it is not a spirit, but a mortal creature. The slaying of the bird is their undoing, because the sailors were right in their first assumption: The bird was an omen of divine guidance. By killing the helpless albatross, “the Mariner commits a grievous offense which, however cryptic it remains, consists of something more heinous than killing the bird: he has transgressed a moral order” (Netland screen 1).
It is not long until the albatross begins to avenge itself, because “the Mariner’s deed of violence is wicked and requires penance” (Foakes 51). When the ship reaches the equator, it is becalmed and the wind ceases to fill its sails. Thus begins the penance of the Mariner, for the slaying of an innocent bird. At this point Coleridge begins to use the ship as a symbol of the crew’s penance: “Water, water, every where,/Nor any drop to drink” (Coleridge ℓℓ 121-122). Zens elaborates by stating: “The vast sea surrounds the crew, but the dehydrated men are unable to drink the salt water available” (Zens 194). Coleridge also takes the next stanza to show how he feels for these men, who would turn their back on divine intervention: “Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea” (Coleridge ℓℓ 125-126). All the men aboard ship know who has caused this punishment, and so they hang the albatross around the Mariner’s neck. Not only has the albatross become a very physical reminder of the Mariner’s spiritual indiscretion, but also “renders the Mariner as a cross on which the corpus hangs” (Hillier 12), symbolically relating the death of the albatross to the death of innocence that Christ suffers on the cross.
Then a spirit comes and moves the ship, without a breeze to fill its sail. The men all think that they have paid their penance and that they have reached salvation. This feeling of hope disintegrates when they see a ship that is just bare framework, and “rather than a revelation of light, this is a revelation of darkness; rather than of life, death, rather than of salvation, destruction” (Watkins 27) . On this ship are two ghosts playing a game of dice. The sailors realize that they have come to their judgment day, and they stand before representatives of God and the Devil. The woman, who is God’s avatar or Life-in-death, has won and gets to choose the man she will spare. The exchange between the two ghosts shows the Romantic poet’s use of symbolic liminal spaces, or thresholds. These thresholds are used to show the uncertain division between two areas, such as the city and the country, two concepts, such as love and hate, or two realms, as in the Mariner’s case. The dice game is the Mariner’s liminal space, because the outcome determines whether he stays in the realm of the living or enters the realm of the dead. This threshold connects the Mariner’s possible fates: to die and be damned or to live and suffer his penance. The Mariner becomes the one chosen and must pay the next part of his penance. He must watch as each crew member dies and curses him. Now the life of the Mariner starts to truly parallel the life of a prophet, even that of Christ. His fate is to live and see the consequences he has wrought.
The spirit of the albatross then sends the Mariner to the South Pole, “this cold is followed by the entrance into a new world, one into which no human had ever penetrated” (Peckham screen 1) . Coleridge uses this desolate wasteland to represent Hell and the time Christ had to spend there. The Mariner has taken on the role of Christ, and must journey to hell to absolve the sins of his shipmates and himself. The spirits that inhabit this frozen Hell join in the Mariner’s punishments: “‘Is it he?’ quoth one, ‘Is this the man? /By him who died on cross,/With his cruel bow he laid full low/The harmless Albatross’” (Coleridge ℓℓ 398-401). Finally the Mariner is able to pray again and in doing so he unconsciously blesses the hideous snakes that swim around the ship. The act of contrition, represented by his prayers, causes the the albatross to drop from around the Mariner’s neck. The Mariner’s prayers are the turning point of the poem, and the transition from punishment to atonement. After his time in Hell the Mariner is released by the words of one of these spirits. “The man hath penance done,/And penance more will do” (Coleridge ℓℓ 408-409).
Not only has the Mariner regained his ability to speak, but he is also able to sleep again. When his dreams come, the Mariner dreams of slaking his thirst. The Mariner awakens to rain and declares: “Sure I had drunken in my dreams,/And still my body drank” (Coleridge ℓℓ 303-304). Although his journey is not complete, the Mariner’s act of contrition has improved the conditions of his journey. The release is not the end of the Mariner’s suffering, and an angel comes to bear his ship away. The angel puts the Mariner in a trance and moves the ship from underneath. The Mariner must be in a trance because the ship moves faster than any human could travel. When the angel brings the ship once more to the equator, the Mariner awakes. On his awakening, the Mariner sees all the crew’s corpses standing, animated by angelic spirits. Because of the spirits’ help, the Mariner knows his journey at sea is coming to an end. The dead men sail the ship back towards the Mariner’s home. When the Mariner reaches the harbor of his home, he sees a ship coming alongside his own. As the ship approaches, the dead crew give the Mariner one final salute as they lie down to have their final piece. This confirmation by the angelic spirits tells the Mariner that he has paid his penance.
The boat that comes to retrieve the Mariner from his ship has a hermit aboard. The hermit is sent to the Mariner as his confessor. When the Mariner sees this hermit, he asks to be “shrieved,” to be absolved. Modiano asserts: “This is one of the central paradoxes of the Mariner’s situation. He can relieve himself of his inner agony and retain his sanity after his return from the vast solitudes of the ocean only by shaping an otherwise formless, incomprehensible, and unbearable past into a structured narrative with a beginning, climax, ending—and a moral lesson as well” (Modiano 43). The completion of his penance does not stop the Mariner from requesting the hearing of his confession; he knows that he must see his punishment through to the end. Even though his penance has been paid, the Mariner has been trapped by Life-in-death. Unlike Christ, who was admitted to heaven after his trip to hell, the Mariner must now spend his life imparting the wisdom he has gained from his experience. In this way the Mariner’s punishment parallels the punishment of Cain. For the sin of taking an innocent life, the Mariner, like Cain before him, must now wander the Earth as an example to those who do not hold the divine sacred. The Mariner’s wandering life is what brought him to the wedding, and the guest with whom he shares the perils of slighting the divine.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a story of spiritual reconciliation, and the Mariner spends his journey atoning for the sin of killing the albatross. The albatross is avenged through the physical and supernatural trails the Mariner must endure. Not only is the Mariner subject to personal trials, but he must also witness the trials of his shipmates, whose only sin was that of being on the same ship as him. Although the other sailors are put to death, they are spared the punishment of Life-in-Death. Only the Mariner’s sins are great enough to carry the burden of the telling and retelling of the lesson of the albatross. For his atonement the Mariner is not allowed the peace of death, and may never be allowed that peace. By the end of the poem the Mariner advocates a respect of the natural world, so that one can remain in divine favor. In order to keep a spiritual grace, one must respect all aspects of the natural world. This is why the Mariner venerates the Hermit, who maintains a personal balance between his spiritual health and his harmony with nature.
Coleridge createdsa powerful parable in his “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” He uses this parable to show his distaste at those who turn their back on God and the divine plan. Coleridge seems to connect with the Mariner in at least one respect: that he feels he must give his lesson to the world. By having the protagonist tell the tale, instead of it being narrated, Coleridge draws the attention away from the poet and focuses it on the Mariner. This focus allows the Mariner to connect with the reader in a way that the poet is incapable. The lesson of the albatross then becomes not only the Mariner’s but the reader’s as well. By relinquishing the storytelling to the Mariner, instead of himself, Coleridge symbolizes the poet’s need to share his own lessons with the reader. This admission of the poet only serves the emphasize the importance of the lesson. It seems that Coleridge has seen things that have weakened his faith in the spirit of man. The Mariner is Coleridge’s way of trying to shape the descent of man into the material world, into an ascent towards the spiritual world for which they should strive. At its core the poem is a story of sin and redemption, or the idea that you can repent and pay penance for straying from the divine.
Chandler, Alice. “Structure and Symbol in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’”. Modern Language Quarterly. Sep65, Vol. 26 Issue 3, p401-414.
Coleridge, Samuel T. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Eds. Paul Davis, et al. The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Book 5. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 262-280.
Foakes, R.A. “Coleridge, Violence and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’”. Romanticism. 2001, Vol. 7 Issue 1, p41-58.
Hillier, Russell M. “Coleridge’s Dilemma and the Method of ‘Sacred Sympathy’: Atonement as Problem and Solution in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’” Papers on Language & Literature. Winter2009, Vol. 45 Issue 1, p8-36.
Levy, Sandra M. “Coleridge’s `Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: Theodicy in a new key”. Anglican Theological Review. Spring96, Vol. 78 Issue 2, p206-225.
Modiano, Raimonda. “Words and ‘Languageless’ Meanings Limits of Expression in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’”. Modern Language Quarterly. Mar77, Vol. 38 Issue 1, p40-62.
Netland, John T. “The Roles of the Wedding-Guest and the Editor.” Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 4 Apr. 2014
Watkins, Daniel P. “History as Demon in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’”. Papers on Language & Literature. Winter88, Vol. 24 Issue 1, p23-34.
Zins, Kimberly. “Equilibrium in Coleridge’s the rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Explicator. 66.4 (2008): 194.
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