The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)

The Ancient Mariner. Image Source: http://4umi.com/coleridge/rime/

This poem begins with a man being waylaid on his way to a wedding by an ‘ancient mariner’ who insists on telling his story.  The old sailor is frightening and yet hypnotic, once he starts talking you can’t escape and he always know exactly which listener to stop.

I love this poem.  It’s completely nuts, including incomprehensible actions and magical occurrences and it’s really, really well written.  The Mariner was an ordinary sailor until his ship became lost within a maze of snow, wind and icebergs.  The crew’s only hope for escape is to follow an albatross who appears out of nowhere, but will lead them to land.  The cursed Mariner shoots this bird and, with it, any chance of survival.  As a symbol of his guilt we’re told that ‘Instead of a cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung‘.

Image source: http://img1.mnimgs.com/img/study_content/curr/1/10/7/2239/13599/Unit%2011%20CLASS-X,English,%20NCERT,%20Literature%20Reader,%20Poetry5_Amr_html_m528303df.jpg

Without the bird, the boat becomes stuck in an ominously calm sea:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

It’s great stuff and the Mariner’s tortured return to land is every bit as unexpected and magical as what has come before.

There are loads of reasons to love this poem, below are just a few of mine:

1. The rhythm – as you can see from the quotations above, the poem really races along and I find it impossible not to get caught up in the action.  As a by product of the incredible pace, this poem also contains a large number of supremely quotable phrases.  Formally, it’s a poetic masterpiece, but never feels strained; it’s like Coleridge wanted to tell this story and, because he’s so talented, the meter just happened.

2. The sublime descriptions – everything in the poem is exaggerated.  It’s never just hot, it’s never just cold; nature is a force that’s out to kill you, but there are beneficent powers in the world that can defeat it.  Given my love of all things Gothic I’m, of course, predisposed to really enjoy exaggerated weather and landscapes, but they’re rarely presented as well as this.

3. It’s not just nature that’s crazily over-the-top.  If you read the poem you’ll also meet some incredible characters, like the mysterious sailor:

Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold:
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she…

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Illustrated by Mervyn Peake, who knew good Gothic when he read it.

4. As well as the style and the content, I do feel that there’s something quite profound in this poem with regards to trauma and testimony.  How does the Mariner survive when other (maybe better) men die?  Why does he feel so compelled to tell his story?  Why does his story present him as such a villain?  This is a poem about story-telling, guilt and identity.  It’s easy to get side-tracked by the virtuosity of the poetry, but if you can tear yourself away from the words to consider the possible messages, they add quite staggering depth to an already outstanding text.

5. The final reason for loving this poem is that it gets me every time.  I basically become the unwilling listener who really does have better things to do with his time, but is enthralled by the Mariner’s tale.  I’ll normally pick up my copy of the poem because I’ve forgotten how long it is and want to read something good but short.  Be warned, it’s incredibly difficult to put down!

You may wonder why I’m writing about The Rime now. Well, it will always be a June poem for me by virtue of the following lines, describing a heavenly chorus:

Around, around, flew each sweet sound,
Then darted to the Sun;
Slowly the sounds came back again,
Now mixed, now one by one.

Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!

And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the heavens be mute.
It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like of a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune.

The Rime contains tragedy, but also salvation.  It’s generally considered too long to fit into most poetry anthologies, but I really recommend giving it some time.  There are, of course, wonderfully illustrated editions, but it’s also available online.  As long as you have Coleridge’s words and the most basic imagination you can read without visual aids.  There is one reading tip, Coleridge wrote guidance notes which are included in some editions of the poem.  If you find them helpful in any way, you’re doing better than me.  Don’t worry about getting hold of annotated editions, this is a strange and mysterious text but that’s all part of its charm.

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5 Responses to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)

  1. MarinaSofia says:

    I too have memorised bits and pieces of this and was reciting them to my sons, trying to explain just why this is such a great poem. Not sure if they quite understood and appreciated my comments: they might have, if I’d been as eloquent as you have just been.

    • Thank you so much for saying so! I first encountered this poem through my father reading it to me so I know how lucky your sons are in having a parent who can quote Coleridge to them!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Excellent piece – if you’re going to read this, I would say you must read the Peake-illustrated version. His drawings bring the text alive for me.

  3. Anything illustrated by Peake is always worth reading! It felt like a perfect marrying of texts when, after reading Gormenghast, I learned how much he loved The Rime.

  4. Pingback: Poem of the month: ‘We Like March’ by Emily Dickinson | Shoshi's Book Blog

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