There are numerous stories of adventure written in the literary world, almost all of them featuring a courageous hero who fights and overcomes all odds in his way. But what is it really like to face the perils and misfortunes that befall these reckless men who undertake such bold adventures? This is what Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ has to offer.
As a poem it’s quite exciting but quite old, a bit long, and a little odd at times. Which begs the question you might already be asking yourself: why in the world should we read it? So, let’s answer it at the very outset: we should consider it because, put it simply, it’s a poem that completely changed the art of Poetry and English Literature in general. As for the oddities of the work, worry not! Englicist is here to clear things up.
Flashback/ The Background:
It’s late 1790s, and England, that pinnacle of western power, is undergoing a massive change and overturn in its social, economic and political spheres of life. The Industrial revolution is upon us. By this time people are already familiar with Shakespeare and Marlowe’s plays and Milton and Spencer’s poems. The primary form of poetry, however, is still the long Epic poems. But that’s all going to change. People want stories that are more relatable, and not just about royalty and noblemen but about the common people.
Enter Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, two friends and master poets who set about writing a small anthology of poems that was to change the way we look at poetry. These two poets laid the foundation stone of what was to become the greatest and most famous literary movements of all, that is ‘Romanticism.’ Coleridge and Wordsworth published their anthology ‘Lyrical Ballads’ in 1798 and it flew right off the shelves. It was a sensation. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is the first poem in this anthology. We can say it is a kind of improvement from the epics as regards the length and subject matter, but the poem is still wordy and the language used is old compared even to Coleridge’s times. And that was to be because the story is, after all, narrated by an ‘ancient’ mariner.
The poem starts with an old raggedy mariner stopping a man, a ‘Wedding guest’, in his track. The mariner stops him and tells him his story: how he faced numerous challenges at the ocean and how he managed to make his way back home to safety. It’s pretty straightforward. The poem is the story of the mariner embarking on a sea-voyage and the various misfortunes that come his way as he finally manages to make it back home to his country alive. The gist of the entire poem is, of course, found in its Argument. The poem is divided into Seven parts and we’ll closely explain the first two of them here.
Theme of the poem:
The rime of the ancient mariner is a narrative poem in the sense of an allegory and deals with the idea of sin and its penalty. The poem focuses on the Mariner and the incident of his killing an Albatross. The mariner commits the ultimate crime of murder and must thus suffer, and so he does. We see this throughout the course of the poem. Although Coleridge denied any moral to the story of the mariner we can see that the text is full of it. There are also subtle allusions to biblical ideas. For instance, the burning sky and water is a direct reference to Revelation 21:8 (As for murderers…their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and Sulphur, which is the second death.) The poet thus creates hell on earth to illustrate the repercussions faced by the Mariner for his crimes. We see a full Christian theological journey through the poem from hell to purgatory to heaven.
The poem touches upon the ideas of respect for life, faith, and sin and redemption. Each of these forms a vital part of the story. The whole Albatross incident and what follows conveys a sense of need for ‘respect for life.’ The extended suffering of the mariner and his perseverance is a lesson in faith in the divine. The sin and redemption part is central to the entire poem. Thus, the entire poem can be called a reflection on sin and suffering.
The rime of the ancient mariner is a lyrical ballad presented in the form of a narrative and it tells the story of a Mariner and his encounter with a wedding-guest and the events that follows where the old mariner relates his tale to the wedding-guest. But since the main body of the poem is the Mariner’s narration of his tale before the wedding guest, the poem can be more aptly called ‘a narrative within a narrative.’
The poem is divided into seven parts with each part having more than ten stanzas. The poem has a total of 143 stanzas.
Since the poem tells a story and is published in an anthology titled ‘Lyrical Ballads, it comes as no surprise that the poem uses ballad verse. A quick scansion reveals some interesting things about the poem.
Rhyme: The rhyme scheme is very typical of the ballad verse as ‘abab’ where the lines are similar but not the same in form to extended couplets. We see consistency in rhyme throughout the poem.
Rhythm: The rhythm is consistent with ballad verses where Iambic tetrameter is followed by iambic trimeter. There is a breakage in few places from the quatrains, but such are accompanied by a set of tetrameter and trimeter lines which maintains the harmony of the verse.
Figures of Speech:
We see a lot of simile and metaphors in the poem as one would expect. This is mainly because the poem doesn’t have a lot of action going on; only the surroundings and the perception and feelings of the people change and these are very well captured through simile and metaphors. We also encounter quite a lot of Alliteration, Personification and Irony.