An ancient mariner shoots an albatross
On a dark and cloudy Monday afternoon, in November 1797, the Wordsworths and Coleridge walked in the Quantock Hills of West Somerset. The two discussed a poem they planned to compose in partnership, to be published with some of William's verses. That poem was to be The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was to be written in the style of a ballad, which was popular among the general public at the time. Money was their prime motive: they intended to offer the result of their joint effort to a magazine for five pounds.
The idea for the plot came from an acquaintance who had dreamed about a 'a skeleton ship with figures in it'. On the spot, William conceived that the protagonist of the story, the sailor, had killed an albatross and was chased for that wrongdoing by the guardian spirits of the Pacific. He also suggested that the other shipsmen should pay for this murder with death and later come back to life to continue sailing the ship. Thus he laid the foundation of the story, but no more. Writing a poem together proved unsuccessful. The styles of both men could not assimilate, so William decided to withdraw. Years later he wrote:
As we endeavoured to proceed conjointly (I speak of the same evening) our respective manners proved so widely different that it would have been quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate from an undertaking upon which I would only have been a clog.
In the end William contributed a mere ten lines. Coleridge continued on his own, working feverishly for four months before presenting William and Dorothy a poem of over six hundred lines.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner tells of an old sailor who stops a wedding guest before joining the feast, and forces him – 'with his glittering eye' – to listen to the tale of his dramatic sea voyage many years before. His ship sailed southward on the Atlantic Ocean and ended up in a violent storm past the equator. Ship and crew were chased to the South Pole, where they ended up in mist between drifting ice.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roar'd and howl'd,
Like noises in a swound.
In the endless, icy void, a living creature suddenly emerged from the mist: a majestic albatross.
At length did cross an Albatross
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in Gods name.
The ship's crew was overjoyed to see a living creature and fed the animal, which kept circling the ship. Then the ice split, 'a good south wind sprung up behind', and the ship headed north again. The albatross, apparently the bringer of happiness, followed in its wake and rested regularly on mast or shroud. And then it happened: the ancient mariner took out his crossbow. He shot the bird. On a whim. For no reason.
Even after this senseless act, the favourable wind continued to blow. The ship flew over the waves, with splashing foam in the wake, entering the South Pacific.
The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,
The furrow followed free.
We were the first that ever burst
Into that silent sea.
There, on the equator, the wind dropped down.
Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down,
'Twas sad as sad could be;
And we did speak only to break
The silence of the sea!
The ship fell still, with the sun – like a glowing copper sphere – at noon directly above their heads. The two verses in which Coleridge describes this scene are, by their visual power, among the finest in the whole poem. He paints a beautiful seascape one can almost hang on the wall.
All in a hot and copper sky
The bloody Sun, at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion,
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Through the scorching heat, under the blood-red sun, the ship's planks shrank and each man's 'tongue, through utter drought, was withered at the root'.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
Upon the slimy sea 'slimy things did crawl with legs'. At night, the death-fires danced and 'the water, like a witch's oils, burnt green, and blue and white'. That was too much for the crew. In their eyes, this ordeal was punishment for taking down the albatross. They made the ancient mariner pay for his offensive deed by hanging the dead bird round his neck.
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.
Still no wind, and thirst persisted. The crew grew desperate. Then suddenly a little speck appeared on the horizon. It turned out to be a sail. Great was the crew's joy, at first, but the joy soon turned into shock. Without wind or tide, a strange apparition darted towards them, plunging, tacking and veering, and slid between them and the setting sun. The mariner and his companions beheld a ragged vessel with tattered sails and a naked hull through which the sun shone as through prison bars. On board a hair-raising duo.
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres?
Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman's mate?
Her lips were red, 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 ghouls on board the spectre ship were casting dice. The woman shouted, 'The game is over. I won! I won!' and 'whistled thrice'. The dice game's wager turned out to be the ship's crew. Life-in-Death had won. She chose the old sailor. He was allowed to live. The rest of the men fell to Death. When the ghost ship was dissolved in the darkness again, the sailors crashed on deck, one by one, moaning after casting one last glance of hatred at the ancient mariner. Now, deserted from God and everyone else, old man cried desperately:
Alone, alone, all, all alone
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
There had been no warm relationship between the mariner and his colleagues. With the latter now defunct, feeling completely alone, he looked at them with different eyes. And on the 'rotting sea' around the ship he saw the countless slimy 'thing' swarming again. They lived on, just like him. He tried to pray, but from his throat, as dry as dust, only false whispers rose.
The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on: and so did I.
I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.
I looked to heaven, and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.
The ancient mariner's ordeal lasted seven days and seven nights, and he would rather than live, have prefered to share the fate of the dead. Anything better than a life-in-death. But then, at the nadir of despair, came the turning point. The moon 'went up the sky', with 'a star or two beside'. Her beams 'bemocked the sultry main'. The mucus he had despised before, now appeared to be water snakes, that 'moved in tracks of shining white'. He now recognised them as 'God's creatures of the great calm', and his heart was filled with love.
O Happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gusht from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
Immediately the curse was broken and the mariner was freed from his heavy load:
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell of, and sank,
Like lead into the sea.
The ordeal was over, refreshing rain poured down from one black cloud, the mariner could quench his thirst. The ship started moving again and headed north, homeward bound. Finally the well known coast came into view. There were the light-house, the hill and 'the kirk'. The ship drifted into the harbour.
The harbour-bay was clear as glass,
So smoothly it was strewn!
And on the bay the moonlight lay,
And the shadow of the Moon.
The rock shone bright, the kirk no less,
That stands above the rock:
The moonlight steeped in silentness
The steady weathercock.
Suddenly, there was the dash of oars. A skiff with pilot and assistant approached. On board also a hermit who lived 'in that wood with slopes down to the sea'. When the pilot's boat came closer there a sound was heard.
Under the water it rumbled on,
Still louder and more dread:
It reached the ship, it split the bay
The ship went down like lead.
The ancient mariner was hurled into the water of the bay and his 'body lay afloat like one that hath been seven days drowned'. But soon he was dragged on board the pilot's boat, and then he set foot on familiar ground. There he asked the hermit to hear his confession, whereupon his body was 'wrenched with a woful agony', which only disappeared when he had told his lurid tale and confessed to his crime. Since then - and that was fifty years before he told his tale to the wedding guest - that same pain keeps returning at uncertain hours. Then his heart within him burns, until he has told his tale again to a passer-by whom he stops like the wedding guest, with his power of speech and glittering eye.
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.
Sugary prayer card
These beautiful lines, towards the end of The Ancient Mariner, would be an appropriate conclusion to the poem. But the tale does not end here. Eight more verses follow that make the modern reader's teeth grate. In the first two verses the ancient mariner relates how a 'loud uproar bursts from that door' of the wedding premises. Simultaneously a little vesper bell calls evening prayer. The mariner repeats how alone he had felt on the wide wide sea. 'So lonely it was, that God himself scarce seemed to be there.'
And now it comes. Even sweeter than the marriage-feast, he says, it is
To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!
Then follows the moral of the tale:
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
Het prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The best way to pray is to love everything and everyone, just like dear God, the creator of all things great and small. Is this moral all the reader may learn from this 600-plus line poem of imaginative linguistic music? Could the author not think of anything better than such a childish Christian admonition? Must we be left with this, a sugary prayer card, for a conclusion?
A wiser man
The unbelieving contemporary reader is left in confusion, just like the wedding guest. He is no longer in a festive mood. When the mariner leaves the scene, he turns his back on the wedding party and rises the next morning as another man.
Turned from the bridegroom's door.
He went like one that hath been stunned
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
The pious epilogue of The Ancient Mariner prompts Christian-inspired commentators to interpret the poem as an allegory of original sin - the evil inherent in every human being - and the path to redemption through repentance and penance. The main message would then be that the deliverance from evil is to be found in love for humans and animals, to participate in a faith community and to pray to God.
While legitimate, this interpretation does not nearly say all that can be said about the poem. Coleridge's personality is too complex, his religious and philosophical ideas too fluid. If the poem did not have an equally strong secular dimension, it could not move the faithless, as deeply as it does. ►
He was the most wonderful man ever known to me.