“Rime of the Ancient Mariner:” Defining an Era in 625 Lines

January 25, 2019 by Essay Writer

Renowned French writer and philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet (better known as “Voltaire”) once stated, “One merit of poetry few persons will deny: it says more and in fewer words than prose.” Indeed, his words could not ring truer when used to describe the Romantic Period (1785-1830). Ranging from the artistic styles of William Blake to the antiheroic verses of Lord Byron, the era was defined by the poets who used their works to reflect the ideals, controversies, and newfound knowledge of the time period. One of these poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, managed to do this to an astounding degree in his 625 line epic, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Detailing one seafarer’s path to redemption, the poem is known for its unique take on human existence and the spiritual role of nature. However, more than anything, “Rime” accurately reflects upon the era in which it was written by combining elements of horror, natural respect, imagination, and individuality.Coleridge’s use of supernatural elements throughout “Rime” clearly reflects the common Romantic sentiment of disdain towards authors that used horror, violence, and antiheroism as means to entertain their readers. A rebuttal to the overwhelming shift towards scientific and mental realism during the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment, these thematic elements of terror were most prevalent in the then wildly fashionable Gothic novels. Although the commercial success of these dark, malevolent works undoubtedly influenced many authors to write more stories of that type, other Romantic thinkers – like Coleridge – had a very negative perception of the Gothic genre. While digressing on the idolization of the Romantic, or “Satanic,” hero in his work The Statesman’s Manual, Coleridge went as far as to say that these works would lead to a rejection of God and the mental conversion of honest people into Napoleonic monsters (491). While “Rime” itself is filled with specters and supernatural forces, the thematic usage of the paranormal in the poem is not for sheer entertainment value. Quite the contrary, the protagonist’s eternal misery in “Rime” is the result of his overbearing curiosity of the unknown (specifically, what would happen if he killed an Albatross). Thus the poem makes it clear that people should be wary of what they do not understand, as ultimately it might come back to haunt them.Respect for nature, one of the overwhelming messages in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” was unquestionably included for a similar reason as the supernatural elements: that the unknown is not something to be reckoned with, as it can have devastating effects on human life. The Industrial Revolution was a time of significant scientific advancement that prompted many people to question subjects such as faith, the existence of a god, and what happens when human beings die. Being of devout religious faith and a strong believer in the authority of nature, Coleridge responded to these new ideas in “Rime” by saying that too much curiosity could in fact result in humanity’s demise. For example, the mariner’s penance for being curious and killing the albatross is a lifetime’s worth of telling his story to others and informing them of what could happen if they decide to fool around with the unknown. In an era where people would electrocute themselves for the sole reason of discovering what it felt like, Coleridge clearly believed that some of his contemporaries were taking their experiments too far, and that they would have to pay a price once they faced judgment from God.The setting of “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a distinct manifestation of what imagination means in regards to the Romantic period. Often regarded as a key component of the poetry of this era, imagination to the Romantics was the ultimate creative power that humans possessed. To paraphrase Coleridge contemporary William Wordsworth, it allows humans to play a part in the creation process of the world they live in and ultimately leads to spiritual nirvana (“A Guide to the Study of Literature”). Much like the prominence of supernatural themes in literature during this era, the idea of expanding the imagination was likely a response to the movements of scientific reasoning (the already mentioned Enlightenment) that were prominent during the mid-eighteenth century. In “Rime,” Coleridge did not hold back his appreciation for human creativity. Besides the aforementioned specters and supernatural forces, he created an outlandish, alien world with icy landscapes, rotting seas, and dark forests. It is known that Coleridge used opium during the creation of “Rime” in order to procure hallucinations to help inspire his writing. Regardless of his methods of expanding his mind, it is clear that he had a deep care for the human imagination that reflected the ideals of what it truly meant to be a Romantic writer. Before discussing the final reason as to why “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” accurately reflects the thoughts and ideals of the Romantic era, it is first crucial to understand the significant structural and cultural changes that were occurring in Europe and the United States during this period. The eighteenth century marked a pronounced shift away from monarchies (both the American and French Revolutions took place during this time), and as a result individual liberties and rights became central points of interest and debate among the people of this era. These ideas were so prominent that the Founding Fathers of the United States decided to base their newfound country’s government on the fundamentals of individual freedom. These concepts also led to the development of Scottish economist Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the book that inspired the instillation of free markets based on the idea that people operate under self-interests and personal incentives. Post-Romantic poet Oscar Wilde summed up these ideologic breakthroughs tersely and effectively in his work The Soul of Man Under Socialism: “A man that does not think for himself does not think at all” (47). Thus it is the theme of individuality that makes “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a distinct reflection of the Romantic period. To start, the most prominent use of individualism in the poem is its first person narrative. The majority of the poem is told through the eyes of the mariner, and the exclusion of other perspectives allows the reader to connect to the protagonist on a personal level. This literary style also reflects the idea that earthly liberation can only come through personal experience and imaginative development: ideas that was regarded highly during this period. The mariner’s account of his journey represents the life cycle that all humans experience (both peaks and troughs of existence are portrayed), and his penance is symbolic of the idea that salvation can only come through one’s personal acceptance and repayment of his or her sinful nature. In essence, humans individually choose their own paths, and they are each responsible for what may come should they chose to venture down the wrong road.“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” had a profound effect on Romantic thought when it was originally published, and its impacts can still be seen in several facets of modern society. For one thing, modern horror films and stories have much to owe to “Rime,” as its presentation of ghosts and supernatural entities assuredly, and almost ironically, helped inspire many of the Gothic novels that succeeded it. On an even wider scale, the idea of individual salvation has become a standard of modern Western religions. In short, “Rime” shows that even simple art forms like poetry can have massive impacts on society, and in addition can help shape the ideals of generations to come. Works Cited “A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of Literature.” Brooklyn College. 2 Feb. 2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2010. . Coleridge, Samuel. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton, 2006. 430-446. PrintWilde, Oscar. The Soul of Man Under Socialism. New York: General, 2010. Print.

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