Each their own Ancient Mariner


Christian allegory, nightmare, self-portret and more

When the ancient mariner, at the beginning of the poem, wants to tell the wedding guest his story, the young man resists. He wants to join the wedding feast, not listen to the weird-looking stranger:

By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

The last thing the wedding guest wants is the grey old fool to put his skinny hand on his shoulder,

Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!

But the old man gets his way, his victim becomes enchanted and cannot help but surrender:

The wedding-guest sat on a stone:
He cannot choose but hear.

The modern reader of The Ancient Mariner at first feels like the wedding guest. A certain reluctance arises when reading antique words such as 'quoth' (speaks), 'eftsoons' (immediately) and 'whiles' (while). Aversion may also result from the half rising of the dead seamen who operate the sails as zombies. By the end of the sea voyage seraphim - in the Old Testament six-winged angels guarding the throne of God - enter the scene. They rise from the bodies of the dead sailors like red shadows. One needs a strong stomach, if one is accustomed to giving fantasy or Gothic horror a wide berth. On the other hand, we can think of such fictional characters as an expression of sailor superstition. After all, we are reading a sailor's story. And don't sailors tell a better story than anyone else? In the course of his account the reader automatically becomes mesmerised by his strange power of speech, or rather by the strange power of Coleridge, his creator.

What to think of this strange story about an old sailor man who – for no apparent reason – kills a majestic bird and has to live with the weight of this sin for his whole life?

Books and essays have been written about The Ancient Mariner for two centuries, with no sign of coming to a halt. Interpretations vary. According to one literary critic, we are dealing with a Christian allegory of sin, penance and redemption. Another considers it a tale of psychic fall and resurrection. Some say, we are dealing with a symbolic self-portrait of an opium-addicted poet. Today, there are readers who see the poem as a prophetic warning against man's careless destruction of nature. The tale of the ancient mariner may be all these and more.

That each reader models his own Ancient Mariner is precisely the strength of the poem. Any attempt to speak the final word on its interpretation would therefore be pointless, perhaps only evidence of hubris. Nonetheless, for a better understanding it is worthwhile reviewing The Ancient Mariner against the light of Coleridge the person: his character, his thinking, and his life. These can be read as a compelling psychological novel. 

Poetry gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood.

Coleridge, Anima Poetae