Friday, September 13, 2013

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I’m not much of a poetry reader but when I came across Richard Burton reading Coledridge I couldn’t resist picking it up as I loved listening to Richard Burton as ‘first voice’ in Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.  I didn’t know much about Coleridge at all though I first came across a few lines from The Knight’s Tomb as a chapter heading in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe ( I was really taken by them), and I’d heard of Kubla Khan via one of my favourite Aussie movies Sanctum.   But, this certainly did not prepare me for the awesome The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Richard Burton’s eerie recitation makes it a double treat.  I listened to it over and over again.

The poem/ballad was written between 1797 and 1798, and it opens on a wedding guest who is making his way to a wedding feast.  He is stopped by an aging sailor who proceeds to tell him of an ill fated voyage of which he was the only survivor.  At first, the guest is annoyed at being delayed, but as the story unfolds, he becomes more and more in awe of the tale……....

The mariner’s journey began well enough but his ship is blown off course and ends up in the frozen wastes of Antarctica.

          And through the drifts the snowy clifts
          Did send a dismal sheen:
          Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken –
          The ice was all between

Through the mist and fog, an Albatross flies onto the ship and the sailors feed the bird believing that it has improved their fortunes when they are able to steer out of the ice and the wind being in their favour.

The look on the mariner’s face as he is telling this takes on a look of horror, and the wedding guest is aghast –

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!
Why look’st thou so?” – with my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.


(I was chilled at those words.)

The horror of what the mariner has done begins to manifest itself.  

And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.

The ship finds itself in a still sea, with no wind and a red hot sun beating down day after day.  The crew begins to run out of water –

Water, water, everywhere
Nor any drop to drink

- and as the sailors struggle on they know who they need to blame for their misfortunes –

Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

(What a powerful verse!)

On the horizon a phantom ship is spotted, and as it nears the crew wonder if they can see ‘Death’ in female guise on her deck, as one by one they expire from the heat and thirst.

The souls did from their bodies fly, -
They fled to bliss or woe!
And every soul, it passed me by
Like the whiz of my cross-bow!

The wedding guest becomes afraid, thinking that he is in the presence of a ghoul, but the mariner assures him that he did not die with the men.  Instead he found himself totally alone on the ocean, a tortured soul, with only the bodies of the dead crew for company………………. 

No matter the heat and lack of water, the mariner cannot die. Watching the playful sea snakes one day, and feeling awed by their beauty, the mariner is moved to prayer.  It is then that he is freed from the weight of the Albatross from around his neck.  Released from his burden, the mariner slumps into a refreshing sleep, and when he awakes he finds that it has been raining and that the water buckets are full.  Although he can hear the wind, he can’t feel it, yet the ship has begun to move.  He realises something supernatural is afoot when the dead sailors begin to rise.

          They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,
          Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;
          It had been strange, even in a dream
          To have seen those dead men rise


The dead sailors start to work the ropes, and steer the vessel, yet still no breeze reaches them.  The mariner tells the wedding guest –

We were a ghastly crew

and the wedding guest is terrified and he tells the mariner that he is frightened of him.  The mariner sets his mind at rest by telling him that they were in fact –

A troop of spirits blest

The ship sails on for a while but comes to a stop.  The sun beats down upon the crew, and suddenly the ship moves again, the sudden action causes the mariner to fall in a swoon.  He comes to at the sound of two spirit like voices –

“Is it he?” Quoth one, “Is this the man?
By him who died on cross,
With his cruel bow he laid full low,
The harmless Albatross”

A softer voice says –
“The man hath penance done
And penance more will do.”

When the mariner awakes from his swoon, the ship is moving in more favourable weather, but he finds the dead sailors are standing together fixing their stony eyes on him.  He realises that he will never be forgiven for shooting the Albatross.  Eventually the ship reaches the harbour from where they had first departed and as the dead lay down upon the deck the mariner sees seraphs rising from their bodies up towards ‘heaven’.

A rowing boat comes from the harbour, steered by a pilot accompanied by his boy and a religious hermit, and they are amazed at the dilapidated state of the ship.  As they pull up alongside she suddenly breaks apart and sinks in raging waters.  They see the mariner’s body floating by and they pull him into the boat.  The pilot suddenly has a fit, his boy goes crazy thinking the mariner is the devil, and the hermit begins feverishly praying.

Safely back on land the hermit asks the mariner –

                                             “What manner of man art thou!”

At this instance the mariner feels compelled to tell his tale.  Since that time, on a sudden, the mariner feels a strong compulsion to tell his story again. And, so, the wedding guest is only one in a long line of listeners.  The mariner leaves him with the following parting advice –

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.

The wedding guest no longer feels the desire to join in the wedding feast, and –

A sadder and a wiser man
He rose the morrow morn.


What an amazing poem!

I just HAD to share it J

Maxine

PS you can read the full poem here The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and enjoy the beautifully eerie illustrations by Gustav Dore who also illustrated Edgar Allan Poe’s work.


3 comments:

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  2. I am also not much of a poetry reader but when I came across such a amazing poem, I simply couldn’t resist picking it. Moreover, I strongly suggest you one blog post dedicated to it: the rime of the ancient mariner essay

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