The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

This poem, published in Lyrical Ballads, has the simple appealof a ballad in rhyme and metre. And, like many of the early ballads, thenarrative evokes the supernatural, drawing the reader into its hauntingsymbolism. While meanings can be suggested, part of the appeal of the poemis that it can never be totally and fully explained.

The poem can be approached as a dream voyage to another realm, as astory of sin and expiation, or as the quintessential representation ofthe alienated, isolated modern individual. Another compelling aspect ofthe poem is the relation between the Ancient Mariner and the Wedding Guest.Why does the Mariner have to tell his tale, why does he choose the WeddingGuest to hear his tale, what is the significance of the knowledge thatis passed on through the Mariner's narrative, what is the powerful bondbetween listener and hearer?

The Crime:

In killing the Albatross, the Mariner commits a crime against creation,destroys a good omen, and alienates himself from the other sailors, perhapsfrom the universe. And since the Albatross is hailed "As if it hadbeen a Christian soul" and the Mariner then kills it with his "crossbow,"we associate his crime with the crucifixion of Christ:

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung. (ll. 141-2)

There is no explanation of the Mariner's motive for killing the Albatross.What explains sin? What explains our separation from the good and fromGod's creation?

The First Phase of Expiation:

The first phase of expiation begins with heat and aridity: the shipis becalmed; there is no water to drink; mouths are so dry that the sailorshave not enough saliva even to speak. (Note how expiation begins with lossof speech and ends with the compulsion to speak.) The Mariner, when hesees a speck on the horizon, bites his own arm and sucks his own blood,in order to moisten his mouth enough to call out.

The skeleton ship appears, manned by two figures, Death and Life-in-Death,casting dice for the lives of the sailors. Life-in Death is the femme fatalein horrific guise: she "thicks man's blood with cold" (l. 194).Life-in-Death wins the game, and the sailors drop down dead.

The Ancient Mariner, cursed by the look in the eyes of the dead, isnow totally "Alone, alone, all, all alone" (l. 232). Later on,he implies the experience was one of existential alienation:

So lonely 'twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be. (ll. 599-600)

Nothing else seems to exist in the universe. And then he see creaturesthat had previously seemed to him part of the ugly horror (ll. 125-6) butthat now appear in their glossy colours to be beautiful. He blesses thewater snakes and the Albatross falls from his neck. In honouring one ofthe lowliest forms of creation, he has restored his connection to natureand placed himself again in relation to the world outside himself.

The Second Phase Of The Expiation:

Since the Albatross falls from the Mariner's neck, we might expect hissin to have been absolved. But the experience does not end here. Furtherexpiation is necessary.

If the first aspect to be expiated is the Mariner's crime against nature,against innocence (the killing of the Albatross), perhaps the second aspectis his sin against humanity, his implication of the other mariners in hisguilt: first, guilt by association (they were present at the scene of thecrime and therefore also suffer its consequences) and guilt by influence(although they first see the killing of the Albatross as an offence againsta good spirit, they then justify the killing in their minds as the destructionof evil or malevolent forces--see lines 91-102). Compare Eve's implicationof Adam in the Fall, and the implication of all humankind in the Fall ofthese first "parents".

In the first phase, the Mariner is led through fear (the skeleton ship)to an apprehension of beauty (the beauty of the water snakes); in the secondphase, he is educated through fear again, through the mounting horror ofthe sublime(the dead men all rise up and man the ghost ship). Remember Wordsworth'sline in The Prelude, "Fostered alike by beauty and by fear"(I: 302). In this second phase, the horror of the sublime leads finallyto a beatific spiritual vision: on the corpse of each dead body standsa spirit, an angel made not of substance but of light. Is this a glimpseof Resurrection ?

The Final Phase

But though the spell is "snapped" ( l. 442), the expiationis still not complete.

As a boat comes to rescue him, the Mariner turns to the Hermit in theboat, the holy man, to cleanse his soul.(ll. 512-13). But the horror ofthe journey continues: as the pilot boat approaches, the ship suddenlysinks like lead, leaving only the Mariner floating in the sea. The pilotboy is driven mad and sees the Mariner as the Devil.

Not comes the most powerful expiation of all: unending expiation, therecurrent compulsion to confess, the obligation the Mariner is under topass his story on to a chosen listener. Like a fever returning to the body,the agony of his experience periodically seizes him and he is compelledto seek out the special listener who is destined to hear his tale.

The Frame of the Narrative

The Mariner's narrative takes place within the larger narrative of theMariner's telling his story to the "Wedding Guest." The WeddingGuest is hypnotized by the Mariner; "he cannot choose but hear"(l. 38); he is spellbound by the Mariner's eye, in the way that the Marinerwas spellbound by the eyes of the dead. It is as if a bond of identityis established in the tale-telling: the listener recognizes the speaker'sexperience as one that could have been his own; the listener perhaps recognizeshimself as the speaker's double.

What is the knowledge here: of the existence of good and evil? of originalsin? of inherited guilt? of the possibility of finding oneself in a stateof total isolation? of losing touch with the world of ordinary existenceand slipping into the realm of the unknown?

We don't absolutely know, but we know the experience has changed theWedding Guest's life. He does not go on to the Wedding (the world of ordinary,happy human existence) but turns away "A sadder and a wiser man"(l. 624). Communication is both a blessing and a curse. It is part of ourhuman obligation that we are condemned both to hear out our fellow humanbeings in their extremity and to recognize in their stories, potentialstories of ourselves.

How does this frame tale (the story of the narration of the story) differfrom the frame tale in Wordsworth's "Michael"?

 

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