The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge written in 1797 - 1798 and first published in 1798 in Lyrical Ballads by Coleridge and William Wordsworth. It's actually the first Coleridge poem I've read - I have somewhat of an aversion to the Romantic poets, not because I don't like them but because I can never seem to quite get to grips with them!
The poem, divided into seven parts, begins at a wedding reception. A young man is stopped by an old sailor, the ancient mariner, who begins to tell a young man his story, and in the beginning the young man doesn't actually want to hear it:
He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!'
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—The Mariner continues and tells him of how he sailed to the Antarctic, the journey initially appearing to be an easy passage turns dangerous as a storm arrives,
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.
And now the STORM-BLAST came, and he
Was tyrannous and strong:
He struck with his o'ertaking wings,
And chased us south along.
The ship struggles, but from the skies appears an Albatross (one of the largest sea birds with a wing span of 12 feet) -
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.
Nevertheless by the end of Part I, the Mariner kills the bird - "With my cross-bow / I shot the ALBATROSS". Part II sees the crew understandably furious with the Mariner, believing the bird had brought them good luck, and indeed the Mariner himself regrets it:
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
But the weather stays fine and the Mariner is soon forgiven. However things take a turn for the worse, the weather in fact is so calm the ship is unable to move:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
The sailors blame the Mariner, believing he has brought bad luck by killing the bird and so they make him wear it around his neck as penance - "Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung".
Their curse continues: the ship by another ship captained by Death and the "Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH":
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.
The deadly pair play dice for the men's souls: Death wins the men's souls and thus kills them, and 'Nightmare Life-in-Death' wins the Mariner.
Four times fifty living men,
(And I heard nor sigh nor groan)
With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,
They dropped down one by one.
Part IV sees the Mariner live this nightmare, surrounded by death and "the rotting sea". Eventually however the curse begins to lift and:
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 dead men rise and the ship begins to move again:
Yet never a breeze up-blew;
The mariners all 'gan work the ropes,
Where they were wont to do;
They raised their limbs like lifeless tools—
We were a ghastly crew.
He then tells the wedding guest the men had not come back to life but had been possessed by spirits, "a troop of spirits blest". In a daze the Mariner then hears two spirits discussing his fate, deciding "'The man hath penance done, / And penance more will do.'" Eventually the Mariner sees his homeland and a hermit who sees his ship approaching sails out to meet it. He climbs aboard the hermit's boat and the ship is sunk in a whirlpool. The boat reaches land and the Mariner, still cursed, leaves and is forced to wander alone telling people his tale. The wedding guest is left "A sadder and a wiser man".
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a strange tale indeed and though I enjoyed reading it I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. It has echoes of The Odyssey and the Aeneid, and it seems to warn or tell of violating nature's own laws and the inevitable retribution that will follow, as well as ideas of retribution, impulsiveness, guilt, and loneliness. And it has the hallmarks of the Romantics - the supernatural and the themes of nature. I really did love it, but it's a tough one!
That was my twenty-second title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - What Pleases the Ladies by Voltaire.
And until then, some illustrations by Gustave Doré from the 1877 edition -