The Symbolic Themes of Mystery and the Supernatural in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner

January 17, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” considered by many scholars as the quintessential masterpiece of English Romantic poetry, the symbolic themes of mystery and the supernatural play a very crucial role in the poem’s overall effect which John Hill Spencer sees as Coleridge’s “attempt to understand the mystery surrounding the human soul in a universe moved by forces and powers. . . immanent and transcendent” (157). Yet the Mariner himself appears to be trapped in this supernatural world as a result of ghostly manifestations which emanate from the realms of the unknown.”The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was first published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798, a collection of poetry written and published jointly by Coleridge and his good friend William Wordsworth. Yet the text of the poem generally in use today appeared in Sibylline Leaves in 1817. The narrative in “Rime” is based on many sources and some of the ideas expressed in the poem were inspired by other pieces of verse read by Coleridge. The central action, however, seems to have been suggested by Wordsworth, who was familiar with Shelvocke’s A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea (1726) which describes the killing of an albatross by an anonymous mariner during some very bad weather. According to the Reverend Alexander Dyce, a close associate of Wordsworth, “Rime” was initially based on a strange dream experienced by John Cruikshank in which he beheld a ship manned by a skeleton crew.As Graham Davidson points out, the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” “reads as a supernatural poem in which the representation of the real. . . is secondary to the representation of spiritual realities” (134). This observation can be supported by examining a number of crucial stanzas that contain images and symbolic themes related to mystery and the supernatural, such as the strange weather encountered by the ship (1.11-12), the land of ice and snow (1. 14-15), the appearance of the albatross as a sign of good omen (1.16-18), the death of the albatross at the hands of the Mariner (1. 19-20), the revenge of the albatross (2. 9-11), death and Death-in-Life (3. 10-11) and the apparition of the dead crewmen aboard the ship (5. 9-10).The narrative which describes the strange weather in Part One, stanzas 11-12, is the first instance where Coleridge begins to draw the reader into his haunting symbolism. “And now the Storm-Blast came, and he/Was tyrannous and strong” (lines 40-41) equates the weather as being a physical manifestation lorded over by a masculine presence with “o’ertaking wings” (line 42), much like an evil messenger that sprang from Hell itself. In his study on the Romantic imagination, J. Livingston Lowes notes that in this stanza “the natural and supernatural appear to merge” (57) which can also be applied to stanza 14 (“And now there came both mist and snow/As it grew wondrous cold,” lines 55-56). Though this setting may at first appear to be strange and unearthly, it is indeed based on reality, such as crossing the Equator into the southern hemisphere during the winter months with “ice, mast-high” (line 57) floating in the open ocean “as green as emerald” (line 58). But the spiritual realm of the sea, long considered by mariners as benevolent and peaceful, will soon be transformed into an arena of terror and mystery when the ancient Mariner commits a heinous crime against nature herself.With stanza 16, the reader is introduced to the albatross, a great, snowy-white sea bird which has long been considered by sailors in all cultures as a sign of good omen, especially when one’s ship is caught in the clutches of a terrible storm. This form of exultation is best expressed with “And a good south wind sprung up behind/The Albatross did follow/And every day, for food or play/Came to the mariner’s hollo!” (lines 65-68). And it is here that Coleridge begins to dwell on whiteness, like that of the bird, which symbolizes not only purity but also the terror associated with the unknown and the mysterious.In stanzas 19-20, the death of the albatross at the hands of the ancient Mariner symbolizes far more than a crime against creation, for it assures that the Mariner and his fellow crewmen are doomed to wander the seas as living-in-death spectres. Richard Holmes notes that in this stanza, Coleridge “recognizes a more ancient, pagan theme of vengeance” (419) which signals that the bird itself is a pagan symbol for the death of the soul. As the albatross “perch’d for vespers nine” (line 76), a reference to prayers spoken by the crew or nine ship’s bells tolling in the mist, while “all the night, through fog-smoke white/Glimmer’d the white moonshine” (lines 77-78), the ancient Mariner suddenly kills the bird with his crossbow (“I shot the Albatross,” line 82) which shows that the narrative of the poem is set in Medieval times when, according to Celtic myth, birds represented prophetic knowledge or bloodshed in the form of an omen or a messenger of bad tidings (Nooden, Internet).In Part Two of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the albatross commences his revenge upon the Mariner and his crewman by initiating two distinct “plague” motifs-first, as bereavement and guilt overcome the Mariner, he turns very thirsty and realizes it will not be quenched (“Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink,” stanza 9, lines 39-40). He then beholds “. . . slimy things” that “crawl with legs/Upon the slimy sea” (stanza 10, lines 43-44) as the body of the dead albatross dangles in a noose tied around his neck. Stanza 11 truly elicits the motifs of mystery and the supernatural, for “The death-fires danced at night/The water, like a witch’s oils/ Burnt green, and blue, and white” (lines 46-48) which stands as a symbol of the bird’s vengeance and conjures up images of a witch’s cauldron boiling with colorful “oils.” It is interesting to note that water, for the Medieval alchemist, was a very powerful, magic element that could dissolve everything, including perhaps guilt and the consequences of murder.In Part Three of this excursion into the mysterious and the supernatural, the reader is presented with Coleridge’s Gothic themes which were heavily influenced by such writers as Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1765). His description of Death in stanza 11 as being in the form of a woman (“Her lips were red, her looks were free/Her locks were yellow as gold/Her skin was as white as leprosy,” lines 48-50) who is “the Nightmare Life-in-Death” (line 51) is quite reminiscent of a vampire that “thicks man’s blood with cold” (line 52). Thus, the Mariner is trapped in a world brought about by his killing of the albatross and the bird’s life-in-death vengeance and once again Coleridge focuses on whiteness as a means of expressing the terrors felt by the Mariner as he observes this “woman,” the very image of feminine beauty and ghastliness.Finally, in Part Five of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the flesh and blood spirits of the Mariner’s crewmates, due to the curse set upon them by the albatross, return to haunt the instigator of their untimely deaths-“Beneath the lightning and the Moon/The dead men gave a groan” (stanza 9, lines 38-39). In this reincarnation of terror and mystery, the dead men never speak and never open their eyes which to the ancient Mariner is quite strange, “. . . even in a dream/To have seen those dead men rise” (stanza 10, lines 42-43), a distinct Gothic vision of the walking dead. As Davidson points out, this is “. . . a beatific spiritual vision, for on the corpse of each dead body stands a spirit, an angel made not of substance but of light” (160) which reminds one of the white skeletons envisioned by John Cruikshank in his terrifying dream related by Reverend Dyce. But in reality, these manifestations are not “angels” but spectres of death which seem to float in from some phantasmagoric realm and eventually out again into the black regions of the unknown.Thus, the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” replete with the mysteries of life and death, ghostly apparitions and vengeance fueled by an ominous white bird, emanates from a realm of magic which lies in the subconscious mind of the reader as created by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the original “ancient Mariner” who poetically placed himself aboard a doomed ship detached from reason and steeped in his own psychological understanding of the supernatural world.BibliographyDavidson, Graham. “The Supernatural Poems: The Ancient Mariner.” Coleridge’s Career. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990.Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.Lowes, J. Livingston. The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1927.Nooden, Lars. Animal Symbolism in Celtic Mythology. Internet. November 22, 1992. Retrieved February 27, 2003. www-personal.umich.edu.Spencer, John Hill. A Coleridge Companion. London: Macmillan, 1983.

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