The Weight of the Albatross: Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

 

The Weight of the Albatross

            Coleridge, unbeknownst to most people, struggled for a large portion of his life with an ever-growing addiction to opium.  It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that his addiction began to slide out of control and have an even greater effect on his life.  Between 1808 and 1814 he separated from his wife, fought with Wordsworth and eventually put himself in the care of his doctor.  Coleridge’s opium addiction not only had an effect on his social life, but also his career as a writer as well.  One of his most well-known poems, “Kubla Khan,” is believed to be from on an opium-induced dream that he experienced.  The inspiration derived from Coleridge’s opium-induced dreams was not limited to just “Kubla Khan.”  In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” written around the same time as “Kubla Khan,” the mariner goes on a sailing expedition and is blown off-course in Antarctica.  Having been lost in an unknown place for a long period of time, the mariner and his crew grew famished and dehydrated.  The mariner and his crew encounter an eerie ship that is occupied by Death and Life-in-Death.  These two supernatural beings play dice for the souls of the men on the mariner’s ship, and Death wins the crew while Life-in-Death wins the mariner.  The crew all dies; but later in the poem they are taken over by good spirits, and help guide the ship back home.  The poem as a whole is very fantastical, and it would not be hard to believe that something of this sort could have come from an opium-induced dream.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772 in Devonshire, England.  His father was the headmaster of a local grammar school and a vicar of Ottery; but Coleridge’s relationship with his mother was not very good and after the death of his father, whom he thought very highly of, Coleridge entered Christ’s Hospital of London in 1871 to complete his secondary education.  He attended Jesus College at the University of Cambridge from 1791 to 1794, but left the university before he received a degree.  It wasn’t until after Coleridge left Cambridge that he and William Wordsworth began working on the piece of literature that they are both most well known for, Lyrical Ballads.  The two met in 1795 and started work on the collection of poetry that eventually became Lyrical Ballads.  “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is the poem that begins the collection, and sets the tone of Lyrical Ballads.

Coleridge was not just an influential poet; he, along with Wordsworth, created the foundation for the Romantic era in literature.  “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” exemplifies the movement toward Romanticism that Coleridge helped initiate; a movement that began to focus more on the imaginative realm and less on realism.  Coleridge, more so than Wordsworth, focused largely on the fantastical and on events that could most likely never take place, such as in the “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  The inclusion of the ship captained by Death and Life-in-Death, as well as the spiritually possessed crew that help guide the mariner’s ship back home, are just of few of the many instances in the poem where Coleridge’s movement towards a more imaginative style of literature are exemplified.  The more radical end of the Romantic spectrum that Coleridge tended to sway towards was termed the Gothic side of Romanticism.  Herbert Schueller, in his essay “Romanticism Reconsidered,” states, “romanticism is the tendency to break the confines, the rules, the limits, to go beyond that which has been crystallized,” which is exactly what Coleridge began to do with his poetry (Schueller 360).  This style, and Romanticism as a whole, took people by surprise because it strayed so far from realism, and all that people thought literature should be: a reflection of real life.

The fantastical imagery used by Coleridge in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” can also be found in paintings and works of art.  In Gustave Doré’s “Illustrations to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the painting titled “The Many Men so Beautiful” captures the move towards Romanticism and away from realism.  The painting shows the mariner surrounded by the corpses of his dead crew, and to his left a cloud of souls is rising into the air.  Such a scene, brought to life by Doré’s work, becomes even more fantastical when the words in the poem are put with something people can physically view.

Coleridge’s poem is heavy on rhetorical devices that help add depth to the poem, as well as demonstrate his desire to move poetry into the realm of Romanticism.  The imagery he employs gives life to the poem and the events that occur throughout its entirety.  Coleridge delves into the sublime, something that became more common as Romanticism started to take hold, and can be seen in one instance when the mariner sees “water snakes” (line 275) in the water and sees all their different colors and reflections of their colors.  In his essay on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” David Wilkes discusses this scene and current critics interpret how the mariner sees the water snakes in many different ways, even today. It is at this point that the mariner comes to a realization of the situation he is in and blesses the water-snakes “unaware” (line 285-287).  This “acquisition of sublime knowledge” that the mariner experiences is something that was not seen often before the rise of Romanticism (Wilkes 203).  The empirical knowledge the mariner is able to gain from his sense experience with the water-snakes is vital to his understanding of the situation, and of the events that took place earlier in the poem.  The water-snakes that the mariner encounters are one of many images in the poem that have an ambiguous possible meaning to them.

The killing of the albatross, another image of ambiguity, according to J. W. R. Purser, is what carries the single important idea in the poem of the connection between life, death, and the mariner’s punishment. Purser’s interpretation boils the entire poem down to the killing of the albatross, and throughout his criticism he stresses the importance of the event, and the repercussions felt by the mariner and his crew.  Purser argues that since the mariner is the one who killed the albatross, what he calls a “heavenly visitant,” there is “greater punishment” that awaits the mariner; all the while his crew is consumed by death, leaving him alone on his stranded ship (Purser 251).  The mariner, because of his actions, is now made to live a life-in-death.  The act of Life-in-Death winning the mariner, while Death wins the mariner’s crew, symbolizes this transition.  The argument that Purser makes, in which he puts sole focus on the killing of the albatross, is one that, in different variations, is seen in many critics of Coleridge’s poem.  Coleridge’s style and subject material, which create a necessity for further interpretation, exemplify the shift he was making towards Romanticism.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is arguably one of Coleridge’s greatest works, if not the greatest work, that he wrote.  The poetry and prose that he composed coincide with the start of a new literary movement that was a drastic, and not always well-received, shift from what readers were accustomed to seeing.  The complexity of his works, and the imagination with which he used to create this complexity, leave room for multiple interpretations of what Coleridge was actually trying to portray.  This possibility for numerous interpretations gives Coleridge’s works, and in particular “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a long lasting effect that few writers were able to capture.

 

 

Bibliography

Wilkes, David M. “Coleridge’s The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.” Explicator 61.4 (2003): 202-204. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 11 Apr. 2012.

 

Scott, Grant F. “The Many Men So Beautiful: Gustave Doré’s Illustrations To The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.” Romanticism: The Journal Of Romantic Culture And Criticism 16.1 (2010): 1-24. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.

 

Purser, J. W. R. “Interpretation of The Ancient Mariner” The Review of English Studies , New Series, Vol. 8, No. 31 (Aug., 1957), pp. 249-256

 

“Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/125261/Samuel-Taylor-Coleridge>.

 

Schueller, Herbert M. “Romanticism Reconsidered” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism , Vol. 20, No. 4 (Summer, 1962), pp. 359-368

 

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