Sadness through Symbols and Imagery
In Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a range of interesting narrative techniques are used to explore the fundamental core of man, the relationship between man and nature and how our actions leave an irreversible mark on the universe. Published in 1798 in the collection titles Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge’s presentation of the Mariner’s physical and spiritual voyage went against the scientific tide of the Enlightenment Era before whereby reason was applied to all areas of society. The Mariner’s phantasmal tale causes the wedding guest to emerge a ‘sadder and wiser man’, with the reader left in a similar state.
Extensive use of natural imagery is of paramount significance in the poem. The personification of the natural surroundings immediately creates a sense of otherworldliness, placing the reader in a position of unfamiliarity and intrigue. The Ice ‘crack’d and growl’d and roar’d and howl’d, unsettling imagery associated with predatory animals. In effect the natural surrounding appears to respond to the actions of mankind, an idea perhaps unfamiliar with the reader but which supports Coleridge’s idea of the inseparability of man and the universe, or the physical and the metaphysical. This is an idea that modern day readers can appreciate with the threat of global warming, a product of man’s carelessness towards the use of the world un-renewable resources. Further use of the personification of nature when referring to the ‘broad and burning face’ of the ‘Sun’ heightens the idea that Coleridge’s natural world appeared wrathful towards the Mariner’s deed as the ‘burning face’ of the Sun projects the image of anger to the reader.
Coleridge’s use of emotive imagery is not just limited the natural world, but through the Mariner’s voyage; the metaphysical world becomes visible to the reader. A deeply unpleasant view of death and suffering emerges with Coleridge’s characterisation of ‘The Woman and the fleshless man’. Coleridge brings the concept of morality to life when comparing death to a man with ‘Jet-black’ bones and suffering as a woman with ‘skin as white as leprosy’. The sickly pair are depicted as bargaining for the Mariner’s soul, which although seems an abstract idea to the reader, effectively portrays the emotional torment of the Mariner who witnessed his fate calculated before him. Coleridge to a certain extent presents the Mariner is a state of purgatory whereby his guilt consumes him. E.E Bostetter in ‘The Night World of The Ancient Mariner’ suggests that a numbness consumes the Mariner’s both physically and mentally as his becomes ‘adrift in a completely arbitrary and malign cosmos’ , an interpretation supported by the idea of the Mariner being on a spiritual, figurative voyage as oppose to just a physical one.
The idea is heightened by references Christianity throughout the poem. The reader witness the progression from an anti-Christian perspective with the shooting of the Albatross to the Mariner’s reconciliation which alters his perspective on the natural world. The anti-Christian sense is presented in the following stanza, ‘At length did cross an Albatross/ And an it were a Christian Soul/ We hailed it in God’s name’. The power of redemption is exhibited when the Mariner tried to pray for his sin, but could not as he was not truly sorry, ‘I look’d to Heaven, and try’d to pray’. However it is when the Mariner came to appreciate the natural world, through Coleridge’s vivid description of the ‘water-snakes’ with their colours ‘Blue, glossy green and velvet black’ is when the Mariner ‘blessed them unaware’. On the other hand R.L Brett declares that the Mariner’s sudden realisation of the beauty of the natural world does not win God’s grace, but it is to God’s grace which makes him more receptive to the spiritual power . As Coleridge was still a Unitarian priest in 1797, the reader infers how Coleridge’s own religious beliefs of redemption and repentance are in the poem. The religious parallel between Coleridge and the narrator lends itself to the idea that perhaps through the narrative voice, Coleridge is exploring his own sense of morality.
The Mariner’s killing of the Albatross is a symbolic representation of original sin. Critics however have gone on to argue that on a moral level, the ‘death of two hundred men in atonement for the death of one bird is an absurd outrage to traditional human values’ . In saying this, it does not seem that Coleridge is arguing that the life of the Albatross was more important than that of the ‘ghastly crew’, but that the blood-lust of man is no justification for merciless killing of God-given life. Christian symbolism is heightened by Coleridge’s choice of the wedding scene, a Christian sacrament with great importance. The fact that the Mariner felt it necessary to impose his tale on the unassuming wedding guest shows that the moral message of redemption holds great significance. The wedding guest arguable represents the ignorance in all of us, as mankind can often forget to step back and consider the implications of our actions. The Mariner, although far from heroic, provides a window into the soul which both the modern day and contemporary reader may not have considered. Coleridge effectively uses an unrecognisable, whimsical setting to provide an insight into daily life.
Furthermore, Coleridge adopts a metre with strong internal rhymes and regular stresses which add a hypnotic quality to the poem-‘Alone, alone, all all alone/Alone on the wide wide sea’(Line 234). The lullaby quality of this line juxtaposed with the sense of heaviness leaves the reader is a state of strange unease with the deliberate pairing of the sing-song rhyme scheme with the concept of suffering. This method is also demonstrated in Line 117, ‘Water, water every where/Ne any drop to drink’. In effect, the Mariner seems insignificant when placed in the vast power of the sea. The repetition of ‘Alone’ and ‘Water’ has a soothing quality to the reader, however when juxtaposed with the theme of isolation is deeply unsettling. Coleridge’s sense of estrangement is heightened by his use of archaic, fourteenth century diction such as ‘kirk’, ‘betwixt’, and ‘eldritch’ which places the Mariner and the reader in an unrecognisable historical context. However the fact that the reader does not know the exact time period, allows for more focus on the human mind which is central to the understanding of The Rime.
Coleridge’s use of stresses in The Rime reflects key moments of significance to the reader. The use of iambic trimeter in Line 80, ‘I shot the Albatross.’ places the emphasis on ‘shot’ when read aloud as oppose to the use of Iambic tetrameter in Line 79 ‘’Why look’st thou so?’– with my cross bow’ whereby there is an even emphasis on ‘look’st’, ‘so’, ‘my’ and ‘bow’. Owing to the fact that this poem is a ‘tale’, it is vital to consider how the poem would have read to the wedding guest. For example, Coleridge sporadically inverts the word order of some lines to add a lyrical quality to The Rime, ‘Through utter drought all dumb we stood’(Line 159). Extended use of repetition further engages the reader, ‘The Ice was here , the ice was there/ the ice was all around’ to focus the readers’ attention on key aspects not to be forgotten in the vast length of the poem. The lullaby- metre has a hypnotic and enticing effect while the final lines of the stanzas bear on the whole the greatest emphasis. The poignancy of this line is further emphasised by the full stop, allowing the reader to reflect.
In conclusion, Coleridge effectively uses an interesting narrative technique in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ when exploring the inseparability of mankind and the metaphysical world, epitomised when said, ‘He prayeth well who loveth well/ Both man and bird and beast.’ Extensive use of symbolism and natural imagery paired up with the folk-like, hypnotic tone of the poem encapsulates Coleridge’s emphasis on the understanding of the supernatural word to come closer to God and the truth.
 E.E Bostetter ‘The Ancient Mariner’ (1962)
 R.L. Brett, ‘Reason and Imagination, (1961) pg. 101
 Irving Babbitt ‘On Being Creative’ (1929)
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In Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, a range of interesting narrative techniques are used to explore the fundamental core of man, the relationship between man and nature and […]