Review: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

‘I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay dead like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.’

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is, inarguably, one of the five or six most important poems ever recorded in the English language. And while Samuel Coleridge may have abhorred the Gothic excesses nourished to increasingly baroque heights during the years he was busy writing literary criticism, a younger Coleridge—perhaps, even, a more naïve and spiritually-aware Coleridge—managed to pen the only one of those five or six paramount poems to feature the supernatural as more than a passing reference: and certainly the only one to regard it with the mingled aura of terror, awe, and beauty that we have come to define as ‘Sublime.’ With this, Coleridge gave birth to Romantic literature (particularly the Romantic as we define it today: the Romantic as it breathes in the works of James Hogg, Mary Shelley, and—later—Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville).

The poem is so familiar, that I will avoid summarizing it in detail: suffice it to say that the story of the Ancient Mariner, who kills the albatross and is cursed to suffer at the hands of a Nature that is at turns mournful, spiteful, and furious, is one of the more archetypal scenarios in Romantic literature (and perhaps English literature, and popular culture, as a whole: the tale of the man who underestimates the forces that protect the natural world, and their contingent retribution, has been retold through lenses as diverse as comedy, horror, high fantasy, pulp adventure, and children’s television). Any underestimation of its impact, similar to Shakespeare, can be dispelled with examples of its gifts to popular culture and the popular lexicon: the notion of an ‘albatross hanging about one’s neck’ is a common enough allusion that it borders, nearly, on the cliché; meanwhile, lines like ‘Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink’ have become references so pervasive that many who have never even read the poem are aware of them. This parallels, say, the aggressive influence of a novel like Frankenstein on the popular imagination; unlike that novel, though, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has not entered the zeitgeist through the vehicle of cinematic adaptation or references in a body of literature that bears little relation to it (although, coincidentally, Frankenstein makes numerous references to Coleridge’s poem, and is one of the earlier works of literature to truly embody the full scope of its impact—aside from operating as an extrapolation upon its central, supremely Romantic theme).

I have neatly avoided the relationship of Coleridge to Wordsworth, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s inclusion in Lyrical Ballads: these details bear little relation to the concerns of this journal. I will, however, dwell for a moment on the initial details of the poem’s publication: as most are aware, the poem was originally presented without a gloss and utilizing the most arcane variety of spelling; this was corrected in a later publication (which has since become standard) largely because the format was not in keeping with Romantic ideals. That said, though, this return to an earlier, more esoteric device and the mysteries suggested by avoiding comment or explanation, are very much in keeping with the ethos of the Gothic, both as an extension of the Romantic imagination and a separate set of motifs. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s early concern with itself as a text, by utilizing a unique (and antique) format is both indebted to the early Gothic of Radcliffe, Beckford, and Walpole, and influential on the later Gothicism of the Shelleys, Maturin, and Poe. Reorganized, with gloss and modern spelling, the poem takes on a new, more obvious, concern with itself as a text, which in its own right has become influential on the ‘epic’ poetry of later authors.

Interspersed throughout this review are several of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: but this is only the tip of the iceberg: the weight of allusion to Coleridge’s masterpiece over the past two centuries has been so incredible that to list even a dozen of them here would take more space than is permissible; needless to say, the breadth of this fascination with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is not relegated merely to fine art and literature: again and again, up to and including the present day, the poem resurfaces in allusions and analysis both obscure and immediate in forums as diverse as popular music, animated television, and even video games. Still, it must be said, the most impactful and haunting of these references and homages to Coleridge’s famous poetic conceit rest in those that have taken illustration as the nature of their devotions: Dore’s images, while possessing a value to art uniquely their own (and, in many ways, remaining the standard illustrations to Coleridge’s opus), are, as I said, merely the tip of the iceberg. And this, in my eyes, remains the measuring stick by which we judge the canonicity of a given work of literature: not merely how often it is read—nor by whom—nor the nature of its subject matter, nor its ability to stand as a document of its time and circumstances, but by the degree to which it propels Art, and hence Imagination, as a whole, towards higher and higher atmospheres: both by stimulating the creative faculties of other artists and by drawing forth these faculties in the minds of those who have not yet developed them.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is, indeed, one of the great works of English poetry; but it is also one of the great works of world literature in its entirety, standing confidently among works as diverse as The Arabian Nights, Hamlet, and the Bible as a major influence on the art of those who have yet to even experience it first-hand. And for this, Coleridge was a prophet—and a guide.


Blogger David X said...

Great post! The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was a favorite of my mother, from whom I acquired my love of poetry. I think of it often.

5/23/13, 4:52 PM  
Blogger PGMCC said...

Your article is excellent and your ideas are expressed in a wonderfully erudite fashion.
As someone who is left cold by much, if not most, poetry, I have to say that The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of only a handful of poems I studied at school that captured my imagination and which I remember fondly.

5/25/13, 6:13 AM  

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